If you’re a dad, you probably want to raise kids who are responsible and resilient. But how do you do that?
Well, as we learned in my podcast with Jocko Willink, the Navy SEALs have perfected the art of training responsible and resilient special operators, and can teach business leaders a thing or two about thriving in uncertainty. Perhaps there’s something us dads can learn from them as well.
My guest today is retired Navy SEAL Eric Davis and he’s the author of Raising Men: Lessons Navy SEALs Learned from Their Training and Taught to Their Sons. We discuss his time boarding enemy ships as a SEAL, why fatherhood today is like asymmetric warfare, and how to lead from the front as a father. If you’re a dad or a dad to be, you’re going to get a lot out of this show. Even if you’re not a dad, the principles we discuss today can help you become a better man.
- Eric’s time as a SEAL doing ship boarding, or as he calls it, “legal pirating”
- How Eric shifted from SEAL sniper training to business consulting
- Why Eric think masculinity has been hijacked by popular culture
- How “chasing the bullseye” in fatherhood will result in failure as a dad
- The fundamentals dads should focus on
- How raising boys is different from raising girls
- How fathering follows the three phases of SEAL Training
- How “respecting your kids’ respect” makes you a better family leader
- How to teach your kids personal responsibility
- Why fathering is like asymmetric warfare
- Why dads should develop “immediate action drills” for their family
- What Navy SEAL dog training can teach you about parenting
- Eric’s nuanced approach to “participation trophies”
- Creating intentional discomfort for your kids to help them grow
- Why it’s better to keep up than catch up
- Why “leading from the front” is the most important thing you can do as a dad
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Ship boarding
- Uncommon Tony Dungy
- How Spartans raised their kids
- Asymmetric warfare
- Three phases of SEAL training
- My podcast with Jocko Willink
- How to parent like a video game
- Belgian Malinois– the dog of SEAL teams
- Positive and negative punishment
If you’re a dad or a dad to be, check out Raising Men by Eric Davis. Lots of great actionable advice on how to raise kids who are tough, resilient, and responsible. Plus, his SEAL stories are awesome and fun to read.
Connect with Eric
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Father’s Day is this week, so I thought I’d do a special Father’s Day edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. To do that, my guest today just published a book with advice on being a dad. He happens to be a retired Navy SEAL. His name is Eric Davis. His book is called Raising Men: Lessons Navy SEALS Learned from Their Training and Taught to Their Sons.
Today on the podcast we discuss advice on being a dad, particularly for boys, that Eric learned from his time as a SEAL. We’re going to discuss how to teach your kids personal responsibility, how to make your kids intentionally uncomfortable in order for them to grow. We discuss leading from the front, providing the vision for your kids and respecting your kids’ respect. A lot of great advice if you’re a dad out there or a dad-to-be, or even if you’re not a dad, the advice that we talk about on the podcast today is just all about how to be a better man in general.
Without further ado, Eric Davis and Raising Men. All right. Eric Davis, welcome to the show.
Eric: Yeah. Thanks for having me on.
Brett: You’re a retired Navy SEAL, now author of a how-to-parent book. Before we get to that, let’s talk about your career as a SEAL and what you did as a SEAL and what you do now that you’re no longer doing SEAL stuff and how your career as a SEAL influenced your current line of work.
Eric: Yeah. I spent 16 years in the Navy. Ten of those years were spent as a SEAL. I first went to SEAL Team 3. That was my first assignment. That was a Middle East platoon. Spent a few years there. Did some deployments. Did a lot of ship-boarding, what I would call legal pirating. Probably took over 20 ships or maybe even 25 in my career span there. Went on from that, became a sniper instructor. Spent actually 5 years. I spent half my time as a SEAL as a sniper instructor. What happened there is a unique time in my life where I just decided I wanted t dive into something and see how good at something I could get.
What I was doing was coaching and training, and the course had a really tough attrition rate. A lot of guys were failing out of the course. I kind of got myself in a spot where I was real effective at helping turn that around, so they kept me there for quite a while. That’s when my training and human performance background really got developed. Then I did some intelligence work before I got out, and then about 2008, I left and went into the executive world where bulk of that time, like 98% of that time I spent training either sales teams or performance through process-type things in organizations. A couple of years ago, I broke out and started writing online blogs, started a leadership and training company. Then the book came about. That’s kind of the short history of Eric’s transition there.
Brett: I like that. Let’s go back to the ship-boarding thing, because you write about this in your book Raising Men: Lessons Navy SEALS Learned from Their Training and Taught Their Sons. This was interesting, because I didn’t know this happened. You call it legal pirating. Can you describe what a ship-boarding mission would look like, because I think it’s fascinating.
