LON S. NEASE is a PhD student in the Philosophy Department at the University of Cincinnati. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Kentucky, where he studied phenomenology and existentialism. Nease has published on post-Kantian ethical theory.

MICHAEL W. AUSTIN is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. His books include Running and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), Conceptions of Parenthood (2007), Football and Philosophy: Going Deep (2008), and Wise Stewards (2009).


FRITZ ALLHOFF is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Western Michigan University, as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. In addition to editing the Philosophy for Everyone series, Allhoff is the volume editor or co-editor for several titles, including Wine & Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), Whiskey & Philosophy (with Marcus P. Adams, Wiley, 2009), and Food & Philosophy (with Dave Monroe, Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).


Series editor: Fritz Allhoff

Not so much a subject matter, philosophy is a way of thinking. Thinking not just about the Big Questions, but about little ones too. This series invites everyone to ponder things they care about, big or small, significant, serious … or just curious.

Running & Philosophy:
A Marathon for the Mind

Edited by Michael W. Austin

Wine & Philosophy:
A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking

Edited by Fritz Allhoff

Food & Philosophy:
Eat, Think and Be Merry

Edited by Fritz Allhoff and Dave Monroe

Beer & Philosophy:
The Unexamined Beer Isn’t Worth Drinking

Edited by Steven D. Hales

Whiskey & Philosophy:
A Small Batch of Spirited Ideas

Edited by Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams

College Sex – Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophers With Benefits

Edited by Michael Bruce
and Robert M. Stewart

Cycling – Philosophy for Everyone:
A Philosophical Tour de Force

Edited by Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza
and Michael W. Austin

Climbing – Philosophy for Everyone: Because It’s There

Edited by Stephen E. Schmid

Hunting – Philosophy for Everyone:
In Search of the Wild Life

Edited by Nathan Kowalsky

Christmas – Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal

Edited by Scott C. Lowe

Cannabis – Philosophy for Everyone: What Were We Just Talking About?

Edited by Dale Jacquette

Porn – Philosophy for Everyone:
How to Think With Kink

Edited by Dave Monroe

Serial Killers – Philosophy for Everyone: Being and Killing

Edited by S. Waller

Dating – Philosophy for Everyone: Flirting With Big Ideas

Edited by Kristie Miller and Marlene Clark

Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom

Edited by Dan O’Brien

Motherhood – Philosophy for Everyone: The Birth of Wisdom

Edited by Sheila Lintott

Fatherhood – Philosophy for Everyone: The Dao of Daddy

Edited by Lon S. Nease
and Michael W. Austin

Forthcoming books in the series:

Fashion – Philosophy for Everyone

Edited by Jessica Wolfendale
and Jeanette Kennett

Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone

Edited by Scott Parker
and Michael W. Austin

Blues – Philosophy for Everyone

Edited by Abrol Fairweather
and Jesse Steinberg

To my daughter Leona, who has made this experience
so wonderful.


To Sophie, Emma, and Haley, for the patience they show
and the joy they bring.






In my own writing and research on fatherhood, I’ve explored the roles played by fathers in the past and present, the impact of fathers for both good and ill on their children and their children’s mothers, whether good fathers are born or made, and many of the related public policy issues. One thing that I have discovered is that we can learn a lot by identifying and reflecting on our assumptions about fatherhood. By examining the different ideas about fatherhood in the ancient and modern worlds, studying the diaries of fathers, interviewing present-day fathers, and making use of other kinds of empirical research, we learn something that most of us already knew: fathers matter. When we consider fathers and their roles in these ways, we can gain a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a father as well as some significant insights into how to be a good father. The fantastic book in your hands shares these same goals.

