#65 – Letters from a Father
Today we speak with Allen Carter, author of Letters from a Father, a collection of letters Allen wrote his children as they were growing up. This concept of writing your child letters sounds simple, but as you’ll hear, the impact can be tremendous.
The benefits of writing letters to children
The importance of engaging with children in meaningful ways
The value of reflecting on shared experiences
The importance of self-reflection and self-improvement for fathers
The role of vulnerability and authenticity in communication with children
The impact of technology on communication with children
Enjoy this conversation!
Like this episode? You can check out more of our Dad Podcasts.
Will Braunstein: Hello and welcome to another episode of A Dad’s Path podcast. I’m Will Braunstein. Today we’re here with Allen Carter. He’s the author of a book called Letters from a Father. You can find it on Amazon. It’s an amazing book we’re going to be talking about and going in-depth on what we can learn from. He says we can plagiarize it for our own kids. We’ll talk about what that means. All proceeds actually go to the Chicago Hope Academy, so a great school and service. Welcome, Allen.
Allen Carter: Well, thank you so much for having me, man. It’s an honor to be with you, and again, I’m so grateful what you’re doing for dads out there. Delighted to be here with this conversation.
Will: Well, great, I appreciate that and you’re certainly contributing, all the guests, but you in particular, I love this book when I started hearing about it. I’d love if you could just tell our listeners, one, what it is, and then back up and say where did it come from.
Allen: No, for sure. Thank you again, Will. This book is just a curated compilation of letters that I wrote to my teenagers when they were in their formative years and it’s something that was never meant to be a book. I think like all dads, Will, I was just looking for another lever or tool to engage with my children and so I just fell into this habit of writing to them monthly.
It was nothing special. It was an opportunity for me to maybe look back on a shared experience. Sometimes with dads as dads we go through the day with our kids and something will happen and an experience that we’ll share together, but we just blow right by it, because we’re busy, we’re onto other things. Writing to them in retrospect and maybe pulling on a thread or explaining a value or a concept to them through a letter I found to be really fun and a great way to engage with them.
After years of doing this, my mother and father got ahold of some of these letters and I remember to this day my mother calling me and saying, “Hey son,” in tears, “you got to share this. This is really great stuff, and it might help other fathers and their families.” After a lot of that Covenant Books picked it up and they curated about 70 of these letters and published this book. I’m delighted to see it out in the world and frankly a little surprised that it’s resonating out there and that we’re even talking about it.
Will: That’s great. I’m not too surprised. It’s really a great approach to communication and it’s unique and I think there’s a lot to dig in there on. First, just logistically, you gave them a letter, was it every month or was it most months? How did that work?
Allen: Yes I would say it’s most months. It’s difficult to regiment something like this but on average it was perhaps once a month and I would send it to simply usually via email. Remember, these are teenagers that I was writing to, and of course, the dads who listen to you who have teenagers know that that’s an interesting set, an interesting age. I remember funny, I would go back, I’d craft a letter, I’d think a lot about it.
I’d even pray about it and I’d send it out to them via email and of course, since they’re teenagers, you can imagine sometimes what I’d get back, which was essentially crickets. Nothing would happen but interesting, years later, sometimes they’d come to me and say, dad, remember that letter that you wrote me about that experience? Well, I’ve been thinking about that. Sometimes I’d get immediate feedback, sometimes we’d really chew on it together but I think it was the process and the effort that was more important and meaningful to those kids than sometimes the message. That was really interesting to see how the process played out, Will.
Will: That makes a lot of sense. Were these sometimes issues that you were working through, like personal issues you guys were working through as a family, you and your kids? Or were they more higher level virtues and principles that are important?
Allen: That’s a great question. It was all the above. One of our children, our daughter, Emma, was a nationally ranked athlete. She plays a sport called squash, which is an inside racquet sport, much like racquetball and she played her entire junior career. Like any sport like that, at that level, she was ranked top 10 in the country. You can imagine the pain and the suffering and the relentless effort and the constant defeat and all the anxiety that goes along with that performance.