Eric: Yeah. Yeah, I did too. I really loved it. There’s basically 2 ways we’d get on a ship. My favorite way is these oil tankers or whatever the vessel is, they’d be cruising at night. Usually their lights are off because they’re smuggling. The Navy has these kind of really fast boats called RHIBs, rigid-hull inflatable boat, and we zip up behind them, and they can’t hear or see us because we’re all blacked out. Literally use a grappling hook to throw a caving ladder up on it. Then, I was the lead climber, so I’d go up first. We’d sneak on the ship and basically take it down and render it dead in the water. Then we’d have the big Navy come over and we’d just hand it over to them.
The other way we would take it is a helicopter would swoop in. We’d throw a rope out, and we’d slide down. They can see us coming right when it happens, but we’ll subdue them so quickly. My favorite part is I would do sniper operations, so sometimes I’d be the helicopter covering the team. I’d get to see the flir footage, which is like infrared plus night vision plus thermal, whatever the technology they’re using on the helicopter. You’re watching this boarding happen and basically you see these dark figures attach themselves to the boat. These are my SEAL platoon, my buddies in the platoon, and you see them just overcome the ship. I would describe it looks like a cancer taking over the ship. This vessel is cruising through the water, you see these black objects get on it and then go inside of it. Then they’d disappear, and then all of a sudden the ship stops moving. I loved to watch it. Then we’d just take them.
Brett: That’s awesome. It’s like Tom Clancy stuff right there.
Eric: Yeah, it’s fun. It was fun stuff. At the time, I was like, “Ah, I want to be doing even more,” but then as I look back, I’m like, “Man, that was a really cool time.” I just loved the idea that we got to pirate ships. What a fun thing to do.
Brett: All right. You’ve taken the skills you developed on leadership development, human performance that you picked up and acquired while you were a SEAL and now you’re an executive coach and do consulting for civilian businesses. Then you wrote this book. It’s called Raising Men: Lessons Navy SEALS Learned from Their Training and Taught Their Sons. Why did you think there was a need to write a fathering book, specifically on fathering sons?
Eric: Yeah. I was just reading Tony, I think it’s pronounced Dungy’s book, “Dun-jee,” Dungy. He’s from the NFL. It’s called Uncommon. I apologize to him if I messed his last name up. There’s a quote in there that really answers this question. He was telling some of the older players this. He said, “Continue being who you are because our young people need to hear from you. If anything, be bolder in who you are because our boys are getting a lot of wrong messages today about what it means to be a man in this world, about how they should talk, act, and dress.”
I just read that part from the book a couple of days ago, and I think it really sums this up. Masculinity, I believe, has gotten hijacked. The world’s changed. Guys can’t just go to work, come home, play catch with the kids anymore. It’s a lot more complex and it’s got a lot of guys really busy. It pulled us out of the role for a little while, and it left a huge gap. From what I can see, popular culture has filled that gap in and started to redefine masculinity.
I think women are on the rise. Again, they need support and help, too, but what we don’t want to let happen is … Where men really did hold the role and it really helped society, we don’t want to lose that. That’s why I wanted to … Two reasons, one, the publisher wanted to start there, so I was like, “Okay, first book, I’ll do it.” Then as I thought about it, I’m like, “You know, this is a really good place to start because we’re, I don’t want to say under attack, but we’re definitely losing a functional definition of masculinity.”
Brett: How do you think pop culture has changed the definition of masculinity?
Eric: If you look at the definition of masculinity, it literally means that somebody is holding the traits that the culture would think are manly. In a way, masculinity is the product of pop culture from the get-go, but what I’m seeing it do is it’s kind of grandiose. It’s a lot of marketing. I would think of masculinity or being a man as understanding all of the responsibilities, all of the complexities that go into life, assessing them, prioritizing them, and taking action on them so that we can lead our sons and daughters and other people to do the same.
Right now, popular culture or people think of masculinity as getting in fights, being aggressive, those kind of things, losing our temper. These are things that aren’t manly; they’re actually things that happen when we fail at manhood. I think there’s too much violence. I think there’s too much physicality to masculinity, and I understand why because back in the day, we had to hunt and fight. That’s how we survived, and that was a man’s role. Today’s a little bit more of a Renaissance time. We need to study, we need to invent, we need to make money. It’s a different world now.
Brett: I think it’s interesting. This is coming from a guy … You taught, trained people how to be snipers, how to do those sort of traditional traits of masculinity. Right? Kill bad guys, jump on pirate ships.
Eric: Yeah. At the end of the day, there’s evil out there, and sometimes violence is the last and final option. Violence is really just a product of ignorance. It’s when we ran out of better ideas is when we had to respond or offend in violence. It is different. I like that SEAL platform, that voice. I like that for this reason, so that I can show up at a school or talk to kids or write a book and tell them that violence is definitely not the answer. It’s actually the end state of failure. SEALS, what they do, most of it’s not violent. We’re experts in surveillance, technical and physical surveillance. We study all the time. There’s all kinds of things we do to avoid the conflict, and we’re trained to do that. Just that’s not as exciting, so we don’t have so many books or movies about that.
