When Tom Shillue was growing up in suburban Massachusetts in the 1970s, dads were mean and moms were tough. His domineering, sometimes remote parents shaped him into a self-reliant man and he never resented them for it — even when things were hard. Now a father himself, Shillue is nostalgic for the days when intimidating kids was not a transgression and frustrated that he’s been pressured not to employ the same parental strategies his parents used to great effect. His new book Mean Dads for a Better America: The Generous Rewards of an Old-Fashioned Childhood, is both a collection of humorous essays and case for paternal shock and awe. It’s not for everybody, but it’s likely to hit home for some.
“Dads used to be scary,” Shillue says. “You can’t be scary as a dad anymore.”
A Fox News host and standup comic, Shillue comes across as a warm dude. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone or make any kids cry. But he also doesn’t want to have to repeat himself or be seen as a non-entity. He’s just not sure that investing the time to make sure a kid feels safe at every moment is worth it.
“We had our mean dads,” says Shillue, now a father of two. “But we turned out okay.”
Ahead of Mean Dads for a Better America’s June 6th release, Fatherly spoke with Shillue about what it really means to be a mean dad, how to juggle the life of a comedian with the duties of a father, and why companies shouldn’t hire single people.
What exactly would you say is the ideal of a mean dad?
A mean dad is scary. He scares you enough so that you don’t misbehave. The idea is that he’s able to get results without taking much action at all. He’s a dad who struck enough fear into his kids’ heart that they would behave well. He’s just mean enough.
You write a lot about the differences between your childhood and your kids’ childhoods. Why do you think fathers have lost their way?
I think all dads want to be mean dads today. But they just can’t because society won’t let them. Things have softened up to the degree where we just don’t have the credibility that we used to. My dad used to get out of his car after work and all the neighborhood kids would run away. He struck fear into the whole neighborhood. Now there’s no neighborhood kids who fear me! There’s nothing there! The whole system was set up to help the mean dad back in the old days. But now we’re kind of on our own. We can’t really deliver the scary goods. My father used to reach for the belt but he never used it—today’s mean dad, you couldn’t get away with that. You’d have to use the belt; no one believes you anymore.
I think every employer shouldn’t even hire single guys. Just hire guys who can concentrate and do their jobs.
Whoa. Other than meanness, what are some other lessons your dad taught you that still guide you today?
Well, you’ve got discipline. You’ve got a stoic attitude towards life. My dad wasn’t a talker, he didn’t talk everything out. He kind of dealt with it himself. He wasn’t a yelling dad — he was a disciplinarian, he led through example. We had to watch him and see what he was doing, so we kind of learned through his behavior. He spent time with his kids, he wasn’t—what’s the old song, “Cat’s in the Cradle”? He got up on Saturday and said “Get in the car” and we went to see the historic sights. We climbed Bunker Hill, we went up the Old North Church. He spent time with his kids. He was definitely an active parent.
He loved his wife, he was a devoted father. He appeared to care about his wife more than his kids—he wouldn’t come home and pick the kids up, he’d come home and go right to my mom. It was her. He’d go right and kiss her before saying anything to the kids. We always knew he wasn’t going anywhere—he was a family man, he was consistent. He was religious, he’d take us to church. He didn’t sit us down and talk Bible verses, but he would make us get up, get in the car and get to church.
You say late in the book that you never really got your career together until you got married and had kids yourself. What specific changes did you make that helped turn things around?
Being single is so ridiculous. It’s such a ridiculous thing. It takes up all of your time. It’s horrible and you don’t realize it until it’s over. Being single as a man is a nightmare. Ninety percent of your life is devoted to being a single dude. It’s like—how could any of these people get anything done? Of course I didn’t excel in my career until I got married. When you think back, it’s like — I’m a stand-up comedian — I’m not doing any jokes that are gonna make me unattractive to women. Because there’s a room full of women there. So, me and every comic that I knew, we’d get up onstage and our standup act was basically a means to an end. We were trying to pick up chicks. That’s not good!
So once you put that behind you, you can start being honest and being real. Once you get all that single guy stuff out of the way. Basically, being single is such a full-time job that — I know it would be against the law — I think every employer shouldn’t even hire single guys. Just hire guys who can concentrate and do their jobs.
I think all dads want to be mean dads today. But they just can’t because society won’t let them
You’ve toured a lot. Do you have any tips for other dads on the road?
My book is so nostalgic, it’s a look back at how life was better back when I was growing up. But there’s so much that’s better about the world now. If I had to be a touring comedian back in the ’70s, I wouldn’t be able to see my kids. But now when I go on the road, the first thing I do when I get to the hotel room is I open up my iPad and we FaceTime. My family will put the iPad on the table and we’ll have dinner together. It’s amazing. So it really is a great time to be able to do that.
I also took a tip from Jim Gaffigan— most guys go on the road, you come back, you try to schedule as much spots at home as possible. Jim just took his whole family on the road. He would schedule these massive standup tours around school vacations and they’d go out for two weeks, they’d take the whole family in the tour bus. Now I don’t have the kind of massive tour operation that Jim has, but I’ve brought my family along too. It was very manageable. You’d take the kids, drive around, do the gigs. I’d have to do the shows at night but we’d stay in the hotel and swim in the hotel pool and it was kind of a fun tour. So I model after Jim.
Suppose one of your kids comes up to you tomorrow and says “Dad, I want to be a comedian.” What do you say?
When somebody wants to do something, you’re not gonna stop them. So I would say, “God bless, do your best, and you can always quit and come home.” Will Ferrell told that story, he called his dad and said he was gonna be a comedian. And his dad said—he didn’t encourage him, he didn’t discourage him—he said, “You can always quit. You can always quit and you can come back home.” And he loved that. He thought it was better advice than saying “Go for it, explore your dreams, give it your all.” His dad gave him an out.
My father used to reach for the belt but he never used it—today’s mean dad, you couldn’t get away with that. You’d have to use the belt, no one believes you anymore.
Did your parents have that attitude when you were starting out?
Yeah, they weren’t in my face about my career. I kind of make that point a little bit in the book — I was raised with heavy, heavy discipline and guidance until my teen years. And then it was a great deal of laissez-faire. It was “You’re up, we feel you’re ready to take on the world.” So I thought that they had sat down and had a meeting and said “This is the way we’re gonna parent” — but their system was a very old-fashioned, disciplinarian upbringing, and then in my teen years they let it go. They said, “We’ve done all we can. Now you can make all your decisions.”
So they allowed me a lot of freedom in my adolescent years. I remember some of my friends who had similar upbringings to mine — they were boy scouts, they were altar boys — and in their teen years their parents were right there, right on them, giving them the same disciplinarian upbringing. And it was very stressful for them. My dad didn’t like my long hair but he let it go, he didn’t make me get a haircut. There were other kids whose dads were like “No, you’re getting a crew cut.”
Again, I don’t know if it was just because they were exhausted because they had five kids and they were tired of being strict. But I tend to think it was deliberate.
Maybe they decided being mean wasn’t the right way anymore…
Yeah. Somehow I think they knew when to let go. They knew I was ready to fly.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity