Published: October 22, 2013
When Gary Skinner's father died in 2005, Skinner was asked by his family to deliver the eulogy.
Skinner had spent the previous weeks at his father's bedside in hospice, thinking about the time he'd shared with the man who raised him, an Indiana native Skinner was unabashedly "crazy about." Yet, when he sat down to explain in writing exactly why he loved his dad, the traditional anecdotes did not present themselves.
"We never went golfing or fishing or camping, or any of those things we're told kids like to do with their dads," Skinner said. "But here I was with this man who I thought was the greatest of all time. So what was it?"
Finally, it hit him. "I realized he was always really glad to see me."
Years later, after working in prison ministry with countless incarcerated fathers, Skinner returned to that old realization with a new perspective and a question: What if the key to being a good dad is just that simple?
"It doesn't solve everything or cover all the responsibilities, but that connection can make the difference between a son who has fond memories of his father and a son who doesn't," said Skinner, the pastor of Shiloh Chapel in Colorado Springs.
His faith-based parenting book, "Hoosier Dad: A Simple Guide to Better Fathering," is intended as a self-help guide for men who want to improve their relationships with their own fathers, as well as their sons.
"It's not a 35-step process to find out how to be a decent dad," said Skinner, the father of two adult children who are his "best friends." "I don't think it's complicated, and that's what I try to take out of it."
A man's fear of failing at fatherhood might be the first and greatest barrier to success in the role, Skinner found, which then led him to a greater thesis: If God intended for fathering to be difficult, he wouldn't have turned the responsibility over to so many without detailed instructions.
"One of the first things I talk about in the book has to do with understanding that nobody's perfect and you need to basically lower your expectations," Skinner said. "Maybe your dad wasn't very good at being a dad, from your perspective, but maybe he did the best he could with what he had."
As founder of Lessons for Life Ministries, Skinner works with men preparing to leave prison who want to reconnect and establish a more meaningful relationship with family on the outside. The patterns Skinner saw among inmates were depressingly consistent.
"A very high percentage of these men have a horrible relationship with their own dad. Many of them are also dads themselves and they have a pretty horrible relationship with their kids," he said. "These are guys who've told me, 'I've made a mess of my life. I'm tired of living life my way. I want to follow God now. Where do I begin?'"
Skinner encourages them to practice forgiveness and not to give up, even if they think they've been a horrible parent. Their kids still need them.
"I talk about ownership. So many of the dads become unengaged with their kids because they think, 'Oh, that's Mom's job,'" Skinner said.
"As soon as somebody takes ownership of something - whether it's a car, a house, a boat or a child - all the dynamics change about how they approach it or deal with it. Then they say, 'Hey, this is my kid. I need to be there for him. I need to listen.'"