Brett: Right. You have this phrase in your book called “chasing the bull.” You say that many dads are chasing the bull when it comes to raising their kids. What do you mean by chasing the bull and how are dads chasing the bull when it comes to raising their sons?
Eric: Yeah. Chasing the bull, in sniper terms it means chasing the bull’s-eye. What guys would do is … They have scopes on their gun. There’s some complexity to a weapon system for long-distance shooting. They would shoot and then their bullets, they wouldn’t hit the bull’s-eye. Then they would take their scope off, put their scope back on. They would readjust the knobs on their scope and then they’d shoot, hit the bull’s-eye for a little bit, but then some of the variations that naturally occur inside of the weapon system would show back up and then they’d come off the bull’s-eye for a shot or two. Then they’d do it all over again. They’d break down the scope, they’d readjust their knobs, and then they’d hit the target once or twice and then it would come off the bull’s-eye again. They never settle into a fundamental principle of shooting.
With fathers, it’s the same thing. We’ll see it, like, “Okay, I need to spend more time with my kids,” like, “Oh, no, no, I need to make sure that I’m working out and I’m healthy,” like, “Oh, nope, I need to start focusing on making money.” They’ll jump around from one concern to the other, and they’re basically chasing the bull’s-eye. Spending time with kids is not the point. We need to focus on desired end state.
We want to produce happy, healthy, successful kids. Now that might mean that we need to spend a certain amount of time with them, but spending the time isn’t the end state. When fathers or parents or anybody’s not focused on the end state, they end up chasing all these different tips and techniques, but what they need to do is focus on the fundamentals and have those things cared for in a harmonious way so that they can lead their sons, daughters, and others to do the same.
Brett: What are the fundamentals dads should be focusing on, that they shouldn’t be so concerned about chasing the bull’s-eye?
Eric: Inside the book, I basically pulled out the fundamentals that we used in SEAL training, the principles that we talk about a lot. Those are the different chapters. Perhaps even deeper than that, I take a very holistic approach to life. I literally keep a mind map of all of the human concerns in life that I’ve been taught, money, body, spirituality, helping others, family, things like that. Those are the things, those are the core elements to life, in my opinion, and there’s some science to back that up, that it’s all about noticing and observing those things so that we can care for them and keeping those things in harmony. Spending time with kids and things like that, yes, that’s important, but what’s more important is that we’re caring for those things so that we can lead by example.
Brett: Got you. Your book Raising Men is geared towards fathering sons, but on your blog you wrote that we can no longer raise our daughters for different purposes than our sons. I’m curious. You have both boys and girls. Are there differences in the way you raise your daughters and your sons, or do you raise them in the same way?
Eric: Especially now. I have 4 kids; they’re 3 girls, 1 boy. My oldest is my first daughter; she’s 23. Of course, my parenting styles changed over the last 20 years, but what I’ve come to is, yes, I raise the girls for the exact … I think the best way to say it is I raise them for the exact same purposes as I do my son, meaning that they have to compete on the same field now. They have to go out and make money just like men do. They have to compete in careers. It’s the same game, right? We don’t have boys’ and girls’ teams in real life. That only happens in sports, and that’s not even probably going to last too much longer.
Girls are no different to train than boys. Fundamentally speaking, you have to meet anybody, whether it’s a dog or a kid or a person or a teammate, you have to meet them where they are and move them to their next truth, their next capability, their next capacity. Where people think girls and boys are different, they are no different. Now a girl, meeting her where she’s at and moving her to her next truth, there could be different tactics and different strategies, but fundamentally, we’re doing the same thing, and they absolutely have to compete. That’s why my girls are in jiu-jitsu and I have them fighting Spartan boys all the time. I don’t want them to be confused that way.
Brett: Okay. That sounds very Spartan. Spartans raise their boys and girls pretty much the same way. Girls are doing the wrestling naked as well.
Eric: Yeah. The thing about a warrior culture is that it’s almost always going to be functional. It’s going to be focused on being effective, not being popular. They’ll almost always be contrarian that way.
Brett: Yeah. As you said, you take in the book, you take principles from your SEAL training, your SEAL career and apply it to fatherhood. You talk about asymmetrical warfare. You say that parenting today is much like asymmetrical warfare. For our listeners who aren’t familiar with asymmetrical warfare and what that means, can you describe it and maybe explain why you think parenting today is akin to it?