You might be wondering what Aristotle or Confucius has to say to contemporary fathers, or whether the ideas of philosophers can be useful to men navigating the life of a dad in the twenty-first century. Do the thoughts of such people have any relevance for the dads of today? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes. The writers in Fatherhood – Philosophy for Everyone offer us their thoughts about the impact of being a father on children and on men, ethical issues related to different parenting styles, what it means to be an authentic father – and wrap up with advice for dads on some of the dilemmas that they face. They address such questions as:

These are just the sorts of issues that contemporary fathers care about, and the answers given in this book by men and women from different cultures, professions, and perspectives will give fathers and fathers-to-be (and the mothers of their children) much food for thought.

As you’ll see, this isn’t dry academic philosophy. This book is practical, insightful, and even fun. Drawing on the insights available from philosophy, psychology, religion, and anthropology, the contributors to this book have provided dads with help and insight from the collective wisdom of the ages that can better enable them to understand, appreciate, and fulfill their roles. Any father who takes the time to think about and then put into practice some of the ideas in the pages that follow will be glad that he did – and so will his children!


First off, we would like to thank each of the contributors for being a part of this book. They are philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists; but also fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, each bringing their own unique perspective to what it means to be a dad and how to be the kind of dad that children need. The wisdom, insight, and practical help found on the pages that follow are a result of their hard and excellent work. We have learned much about fatherhood from each one of them.

We are also grateful to Fritz Allhoff, Jeff Dean, Tiffany Mok, and everyone at Wiley-Blackwell for their advice, enthusiasm, and support. We appreciate the part that each of them played in the creation of this book.

Finally, we would like to thank our families. Their patience and support were invaluable from start to finish. They have made fatherhood one of the greatest privileges we could imagine.

Lon S. Nease
Michael W. Austin



Fathering the Idea


The father who does not teach his son his duties is equally guilty with the son who neglects them.


When one has not had a good father, one must create one.

Friedrich Nietzsche

What does it mean to be a dad? Strangely enough, throughout the world and throughout history, this question has often been neglected. For one of the most important roles that a man can take in life, relatively little has been put to paper. Sure, we’ve all encountered the stereotypes of family protector, breadwinner, and disciplinarian, but that only begins to scratch the surface. And it’s not even clear that those are essential to being a father – especially now.

Over the last half century there have been so many social and economic changes, that it’s not an exaggeration to say the concept of fatherhood is being recreated or even created before our eyes. Families have typically become smaller and more mobile, with little or no support network close by. Women are working as much as men in many societies. Studies are increasingly showing the importance of a father’s presence to the wellbeing of a child.

So not surprisingly, dads are becoming much more involved in their children’s lives, doing tasks their dads never did and their granddads never even dreamt of doing, and wondering, frankly, “What are fathers after all?” As parents, are we simply interchangeable with mothers or do we bring something different to the table (other than burnt toast)? Are there unique aspects of our traditional parenting role that are going to be lost if we don’t take stock of them? Is there baggage from that past role that is counterproductive today? Is there something else we need to be doing as fathers that we haven’t realized yet?

In short, fatherhood is a role in transition. And while social, political, and economic factors will continue to influence how it evolves, the needs of our children also play a very big part. However we conceive of fatherhood, it’s got to be grounded in what’s best for children. They are, after all, what being a dad is all about.

Do we understand what their needs are? Findings from the social sciences and getting to know our children certainly help with this. But some of those needs – ones we take very seriously, such as the need to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life – seem to take us beyond what is and into the world of our values, what should be. What constitutes a meaningful life and how do our childrearing practices affect whether our children can achieve that? How do we figure that out and how do our answers change the way we raise our kids? Where should we look for guidance on all of this?

Certainly, there are many self-help books on fatherhood out there. There were over eighty parenting books with “fatherhood” in the title published in the last five years alone! Scanning through these volumes, however, reveals a variety of different background assumptions about what children will ultimately need in life and what fatherhood should look like. How do we know which of these books is going to help us go down the right path as fathers? Many of them sound convincing and have great stories to tell. And it seems everybody’s got impressive credentials. What’s a man to do?