Letters to her were about that, about how to suffer through and leaning on her experiences and encouraging her. It was a great tool with these letter to help her process this. Then sometimes they were just about things we noticed and experiences. I guess a long answer to your question, it was everything that happens in our lives. A lot of things that we experience as families, sometimes it feels like we’re alone, but these are common situations.
It’s the challenges of life, it’s the hardships, it’s all those things that we all share that these letters are about. I think that’s why this book is resonating so well with families across the country because they realized that, Hey, the things that we’re going through we’re not alone. These are shared experiences and also shared values that we’re striving for.
Will: Let me flip this on the head for a sec, is we talked about you’re in a slightly different position, your kids are out of the house. Most of my listeners either have kids on the way or young kids. We know that teenage years are coming. We know the empty nest years are coming. If you look at the letters that you wrote or wanted to write even, what would be one or two that you would write to a young dad, to someone like me or one of our listeners saying, Hey, we’re starting this process out. What are some things that we need to keep in mind?
Allen: That’s such a great question, Will. I’d say the number one thing that I would suggest to dads is just the recognition of the power that they hold with their children. We can’t overstate the power and the positive outcome potential of an engaged father in our kids’ lives. I would remind myself, and I would remind young dads to just realize that and recognize that you have such an ability to change the outcome for your children and their children’s children with your time and your focus.
All dads out there, and you and I included, we have so much on our plate. We have bills to pay, we have to be financial providers. We’ve got to keep a roof over our heads. We’ve got demands from our careers and our jobs, but nothing is more important than our role as fathers. It just isn’t. That’s what I would be focused on, is just encouraging dads to just roll up their sleeves in their roles of being a father and put that first in recognizing that that time is the most valued and well spent thing that they had.
Will: I love that. That’s beautiful. Absolutely. Absolutely. To paraphrase almost, there’s this level of just engage. Love, engage. If you’re there being present, that is such the name of the game.
Allen: Oh my gosh, Will, you’re so right. Along with that, look, our kids know we’re going to make mistakes. They understand that none of us are perfect, we’re just not, but I think a child looks at us and recognizes that but they also want, more than anything, our effort. They want us to show them that we’re giving them that time, that we’re fully present, that we’re rolling up our sleeves. That they feel there’s nothing more important than them, that’s like 75% of the game. The remaining 25% is the content, and we can talk about that but 75% is just that children’s understanding and knowledge that they are the most important thing in our lives.
Will: I love that. I totally agree. It’s such a weighty thing to put in your mind because there are times when you’re really tired, when you have a lot of things to do, you have a lot of stresses, there’s a lot of competing priorities that are serious beyond your kids but at the same time there’s a season for everything. Especially when you have young kids that requires a certain amount of time and energy and resources, and as kids get older it requires something different, of course, but this is a season in our lives, and I always try and keep that in mind for me personally, my whole life isn’t going to be like this. One day I’ll sleep in. That’s a pleasure but it’s a double-edged sword. It’s nice to have the little ones wake me up in the morning. It’s good to try and keep that in mind, but not always easy.
Allen: No, that’s exactly right, man. It’s back to what we’re saying, we’ve got so many competing priorities for our time, but if you could stack-rank it, we just have to remember that being a dad is way up there. It’s spouse and father, those are our two most important roles, especially in that season that you’re in, a lot of your listeners are in where we’ve just got to be 100%tthere for our kids, even if it requires effort, focus.
Will: When you’re with your kids, as you were saying, 75% of the name of the game is being there and just being present and and engaged, and I love that. A big part of being engaged when you’re there you’re teaching. It doesn’t need to be always active teaching, but just by nature, if you’re communicating, if you’re playing, if you’re doing different activities, there’s different teaching and modeling you can be doing. I always wonder in terms of the virtues that you think are really important or things that are really important to model, what has to come from a parent? Nothing has to, but what are the most important virtues or values, whatever word you want to use, that needs to come from us?