Eric: Yeah. It’s another way of describing the difference between conventional and unconventional warfare. I think the best example is back in the day, the Redcoats fighting and standing face-to-face and say, “Okay, you’re ready to lift your gun up and shoot, then we’re going to lift our gun up and shoot.” That’s very conventional. Unconventional warfare would be the guys in ghillie suits sneaking around, sabotage, using intelligence, different things like that.
The reason why I relate it to parenting is I want to kind of help people wake up to the idea that … It’s very popular to live a simplistic life, and there is wisdom in that. We want to simplify things, but we have to recognize that we live in the most complex, dynamic, and competitive environment that this planet has ever seen. Because of technology and its pervasiveness, it’s all over. We have competitors coming from left and right. The world is changing at a very rapid pace.
What I’m saying there is it’s not just … You don’t just go to college and go to work in the factory for 30 years, come home, drink a beer, and go to bed. We need to be much more engaged in different ways with our kids. We need to be more like polymaths, like Renaissance men. We have to understand different domains of concern. We have to understand technology. There’s no room for that anymore. We just need to take a much more … being experts in different domains now. It’s not so simple.
Brett: Right. You could even argue the influences that kids are experiencing today, it’s asymmetrical. Right? It’s like they’re getting blasted from all sorts of different sources on social media, through their peers, through celebrities, via Instagram, all this stuff. Your job as a parent is trying to help your kid and guide your kid amongst these competing voices, so you have to use some asymmetrical tactics to handle that.
Eric: Absolutely. The marketing and the access that marketing has to their little pumpkins is incredible. Even if your kids don’t have a cell phone or a smart phone, their friends do, so it’s hitting them from all angles. One of my favorite things to teach is a little bit more advanced, but I like to explain to people that freedom is not to do what you want. Freedom isn’t doing what you want or feel like. That’s only true if you have control over what you want and feel like doing, but because, like you said, marketing and the world, it is so asymmetrical, they are controlling our behavior. I don’t mean this like conspiracy theory. I mean effective marketing that produces an environment that has us behave in a certain way. They are doing that way more than we realize it, and if people doubt that, they can just look at their bank account and how much they’re saving. They’re losing that war, right? The marketplace is winning.
Brett: Right. Some of this is fun. You liken there’s different phases of fatherhood to different phases of SEAL training. Can you explain that analogy a bit?
Eric: Yeah, absolutely. SEAL training has 3 phases. First phase, physical conditioning; second phase, dive phase; third phase is what they’d call land warfare, demolition. This is how it was explained to me when I was in training. They said, okay, in first phase really you go and hurt yourself. You’re kept kind of separate. It’s like a man-on-man defense when we’re parenting. Pretty much you’re trying to make sure the kid doesn’t just hurt themselves, walk themselves off of a ledge or toss themselves into a gorilla pit in the zoo. It happens nowadays, too, sometimes. You’re making sure that they don’t get hurt as they develop their ability to walk, crawl, run. They’re getting physically strong. Sure, there’s psychology and there’s things we can teach them there, but that’s more or less what’s going on.
Second phase, as they get older and they go to school, inside of SEAL training you have what’s called your dive buddy. Really, all you can do is hurt yourself or maybe just your dive buddy, so kind of your responsibility and power is expanding as you prove yourself and you develop your skills. Now with parenting, if you look at behavior, behavior a whole lot has to do with our experiences. One of the things kids experience from preschool to elementary school to middle school are their friends. We really watch their “dive buddies” to make sure that the people they’re spending time with aren’t warping their sense of reality and their behavior. That’s how I look at second phase, those younger years.
Now third phase is when they start to develop power and skill and capacity. In SEAL training, you’re using C-4 plastic explosives, you’re using machine guns, all these things, so you can literally kill the whole class if you’re not careful. Same thing, third phase of life when they start hitting those teenage years and their young adult years, they can make choices that can kill the whole family, really destroy the family. They can destroy themselves and people around them. That’s also where I want to start teaching them “we before me.”
That’s where they start learning, hey, life isn’t about just yourself. Life is actually about caring for others, and when you do that, life works out for you. I see those phases really work in parallel from, hey, just worry about myself and not getting hurt to worrying about myself and the people right immediately around me and then being concerned all the way out to the planet, other people, the entire planet, the world that way.
Brett: I love that. It’s a great analogy. After you make this analogy, the rest of the book is sort of directed to highlighting different attributes, qualities, skills you think children should learn based on your career as a SEAL. You also interview fellow SEALS and get what they’ve taught their children about how to be a functioning adult in society based on their SEAL training. There’s one aspect I thought was interesting. Today, I guess an idea of masculinity being warped is the idea of dads sort of being these bumbling idiots who don’t know how to do things. All they want to do is eat and watch football, whatever. You say an important aspect of fathering is respecting your kids’ respect. How does that help you become a leader in the family?