To figure this out, we need to step back and reflect on life, children, and especially fatherhood to better understand these deeper concepts and values. And when we’re talking about what we should do, a matter of values, ethics, and wisdom, then philosophy becomes an indispensable resource for our inquiry. Throughout its history, from Socrates through Descartes and right up through today, philosophy has offered a wealth of insights, reflections, and practical advice that can help us become the kinds of fathers our children need.

And that’s where Fatherhood – Philosophy for Everyone comes in. This volume represents an attempt to think through the role of fatherhood by looking deeper at the experiences, issues, and dilemmas facing dads today. While most of the chapters are written by professional philosophers, we’ve got psychologists and anthropologists on board as well, all presenting their ideas in an accessible and fun style. What did Plato and Kant have to say that fathers can still make use of today? What are the philosophical issues that affect our everyday parenting decisions? Throughout this book you’ll find insights and advice useful to anyone on or about to embark on the wonderful journey of fatherhood.

What does it mean to be a dad? At the end of our inquiry we may find there aren’t many clear cut answers, but each of us will arrive at our own deepened convictions. And these will help ground and guide all of our decisions in our role as “daddy.”

In the second half of this introduction, we’d like to provide a brief guide as to what you’ll find in the pages of this volume. As you’ve no doubt noticed, the book is divided into four sections, each containing four to five chapters. Each unit has a theme reflecting some aspect of fatherhood, but each chapter is self-contained and not dependent on any other. There’s a benefit to reading the chapters of a unit together, as their related ideas tend to lead the mind to further reflection on that section’s theme. But you can feel free to skip around, reading the chapters in whatever order you like.

To start off the book we are thrilled to have a foreword written by Adrienne Burgess, the Director of Research and founding member of the Fatherhood Institute in England. Her 1997 landmark book Fatherhood Reclaimed: The Making of the Modern Father explored the changing roles of fathers in Britain, Australia, and the United States, and led to the founding of Fathers Direct, an organization devoted to tackling the social, educational, and legal obstacles that keep fathers from being more involved in their children’s lives. Fathers Direct organized the first World Summit on Fatherhood in 2003, which brought over fifty experts from five continents together, and more recently the organization became known as the Fatherhood Institute. We can hardly think of anyone more fitting than Burgess to put this volume’s aspirations into their proper perspective.

After the foreword, our first unit, “The Impact of Being a Father,” gathers together chapters devoted to a man’s transition into fatherhood and the impact this new role has on his life. Scott Davison leads this off with a fine essay showing how our sense of time is altered by fatherhood and how to get it back under control so we don’t miss out on the precious moments we have with our children. Next, Ammon Allred investigates what fatherhood means to a person’s world by looking at the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, the characters of actor Seth Rogan, and the poetry of Paul Celan. Allred finds that fatherhood means more than taking on new tasks. A new father’s world is fragile, depending forever thereafter on the child’s wellbeing. Third, we have a fascinating essay by Kimberley Fink-Jensen highlighting some of her research into the stories fathers share as part of their transition into fatherhood. Through telling these stories, men solidify their own perception of their new role, and the more involved they get during the pregnancy and birth, the more they identify themselves as fathers after the child is born. This segues nicely into Michael Barnwell’s look at what it means to say fatherhood is the meaning of someone’s life. Barnwell finds fatherhood is not only compatible with a meaningful life, but given our need to have an impact in the world, it is perhaps one of the noblest ways of instilling meaning into our lives.

The next unit of the volume, “Ethics and Parenting Styles,” focuses on fathers’ contributions to childrearing, the different ways and the related issues dads face. Is there a value to discipline? How can you raise a child to truly become free? What are our goals in bringing up children? One of the book’s co-editors, Lon Nease, starts us off with a philosophically grounded game plan for raising ethical children, drawing from the works of Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche among others. In addition to the virtues, a child needs to develop empathy and the underlying skills that make it and the virtues possible. Andrew Terjesen then breaks new ground with an exploration of paternalistic caring. While we’re quick to acknowledge caring as a mother’s way of relating to children, Terjesen feels we’ve overlooked the caring that is distinctive to the way a father relates to his children. The next essay by Dan Florell and Steffen Wilson takes us straight to the heart of how to raise children, as they analyze the pros and cons of different styles of parenting and offer lots of valuable advice for fathers. Finally, J. K. Swindler examines the nature of autonomy and how fathers are in a special role to lead their children toward this independence of spirit.

