The Intentional Father: Jon Tyson
Without strong mentors, boys are walking alone into a wilderness of conflicting messages about who they should be as men. It's no wonder that our sons are confused about what the world expects from them and what they should expect of themselves. Jon Tyson lays out a clear path for fathers and sons that includes specific activities, rites of passage, and significant "marking moments" that can be customized to fit any family.
About the Guest
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Navigate the challenges of boyhood with Jon Tyson’s guidance, offering a clear path for fathers and sons through rites of passage and meaningful activities.
The Intentional Father: Jon Tyson
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Alright, let’s get into the show:
Jon: How can we be at this point in church history, 2000 years in, and this is not a normal part of the evangelical tradition? Why is it that it’s so rare to meet a son that says, “My father raised me into a man. He did a great job, and I’m a healthy functional adult because of it?” Why is that an exception, not the norm? I don’t know why there’s not some sort of great tradition that is handed down, even inside the church. Why does it feel like every generation has to rediscover this? Why do we always feel like we are starting at zero; like the conversation is back at the ground floor?
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbot, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Ann: You grew up without a dad in your home or really influencing your life.
Dave: Are you telling me something I don’t know? [Laughter]
Ann: No, I’m asking a question: “Did that make you sad or mad, growing up? What did it feel like?”
Dave: Yes, both. Extremely sad. I can remember [lying] in bed at night as a 12- or 13- year-old boy, praying to a God I didn’t believe in: “Why’d you take my dad?” I mean, he didn’t die; he left. But I sort of wanted to blame God for him not being there. Then, as I got older, mad, like, “Why did you leave?” and felt like I really, really missed something.
Ann: Yes, it’s been interesting for me to watch you as a dad, because that was always in your head, I think.
Dave: The thing that shocked me that I didn’t understand until later was the power of a father.
Dave: I sort of thought, because I didn’t have a dad, I wouldn’t copy my dad. Then, as I became a young man, and even when we got married, I was like, “Oh, my goodness. I am doing things that I never even saw my dad do because he wasn’t there, but I know he did.” It was like, “Wow, the power of a father is powerful. Now, I’m a dad.” I realized: “I am going to impact my boys in a way I don’t even understand.” So, I wanted to do it right.
Ann: Do you feel like we’re in a culture today that men need help in this area?
Dave: We’ve always needed help, but more than ever; and we’ve got help in the studio today.
Ann: Yes; I’m excited.
Dave: Yes, we have Jon Tyson, who’s a father, and a pastor, and an author. I mean, as I read your book, it feels like you have a visceral, emotional feeling about fatherhood.
Jon, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Jon: Thank you so much for having me on the show. Yes, I do. I have a father’s heart. I think that comes just from the wonder of having kids, yet some of my own brokenness; and certainly, as a pastor over the years, just watching thousands of men deal with father issues. It’s like, “This is a huge need! We’ve got to talk about it; we’ve got to do something about it.”
Dave: Yes, and our listeners probably are like, “This dude has an accent. Where’s that come from?” Tell us a little bit of your story.
Jon: Okay, I grew up in Australia. I was born in Melbourne, lived in Perth for eight years, and then basically came of age in a city called Adelaide.
I became a Christian the weekend I turned 17 in a Pentecostal youth revival. [I] felt a call to come to the US and serve God that felt like some sort of missionary call. When I was 20, I got a scholarship to study theology and moved over; met my wife doing the campus orientation tour.
I saw her and just remember thinking, “Focusing in Bible college will be harder than I anticipated.” [Laughter] Then [we] fell in love and got married, pretty close to right away, and then had kids right away; and we’ve been at it ever since. We moved to New York 16 years ago to plant a church. Then, we’ve recently become empty nesters. And I’m here to talk about that process of raising my son, in particular, and some of the things I learned as a part of that.
Ann: Talk about your relationship with your dad. Why is this a passion for you?
Jon: My dad is a good and godly man. My dad is a quiet man; he’s a prayerful man. I remember, at the start of the book, it [says]: “To my father, Ian Tyson, whose prayers have carried me this far.” That is true. My dad prays for me every day. He prayed me out of rebellion; he prayed me home; went after me in prayer and fasting in my rebellious years.
My grandfather was a very accomplished missionary in India. He was an old-school British missionary, which meant he was amazing at missions and terrible at fatherhood! “Dump your kids in a boarding school. If you love your family more than Me, you are not worthy of Me.” So, my dad grew up in India, and developed a condition where he would sleepwalk at night, trying to find his family. They would find him walking around.
I want to honor my grandfather’s legacy, which in many ways was like there’s thousands—at this point, probably hundreds of thousands—of people in the kingdom of God because of his work. But he had a massive flaw, which is, he was a terrible father. He didn’t give my dad what my dad needed. My dad never got a sex talk; never got a talk about money; never got any practical advice about how to grow up.