Allen: Look, we have to recognize that children get inputs from so many different arenas. Social media is huge, TV is massive. Their peers. Sadly, a lot of those influences are negative ones. They impart things that maybe as a parent we wouldn’t identify as core values. We’ve got to be almost heavier on the other side of that seesaw. I’m a Christian father, so I think about those timeless Judeo-Christian values like love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness. Those are things that I’m trying and always have tried to pour into my kids.
Then some other timeless values like grit, determination, perseverance, hard work, looking for the good in things and in others. Those are things that I don’t think any parent listening to this podcast would disagree that they want to pour into our children. Those are all things that you’ll find in this book as part of this letters that I wrote to my kids over the years and I’m certain that are part of the conversations that every dad on this podcast is trying to have with their kids.
Will: Yes. You hit the nail on the head and where you started is where we are in society where there are so many influences and we don’t even know a lot of them. Right now with young kids, speaking for myself, they don’t have phones, they don’t have the internet. If they’re playing a game or something, I’m watching them or there’s no access. At some age, teenage years they get phones, they get access to the internet, they get access to whatever they want. That’s where we need to step in and say, Hey, this is what’s important. These are our values, this is what we can control.
Allen: I think that’s exactly right, man. That’s counterbalance that as parents we have to weigh on that scale, for sure.
Will: Yes. With all the new technology it’s easy to get caught up in that, but there’s always been technology of sorts where people say, oh, this is going to ruin this or that. What are some things that we can learn from the past, maybe from when you were a younger father or your kids were younger or when you were growing up from your parents? What are some timeless ideas you think that just stick no matter what, regardless of technology, all that?
Allen: Look, a couple of things come to mind. By the way, I should mention that all these values you’re trying to impart are really timeless. One would argue that even though technology changes, the value and recognition of hard work equals good results. Perseverance equals good results and adversity can lead to good outcomes and character sharpening traits. All those things are going to be the same no matter what the technology is.
I will say that technology does give us other levers as dads to communicate with our kids. Now, we have all these new opportunities to engage with them, which is great, that my parents didn’t have. That even maybe I didn’t have. Those are all super important. I think as dads, just like I pulled the lever of a letter writing as a way to engage with kids, I think dads have to look for every opportunity that’s available to them and leverage those opportunities, even if it’s technology to do so, because that’s just going to be another way for them to engage.
Will: I like that. You have to go with what your kids want. I appreciate that you emailed your kids the letters, because that’s how we communicate. I don’t know if our kids will do like TikTok things or something. [laughs]
Allen: For sure. It might be like video stuff.
Will: Yes, exactly.
Allen: Who knows the way the world’s going to change.
Will: That’s right. As we talk about some ideas from the past, I also want to talk about traditions. I love traditions and so I’d be curious to hear what kind of traditions, either religious or otherwise, that you did with your family and ones that maybe you felt were more meaningful.
Allen: Well, travel’s always been a big part of our family dynamic. We’ve done tons of that in our life and it’s been really robust and meaningful. In fact, since you’re in Denver, I’ll share with you one story because I think it paints how I use experiences to form letters and how dads might also look for opportunities to build on shared experiences with their family.
We were on a ski vacation, love to ski, as I think I mentioned to you before we started recording. I remember we came through the Denver Airport, which can be an absolute zoo in the winter time, as you know. When you’re on a family ski vacation with three young kids, you’ve got skis and boots and oceans of suitcases. You’re hungry and you’re tired. You’ve come off a plane and you’ve got a couple hour drive into the mountains from there.
We piled onto this bus that took us from the terminal to what was then the car rental facility. It was just stuffed. It was hot, overheated, smelled. We were jammed in there and we’re all just staring at each other. Right next to us was this little three-year-old boy and he could not have been more excited about riding on a bus for the first time. He was hanging from the straps and he was looking out at the sun and the snow and he was ecstatic, man. He was seizing this moment. It was such a new and beautiful experience for him and I started thinking about that.
