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50 Pieces of Life-Changing Parenting Advice All Dads Should Read

We asked 50 dads for the best parenting advice they ever received. Their answers did not disappoint.

Flickr/US National Archives

Listen, there’s a lot of parenting advice out there. It’s a loud conversation. Do this. Not that. No, definitely not that. Try this. This worked for me so it should totally work for you, right? However, some of the best parenting advice you’ll receive won’t be barked at you on a message board or chatroom, but passed down as friendly suggestion from a parent who’s been there — advice that helped them overcome a moment or see their world differently. It’s advice that offers perspective and guidance to help you see the long game and be a better dad because of it. After speaking to 50 dads — new, experienced, and in-between — and asking them “What’s the best parenting advice you ever received?” we received exactly that: words of wisdom that these men gleaned not from parenting books but from friends, family members, fictional characters, and other such sources. It applied to their lives as fathers and husbands and that they wished to pass it on. Will you find the exact advice want here? Probably not. But we guarantee the wisdom in here will speak to you and provide you the advice you need. At least, that’s what we hope. We’re all in this together, after all.

  1. Prioritize Your Presence
    “A friend of mine who’s been a dad for a bit longer than I have told me that the key to being a good husband and father — or, at least what seems to work for him — is not trying to be present for everything, but prioritizing his presence when he is. So, if he can’t make a soccer game, that’s fine. That just means that the next event he’s able to go to, he’ll be there undivided and completely in the moment. His presence, in those moments, is his priority.” —Tim, 35, Wisconsin
  2. Let Them Bleed
    “That sounds really morbid, but all it means is that your kids are going to get hurt, and you have to let them experience the pain. You can bandage their wounds and help them feel better, but you can’t fool yourself into thinking you’re always going to be able to protect them. My mom told me how she had to force herself to let go a little bit, especially with my younger brother, because she would get so anxious about playground injuries and bike accidents. Of course, you don’t want them to happen. But you have to treat them like the learning experiences they are.” —Billy, 40, Iowa
  3. H.A.L.T.
    “I guess this is a pretty well-known one, but my sister told me that, more than likely, if your kid is having a rough time, it’s because he or she is hungry, agitated, lonely, or tired: H.A.L.T. It’s not a magic word, by any means, but it does help you clue in to what might be upsetting your child, especially if he or she is younger and struggling to communicate. They’re all basic needs, and sometimes they go unintentionally unmet. ‘H.A.L.T’ is also a great command for yourself, reminding you to just take a breath and start figuring things out.” —Aaron, 37, Illinois
  4. Simplify Fears
    “I had a friend whose daughter was terrified of their basement. His approach was to simplify things, by immersing her to it one step at a time. First with the lights on, then down the steps halfway, and so on. It taught me a lot about how the kid brain works. Big things are scary, but small things are manageable. And big things are really just a bunch of small things stacked on top of each other.” —Zach, 38, Maryland
  5. Quiet Begets Quiet
    “If you lower your voice instead of raising it, nine times out of 10 the kid will too. My dad never, ever yelled. Well, maybe once or twice — and it was like an extinction level event when he did. That’s because he recently told me that his strategy during our tantrums was to keep his voice down, because we would do it too. Older kids feel silly if they’re yelling at someone who isn’t yelling back. Looking back, it was genius.” —Dean, 33, Kentucky
  6. Sleep Whenever You Can
    “The laundry can wait. The dishes can wait. Sleep is essential to being a good parent. You just have to savor it whenever you can. My mom told me that she got really good at quick power naps when we were little. She could recharge in as little as ten minutes, which is something I’m not great at yet. But I’m getting there. The other day, I took a quick snooze while my daughter was picking out her school clothes. Hey, 10 minutes is 10 minutes.” —Carl, 34, Pennsylvania
  7. Stop Reading Parenting Books
    “My dad put it pretty bluntly – ‘I didn’t read one goddamn parenting book, didn’t have a Facebook, and didn’t use a cell phone. Neither did your mother. And you and your brother turned out wonderfully.’ It’s hard to argue with that, really.” – Clint, 36 Arizona
