The following was produced in partnership with Just for Men.
Cameron Jones is a ball of energy. He cannot sit still and, naturally, he loves to dance. When his father, Allen, turns the music on, Cameron wiggles and invents new moves. When Allen turns the music off, Cameron keeps on wiggling. A few months ago, Cameron added pirouettes to his repertoire, demonstrating a spin for his fellow preschoolers. His teacher told him that dancing was for girls.
Allen found out about this a few weeks later in the middle of a happy conversation with his child. It shocked him and his wife, who was sitting next to him at the time on the couch in their Teaneck, New Jersey, home. They made eye contact and those facial expressions parents make when they’re pissed and trying not to show it.
“We said, ‘Don’t let the teachers or anybody else tell you that something you like to do is not for you,’ ” remembers Allen. “I thought that it was important to let him know that.” The Joneses didn’t leave it there.
They pulled up videos of male ballet dancers as supporting evidence. Cameron watched in wonder. Then he practiced twirling around the room, receiving rave reviews from Mom and Dad.
“It’s priceless when you see that look in their eyes of just relief,” Vicky Jones says, remembering the face of her son when she gave him permission to dance. “The fact that he came to us is also a testament to what we’re doing. Cameron feels open enough to tell us this thing and not feel like he’s just going to hear the same thing that he hears at school.”
Note the “we” in her statement. This is a story about Allen, a traditionally manly — at least in the physical sense — African-American dad with a busy professional life, two boys, and all the stressors in the world. It’s a story about how and why he’s working to make sure that his sons can express themselves in ways that he can’t or couldn’t or, well, hasn’t in the past. It’s a story about Allen, but also about why Cameron and his 3-year-old brother Christian are lucky to have him as a father.
Why is Allen Jones Fatherly’s 2018 Father of the Year? Because several years ago Allen realized he had a very common problem. He couldn’t communicate his feelings, and he set about the very complicated process of solving it. Allen Jones is a remarkable father not only because he’s fostered healthy relationships with his kids, his wife, and his students at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem. He’s a remarkable father because he’s fostered a healthy relationship with himself. And that’s not easy. It took time and effort. He did it because he knew he needed to. He did it because he wanted his son to be comfortable dancing, right there on the living room floor in front of him.
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Before bed, Allen Jones often reads to his sons. Two of the most popular books in the Jones house are Todd Parr’s Be Who You Are and The Feelings Book. The first is about how people should be accepting of what others enjoy. The second is an almanac of emotions, a sort of textbook for feelings as a second language.
“I think the books teach good lessons because so often in our society we have this prescribed belief of what little boys should like and what they shouldn’t like, what they should be into, what they shouldn’t be into,” Allen says. “It’s like, you can’t project these cookie cutter standards onto — not just boys — but children, in general. Because I feel like that would stifle their growth.”
These are not the messages Allen received as a child.
Allen grew up with his younger brother in New York City, raised by two separated parents. When he misbehaved, punishment was swift: There were spankings and groundings. As he got older, he learned to juggle different rules in different homes. His mom was strict about his free time; his father wasn’t. He’d go over to his dad’s place to do things he couldn’t with his mom — like watch horror movies.
He eventually moved to his father’s house in search of freedom. He got the opposite. Everything had to be his father’s way. There was little consideration for Allen’s thoughts and sometimes no explanation of rules. During his senior year of high school, Allen remembers telling his dad that he had a free period at the end of the day that he’d use for homework or to hang out with friends. Once his father found out, he told Allen to always leave immediately after his last class and call him when he got to their house in Queens. Allen wasn’t sure why the free period concerned his father. He never asked. He still doesn’t know.
Allen never felt comfortable expressing himself around his dad. If the two had conflicting opinions, Allen knew his wouldn’t be considered. Even when he was in college (he still lived at home) he’d have to ask for permission to leave the house. At 20, he left for good. He and his father still spoke, but those conversations didn’t get deeper or more personal.
“I didn’t want my kids to feel like they couldn’t come to me,” says Allen. “I didn’t want them to feel anxiety talking to me.”
Eleven years later, Allen had a boy of his own. As Cameron grew, Allen thought a lot about how he would parent differently than his own father. But he didn’t. He ignored Cameron’s feelings. He mimicked Cameron’s whine. As Cameron grew to be around 3 years old, Vicky noticed her son didn’t want to be around his father.
Allen noticed too. And rather than looking the other way or justifying himself to himself, he decided to change. Specifically, he decided to make himself more approachable. “I didn’t want my kids to feel like they couldn’t come to me,” he says. “I didn’t want them to feel anxiety talking to me.”