The letter that that generated is, we all have to look at life and through his eyes. We have to seize new experiences. We can’t get caught in negative circumstances. We always have to be searching out the best in things and being excited about life and thankful and grateful for the opportunities we have rather than being beat down by what we might in the moment think is a little bit of an irritant on that bus. That’s, again, a really long answer to your question, Will, and it was some of the ideas I took from our travels together, which is a big family tradition in our little clan.
Will: No, that was a great story to illustrate both how you write letters and why travel’s important. Again, digging in the weeds just because I always get so curious on this kind of stuff. With your family vacations, who got to choose? Did you all choose where you go or did you vote or was it your choice, you and your wife’s choice?
Allen: No, it was usually a family discussion because I think you want to make sure that everyone’s happy to start and excited about it. After we made that decision I was always the travel agent in the family and I always tried to plan a lot of surprises in there and we’d try to plan some really fun stuff that would be super unique and interesting for our family. We’ve been very fortunate to have been all over the world and experienced different cultures and opportunities.
Not all families have that opportunity, but I think getting out of the box with your kids, sometimes we fall into these ruts. Where we’re eating breakfast the same way and we’re driving to school the same way and we’re having dinner the same way, we’re watching the same TV shows and on the weekends we’re going to the gym and then we’re maybe going to daycare. Then we’re having dinner with the same folks.
I think sometimes while that’s great to have those routines, breaking out of that can create new and dynamic experiences and opportunities for growth and learning opportunities too for our kids because they get to see something new and different and it opens up a stream of questions. A stream of how is it that, and all those represent opportunities for dad to challenge their kids a bit and also impart some wisdom and maybe tease it with some values and some things that might be helpful in growing for our children.
Will: Absolutely. We’re not at family vacation level where we’re letting the kids choose, my kids are young, but what you said, one is that everyone has to want to be there. What we have started doing with my young kids is changing where we go out to eat. We’d go to breakfast at the same place every single week and it’s great, but we were a little tired of it.
It took a lot of work and weeks and weeks and finally got buy in to go somewhere different. One of my kids hates it, but we tried it, the other one loves it. Because that also teaches a really basic, I don’t know if virtue’s the right word, but flexibility.
We all want to spoil our kids and give them anything, but at some point they also need to learn the whole world isn’t like that. Just because things don’t go exactly according to plan doesn’t mean that it’s not the end of the world. There’s a lot of advantages actually when things go differently.
Allen: That’s exactly right, Will, and good on you to sometimes have to force that change in there and challenge those kids to maybe look at things differently. That’s part of our role too.
Will: Absolutely. Of the travel tradition, in terms of more like day-to-day stuff, if you could go back in time, did you have family meetings? Did you have chores? Can you walk through some of the more nitty gritty of your family? Did you have family commandments or mission statement, anything like that?
Allen: Nothing formal but we had really good, solid traditions like every family does. You bet. I’m in the financial business. Financial education, the value of a dollar, all those things would speak to my values around understanding how money works and understanding how value is created and understanding how effort equals reward. All those things were I think part of my role as a dad and I think is important for every dad to impart to their children, so the chore thing was a big part of our life, you bet.
As our kids got older they were also participants and a lot of decision-making with the family as they grew. I think we’re always trying as dads to impart more responsibility to children, to have them keep taking bigger bites. We were thoughtful about that also with our kids.
Will: That’s a great answer. Obviously it depends on the age and where they are and where you are as a family but it is important to start instilling those responsibilities and contributions to the household. I want to switch gears a little bit. It sounds like you’ve been a great father, you were raised in a great environment. What about those who came from broken families? What are some ways you could think of or that you might recommend to move forward? Is that a deal killer? Can people move forward from that?