This leads us to our third section, “Keeping It Real: Authentic Fatherhood,” where we focus on what it really means to be a father. What is an authentic dad, a real dad? Is there a certain form or style to the role? Are there images or traditions that we should look toward to better grasp the nature of fatherhood? Dan Collins-Cavanaugh begins this unit by looking closer at what it means to be an authentic dad. Drawing on the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Charles Taylor, Collins-Cavanaugh argues that the key to being an authentic father is to make choices that are knowingly your own, but also to make ones that are in line with the needs of your children. The next two essays take us to other continents to explore alternative views of authentic fatherhood that might help us critique our own culturally contingent ideas. Andrew Komasinski shows us that fatherhood is central to the philosophy of Confucius, and that if fathers stay true to their role and teach by example, they can bring out the best in their children and people around them. Then Abiodun Oladele Balogun explains the fascinating and unique aspects of authentic fatherhood in the traditional Yoruba culture in Nigeria. We find their model is a collective one, spreading the paternal responsibilities to all male members of the family as the need arises. Additionally, Balogun emphasizes the role of storytelling and proverbs in the moral education of their children. The last essay in this unit is by Stephen Joseph Mattern in which he examines the nature of mercy and maintains that a real father is one that engages a child in a relation of compassionate caring, responding to their needs and feelings.

In our last unit, “Dilemmas for Dad,” we offer a showcase of compelling essays addressing various ethical and practical issues that fathers can face. Leading this off, Joshua Baron considers how much of the popular media fathers should let their kids engage in given how it might impact them. Baron advises dads to focus on experiencing movies, television, video games, and the like with their children, relying on their own good sense as fathers rather than merely trusting the various ratings systems currently in place. David Owen then offers excellent advice to fathers who want to help their children become people who are concerned about social justice. Owen’s chapter is very practical, and his encouragement to dads is to become the kind of people who cultivate within themselves and their families the knowledge and character needed to break the cycle of oppressive injustice that is so prevalent in our world. In the next two essays, we return to the theme of autonomy. Anthony Carreras addresses the tension that many fathers are keenly aware of as they seek to impart their values to their children while also respecting the child’s present and future autonomy. Jeffrey Morgan also discusses the ideals of fathers as they relate to the lives of their children, and claims that paternalism, rightly understood, is a good thing. Morgan argues that fathers should guide their children and help them achieve goals that are best suited to their individual character and disposition. The book’s final chapter, by co-editor Michael Austin, explores some of the unique challenges faced by dads and their daughters. His chapter includes a discussion of moral development and self-knowledge as it relates to the father-daughter relationship, with a focus on the virtues of humility, courage, and wisdom.

As we all know, we live in an information rich age. We have access to a lot of facts, but rarely do we take the time to think about the significance of those facts in a deeper way. There is an all too prevalent poverty of wisdom, especially with respect to fatherhood. Our aim in the pages that follow is to provide you with something more than mere information. Each of the contributors to this book has something important to say to dads who want to think in deeper ways about fatherhood. Our hope is that as you consider the ideas they offer, you will find some wisdom that is helpful to you and the children you love.








I am lying in bed with my daughter Grace, who is three years old. She has just fallen asleep on my arm after our usual ritual of stories and songs. It is 1:00 in the afternoon, and I am thinking about how to spend the next hour or so. Grace is the youngest of my children, and she will be the last one. Her older brothers Ben and Drew also took naps with me when they were this age. (I can hear the parenting experts complaining to me about the dangers of sleeping with young children – don’t worry, my children sleep alone at night, in their own beds!)