Eric: If someone’s going to follow you, it’s always a choice. If someone’s going to follow you, then it’s going to be really important that you understand what they’re concerned with and where they’re trying to go. That’s kind of an obvious one, if you think about it, but so many parents and leaders in corporations, you see this all over the place, they want people to respect them. They want people to follow them, but I’ll ask them, like the corporate analogy, “Okay, do you know everybody on your team? Do you know where they’re trying to get? What are their life’s ambitions? Where are they really trying to go? Or do you pretty much just assume that they want what you want, whatever your objectives are?”
To respect somebody else is to understand what it is they’re after. Then to lead someone else is to help them get there, to be the best source, the best way for them to get to where they want to go, or even better, to show them a better place to go. Parents want respect, then they first need to understand what respect is. Most people can’t really define it. Then they need to pragmatically and purposely produce it.
Brett: Yeah. I love hearing about that phrase “respect your kids’ respect.” Just it’s always thinking about, “Okay, the way I’m behaving and comporting myself, would this make my kids respect me?” That’s a huge check on your behavior and what you do.
Eric: Oh, it’s crazy. Just last night, my wife just last night said, “Hey …” We let the girls read on their iPad. No, they were on their computer reading something before they went to bed. Actually, they might have been watching a show. No, I think they were watching a video. Sorry. It was like a special treat. School’s coming to an end. Yep, go ahead and watch a couple of videos before you go to bed. Then my wife said, “Hey, turn it off. Time to go to bed.” I said, “Whoa. Whoa, whoa.” I whispered. I go, “Ask them if they’re almost done,” because think about that.
If you’re reading a book or watching a video and someone says, “Shut it off now,” how disrespectful is that? Especially with the girls. Like, “Honey, don’t just tell them. Ask them. They might just be a minute away.” That’s respecting somebody’s concerns. That’s showing respect, and that’s actually teaching respect to your kids as well, because I don’t generally respect somebody that just says, “Shut your book off or turn your computer off,” and I’m like, “Dude, I’m like 2 minutes away. Can you just ask me?” That’s not very respectful.
Brett: We had Jocko Willink on the podcast the other day, and he talked about this idea of extreme ownership. You talk about this, too. It’s about personal responsibility. It’s a big part of the SEAL ethos. How can dads teach that to their children? That’s one of the things I worry about as a dad, am I going to raise a kid who’s going to just constantly give excuses, not take responsibility for their mistakes. How can you teach your kids that concept?
Eric: Parenting, training, coaching, leading, think about consistency. Consistency is key. I listen to my kids, the way they talk, the way they explain. My son was king at telling me how stupid his teachers were and that he shouldn’t have to do the homework, or it’s not his fault. You know what I mean? He loved doing that. Even to this day, he’ll say something to me like that, and I’ll be like, “Seriously? Are you ready? Here it comes.”
How I train it, how I teach it is first being aware of it. A lot of us, we all have to check ourselves first. The book is more about becoming the man or the person that we want to be so that we can lead our sons than it is about being like a parenting book. This is another example. We have to check ourselves. That’s what I think Jocko and Leif were doing in their book. SEALS are brutal. After action report, you try to make an excuse, we’ll hammer you. You get beat up for something like that, too. In a war zone, it’s very, very dangerous.
It’s to be consistent. When you hear your kids say something and they’re giving an excuse … and understand the difference between an excuse and a reason. There are reasons we can’t do things, but when we remove the reason, we’re able to move forward. An excuse, if you remove it, you’re not able to move forward. There will just be another excuse. Just constantly be with them, always give them those [redder 00:28:58] corrections and help them understand when they’re basically BS-ing themselves, but check yourself first because we all do it a whole bunch. Make sure we’re being real with ourselves, too.
Brett: Yeah, your kids are watching. If they see you constantly making excuses, they’re going to do the same thing, too.
Eric: Oh, yeah, and they’re going to perceive it, too. That’s the scariest part. Before they can put it into language and understand that that was an excuse versus a reason, they’re going to perceive it. Human beings are good that way. That’s how we survive. They’re going to be like, “Wait, something’s off there. What Mom or Dad just said, that doesn’t sound like something that really stopped them. It sounds like they’re making something up.” That’s even worse, because they’re experiencing it.
Brett: Another concept you borrowed from your career as a SEAL and applied to parenting is this idea of IAD. What is an IAD and how can dads implement them into their family to help their family be the best family they can be?
Eric: IADs, we call them IADs. They’re immediate action drills, and inside of SEAL training, you’ll do these for everything, if your gun jams or your scuba tanks go off. I think they’re best known for if you get contacted by the enemy. If you’re on patrol or you’re approaching a target and you get contacted and you weren’t expecting the contact, we have an immediate action drill, meaning we practiced responding to the unexpected. SEALS never have anything happen to them. We always are controlling our environment, out situation. We’re never victims.