  8. Tune Out “Just You Wait…”
    “People say that when they’re about to rain on your parade. You don’t need that. I had an aunt who told me that her ‘more experienced’ friends would always hit her with that line when she’d talk about how much she liked parenting. They’d be like, ‘Oh, you just wait…it’ll get harder and less fun!’ Like, who says that? Apparently, a lot of people. Just because your parenting journey wasn’t ideal doesn’t mean mine can’t be different. Shut the hell up.’ —Eddie, 33, Ohio
  9. Parent the Child You Have
    “Not the child you want. Or the child you expected. This was a hard one to learn, because our first child was born with mild autism. We had a parenting plan that went right out the window once we learned about his specific needs, and we realized that parenting plans  — as a whole — are pretty pointless. Your child is going to be who he or she is, and you need to do your best to care for that specific person. Our doctor told us that — specifically in those words — and it was probably the most insightful advice we got.” —David, 37, Florida
  10. Model Apologizing
    “An apology from a parent is like 100 times as potent as anyone else. Because parents never fuck up. Right? RIGHT?! Of course not. I have a friend who’s a teacher, and he told me that the best thing he can do to get ‘in’ with his class is to screw up, take responsibility, and then apologize. Kids are so taken aback by it that they immediately respect your honesty. And it teaches them how to go about apologizing in the future, in a meaningful, sincere way.” —Matthew, 34, Colorado
  11. The Dishwasher Is Never Actually Empty
    “My father-in-law taught me this when I was about to marry his daughter. It’s a ‘rule’ he and his wife have between them, and it basically means that there is always an opportunity to help out around the house. The dishwasher not being empty refers to the fact that there are usually clean dishes in it  — which can be emptied, or dirty dishes waiting — which can be put in. It applies to everything. And it’s not absolute. Some days you’re exhausted, and the house is messy. But, most of the time, my wife and I try to look out for each other by tackling whatever we can to keep things organized.” —Marty, 42, California
  12. You Can Be a Different Parent to Each Kid
    “I have two sons  — 11 and 13 — who are almost complete opposites. My youngest is introverted and quiet; my oldest is physical and outgoing. The type of praise and discipline I use with my oldest bounces right off of my youngest, and vice versa. Because they’re two completely different, completely wonderful people. I actually read that advice in a psychology book when I went back to school, and it makes perfect sense. Different people respond differently to different things. ‘Different’ is a key word when raising multiple kids.” —Jonathon, 42, Michigan
  13. “Love” Is a Verb
    “Growing up, love was a thing. There was love in our house. I was filled with love. All that. It wasn’t until I became a parent, and a good friend of mine mentioned thinking of love as a verb, that I realized how important it is to actively produce and promote love in your home. Hug. Kiss. Say, ‘I love you’ as often as possible. Celebrate. Give thanks. Be humble. All of these acts are acts of love. Love has to be an action before it can be a thing.” —Christopher, 40, Ohio
  14. Take Lots of Pictures
    “Even better, try to take candid ones. Don’t make them pose. All day long you see pictures where you know the mom or dad was like, ‘Sweetie! Over here! Look over here!’ And that totally ruins the moment. My friend is a professional photographer, and she told me the secret to a good photo is to be as invisible as possible when you’re taking it. Totally makes sense. And, once my kids get older, and they start hating having their picture taken, I’ll have gotten really good at staying out of sight.” —Andrew, 34, Iowa
  15. It’s Okay to Struggle
    “In fact, it’s expected. The first time you screw up as a parent, it will seem like the world is crashing down on your ability as a parent. But, it’s not an indication of your ability – it’s just a matter of certainty. You’re going to struggle. And that’s okay. As long as you learn from it, and move forward. My uncle told me that being a parent is just like being a person. You can always get better, but you’ll never be perfect.” —Ron, 38, Georgia
  16. Forgive Yourself Often
    “It’s the key to progressing as a parent. You can’t live in the shadows of your past screw ups. You really can’t, or they’ll anchor you down to the point where you can’t move forward. When we had our daughter, my mom took me out to lunch and told me stories about all the ways she screwed up as a parent. Some, I’d already heard about. But some were brand new. Turns out she dropped me, like, three times. But, she always forgave herself and reminded herself that her mistakes were unintentional. No good parent tries to screw up. But, it happens.” —Mike, 39, California