Ben and Drew are in school for most of the day. Before long, Grace will join them. I have been lucky enough to care for all of my children for some part of the day ever since they were born. But soon they will all have busy schedules during the day (thanks to school), and my flexible work schedule won’t make much of a difference. We will go our separate ways early in the morning and come back together again late in the afternoon.

As I lie in bed with Grace, I think about what to do for the next hour or so. I could answer email, work on some papers whose deadlines are approaching, or make progress (quietly!) on one of the many home improvement projects underway in every single room in our house (a fact that my wife recently pointed out to me; thanks for that, Becky). But I could also stay here and take a nap with Grace, or just enjoy the experience of watching her sleep.

The reasons that pull me out of bed are all about Father Time: I’m worried about completing projects on time, anxious about being efficient, and hoping to be productive so that I can relax this evening. If I had indefinitely many hours in each day, I would not be faced with such choices, because I could do everything at some point. Father Time imposes limits that force me to make choices, hard choices that reflect, and partly determine, my values. In this essay, I discuss what fatherhood is teaching me about the nature of time.

The Present Moment

People often say that there is no use crying over spilled milk. But sometimes there is a point; maybe crying over spilled milk today will help me to avoid spilling more milk tomorrow. It is important to consider the past carefully in order to learn from it. Sometimes we also need to consider the future carefully. Planning for the future is an important part of life and something that all parents try to teach their children (with mixed results, of course).

But dwelling on the future can become overwhelming. We can be paralyzed by worry or we can get lost in fantasy. With regard to the past, we can become so stuck on pleasant memories (“glory days”) or so paralyzed by regrets that we become insensitive to what is happening in the present moment. If we dwell on some past or future event over and over again like a tape loop, we can create a mental habit with momentum, a habit that takes away from our present attention even when this is unwelcome. So we must be careful that our attention in the present moment is not completely taken up by our attention to the past or the future. After all, only the present moment is real; past moments of time no longer exist, and future ones do not exist yet.

Or at least this is what St. Augustine thought. He argued famously that only the present moment is real. Past times, he said, no longer exist, and future times do not exist yet. The only real moment, then, is the present one. We experience past times in memory and future times in anticipation, but only the present moment can be experienced directly. This is because only the present moment is real.

The contemporary Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast seems to agree. In our peak experiences, in which we feel most alive and present, we experience a distorted sense of time:

Our sense of time is altered in those moments of deep and intense experience, so we know what now means. We feel at home in that now, in that eternity, because that is the only place where we really are. We cannot be in the future and we cannot be in the past; we can only be in the present. We are only real to the extent to which we are living in the present here and now.

Even if St. Augustine and Steindl-Rast are wrong about the unreality of past and future times, they are right to point out that we experience the present moment very differently than we experience past times (through memory) and future times (through anticipation). The present moment is available to us in a direct and vivid fashion. But sometimes we are so preoccupied with past or future times that we fail to notice what is happening in the present.

Have you ever experienced this? Have you ever discovered, after the fact, that you did not fully experience something wonderful because you were either too preoccupied with the past or too focused on the future? I confess that I have missed many wonderful meals, movies, conversations, and milestones in the lives of my children in just this way. For some reason, I have a mental habit of responding almost instantly to the demands of the past or future regardless of what is going on in the present. Maybe my preoccupation with past and future times gives me a sense of control that is lacking in the present, since I can conjure up memories or anticipations at will. I’m not sure. But I am determined to develop more control over the objects of my attention, so as to not let my life pass me by in this way.

Simpler animals apparently do not have this problem, because they do not have the ability to fixate on past or future times in the same way. Snowball, my children’s pet rabbit, never seems to be lost in thought when a piece of celery comes within range. And my children themselves have a share of the rabbit’s focus on the present: it is hard to persuade them to wait until later to have a snack, for instance. Perhaps there is something valuable in this ability to ignore the past and the future. Maybe I have something to learn from my children in this regard, like the ability to see things freshly and with wonder.

