When I was 7 years old, my father resigned from his job as a college professor. It was a critical moment in his career and created real financial risk for his young family. But he felt that he was being asked to violate his principles–and nothing was more important to him than a strong moral code.
That bold decision was a model of my father’s approach to raising his kids. Walk your talk. Live your values. Provide for and protect your family. He told me to be kind to women, sure, but I watched him love and honor my mother. He exhorted me to work hard, but the lesson stuck because I saw him grind night after night as he went back to school to get another degree and took on side jobs to help pay the bills.
I think back on his example often as I try to be the best father I can to my own children. Raising kids has never been an easy job for anyone, of course. But the challenge of helping boys find their way to a purposeful adult life is particularly fraught these days. With good reason, many of the most harmful attributes associated with traditional masculinity are being re-examined. But as we reckon with the damage of these freighted expectations, we can’t lose sight of the essential role fathers play in shaping sons into men of character.
Many of the stereotypical traits that our culture associates with boyhood–things like achievement, adventure and risk–are not inherently harmful cultural constructs that should be engineered out. They are, rather, innate characteristics that must be shaped, molded and channeled to virtuous ends.
It’s here that a father has an outsize influence–and that influence can radiate beyond the immediate family. Without a father at home, boys are at a disproportionate risk of not attending college, according to a 2015 study in the journal Family Relations. And in America’s deeply unequal society, the presence of a father can make a profound difference. In 2018, the New York Times reported on troubling research showing that even when black and white boys “grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99% of America.” Among the common elements in the 1% with similar outcomes: lower levels of race discrimination and poverty and higher numbers of dads. Indeed, the report found that the mere presence of fathers in a community could positively impact fatherless boys.
What accounts for this value? It gets back to the elevation of actions above words. It’s the model boys follow–not the speech. Infantry soldiers will read field manuals, but they want to hear from combat veterans. Football players will study the playbook, but they’ll run through a wall for a coach who proved it on the field. It’s about being a living example, not just a mouthpiece.
As a father, I constantly ask myself the question, “What can I do to show my son the way?” That’s one reason I joined the military later in life and deployed to Iraq. I did not want to pressure any of my children to follow my literal lead and enlist, but rather to demonstrate to them as best as I could what it looked like to be more committed to your country and to your family than to yourself.
Our actions as fathers represent the markers that men lay down, the decisions they point to that say, “I don’t always have wisdom. I may be at a loss for words. But let me show you what it’s like to be a man.”
It’s hard to imagine life without my father’s influence. That there are children by the millions who can’t comprehend life with a good father is not just painful to contemplate, it also represents an individual and cultural cataclysm.
The message to men should be clear and unmistakable: fatherhood is a nondelegable duty, and your son needs you every bit as much as you needed your own dad. As a boy blazes his trail through life, his father should be leading the way.
This appears in the June 24, 2019 issue of TIME.