June 20th, 2010
01:10 PM ET

Letter to the President #517: "THE READING FATHER"

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

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Letter to the President #517: "THE READING FATHER"

President Obama and I are fathers; each with two girls. I don’t profess to know all the secrets of being a good father, but I do know one which I share in today’s letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

So here it is Father’s Day again and of course my thoughts have turned to memories of my own dad, dads in general, and the kind of dad I am. Let’s start with that first one: I think my own father was a rare and wonderful man; outrageously smart, truly good, patient, loving, all the things that one might want in a father…kind of like Atticus Finch without the law degree and with a better sense of humor.

Dads in general? That’s a stickier subject. I admire the good ones, have no use for the bad ones, and despise the indifferent ones. I’m not so sure people should have to take a test to drive a car, but we certainly ought to require an exam to become a parent. Men who take pride in becoming biological fathers while taking no responsibility for becoming actual dads are worse than worthless.

But me as a dad? Well, that’s the toughest one of all, and I’m sure it is one that you wrestle with as well. Sometimes I know I am too harsh, and sometimes to soft. Sometimes I give them too much freedom, and sometimes not nearly enough. There is a fine line to walk when trying to figure out just how much time to spend on your family, and how much on your profession. I like to think I do a fairly good job, but there are many nights that I get home too late; many mornings I have to leave too early.

For whatever shortcomings I have, however, I know that I have done one thing completely right: I have read to my girls. From the time they were babies I have sat with them and read. Books, magazines, and newspapers; fiction, fact, biographies, and cereal boxes; horror stories, romances, classics, and comics; poetry, prose, and paragraphs plucked at random. When they were very young, I would take the current book with me when I travelled and I would call them from the road. My wife would carry a phone to one of their bedrooms, call them both in to lean close and listen as I read the latest chapter in The Yearling, or The Secret Garden, or A Series of Unfortunate Events, or Mr. Popper’s Penguins, or Pippi Longstocking, or A Christmas Carol, or The Just So Stories, or or or…the list seemed like it would never end.

I did all the voices, and tried to end each night with a cliff hanging moment which would leave both girls howling for more even as my wife tucked them in, said goodbye and hung up, and I settled in to finish some late night editing or some research before going to sleep in some distant, and unremarkable hotel room. It was not always easy. Once I waded through a chapter of Harry Potter with my pants and feet soaked by rain as I huddled beneath an umbrella on the edge of a hurricane. No kidding.

More often, however, I was at home, herding the girls up to their rooms and opening our latest adventure, feeling them snuggle in closely, eyes wide to follow the words for a while, then slowly closing as the distant adventures of Long John Silver, or Peter Pan carried them off to their dreams. As they grew older, finding the time become more difficult and our reading sessions a bit more sporadic.

Still, even though the girls are both teenagers now, we have never entirely abandoned the practice. Right now we are working through Huckleberry Finn. Just the other night, both girls sat in silent interest as I read a couple chapters of Tom and Huck and Jim and their many encounters. Although, in fairness, I’m pretty sure they listen now in large part because they know it means so much to me. They can read so much faster on their own, it’s hard to imagine that hearing me prattle on is really that fascinating. But who knows?

What is the result of all this? Well, both girls are excellent readers with wide-ranging tastes. They are quick to seek knowledge in the written word about any subject that interests them. Their rooms are piled high with books of all types, in addition to the massive amount of information they read online every day. And they are both excellent writers. I mean truly excellent. They turn out beautiful, thoughtful, flowing sentences, paragraphs and pages that make me envious and proud.

So, like I said, I can’t really say what being a good dad is all about. I know that I had one. I know that I try to be one. But this part I know for sure: When in doubt, read to your children. Share with them the wisdom of millions of other dads and moms. Open the world of language and ideas to them every day. It may not make you a good father, but like the first words in every chapter one…it’s a start.

Hope your Father’s Day is lovely. Don’t call until Monday. I’m busy, and I’m sure you are too.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

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