Sterner on Returning to the Present

In a highly practical and provocative book, Thomas M. Sterner argues that it is possible to return to a childlike focus on the present. As I understand his presentation, there are two main strands to his argument. One of them starts with the observation that we all experience total immersion in the present from time to time. Drawing upon a concept from Zen Buddhism, Sterner describes this state as “beginner’s mind.” When we do things for fun, for instance, we focus almost exclusively on what is happening in the present moment. If you want to see a case of complete and total immersion in the present, just watch a child play a video game. Sterner also claims that the distinction between work and play is an arbitrary one. What we call “work” and what we call “play” depend on cultural conventions, personal choices, and habits of language. He concludes that as long as we remain immersed in the present moment, we can enjoy doing almost anything, even those things that we typically consider unpleasant work.

The second strand in Sterner’s presentation complements and illuminates the first one. It involves the distinction between focusing on the process as opposed to focusing on the end product. Sterner notes that if we focus on the end product, then our minds are on the future, whereas if we focus on the process currently underway, then our minds are in the present. If we shift our goal away from arriving at the end product as quickly as possible and instead make our goal immersion in the present process, we can be content in the present moment without worrying about the future or regretting the past. (My children demonstrate this pattern by focusing on the process of eating the ice cream cone, not the end goal of finishing it.) It’s not that we should forget the end goal altogether. In fact, Sterner claims that we should use it as a kind of rudder to steer our activity in the right direction. But our focus should be in the present, on the process in which we are engaged.

Sterner describes several examples of this process oriented focus that are helpful to consider. The first involves Japanese piano makers, who focus completely on the process of making the parts of a piano without regard to considerations of time or efficiency. A worker in such a factory might spend all day working on one part and not find this frustrating, because the goal is to engage in the process of finishing a part, not to produce as many parts as possible. This approach results in the manufacture of very high quality pianos, not to mention highly contented workers who require almost no supervision.

A second example involves Sterner’s own experience as a veteran piano tuner for concert pianists. One day he was expected to tune three concert pianos in a single day. Frustrated by the prospect of a very long and tedious day ahead, he deliberately slowed everything down, focusing on each task one at a time, expecting the day to drag ahead indefinitely. Much to his surprise, as he focused on the present moment and ignored the end product, he found himself really enjoying his work. He continued doing this all day long, simplifying each task and working as slowly as possible, only to find that he had completed tuning all three pianos hours ahead of schedule. He has been able to repeat this result regularly, noticing the difference in cases in which he is expected to do the very same tasks over and over again, such as tuning the same concert pianos.

This kind of focus and simplicity is alien to contemporary Western culture, which celebrates the person who accomplishes more than one task at one time. The allure of multitasking is almost irresistible for me when I am home alone with my children. I have changed many diapers, prepared many meals, and solved many problems over the years while also working on other projects at the same time. My children are still young, yet I regret already not focusing during the times I am doing activities with them. I even wish that I could revisit them at younger ages, to appreciate them for what they were at the time, instead of impatiently hurrying them along to the next developmental stage for the sake of my convenience.

Perhaps because it is so highly valued in our culture, multitasking also has an addictive quality. We experience some kind of thrill in connection with doing many things at once, and this makes us feel empty when we have only one thing to do. Technology encourages us here by providing machines everywhere that we can use to do work or to communicate with others. Unfortunately, this means that we are often literally unable to focus on just one thing, because we cannot be content with it. We cannot do any single thing all by itself without feeling restless, inefficient, and unproductive.

Once again, we can learn something from children, who find it unnatural to try to do more than one thing at once. In the same way that my children have time limits for playing computer games and watching television, often I need to separate myself from information technology in order to focus on the present moment. I need to put away the cell phone, step away from the computer, turn off the television, and stop the music in the background.