My dad was resolved to do better than his dad, and my dad did so much better than his dad. But there was still some stuff he didn’t have. He didn’t have some of the tools he needed, particularly for a kid like me. I was a handful, growing up. My dad did everything he knew, and there was some stuff I needed that he didn’t know how to do.
So, when it came to me being a father, I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to try and break some generational stuff off of here. I don’t want to react. I’ve got to figure out a way how to do this.” It started me on a huge journey of reading and interviewing men to try and understand: “How do you get this right?”
One of the things I learned, reading all of this stuff, was quite simple. There were almost no books about: “Here’s how to do it.” There were dozens of books on wounded men seeking healing, and very few that were like: “Here’s how to do it.”
Then, when I did read those books, “Here’s how to do it,” I was like, “This is not enough!” A camping trip and a few talks is a thousand times better than what most kids get, but it’s not enough. You’ve got, particularly during adolescence, six-plus years with these kids. You’re going to have to have a plan for every day and every week.
Formation happens in big breakthrough events, but it happens in the everyday moments [too]. I basically realized—which actually stunned me; I was like, “How can we be at this point in church history, 2000 years in, and this is not a normal part of the evangelical tradition? Why is it that it’s so rare to meet a son that says, “My father raised me into a man. He did a great job, and I’m a healthy functional adult because of it?” Why is that an exception, not the norm?
I was saddened to have to write this book. I was shocked that there weren’t 20 options like this; I would have just used them.
Jon: I felt like, “Man, I’ve got to sort of—”
One of my gifts is reading widely, synthesizing it, and then turning it into tools. I felt like, “I think I need to do this.” That’s some of my backstory and some of what informed the writing of this book.
Ann: Dave, I feel like, for you, you knew—and maybe this is true of a lot of men—and like your dad, Jon; he knew how to build God’s kingdom. And as for you, Dave, I think a lot of men, you knew how to build a career, but when it came to: “How do you build a family when I’ve never seen it done?” I think that’s a hard lesson to learn, and most men don’t have any idea.
Dave: Yes, I don’t know what percentage—maybe you do, Jon—would be in that category. But I was definitely that guy. I didn’t have a dad, obviously, so, I didn’t know what it looked like. I didn’t have a Christian background. Then, when I got married, I was like: “What is a Christian man? What’s a Christian husband? What’s a Christian dad? What do you do?”
Ann: And we, as wives, have all kinds of expectations. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes! Ann told me everything I needed to know every day, every hour! [Laughter] “Here’s what you need to do. Why aren’t you doing it?” I mean, we got—I’m not kidding—in some ways, that’s what she did. You know, as a man, sometimes you just push away from that rather than receiving it. I did what you did. I started asking men.
Jon: I want to acknowledge that I think there’s a lot of pain in men’s hearts that gets glossed over: a) they’re not willing to be vulnerable with it; b) our culture doesn’t respect men.
Jon: Oftentimes, for good reason. But you talk to most men, and below the surface—I mean, Thoreau said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” That continues to be true; there’s a lot of pain under the surface. When you peel back the roof, you often get a lot of dads who are just like, “I don’t know how to do it, and I feel like I’m getting nagged on this. If I knew how to do it, I’d do it. This is not a will issue. I would do this if I knew how to.”
There can be a lot of shame when you know you should be doing something that you don’t know how to do; and you want to do it, but you don’t know how to get help. You’re just scrambling, and you know the stakes are so high. It’s a high-pressure environment.
Dave: It’s interesting, I recently did a message to men, and I made this comment. It’s exactly what you said, Jon. I said, “Men have LATS,” and I said, “You think I’m talking about these big abs I have under my pecs. I’m talking L-A-T-S. They’re Lonely, they’re Angry; they’re ‘Tired;’ they’re ‘Stressed.’” I started talking about the loneliness of men; we say we have friends, but we really don’t. There’s a sense of anger because we’re carrying so much stuff; nobody seems to know. We’re tired—you know, whatever.
I had more response of people reaching out and saying, “Can we talk about that LATS thing?” because it resonated with men in the room. What you just said is, we do feel this sense of: “I’m supposed to be the man; I’m supposed to be this dad, this husband. I don’t know what that looks like.” Is that what you found?
Jon: Yes. I don’t know why there’s not some sort of great tradition that is handed down, even inside the church. It is like, “Why does it feel like every generation has to rediscover this? Why do we always feel like we are starting at zero, like the conversation is back at the ground floor?”
Jon: I think it’s probably part of the enemy’s plan, to be honest with you, which is to not build generational influence and impact; to make every generation start at zero, so there’s nothing to carry over. I think that’s probably a huge part of it.
But I think, even increasingly; I don’t know if you saw the latest articles? There’s one about how China raised men versus how the US is raising men that’s getting a ton of attention. The other one on young men being lost in college. We’re moving into a world that is not designed for men in many ways.