Allen: Man, yes and you’re right. Look, I feel very blessed. My kids grew up in a two-parent family. My wife and I celebrate our 30th anniversary in May. That’s a huge blessing and I recognize clearly that my kids had a very blessed environment as did I and as did my wife. Sadly, that’s not the norm. A lot of kids have one parent or they’re challenged or fathers now who are in that role have come from a different arena completely.
I would say a couple things. One is man, just encourage those families, that single-parent family, I recognize how challenging that can be. You’ve got someone who needs to wear two hats. The father and the mother who needs to be double duty who needs also probably to be a provider, that is a tough role. I think all I can do is just encourage those folks to just put that effort in and continue to recognize, like we talked earlier, about just understanding that being a mom or dad in that role is the single most important gift they can give to their kids and not to, again, underestimate the power that they have.
Then also for folks who are coming out of a tough situation, I mentioned to you that that Judeo-Christian Tradition is huge for me. Man, I don’t know that I could have done what I did as a dad without being on my knees every day and just leaning on my relationship with God and just giving everything to that relationship and just prayerfully asking for help. I’m a believer in that. I’m certain that a lot of the dads you speak to are also that way but we can’t do it ourselves, I guess is my point, Will. Leaning on either God or communities like yours for help I think would be something else that I’d strongly hope that everyone is able to do.
Will: That’s beautiful. That’s great advice. I think you’re right. This isn’t just for people from challenging homes, this is for everyone. All dads face challenges. Like you said, the structure of prayer and religion was helpful and for a lot of us that is. I always say just reach out, talk to another dad. One, you’ll be shocked that they want to talk to you, probably more than you want to talk to them, and open up. That’s something that moms are so good at, having these support groups, these informal support groups and chatting.
I say this every week but I’m going to keep saying it till we get better at it, but dads are good at, gosh, my friends aren’t contacting me, these other dads aren’t contacting me, I have no one to talk to and it’s like, “Well, did you talk to them, did you reach out?” Then you reach out and they’re all like, “Oh yes.” It’s a game changing. That’s what we need to get better at I think as dads, as men too, is just knowing we’re not alone both in this world, as you’re saying, with sort of the Judeo-Christian or whatever your belief system is, however you want to frame that but then also just any dad is facing challenges and trials and tribulations and great things too but they’re all challenges. We’re all in this together.
Allen: They’re common. It’s like you said and we mentioned previously, we’re not alone in this. The adversity and the challenges that we’re maybe going through with our kids, it’s been done before, man. This book has been played, the record’s been played over and over and over again. Recognizing that and sharing ideas and building that community and kicking around, Hey, how did you handle this, and what do you think about that? That stuff’s invaluable. That community support is really helpful when you’re going through the fire as a dad.
Will: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Allen, this has been fantastic. I’m really excited to check out your book more and think about how I can both plagiarize, like you said, but also incorporate a lot of the ideas into my family and my fatherhood. I think it’s just a beautiful idea and I’m thrilled to have you and thrilled that you’re able to turn it into a book.
Allen: Will, thank you, man, and I appreciate so much this conversation. Yes, I would ask your dads to start their own letter writing tradition in their families and just do what I did. I wish I had started earlier and I’m thrilled that I did it and I’m looking forward to maybe doing letters from a grandfather someday if I’m so blessed. I think it’s been a great tradition for our family and I’m hopeful that other dads can do the same thing.
Just one more thought along those lines, Will, is time moves so fast, as you know, and we’re on this Earth for such a brief period. This book is a compilation of messages that I wrote to my children and it will always be there. It’s a permanent record of how I thought as a father and how I loved my children. When I’m gone, my children will have it to share with their children and on and on. So that legacy component of something like this I think is also hugely meaningful. Add that to some encouragement for the fathers who listen to this to start their own tradition.
Will: That’s a beautiful message, you’re right. Legacy is such a great thing to be able to pass on however you can. Well, fantastic, Allen. Again, this is Letters From a Father: Allen Carter. You can find it on Amazon, wherever you buy books. Really enjoyed having you. Thanks again, Allen.
Allen: Thank you, Will.