Of course, our educational experiences, work expectations, and the messages we receive from the media also play roles in developing a focus on end products instead of processes. In the media, for instance, we are often bombarded with images designed to highlight the difficulties of parenting successfully, together with a solution that is cheap and readily available in the form of some product or service for sale. How many times have you seen children making a mess of something on television, only to see their mother swoop in with the latest cleaning product to save the day? These images play on our product oriented focus, which takes perfect parenthood as an end product that we think we should have already attained.

My response to these images is that becoming a good parent is itself a process, just like the process of a child’s growth to maturity. And if we focus on this process instead of the final product, we can let go of the disappointment of having failed to achieve perfection already. As Sterner points out, our own ideas of perfection are constantly evolving over time. Perfection is always moving away from us. Perhaps we should revise our idea of perfection so that it is relative to a particular time or stage of development. In this sense, a flower is just fine at every stage in its development and not just the final stages. As parents, we can admit that there will always be more progress to be made at any point in the future, no matter how far away. We will never arrive at a state that cannot be improved upon. This should diminish the impact of the media images in question.

Sterner also claims that when we experience impatience, frustration, or worry, this is a sign that we are focused on an unrealized product instead of a present process. My worst moments as a parent fit this pattern perfectly. They have all occurred at bedtime, when my obsession with the final product of sleeping children (in their own beds!) has led me to be harsh and unreasonable. If only I could have appreciated what they were experiencing at that moment instead of focusing on the unrealized goal, I could have avoided saying and doing things that I will always regret. Perhaps this would have meant some very late bedtimes on some occasions, but it would have prevented some truly regrettable moments and probably would have resulted in earlier bedtimes on other occasions (in the same way that Sterner’s deliberately slowed-down experience as a piano tuner did). I will try to follow the advice of Sterner and St. Augustine by appreciating the difference between the past, the present, and the future. Another source of help lies in different views of the nature of time itself, to which I shall now turn.

Clock Time and Experienced Time

What is time? St. Augustine said famously that he knew exactly what time was until someone asked him to explain it. In the modern Western world, we typically view time in terms of what Steindl-Rast calls “clock time.” According to this view, time is a limited commodity that is always running out, like a spilling juice box that cannot be refilled. Time is linear, extending from the past through the present and into the future. The passage of time is uniform and can be measured objectively by clocks.

The Western idea of clock time, a limited commodity that is always running out, leads to the idea of the efficient use of time, the idea of “wasting” time, and to much anxiety and regret about how we spend our time. These ideas make it difficult to recognize the importance of living in the present moment. They also make it more difficult to emphasize quality time rather than a quantity of time. Let me explain these ideas by contrasting clock time with an older view of time that I shall call “experienced time.”

In the ancient world, the concept of an hour was very different than it is today. An hour of a day was defined in terms of the activities and opportunities that were appropriate then. In this sense, an hour of a day was not a specific length of time as measured by a clock at all, but rather a vague portion of a day defined in terms of how it is usually experienced. As Steindl-Rast notes, in the same way that the experienced seasons of the year do not always correspond to their officially defined dates (“Is it summer already?”), the hours of the day, in this ancient sense, depended on the actual flow of life, including the rising and setting of the sun, but not on the number of minutes that passed.

Given this ancient sense of the concept of an hour, we can imagine a different sense of time itself. Instead of being a long line that is always getting shorter, like the last piece of licorice disappearing slowly into my son Ben’s mouth, time can be viewed as a cycle of similar activities and opportunities, a cycle that is relatively independent of clock time. Let’s call this “experienced time.” Unlike clock time, which proceeds at the same rate objectively all the time no matter what is happening, experienced time seems to move quickly or slowly depending on what we are doing. Waiting for my children to finish using the bathroom seems to take forever, for example, but laughing at my son Drew’s funny faces makes time fly, even on a long road trip. If my wife Becky has been at the office from nine until five (a rare occurrence, thankfully, for both of us), then the day seems like it lasted longer than eight hours of clock time. However, sleeping later that night seems to take no time at all.

