Parents Without Borders, produced with our partners at the United Nations Foundation, features influential parents leading programs and initiatives making a global impact.
Henry Timms oversees New York City’s world famous 92nd Street Y, which has some of the country’s most innovative cultural and community programming. That’s where he founded #GivingTuesday, the philanthropic counterweight to holiday consumerism that raised nearly $46 million last year. He also launched the Social Good Summit, which explores how to leverage technology to make positive impacts on a global scale. By design, his day job requires thinking on a global scale.
But Timms is also the father of a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, and kids have a way of narrowing your world view to a very personal level, which is also by design. All the heart-melting love stuff is nice, but it’s really just an evolutionary strategy to ensure they get the best of your heart and mind, so that your kids don’t … you know … die. Or grow up to be insufferable brats.
So, what happens when a guy who’s dedicated his career to helping others suddenly has an even more important mission at home? In Timms’ case, you get very thoughtful.
So much of your work is on a global scale, but having kids forces you to view things through a much narrower lens. Was that disorientating or refreshing for you?
I have a board member who gave me a piece of advice before I had kids: “Your life will change from black and white to technicolor.” I didn’t know what he meant until Josiah came along. Becoming a father really does shift the focus of everything you’re thinking about, from the daily things to the big picture questions.
From the Y’s perspective, we’re increasingly well known for the more global projects, but the bulk of the work is very personal and very local. Most of the focus is on the people walking through the building and as a community center. So, being a father while running a community center, you try to think about how to strengthen bonds amongst your family, amongst your staff, amongst your community, and then, increasingly, amongst the wider world.
“Disorientating, no question. Any father who claimed otherwise is probably lying to you.”
Disorientating, no question. Any father who claimed otherwise is probably lying to you. But I have a very good guide; my own father was an extraordinary role model, so I had the playbook from Day One. I also have an incredible wife, Colleen. Nothing makes me a better father than watching how amazing she is as a mother. She invests so much in making the right decisions for our kids and family. That helps us keep the disorientation under control.
Does being a father make you better in your work in any way?
I hope that being a father makes me a better human being. It forces you to reconsider; you have to reimagine everything in order to make it make sense to a confused toddler. That’s an interesting intellectual challenge, and an interesting emotional challenge, too. Being a father has made me think a lot more carefully about what families are and why they matter, and how we can better support them here at the Y.
It’s also made me a lot less tolerant of meetings that run too long. I’m so much more focused on the value of time. If i can get things done and get home for bath time or spend the morning with the kids, those are golden hours. I was never very tolerant of long meetings, but I’m much bigger on efficiency than I ever was.
Has that translated into the organization — does it run differently?
We’ve been thinking about how we scale the work of the Y, from the corner of 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, more widely? So, I’ll give you an example: the partnership we have with the Nightingale-Bamford School, which is a local school across the street from the Y, they put together a K-12 guide for teachers for how to talk to kids about becoming philanthropists. They open sourced that, then schools around the country were able to access that, add it to their own curriculum, and then teach the next generation of philanthropists how to give. That, in my mind, is a pretty good day at the office.
Your own kids are young. Have you had the opportunity to explain to them #GivingTuesday or the Y — do they have any idea what you do?
We had a team-building exercise recently: everybody had to explain what they did for a living to a 4-year-old. It’s such an interesting challenge, right? The 92nd Street Y is a complex organization, it does everything from poetry to parenting and it’s difficult to explain to an adult, let alone a toddler. But, by the end of the conversation with my son, the way Josiah understood my job was, “Poppa tries to help people.” That made me value my job even more.
Your piece last year in the Harvard Business Review, “Understanding New Power,” displayed a clear grasp of how all these technological, financial, and cultural dynamics are speeding up, and the risks and opportunities that creates. Given your view of the playing field in that regard, are you optimistic or terrified about the next 20-30 years of your kids’ lives?
Both. The really interesting parenting question is that, with the world changing so much, how do you best arm your children for a world that none of us will really be able to imagine? My father, he knew pretty much what the world would look like that I ended up living in and he had a pretty good guess of what I would need in 20 years time. That’s very hard to think about with my kids.
“How do you best arm your children for a world that none of us will really be able to imagine?”
So the challenge, and it’s an ironic one given that I spend so much time thinking about technology, is more and more: what are the most human things you can get a kid to engage in? How can you teach them more about empathy, about creativity, and about caring? We spend a huge amount of time desperate to see if we can raise our kids’ IQ by 6 points. I hope we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can grow kind children and caring children and creative children.
At last year’s Social Good Summit, you talked about how social media has baked into it so much opportunity to create good in the world, but by and large we’re focused on the more expedient, less powerful elements. How do you teach kids to use it productively?
We did a program last year called 7 Days Of Genius, which tried to get kids thinking about the aspect of genius in every sense. And we didn’t just do things here at the Y; we had events around the world. Along with events here, there were synagogues in DC and there were high schools in Kenya. During the same 7 days, kids thought about genius and what it is and why it mattered and how it changed the particulars of their lives. Something like that would never have been possible without social media. To get all these organizations that we never would have heard of, collaborating and engaging on the same themes, that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago.
One of the more interesting challenges for any organization like ours is, how do we create community? How do we use all of the online tools to improve human bonds? Someone I admire a lot is Scott Heiferman, and he has this great phrase about Meetup, which is using the internet to get people off the internet. That’s an important idea.
What about your own kids — do you think about how you’re going to shepherd them into a digital world and let them use Facebook or have an online presence of some kind?
Not for a long time. Look, the recommendation from the Parenting Center at the Y is to keep them away from screens until they’re 2, because otherwise they’ll end up replacing natural outside, healthy, exercising play with screen time. Having said that, Josiah’s first words weren’t written in crayon on a piece of paper. They were typed out on my iPad.
You have to negotiate this idea that the Luddite parent is probably not serving their child very well. Pretending technology isn’t going to be something they need to understand is probably the wrong approach. I hope what we can do is guide them to very occasional and thoughtful interactions with technology as they get older — very intentional, never regular. We don’t even watch much TV. Unless they get up so early that it’s the only way we can get more sleep.