  17. Remember Your Childhood
    “Remember the good things, and remember the bad things, and use them to help you be a better parent. If you can treat your childhood as a learning experience, it’ll help you recall what worked and didn’t work. That’s not to say it’ll translate exactly to your kids – they’re not you, after all – but they’re kids. And you were too, once. I’m kind of ashamed to say I heard that nugget on Dr. Phil. You probably have to print that, right?” —Steve, 36, Wisconsin
  18. Never Spank
    “All spanking does — all any severe, barbaric punishment will do — is train your kid to be a better liar, sneak, and troublemaker. He or she won’t stop breaking the rules, he or she will just get better at not getting caught, ya know? No one ‘told’ me that advice, per se, but I got spanked as a kid. And, guess what? I figured out how to stop getting spanked by skirting around and lying. Punishment has to be a teachable moment, or it’s just pointless.” —Roger, 37, Tennessee
  19. It’s Okay to Hate It
    “Man, did I hate my first year as a parent. And I felt so guilty about it. Every day I wanted to slam my head against a wall because I felt so ineffectual and impotent as a dad. Nothing I did was right. And it was just a huge blow to my self-confidence. I actually joined a support group on Facebook, and was amazed at how many other dads said the same thing. One guy — just a total random —  said something like, ‘Hating parenting doesn’t mean you love your kids any less.’ And that just clicked. Luckily, it got better.” —Noah, 34, California
  20. It’s Going to End
    “Parenting is definitely finite. And that works both ways. On one hand, on rough days, you can take a deep breath and remind yourself that you won’t have to deal with tantrums and diaper shit for the rest of your life. On the other hand, you have to remind yourself that you’ve only got a limited time to spend with your kids while they’re still young. My dad said he used to remind himself of that — both parts —  all the time, and it made raising us much more fulfilling.” —James, 32, Michigan
  21. “Parenting” Doesn’t Matter all that Much
    “The real goal of parenting is to try and help your kid try and figure out who he or she is. Learn who that is — who your kid is at his or her core, heart, and soul — and encourage the best version of that. The actual mechanics of parenting — bedtimes, cleaning your plate, etc. — really don’t have much to do with that. I asked my mom her strategies on stuff like that once. She said, ‘I don’t fucking remember. I just wanted you to be happy, safe, and kind.’” —Ethan, 35, Connecticut
  22. Either Engage, or Ignore
    “Give your kids 100 percent of your attention, or none of it at all until you can. Kids know when they’re being ignored. Even worse, though, they know when they’re being dismissed. So, if you’re able to ask them to wait while you take a phone call, or whatever, instead of half-assing a conversation with them, you’ll both be able to give it 100 percent. I was raised by my grandmother, so she was really old school about that sort of thing. Look each other in the eyes, and connect. She told me that those conversations with us were some of her fondest memories, so I try to do that as much as I can with my kids.” —John, 37, Ohio
  23. Don’t Take it Personally
    “One day, your son or daughter is going to be ashamed of you. For no good reason other than the fact that you’re a parent. It’ll be something like refusing to kiss you when you drop them off for school, or not wanting to say, ‘I love you’ anymore in front of their friends. When that stuff started happening, I was devastated. And it was my wife who actually offered the best advice, which she said she got from an episode of Home Improvement. When my son got too cool to say, ‘I love you’, we came up with a secret gesture – like a handshake – that we did instead. It was subtle, and quick. But we both knew what it meant. So, thanks Tim ‘The Toolman’ Taylor?” —Carson, 35, Oregon
  24. Blame the Doctor
    “This one works with intrusive in-laws and annoying friends. Whatever opinions they have that don’t mesh with your parenting style can be instantly negated by saying, ‘Oh, well, the doctor told me to do it this way. So…’ They might push back, but you’ve got credibility on your side. Even though it’s made up. Ya know who told me to do that? The doctor.” —Dylan, 34, Nevada
  25. Make it a Game
    “When kids are young, you can convince them anything is fun. So, while you can’t have them scrub the floor, you can have them do little stuff, like matching the Tupperware lids to the containers. My three-year-old loved to do that. This one came from my mom, who told me she used to have us clean out the refrigerator every week. She told us it was a game, and we totally bought it.” —Isaac, 32, Minnesota