The IAD is like, okay, if your kid rolls their eyes at you, what are you going to immediately do? If you’re tired and fed up and your patience is low, what’s your immediate action drill? You recognize like, “Man, I’m not patient. I’m not going to be a very effective parent right now. What is it I do?” One of my favorite IADs is when my kids ask me for something, I have an immediate action drill of always starting with yes. I don’t always say yes. I always start with yes, meaning it’s now on me. Is there a functional reason I have to say no? The purpose of IADs is that we’re not reacting to things.
Use martial arts as an example. When someone throws a punch at you, you can either flinch or throw your hands in the air. They throw the jab and then they hit you with a cross and knock you out or you can condition yourself to respond in a much more effective manner. IADs are all about just thinking about all the situations that come up in parenting and prepare for them ahead of time and come up with more effective and efficient ways of handling them, like it’s bedtime, but the kids are reading a book. Immediate action drill when they say, “Hey, can I stay up?” is to say, “Oh, maybe. How much more time do you have?” Something like that.
Brett: Got you. Okay, I like that. I like that a lot. Kind of related to IADs … I guess it’s not related. I’m going to edit that part out, because it’s not related at all. This idea of helping your kids self-regulate. It’s a big part of parenting. It’s basically self-regulation is how we become humans, our move from chimp phase to human phase where we can control our impulses and not act like feral little beasts. What lessons from your career as a SEAL can dads use to help teach their kids self-regulation?
Eric: These I actually think are really related to IADs, the immediate action drills, because that’s what we’re doing. We’re consistently training them. I think the first thing to recognize is the power of real training. That’s the thing. The only thing required to be a parent is just getting someone pregnant or becoming pregnant. Parents out of all roles on the planet should be the best at behavior science, training, and coaching, and leadership, because we’re shaping these guys when they’re at a young age, very malleable, and it’s going to stick with them for a long time.
I’d say the first thing is recognize the power and importance of training. These little crazy kids, they’re not born to react a particular way. Sure, we have propensities towards aggression and propensities towards making excuses. There’s different things like that, but, again, like the martial arts example, we can recondition ourselves to act a certain way, but you need a very powerful and effective coach. If parents want to shape their kids’ behavior, they need to understand behavior science, they need to understand coaching, they need to understand training, and then they have to be consistent.
I have a Belgian Malinois. They’re like little German Shepherds, 30% smaller but 30% nastier. They’re the same dogs they use in SEAL teams. I trained her to be an executive protection dog, and one of the key ingredients to training these dogs is consistency. When we’re not consistent, if we’re not good trainers, the dogs get frustrated and confused and they don’t learn. It stresses them out, actually. You see that with a lot of kids. I watch parents yell at their kids or respond to their kids being those little feral beasts, and they’re just mean about it. They’re disrespectful, and it beats the kid up. A lot of parents just suck at it. It’s embarrassing to watch sometimes.
Brett: Yeah, they’ve actually found that the same thing that works with dogs, the consistency works with kids as well. If you’re inconsistent with how you discipline children, they get anxious. They don’t know how to respond to setbacks and they just get really, become neurotic, almost.
Eric: Oh, yeah. There’s a big section. Mike Ritland, he went to BUD/S with me. He was a SEAL with me, and he trains dogs for the SEAL pipeline and other government agencies. There’s a whole section where him and I talk about … I had an entire chapter. We ended up pulling it out, but basically to raise your kids like dogs. The name is to kind of spark people’s interest, of course, and maybe even fire a few people up, but it’s the exact thing. Behavior science is behavior science, and if you talk to a dog trainer and you understand their knowledge of reward and punishment and how that all works, they’ll outpace a parent any day. They take training their dogs way more serious than parents take training their kids.
Brett: You have this section I thought was interesting, because I think it’s … One thing that people love to carp about in today’s culture is this idea of participation trophies. It’s like, oh, why did you get a trophy just for playing T-ball? You got to win. You kind of have more of a nuanced approach to it, and it’s based on your experience as a SEAL. What can the SEALS teach dads about how to handle participation trophies?
Eric: Think about SEAL training. The way I like to describe SEAL training to people, especially kids, they want to go and they’re like, “What’s your advice?” The obvious advice, the number-one piece of advice any SEAL’s going to tell anybody going to SEAL training, or it’s going to be pretty darned close to number one, is they’re going to say, “Don’t quit.” To not quit means to participate. SEAL training is very unique in the fact that as long as you don’t quit, you win. Now, of course, there’s exceptions. People get hurt and stuff like that, but I’m talking about for the whole, on average. As long as you don’t quit, you win. People don’t understand participation trophies, going back to behavior science, because they don’t understand behavior science.