I want to be very clear here. I’m not talking like, “Poor men! Oh, poor men.” I want to acknowledge the very real pastoral pain that is under all of the cultural issues that we banter around. I think almost every church is scrambling to do men’s ministry right. It just feels perpetually—I don’t know if you’ve experienced this—like the curriculum’s out of date.
I’ve never found anyone who says, “The curriculum’s right on! We’ve got it.” It’s always like: “It’s dated! It’s dated.” I don’t know what it is. I honestly think it’s probably the enemy’s plan. I’m glad we’re able to re-up one more time, so we can address these things and, hopefully, build some generational legacy.
Dave: Yes. So, talk about where you started. You’ve got a son; you’re trying to be this intentional dad.
Dave: Define where you started.
Jon: I mean, it honestly started—we were living in Dallas, and I was coming back—this is a shared moment every father has—coming back from the doctor with a, “Do you want to know the gender of your kid?” I was like, “Yes.” They said, “It’s a boy,” and I just remember thinking, “I don’t think I have what it takes. I don’t know how to get this kid into adulthood.”
I was a youth pastor at the time, as well. So, I was very, very aware of the brokenness of some of the kids in the youth group. We picked these kids up in our minivan, and I saw what absentee fatherhood and what poor parenting did. I was like, “I don’t know if I—I want to do better.” It started with a deep sense of resolve, but I felt completely overwhelmed. But I think the journey began there.
I say this book is for one particular kind of dad; here’s who it is: if you are overwhelmed, but determined, this is your book. If you’re doing great, God bless you; keep going. But if you’re not determined, it will be too hard for you, because there’s a real task at hand. But if you’re determined and overwhelmed, I have written this book for you. You want to get it right; you’re like, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes,’ I’ve got a plan and a path to help with that.
Yes, that was birthed in my heart. I think one of the things I read, and this was an old Stephen Covey thing, that was maybe the one thing I got right for both of my kids—I remember Covey saying, “You need to give each of your kids one night a week, and it needs to be their time. They set the agenda.” I did that with both of my kids, fairly consistently, their entire lives.
People talk about having date night. I was like, “You’ve got to have time with your kids like that.” The whole goal was to develop this sacred bond. I felt like, “As long as I have an emotional, relational attachment, we’ll be able to process and get through everything.” I worked so hard for so many years to build that willingness for my son to spend time with me. A lot of people say, “How do I get a 13-year-old son to enter into a multi-year, male formation journey?” I said, “I used to take my son to Waffle House in a car carrier.” Then, when he was one, we’d go; when he was two…
So, we just kept that tradition our entire lives.
This book is not a promise that everything will work out fine. My son went through some very hard times. “Dad, I don’t want to be a Christian. I don’t think following Jesus is worth it.” But I had that relational connection to say, “Thanks for sharing that with me. Let’s talk about that. What about following Jesus is not worth it?” On the surface, I looked, probably, pretty calm, and then I left the room and wept—[Laughter]—and started a 40-day fast. I was like, “God, I call forth my son’s destiny!” [Laughter] Super intense behind the scenes.
But I developed a bond that enabled it to work. That was, I think, the one thing I knew: “If this is in place, I can probably handle anything, as long as I maintain this.” Yes, that sort of started when he was born.
Dave: Now, you’ve raised a son and daughter. Is it different? This book is for fathers and sons, but is it different with a girl?
Jon: Yes, it is. My wife pulled me aside in the early days. I originally called this “The Primal Path.” That was what I called this thing with my son. People were like, “Oh, that sounds like you want to eat meat and take your shirt off.” [Laughter] I was like, “You know, I don’t know how to tell you this: 13-year-old boys are not motivated by a sophisticated adult language. They want to feel like it’s got some energy to it.” So, it’s called The Primal Path.
My wife pulled me aside and said, “You know that a lot of this stuff is true for women too?” I said, “The number one way to de-motivate a young man is tell him, ‘This is generic, universal wisdom. You’re not special. This is just stuff that girls know too’.’” I said, “That’s not the point. It’s the framing of it that’s important.” So, yes, a lot of this stuff is just like helping adolescents move into adulthood in a healthy way; but there are definitely some things that are specific for men.
Dave: Although, I know it’s a different conversation; you’re doing a similar, but different thing with your daughter, right?
Jon: Yes, it’s really interesting. This [that] I did with my son, I did it for six years. People said, “That’s so long.” I was like, “But I had him the whole time. Do you want me to do a year and then give up on him and wing it for five years?” I was like, “I just worked with the time I had.”
My daughter—I had a wonderful relationship with my daughter; but she had a very different personality. She’s very driven, very conscientious, [and] very internally motivated. To be honest with you, my wife did a version of this with my daughter. If she turns that into a thing or not, I don’t know; that’s up to her. That’s not—she doesn’t feel called to it like I did.