  26. Try a Surprise Lunch
    “Some of the best memories I have of growing up were when my mom and dad used to come surprise me at school and take me out to lunch. We’d go to Burger King for the onion rings, and then to Dairy Queen  for a cherry slush. It didn’t happen regularly, which is what made it so special. It was almost better than birthdays. When I asked why they did it, they told me they needed a break from their days, and they wanted to spend it with their favorite person. That meant so much to me.” —Edward, 37, West Virginia
  27. Learn How to Draw
    “When I was a kid, I thought my mom was an amazing artist. She was good, but the truth of it was that she just learned to draw a few simple things before I my siblings and I were old enough to catch on. There was a bunny, a frog, and a car. One time she drew the bunny with her eyes closed. She told me that she used to be so impressed by her mother’s knitting that she thought she’d use art to her advantage. She couldn’t knit, but simple drawings did the trick. If you’re wondering, my go-tos are a dinosaur and that ‘S’ shape we used to draw as kids. My son loves it.” —Charles, 39 Philadelphia
  28. It’s Okay Not to Share
    “I learned to share, but I also learned not to share. When I was about 7 or 8, my dad told me that it was nice to share my toys, but it wasn’t necessary. That it would make other people happy, but that it was okay to protect my things. I try to preach that to my kids, too. They’re so naturally generous that I want to make sure they know that it’s okay to keep things for themselves. Especially things they’ve worked for, or earned. It didn’t make me selfish, just better at creating healthy boundaries.” —Stephen, 37, Washington, D.C.
  29. Acknowledge Your Emotions in Front of Them
    “As a kid, emotions are scary because they’re so unfamiliar. You know the basics — happy, sad, scared, etc. But, when you start having more complex emotions, you really struggle to identify them. Being a parent, if you can use words like ‘confused’, ‘aggravated’, and ‘overwhelmed’ in front of your kids to describe your emotions, they’ll become better at doing it themselves. I’m a parent, but I’m also a teacher, so I credit one of my college professors with that nugget. It’s absolutely true.” —Ian, 34, Arizona
  30. Specify What “Messy” Is
    “Don’t just say, ‘Your room is messy!’ You have to be specific. Tell your kids about the dirty clothes on the floor, the empty water bottles all over, and the unmade bed. Messy is such a subjective word. What’s messy to you might not be messy to your kids, your spouse, or anyone else. So you have to articulate exactly what is unacceptable, and why. When I was a kid, I didn’t mind doing chores because my mom was so specific. I always knew exactly what had to be done. She said doing it that way helped keep her sane, too.” —Adam, 36, New York
  31. Don’t Step on your Spouse’s Toes
    My mother used to get so upset when she would be disciplining us and my dad would walk in and interrupt. She taught me that parents have to be a united front. If you don’t agree with something your spouse is saying, that’s okay. But deal with it after he or she has set the rules with the kids. Of course, this doesn’t apply to anything harmful or dangerous toward your child. But a new parenting style, or discipline policy can be discussed in private. My parents told me that they made a point to never let us see them argue. Instead, they’d tell us they had an argument, and then explain how they worked it out. It impressed the importance of communication on me at an early age.” —Charles, 35, California
  32. Choose Your Stress
    “This is another way of saying ‘pick your battles’. You just have to. My wife taught me this one. It’s sort of her mantra, even beyond raising kids. You’re going to have stress in life. That’s obvious. Some stress is primary — your kid gets sick, you lose your job, and stuff like that. But other stress is usually secondary, and you don’t need to deal with it right away. Sometimes not at all. If you can choose which situations you actually allow to stress you, you can do a much better job managing being a parent.” —Joel, 30, North Carolina
  33. Kiss Your Spouse in Front of the Kids
    “My mom and dad were very affectionate. And I remember it fondly. I remember my dad sneaking kisses here and there, and my mom hugging my dad whenever she got the chance. Even when they weren’t at their best, it was clear that they were so in love. And that always made me feel safe as a kid. Like things would always be okay, thanks to the power of love. I brought it up once, and my dad almost didn’t even realize he did it. He just said, ‘I love your mother so much. I’m not embarrassed to show it.’” —Marcus, 36, Texas