Now participation trophies are misused a whole bunch, but, again, because they don’t understand it. My 2 daughters were in a swim league, and they went to their first competition. One of them got like fourth place, which was unique, because I think there was only 3 swimmers. She swam so slow in the race, I think they had to bump her back a place. There wasn’t even a human there it was so bad, but she got a ribbon for it. She came out, got that ribbon, and was beaming. It was her first competition. She loved that she got the ribbon, came running over to me and showed it to me.
Guess what those guys were doing? The competitions we have to pay for, the coaches we have to pay for. They were making sure she came back. They were rewarding her for participating. Most military awards are awards for participating, because they want you to keep going. Participation trophies are a reward for showing up so that you continue to show up. Now if you keep giving them over and over again, they’re going to get diluted and become ineffective, and there’s ways you can use them in an effective manner. Where you start actually punishing the performers, that’s something different. Participation trophies are extremely good, and anyone that thinks they should be removed, they just need to study some behavior science. What they need to do is be corrected on how they’re used.
Brett: Right. On top of the participation, eventually you add in awards for merit, for excellence, merit, just as the military does.
Eric: Yeah. It’s like perseverance. It’s like keeping going. You have to continuously up the bar of the challenge. The challenge always has to be a little beyond your skill. Just like in a video game, that’s how people keep going. If you just keep rewarding people for showing up, showing up, eventually it’s not going to have any oomph. Same thing, behavior science, if you give a dog the same reward over and over again, pretty soon they’re just going to expect it and not even care about it anymore.
There has to be variables. Like we were talking about our environment, the asymmetrical situation we’re in, if you look at gambling or even text messaging, there are participation trophies to get you going and then they start to vary the reward. They call it ratio and schedule. It starts to change from there, and if it doesn’t start to change, the reward becomes ineffective, but they’re really good at it. That’s why we all stay on our phones and like to gamble, or at least I do.
Brett: Throughout the book, you describe some of your parenting style. Man, you were tough on your kids. You intentionally made them uncomfortable throughout their childhood and even up and through their teenage years. Why do you think it’s important for dads to create intentional discomfort in their children’s lives?
Eric: Okay. I’m glad we’re talking about the behavior science stuff, because this is in the same vein as well. The discomfort is part of the training and conditioning. There’s a popular term, “punishment should fit the crime,” and that’s not true. That’s kind of a misunderstood thing because our society is all about justice and we can point at prison systems and understand that punishment does not change behavior. If you’re using punishment, it should change the behavior. There’s 4 quadrants of behavior change. There’s something to encourage behavior, so it’s positive reinforcement or what they call negative reinforcement, or there’s something to discourage behavior, positive punishment or negative punishment. Producing discomfort could be a form of both, but it’s not about the production of discomfort. It’s about the behavior change, if that makes sense.
With my kids, my son, there’s a story in the book about him. I came home and he just refused to do his homework and he was disrespectful to his stepmom. They have a loving relationship, so it’s just inappropriate. He was behaving in that manner, so what I did is I applied intentional discomfort. I think it’s important, too, because I don’t want to get the child services called on me, because I dumped them in a really cold pool and I’ve dumped them in the ocean and things like that all the time.
What’s important is for him, these weren’t these super extreme kind of borderline abusive reaction. He’s grown up around the water. He’s grown up in extreme circumstances that we’ve done both for fun, and we do it all the time. That’s an important thing here. When we’re talking about dads creating intentional discomfort to either encourage a behavior or discourage a bad behavior, it’s got to be appropriate for the child. It’s got to be appropriate for the behavior. Again, using dogs as an example, if you come down on a dog too hard, they’re just going to stop training. Same thing with kids. You can’t come down on them too hard. It has to be just a little bit outside their comfort level and appropriate for their behavior.
Brett: If I remember correctly, the intentional discomfort that you applied to your son in that situation with your wife, did not you make him throw his PlayStation into the swimming pool or something like that?
Eric: Yeah, that was part of the same story. I was just going there. Okay, so in the context of behavior change, positive punishment would be to add something uncomfortable enough that somebody would change their behavior. First thing I did … Or negative punishment is to take away something they like, so I took a skateboard, smashed it on the cement. I took his PlayStation and chucked it in the pool. I started with what they would call negative punishment. I said, “Okay, well, we’re going to remove some things that you really enjoy.” I’m by no means a … I want to be careful. I’m not a tyrant. If you watch me teach and lead, I’m actually … People will say, “Man, you’re patient and kind and loving,” but there are times when it’s like, “You know what, we’re going to have to do something that’s going to stick here a little bit. I’m going to need you to remember this, buddy.” That’s what that was.
I do those things very seldom, probably 3 or 4 times in the kids’ lives will I do something somewhat extreme. Yeah, I tossed that PlayStation. It was a really cold night. Even though we were in Southern California, the antifreeze was coming on in my pool. It was just super cold. I said, “Well, you’re going to have to go in and get it.” He went and grabbed the pool net to fish it out. I was like, “No, no, no. You’re going to have to go in and get it.” I sent him into the water, and that would be called positive punishment, meaning something very uncomfortable that would change the behavior.