So clock time involves the objective, mechanical measure of time independently of what is experienced, whereas experienced time concerns the ebb and flow of life independently of what the clock says. Which kind of time is more important to us? As a father it is my job to attend to the basic needs of my children, including food, shelter, clothing, security, attention, play, and hygiene. Because my children are still young, these basic needs divide the day into segments organized around certain activities. For example, there is breakfast time, play time, snack time, quiet time, nap time, dinner time, and (finally!) bedtime. Although some parents schedule these activities rigidly around specific clock times, we all know that there is a rhythm to them that varies from day to day. Sometimes nap time comes earlier rather than later. Sometimes snack time cannot be postponed any longer. Sometimes it is not clear when bedtime will actually arrive. As Steindl-Rast notes, in a monastery, monks must be ready to drop their tools and move on to the next task when the bell rings to signal a new hour of the day. In the same way, parents must be responsive to what is happening in the present. We must be able to drop what we are doing in order to attend to the needs of our children. (Of course, in my house, instead of a bell ringing, we have different grades of shrieking and screaming, which only the experienced parent can distinguish with accuracy.) So experienced time seems to be more important to me, as a father, than clock time.

Of course, clock time is an important tool. It is necessary for coordinating one’s activities with others, for instance. But even if we are not parents, we all seem to care more about experienced time. In order to see this, suppose that you have contracted some rare disease, and you are told that drug therapy is needed for you to survive. Imagine that there are two very different drugs that would cure you, each of which will distort your sense of experienced time in a different way, and each of which will be very painful to administer. Here is the difference between them: drug one will cause you one solid hour of clock time of painful discomfort, but it will distort your sense of experienced time so that this hour of clock time will appear to take only five minutes to pass. By contrast, drug two will cause you only five minutes of clock time of painful discomfort, but it will distort your sense of experienced time so that these five minutes of clock time will appear to take an entire hour to pass. Which drug would you choose to take? Assuming that all other things are equal, of course we would all choose drug one. This shows that experienced time is more important to us than clock time.

To put things differently, it’s the quality of our time that counts, not so much the quantity. Who would choose to live for a hundred years of boredom? Wouldn’t you rather live a full and complete life that occupied only a short amount of clock time? Fatherhood is teaching me that the most satisfying way to spend my time is to live in the present, not to think too much about the past or future, to focus on the process and not the end product, and not to worry too much about clock time.

So as I watch my children play soccer, or wait with them in the lobby at the dentist’s office, or help them do homework, I have to remind myself that this is part of the only time we have together. Sometimes it seems to creep along imperceptibly, but sometimes it flies. Technology is making it more difficult to draw the line between being at home and being at work, and making it fashionable to work just about everywhere and all the time. Years from now, when I look back on these times, I want to remember being present with my children, not frantically trying to do other things while they happen to be in the same room. Let’s hope I can make progress before they are completely grown and out of the house!


My discussion of St. Augustine in what follows comes from his Confessions, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin, 2003), book XI, chapters XIV and XXVIII.

David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Libell, The Music of Silence (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), p. 12, italics in the original.

Thomas M. Sterner, The Practicing Mind (Wilmington: Mountain Sage Publishing, 2005), pp. 37–42. My description below of Sterner’s views is based on this work.

It must be admitted though, that our society’s standards for being a good mother are considerably higher than those for being a good father. For a humorous but highly insightful discussion of this, see Ayelet Waldman, Bad Mother (New York: Doubleday, 2009).

St. Augustine, Confessions, book XI, chapter XIV.

I wish to thank Layne Neeper, Glen Colburn, Tim Simpson, Chris Stewart, and my wife Becky Davison not only for helpful comments and questions concerning earlier drafts of this essay, but also for helping me to learn these things in my day-to-day life.