Jon: But I knew, “I’ve got to play a significant role in discipling my daughter,” so I did a one-year intensive. That was like, “The 50 things you’ve got to have in your heart before you leave our house.” We did a lot of this stuff, but it was in a compressed time frame; but in some ways, it was more intense. At some point, I’ll put that out. But what my daughter wanted from me was very, very different than what my son wanted from me. Again, my wife played a major role in discipling my daughter.
Ann: Go back—you mentioned the five kinds of fathers. Go back and tell us what those are really quick.
Jon: A lot of this was just like observation; a lot of it, primarily, in my pastoring. There are five kinds of fathers. They all start with “I” because I’m a pastor—
Ann: —of course, they do!
Jon: —and if I don’t illiterate, it’s like, “What are you doing with that?”
Dave: It doesn’t work. It’s not even true.
Jon: “It doesn’t work. Make it memorable!” [Laughter]
The first father is an “irresponsible father.” This is a dad, who just bales; [who] does not accept the sacred responsibility of bringing someone into the world, made in the image of God, who relies on them for a sense of purpose and identity; just bales. We obviously know statistically, personally, and sociologically the amount of damage that has, an absent dad.
Then, I talk about “ignorant dads.” These are dads who don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t really want to know. They just prescribe: “Well, when I was your age…,” and “You should just figure this out.” They have no empathy, no emotional connection. They don’t understand the goal of fatherhood.
Then you get “inconsistent dads.” These are dads who are torn, often, with either personal brokenness or ambition. They’re in or out, but they’re not fully committed to the task of fatherhood.
Do you know who Anthony Bourdain is? The famous chef. He was in New York; he was a big deal there. I watched the documentary about the end of his life, trying to ask the question, “Why did he commit suicide?” One of the things was in there: he had his daughter later in life in a second marriage, and he wanted to be such an ideal dad that he couldn’t sustain it.
He was traveling so much [and] so driven to make his own TV show, he got into this cycle of dysfunction of, “If I can’t be the perfect dad, I’m going to be a disappointment, so I’ll withdraw; but now, I’m withdrawing and traveling. I love this, but I feel guilty.” [It] did a lot of damage, just like a torn heart in parenting. That’s the inconsistent dad.
Then you’ve got “involved dads.” This is like your typical, good American dad. It’s like doing the sex talk, going to the game; just handing out, with good intent, generic Christian wisdom and worldview. If you’ve had a good dad, you know it can change your life and accelerate your call; it’s an extraordinary thing. My dad was an involved dad.
But an “intentional dad” goes one step further, and they ask this: “Who is the kid that God has given me? What is the key to their heart?” And it’s beyond general wisdom and worldview. I’ll give you an example: my whole life, I’ve had the equivalent of a dominant personality; an outgoing leader. But my entire life, I’ve struggled with insecurity, not pride. I’m a reluctant leader. I’m the guy you drag to the mic, not the guy you fight to get it from my hand.
I was super-gifted as a kid, in athletics and academics, so my dad’s advice to me always was like: “Don’t be arrogant! Don’t be arrogant! God is opposed to the proud; don’t be arrogant.” That’s true. But if he’d known my heart, which is a heart of insecurity, he would have always said to me: “Have courage! Never fail to step up. Level up. You’re needed. Your gifts are welcome.” He would have actually said the opposite thing. The general wisdom was true, based on a surface observation, and it was good generic parenting.
Jon: But he didn’t understand the key to my heart, which is like, “I’ve got to inspire confidence in my son, not deal with a pride issue.” The intentional father asks the question: “What is the key to my son’s heart? How do I get it? And then, how do I develop him out of that?”
That’s my vision: to help dads. My guess is like listening to—your audience—if you’re listening to a show about this, you’re probably an involved parent. My goal is to just help push and inspire that to the next level, because I think the joy of being understood, as a young man, by your father is one of the greatest gifts you can have. I want to see that normalized in our world today.
Shelby: I think a ton of fathers want to, practically, know how to raise a son or sons of character, but they simply lack a way to get started and tracks to run on. Well, Jon has certainly helped us with that; and pushed all our us in the right direction today.
I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Jon Tyson on FamilyLife Today. Jon’s written a book called The Intentional Father, and this little, helpful book gives activities, rights of passage, and steps for parenting boys. It’s for dads, grandpas, and even expectant fathers. You can pick up a copy of Jon Tyson’s book, The Intentional Father, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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You know, as a dad, your sons can take your bad habits and wounds that you carry into their lives. That’s why it’s so important to bring in people that you need to fill in the places that you as a father simply can’t. Well, Dave and Ann Wilson, tomorrow, are going to be back again with Jon Tyson to talk about all of that and so much more as we long to raise sons of character and consequence.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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