Then I spent a lot of time talking with him. Any time we’re in a situation where there’s that heavier discipline, I won’t leave his side. I won’t depart from him until we’ve come full circle and we’re hugging. We kept going until he was cool and I was cool. That’s important, because I want to make sure he wanted to continue to train with me, for lack of a better word.
Brett: Right. I guess there wasn’t any problems after that?
Eric: That problem was gone. Here’s the thing. My kids know me to step in for every little thing. There’s a chapter called It’s Better to Keep Up Than Catch Up. There’s a couple of different ways to apply it, but one of them is with the disciplining in raising your kids. When my kids are in a heavy, heavy situation, that’s not going to be the first time I come in to start coaching and teaching. I’m doing it all of the time. It’s like them to be coached by me, and it’s like me to address every little thing for them.
Yeah, I would say it’s more of the little things that deal with the behavior than something like that. Those kind of things are almost just to show them like, “Hey, when I say I’m going to do something, I am going to do it. If you get into drugs and I tell you that I’m going to take you out into the wilderness for 4 weeks, 2 weeks to whip your ass and 2 weeks to let you recover so I don’t get arrested, he knows like, “Man, that’s serious because I’ve seen him do it before.”
Brett: We’ve been having a great conversation, and I know these questions are kind of dumb, so trite, but I’m curious. Is there one piece of advice from your book that you think if dads started implementing today, they would start seeing some immediate return on investment?
Eric: Yes, lead from the front. It’s become my favorite. It was my favorite when I was writing, but now I’ve done some interviews. Lead from the front. I heard just too many times guys say, “Man, I’m going to just sacrifice myself so I can make money for my family,” or, “I’m just going to go have fun and do whatever feels good for me. Forget the family.” It was always this extreme version of something, and it’s nothing that they wanted their kids to be. The idea of dads sacrificing their happiness and health just to care for their family, I’m all about the sacrifice, but here’s the problem, guys, everybody out there. That’s what you’re teaching your son to do, so leading from the front. Be the happy, healthy person that you want to have your son or daughter or friend, anyone around you be so that you can lead them to do the same. That’s key.
Brett: That’s kind of based on some personal issues. You talk about in your story your dad was that self-sacrificing guy, but he got to the point where he had a severe bout of depression where he had to go away from you guys.
Eric: Yeah, he got really, really sick, and he’s in a nursing home to this day. At the end of the day, it was the life he lived. He was a sheriff, and he was a bishop of our church. My grandfather was an FBI agent. These are just tactical lives. You don’t have to live those lives. My point being at the end of the day, what I did is I ended up following what he did in his whole life. That’s why, yes, we have to be there for our kids. We want to spend time with our kids. That’s important, valuable stuff, but a lot of times what we do with our life is going to trump all of that because they’re going to watch us.
I’ve heard it said that they’re going to catch more than they hear, whatever it’s called, that experience. Just too many guys are just … Sacrifice like that, it’s … In SEAL training, I was a medic and I was a corpsman. We’re corpsmen, which are medics, and it was my job to take care of the students a whole bunch. Some guys wouldn’t rehab at night. They wouldn’t take care of themselves, and I always thought, “Man, that’s weird. That’s not going to work.” Then sure enough, they’d get injured and then they’d get rolled or dropped from training.
Then later on, as I studied psychology and philosophy and things like that in my 40s and I’ve done all this training now, I look back at it and I realize, “Oh, man, what those guys were doing, they were quitting.” They just didn’t want to say, “I quit.” I see men do that all the time. They’re just running themselves into the ground because they’re so miserable. They’re trying to quit, but they don’t want to say, “I quit.” It’s their psychology kind of taking care of them. We can’t do that. That’s quitting. When we don’t take care of ourselves, guys, we’re quitting, because we have to be an example to our kids.
Brett: That’s great. Eric, where can people learn more about your book?
Eric: Best place is just my website, because I have everything I do in my books or anything I’m writing is there. It’s Ericdavis215.com. That’s Eric with a “c” davis215.com. I’ve got links to the book and then all my papers. I just try to keep my hub of the work I do right there so it’s accessible.
Brett: Great. Eric Davis, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Eric: Ah, thank you, Brett. It’s been fantastic. I really appreciate it.
Brett: My guest today was Eric Davis. His book is called Raising Men. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also, you can check out Eric’s website at Ericdavis215.com to read more of the content he’s put out there. Also make sure to check out the show notes at Aom.is/davis.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at Artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed this podcast and have got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, as that will help spread the word about the show. As always, I appreciate your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: July 6, 2016