Tom Shillue is going to enjoy your reaction to the title of his new book, Mean Dads for a Better America. He’s a successful comedian, so getting a rise out of you is what he does, but he also believes he had it better as a kid than his kids do now. In Mean Dads (subtitled The Generous Rewards of an Old-Fashioned Childhood), Shillue writes a compelling picture of his childhood, portraying the awkward odyssey of growing up with a deep and unapologetic nostalgia for parenting in the ‘70s — you know, the time when corporal punishment was widely accepted, kids roamed the neighborhood freely, and getting in a fight was a way to build character. Cue the pissed off helicopter parents. Sure, Shillue celebrates strict rules and the ever-present fear of punishment, but he insists he isn’t preaching. He’s just telling it how it was for him, a messy childhood that turned out pretty great. And he didn’t set out to write a polemic; he just started recognizing some of the advantages he had as a kid with a father who parented the old-fashioned way. “In the course of writing the book,” he says, "it turned into a thank you card to my dad.” We talked with Shillue about being a Darth Vader figure, the virtues of Snapchat, and what it really means to be a good father.
Your book is something of a period piece.
I say that I was born in the '70s but raised by the '50s. That was the original spark for the book. I look at an HBO series or movies, and whenever you go into a scene from that time period, you always had Cream or The Doors playing, and it looks like everyone just got out of Woodstock. But most towns in America looked like my town, Mayberry, Massachusetts. They looked like the reruns of shows we watched. Most dads looked like Chuck Connors to me. Most kids looked like Opie Taylor or Happy Days or something like that. That’s the world we really grew up in. I think that a lot of people on the coasts or in media in New York and L.A., they were around a lot of hippies. We know there were hippies in Greenwich village, but they weren’t in Massachusetts.
Your parents gave you great freedom as a child, but they were also really strict, at least by today’s standards.
In the ‘70s parents were stricter, and kids had to live by a tighter moral code. There were many moral absolutes — we had to go to church on Sunday; we couldn’t talk back. But it was much more free. 90 percent of your life was out of the eye of the watchful parent and they weren’t always on you. They let us go out in the woods, build forts, step on nails, risk infections. So it was a more dangerous world and it was a way to work it out and to grow up on your own. If you had to deal with a bully yourself instead of getting your dad to do it, you had to be more resilient. If you couldn’t fight back, you had to find ways to get around it.
And there was the threat of punishment.
My dad knew what he was doing. He reached for the belt, but he never had to use it, because he was scary.
You say that everyone who saw Star Wars in the theater understood Darth Vader — it was their dad. Do we really want to repeat that?
I like to take a little sample of my mean dad. I’m not going to be a Darth Vader dad, but I’m going to be a little of that. A lot of that stuff works. I’m going to model my dad when it comes to moral absolutes. Even if I don’t live by the same old-school rules, I can still appreciate the barriers and the strong moral clarity that he set up.
For example, I remember we were watching TV and Freddie Prinze had shot himself in the head and the newscaster announced the suicide with great sadness. My dad said, “What a turkey," and walked out of the room. I was thinking, “Shouldn’t we be sympathetic? He just died.” But my dad wanted me to know that it was unacceptable. He would often say something and then leave me to think about it. I don’t approach the world that way, but I do appreciate that I grew up in that world. I look back and understand. Maybe there are ways to apply that philosophy just a little bit in the modern world.
Can you apply that to social media?
When kids go out and play, I tell the parents to back off — let them play. If they come crying to us, I always say, “Go, work it out,” and I send my kids back. That’s what we did.
Are you saying that's a positive thing about social media? That they’re working it out.
Exactly. When Snapchat came out, parents were saying we’re not going to use Snapchat because the things disappeared — they thought there was something sinister about it. But they did a study and found out that the kids who used Snapchat were much less self-conscious and had better habits. Snapchat kids — especially girls — they don’t worry about looking their best. It’s for communicating for their friends and it’s where they hang out and are real with each other.
How do you punish your kids?
If I reached for my belt, my daughters would laugh. I have to find other ways to be a mean dad. I guess “work it out" is part of that. Also, I like to take things away. If mom says turn off the TV and the kids don’t jump — they try to sit around and push their luck — I’ll walk over and turn the TV off and then I’ll clap my hands and say, “I love to take things away! Tomorrow, no TV,” and then I’ll laugh. I like being a mean dad with a good attitude.
Do you have examples of modern parenting that could use more old-fashioned sensibilities?
One time I was on the playground and there was one other kid there, and my daughter went “bang bang” and the kid went "bang bang"… they’re shooting each other. The New York dad drops his phone and he walked up to his son and says, ”I told you! no guns!” So my daughter, she walked up to the dad still holding her fingers in the shape of a gun and she sticks it up to his face and says, “It’s not real." He looked over at me and I kinda shrugged my shoulders and was like, “You know, she’s right.”
What about physical violence? You fought a lot as a kid.
Physical bullying is policed, and that’s good, discouraging people from using physical violence is great. When it comes to words, though, that drives me crazy. My mother said, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt me,” and I thought [as a kid], “That’s brilliant!” If somebody called me a name, I wasn’t going to let that effect me. When I get into a fight, a punch hurts, but it doesn’t hurt that bad. It was a little rougher, but I think it made us a little more resilient. Let’s face it, we get bullied as adults. We get berated by our bosses. And I can deal with that — and I think it’s because of the way I grew up.
If you could give other dads three pieces of advice, what would it be?
1. Get alone time with your wife. I like to use my dad as an example. He was a dad who came home and smothered my mother. He was all over her trying to get kisses from her. He went right to his wife. I wanted to run to my daughters when I got home, but the first thing I would do is to kiss my wife. I want them to see that.
2. Spend time alone with the kids. I don’t think dads have much trouble doing that now.
3. Talk to the kids in the neighborhood. I like the kids playing and having freedom, but… there was a kid the other day being a jerk, and I told him to knock it off. The parents just looked at me. You know, I can tell a kid to knock it off. I think everyone is afraid that parents are going to sue them. But if I came home and said to my dad, "Mr. Sullivan just yelled at me,” he’d say, "Yeah? What did you do?” We don’t do that anymore. That might make me the mean dad in my building.
Like your dad.
Yes. He was no meaner indoors than he was outdoors. He was so clear at the way he approached the world because he kept the mean dad, the John Wayne type of figure. We all knew he was serious.