WATCH: "Mean" dads make America better

With a new memoir, comic Tom Shillue reveals what his tough-love upbringing got right

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published June 17, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)

This "Salon Talks" video was produced by Kevin Carlin

By his own admission, Tom Shillue is a mean dad. As the author of the new book "Mean Dads for a Better America: The Generous Rewards of an Old-Fashioned Childhood," he declares that our country would be a better place if more parents resembled him, too. His memoir draws upon his comical recollections of his Irish Catholic upbringing in suburban Massachusetts, in a town that felt like the 1950s — even when he was growing up in the 1970s. It's a tale of both limits and freedoms, that children today may not recognize, one in which helicopter parenting was a yet-to-be invented concept. Shillue, known for his commentary on Fox News and his barbershop-quartet harmonizing on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," appeared on a recent episode of "Salon Talks" to discuss his unique take on parenting and the firm distinction between being a "mean" dad and being a cruel one.

What's the difference between being a mean dad and a mean person?

A mean dad — and a mean mom, too  . . .  he's mean because it's always in the service of raising good children. 

On tough love with a twist

I like to have a good attitude. I like to smile. I like to punish people with a smile. 

So if the kids don't [do what they're told] I turn off the TV and I say, Ohhh, this is so fun; you know Dad loves taking things away. I looove taking things away. No TV tomorrow!

What's behind telling a daughter, "I don't care how you feel . . . . I care how you behave"?

Of course I do care how she feels. Later on we'll talk about feelings, but right then in the moment it's like behavior first, feelings second. . . . That's the perfect blending of the mean dad and the modern dad who wears pink jackets.

Watch more of Tom Shillue's conversation on being mean, modern and smiling.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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