  34. Gossip About Your Kids
    “And make sure they hear about it. It’s nice to hear something directly from mom or dad, but it made my day as a kid to hear my mom or dad’s friends say they’d heard about something awesome I’d done. My dad told me recently that he used to do it deliberately. He’d tell my aunts and uncles that I got a good grade, or hit a home run, and sort of nudge them to mention it to me. When they did, I was always like, ‘How’d you hear that?!’ They’d say my dad told them, and tell me how big he smiled.” —Cameron, 33, Pennsylvania
  35. Never Accept Disrespect
    “My grandfather never, ever let us disrespect him. Even if we were just playing around. When I asked him why, he asked me if I loved him. I told him I did, very much. He said, ‘If you disrespect someone you love, what will keep you from doing it to anyone else?’ He was a Marine, so he commanded respect. And he knew how important it was to being a good person.” —Jim, 42, New York
  36. Interested is Interesting
    “I learned this from a movie, actually. It basically means that the best way to make yourself interesting is to become interested in someone else. Listen to their story. Ask questions. Make them feel important. The best thing I’ve done as a parent is to become actively interested in my kids’ lives. And it’s genuine, too. I want to know what they like, what they don’t like, what they think is funny, what stresses them out…everything. The movie was Loser with that kid from American Pie. Easily the most random pearl of wisdom I’ve ever collected.” —Chris, 37, Ohio
  37. Never Don’t Say “I Love You”
    “Just don’t waste a single chance to tell your kids they love you. Even if it embarrasses them. And even if it’s a thousand times a day. It’s terrifying and morbid to say, but you never know if you might be speaking to someone for the last time. You just never know. So, no matter what, no matter if we’re or angry, or exhausted from laughing, we always end every conversation with ‘I love you’. It’s a tradition my mother and father taught me when I was a kid, and it’s a good one.” —Hayden, 36, Toronto
  38. Use Natural Consequences
    “It’s like the difference between telling your kids not to put their hands on a hot stove, and them learning how much it hurts by actually doing it. My sister is a teacher — and a mother — and she told me this when my son started getting a little older. ‘Natural consequences’ are like breaking your hand if you punch a wall, or burning your mouth if you eat pizza right out of the oven. Obviously, you don’t encourage your kids to do stuff like that just for the sake of learning what hot pizza feels like. It’s more of a ‘What did you think was going to happen?’ teachable moment.” —James, 37, New York
  39. Discipline Is About Teaching, Not Punishing
    “If you punish a child without teaching them a real lesson, you’ve done nothing to help them grow. A friend of mine told me that when I became a dad. He had a son who was about 10, and he expressed the importance of making discipline and punishment into two separate things. Discipline is the act of exploring what someone did wrong, and punishment is the consequence for that action. You can’t just ground a kid and expect him or her to grow.” —Chuck, 29, California
  40. You Are Always Teaching Your Kid Something
    “My mom once expressed her regret over saying, ‘Because I’m your mother, and I said so’ so often when I was a kid. She was reflecting on the fact that what she taught us was that being older and bigger than someone gives you the right to treat people however you want. That’s obviously not the lesson she wanted to teach, and she didn’t do it intentionally, but that’s how it came across. You have to be careful with the difference between what you say and what you’re implying. They can easily be two separate things.” —Michael, 35, Texas
  41. Let Them Struggle
    “It’s hard, but my dad said some of his favorite memories of me growing up involved watching me struggle and then succeed. There were so many times, he said, where he wanted to jump in and help, but held back and let me figure something out on my own. He said it was so difficult, but so, so rewarding.” —Jared, 34, California
  42. Be Vulnerable
    “Too many dads think they have to constantly put on a brave face, for no other reason than because ‘it’s what men do’. I don’t disagree with the notion that a man needs to protect his family, but I do disagree with the idea that he can’t be scared, upset, or sad. I actually credit my son with this advice. He’s a teenager now. My father passed away about five years ago, and I noticed that he was struggling so hard to be brave and not cry. I asked him why, and he said it was because he didn’t want to make me cry. As you can imagine, when I heard that, we both bawled. It touched my heart, and made me realize I was treading close to teaching him a pretty lousy lesson.” —Brian, 44, New York