Allen put himself in therapy and on a steady diet of books about masculinity. He stumbled upon The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks’ book on factors that make men unable to express themselves. This book contains some heady stuff. Take this passage:
“If we cannot heal what we cannot feel, by supporting patriarchal culture that socializes men to deny feelings, we doom them to live in states of emotional numbness. We construct a culture where male pain can have no voice, where male hurt cannot be named or healed.”
He studied the book and intellectualized his problems, zooming out a bit in an attempt to understand the context of his shortcomings and his father’s. He brought home The Feelings Book. Ostensibly it was for Cameron, but Allen understood that they were going to read and reread it together.
Time passed and Allen changed, incrementally. Vicky could see it when she squinted, but this wasn’t a new guy. It was the same guy, just a bit more retiring. Then, one day, the parents found their stereo, which they had repeatedly asked Cameron to stop playing with, broken. Cameron denied everything. Allen took a beat. His brother-in-law copped to the crime and Allen went back to his son to apologize for accusing him of something he did not do.
“They had a conversation that I hadn’t seen, and it really made me feel like there was a switch there,” Vicky says. “When I watched that I kind of walked away going, Yeah, this is kind of — I’m sorry, I get really emotional — this is kind of what I was sort of waiting for to see with them.”
Giving Students the Will to Change
Once he got enough copies of bell hooks’ The Will to Change and permission from the principal, Allen began teaching it to his class at Frederick Douglass Academy. His students were asked to make journal entries and then lead discussions. For these, Allen had the students’ desks arranged in a boxy U-shape, with his own out of the way in the bottom left corner. The seminars grew from flat-out disagreements to inquisitive follow-ups. Boys who were initially hesitant to read a book about love brought their own questions to class. Students began sharing personal stories. So did Allen. During a conversation about bell hooks’ writing on how men parent like their fathers, he told the class about his own struggles with his dad and fatherhood. He said it made him alter his approach to raising his sons.
It had a very real impact on the students too.
At the start of the following academic year, one of Allen’s students came up to him. He said, as he had before, he was thankful they read The Will to Change in class. He told Allen a story of a depressed family member who he spoke to in her time of need. Before reading the book, the student would’ve likely paid no mind to her feelings. But the book taught him to be emotionally there for her, so that’s what he did. The student said that family member may have killed herself had he handled the situation differently.
“I almost started crying right there in front of him when he said that, because it’s like, wow, I would’ve never thought when I started out teaching a book that it would literally have a life-or-death impact on someone,” Allen says. “So, him telling me that — it kind of reaffirmed for me as to why I need to read this book with my students for as long as I can.”
Here’s some backstory: Cameron nearly died in 2013. Three weeks into his life, he suffered from an infection in his bloodstream, among other medical complications. He was frequently sick over the next five months. Vicky and Allen didn’t want to risk a visitor passing along any germs. When Allen’s dad, an excited grandfather, asked them to bring Cameron to his place, Allen declined.
Later, in April of the next year, Vicky and Allen went ahead with plans to visit Allen’s mother and grandmother in Virginia. His dad found out during a phone call with Allen and lost it. “I didn’t want to yell back at him, because I felt like that would be disrespectful,” Allen says. Instead, he ended the phone call politely. They didn’t talk for about a year.
“As a father, I think now I can comprehend the love that you would have for your child no matter what,” says Allen. “I think going on my own journey to find language — emotional language — made me better.”
Allen thought about how this pause was impacting his sons. Cameron hadn’t met his grandfather. Photos of Allen’s father were up on the wall and, as a 4-year-old, Cameron would ask, Who is that? Where is he? Allen didn’t know what to say to his son, so he reached out to his father.
They talked. Grandpa came over. Cameron knows who that guy is now and Allen speaks to his father once a month.
“As a father, I think now I can comprehend the love that you would have for your child no matter what,” Allen says. “I think going on my own journey to find language — emotional language — made me better.”
Allen’s betterness extends beyond the love for his wife and children.
Midway through The Will to Change, Allen’s students began to ask a familiar question: What’s the point?
“There are things that I have started to change,” he told them. “Maybe the needle won’t really move. But who knows? By the time your grandkids are around, if we all keep sharing the knowledge that we have with other people … who’s to say in a generation or two that society can’t change a little bit? Or a lot a bit, as I like to say to them.”
For all this and more, Fatherly and Just for Men are excited to name Allen Jones the 2018 Father of the Year. With this award, Jones will receive a $5,000 award. There’s more than one way to be a man, and Just For Men and Fatherly want to empower dads to raise better kids and lead more fulfilling lives.