  43. Encourage Flexible Thinking
    “At my daughter’s school, they promote flexible thinking. It’s a constant. Whenever a kid has an issue — big or small — and doesn’t want to budge, they ask the kid if he or she is being a flexible thinker. Is this a big problem, or a small problem? Stuff like that. Flexible thinking is so important to being a functioning human being in the real world that we immediately started using that term around our house. My wife and I even use it with each other when we’re being stubborn.” —Jack, 41, New Jersey
  44. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help
    “I was amazed at how willing a random, fellow dad was to help me deal with a diaper issue in a Target bathroom. I was a new dad, and a friend of mine — also a dad — said that asking other dads for help is par for the course, within reason. This was completely out of reason. I mean, a dirty diaper? But the guy pitched in like it was his own kid. I was blown away and humbled. And I’ve paid it forward several times. Luckily, no random dirty diapers, but I’m not shy about pitching in if I see another dad struggling to carry groceries, or something like that. We’re in this together, right?” —R.J., 26, Louisiana
  45. Know Your Limits
    “You can’t be a successful parent if you’re not honest with yourself. It took me a long time to realize that being ‘SuperDad’ doesn’t mean being able to do everything perfectly all the time. Instead, it means being able to give your best to every situation you find yourself in. My wife gave me that advice when she saw how needlessly exhausted parenting was making me. Also, Alfred says it to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight.” —Tom, 34, Indiana
  46. Fuck ‘The Joneses’
    “I’d never heard the phrase ‘Keeping up with the Joneses …’ until I had kids. It refers to comparing yourself to other people — ‘The Joneses’ — who seem to have it all together. My best friend, who I’ve known since college, dropped that advice on me when I was having a breakdown over some post on social media that made me feel like a bad parent. The instinct to compare and question yourself as a parent is so, so powerful. You just can’t do it. It’s a complete and total waste of precious parenting energy.” —Christopher, 37, Ohio
  47. Newborns Puke a Lot
    “I don’t know if this was the best parenting advice I ever got, but it definitely sticks out the most. A friend of mine said it in passing once we brought our first son home from the hospital. It was a quick phone conversation, and he just ended with something like, ‘Be careful, dude. Babies puke a lot.’ It was like he set off my Spidey Sense. I immediately tuned right in to my son’s puke reflex. I got to the point where I could basket catch a puke without looking, I was so prepared. Like I said, not the most poignant advice, but it definitely helped a ton.” —Neil, 35, Colorado
  48. Not Everything Is a Milestone
    “New parents get really caught up with ‘firsts’. The first time baby rolls over. The first time baby burps. The first time baby sits up. Doing that is just going to make you feel stressed and guilty. Chances are, you’re not going to be there for every ‘first’. You’ve got to accept that. My mom taught me this when I asked her what my first word was. She didn’t remember. That’s a pretty big first, but the fact she didn’t remember sort of put it in perspective.” —Sean, 32, Washington
  49. Ask If They Need to Vent, or Want Advice
    “There’s a huge difference between a teenager who needs to vent or cry, and a teenager who needs advice. You can’t assume you know which one you’re talking to. So, ask them. This advice actually came from a marriage therapist when my wife and I were having some problems. I always assumed my wife wanted advice, or help fixing a problem. Shocker — I was wrong. Once we had kids, I realized how delicate the balance is. Sometimes, people — including kids — just need to be heard. And that’s it.” —William, 37, Florida
  50. Don’t Forget Your Partner
    “We knew a couple who got divorced. They had two sons, and we stayed in touch with the husband after they split up. He told us that they drifted apart because they began to neglect each other. Not on purpose, but as a result of everything going on in their lives. They just became non-priorities. Physically, emotionally … they just let each other go. His advice was pretty simple: kids make staying intimately connected harder, but they also make it more worthwhile. We were able to learn from their unfortunate mistakes, and keep from making some of the same ones.” —Luis, 39, Indiana