The Dad Behind NYC DADS
Robert Doar was the Administrator and Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services (HRA/DSS) between 2007 and 2013. Mr. Doar has been a longtime champion of innovative social services programs that foster responsible fatherhood, and this website is part of the City’s greater NYC DADS campaign, a citywide public-education effort that celebrates the important role fathers play in the lives of their children.
The Commissioner is the son of John Doar, a former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the United States Department of Justice in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He and his wife Sara have four children: Michael, 15; Andrew, 14; Julie, 12; and Robert, 8. Here, he shares some memories from his own childhood, as well as giving some insight into why being an active and involved dad is so important to him on a personal level.
Were you close to your own father?
Very close. My parents divorced when I was nine. He was the major presence in our household all of my life. Even though he didn't live with us, he was always very present. We lived in Brooklyn, and he lived in the neighborhood for a while. And when he moved to Manhattan, we still had holidays and weekends. In terms of time, I think he took his responsibilities more seriously when he wasn't living with us than he did when he was. And the thing about my dad is that he could be tough, but also very sensitive. If you did something that hurt his feelings, you knew it.
What are some of your favorite memories as a kid with your father?
Dad was into sports, so we used to play football and basketball. My father loves to hike and rock climb. He did spend some time in Washington working on President Nixon's impeachment inquiry, and we went down and visited him there and stayed with him while he was working. We'd see him in the evening. His public life was exciting. He also judged a moot court contest at Yale Law School once, and he took me with him. I think I was 13. The organizers of the contest were Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton, so being around him at those sorts of things was always lots of fun. And riding in the car with him was always great. He was a very good traveler.
When you became a father yourself, what did you find were the hardest things that you had to adjust to?
The noise! The cacophony! I like to read and relax and put on a little music, so I always feel like saying, "Can't we have a little quiet around here?" I have a hard time with that. But seriously, I think the really hard thing is how you coordinate your parenting style with your wife. I think that's the hardest thing. It's good for kids to see that their parents are together, in agreement on the big parenting decisions. That's not to say that parents have to always agree on everything because they don't. But on major issues, it helps a lot to have a united front. Most of parenting is just fun, though. I have to say that I like being around and hanging out with my kids.
What's surprised you most about fatherhood?
A genuine surprise was the extent to which, if my children are in some sort of potential difficulty, how quickly I get emotional. It's just uncontrollable. I didn't realize my feelings were that intense.
Why is spending time with your kids so important to you?
It's important to me because it's important to them. For me, it's mostly fun. I work, and then when I'm not working I'm thinking of what we're going to go do together. And I think that even when they're not happy with me, they benefit from having me around and they appreciate it. One of the things that always strikes me is that you might think you've got a tough, hardened kid who knows exactly what he's doing, and the minute you put him in a situation where he's going to be away from home a couple days at a friend's house or camp, then all of sudden you realize that he's a complete homebody and he's a wreck without you. I think that my kids are really going to love me when they go away for four or five days because they'll find out that I'm actually not that bad.
Do you ever experience any hurdles in being able to spend time with them?
Yeah, we're busy, but we're very lucky. Mayor Bloomberg is not a guy that wants people working 24/7. He respects that you have to have a private life. And my wife and I are together, so there's no conflict there. It just makes it a lot easier than it would be under different circumstances. It's just true. If you're together with the mother of your children, your ability to spend time with them is easier.
What are the biggest rewards of being a father for you?
The companionship. The friendship. The one thing I've learned is that parenting really matters, no question about it. But some of it is chance. My kids have done fairly well in school and sports and in music. That's clearly their three interests. But I can't say that that's rewarding to me as a father because I don't think I necessarily had completely all that much to do with it! But I do like it when people on the street, who've gotten to know my kids, compliment my kids. Or when a teacher says, "Your son or daughter is really a nice person." It's very rewarding to hear that sort of compliment. That's very gratifying. And I tell the kids. I tell them I saw so-and-so and they said you guys are really doing well. It's great.
What were your kids' favorite books to read with you, and what tricks did you use to make story time more fun?
My wife is a phenomenal bedtime reader. She has read all of the Harry Potter books to maybe two or three of our kids. Separately. She's also read all of the C.S. Lewis books, and she's reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. She reads every night. Every night. At 8, Bobby's the youngest. The others are not read to now, but he gets what the others always got. And I am purely a pitch hitter. I come in when Sara's busy or can't do it. My father's favorite trick that I've also used is to put your kid into the story. He'd be reading along and say, "Oh, there was a little boy and his name was ... Bobby!", and I'd go crazy! And I did that too. It makes sure they're paying attention.
What other activities do you enjoy doing with your family?
We like to hike, we like to go to the park and throw the ball around and play baseball. We listen to music in the car. I share stuff I like and then I hope they like it, whether it's the Beatles or Bruce Springsteen or those kinds of guys, and they get a kick out of that. We also like to watch movies together.
What about specific New York City things to do with kids? What's the Doar family top three local must see list?
Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. That is really great. We love that. We also walked across the Manhattan Bridge. That's really great too. We like to go to Prospect Park and go to the Parade Grounds. And we like Riis Park. Riis Park is really good. It's cheap, it's a beautiful beach, it's well maintained, and it's clean. It's great. So I would say Brooklyn Bridge, Riis Park, and Prospect Park.
How about an embarrassing or humbling moment as a dad? And have you learned anything from it?
My kids would say I have embarrassing or humbling moments every day. And I do. I'm the classic, "Oh, God, what's he doing now?" dad. But for me, my son Michael was 9 years old and he made the Little League team in our town, which was great. And he had a good year and he loved it. But the coach was a little bit different, not all that effective, and some of the other parents were rumbling for a new coach. And I participated in that and I've always regretted it. My view is, don't try to micromanage everything, particularly that sort of thing. Just let it happen and it'll work out well either way. Michael ended up staying with Little League and playing three years for different coaches and it was all fine. But if you overdo it, then the tension factor gets raised. I've sort of learned that if you want to be the coach, then volunteer and be the coach. If you don't, stay out of it. Hands off. Let it work out how it works out. You won't always get the greatest coach, but don't meddle unless you're willing to do it yourself. So that was a humbling experience where I learned that I'm not the Commissioner everywhere!
What's your favorite gift that you've ever received from your kids?
When I came down to the city from upstate, my son made me a baseball bat. I have it in my office. He painted it blue and put the insignia of my two favorite teams on both sides of the bat. So depending on who I'm with, I can display one side or the other.
What are the best pieces of parenting advice that your dad has passed down to you?
Easy does it. Say "I love you." Be affectionate. I'm not sure if he gave that advice, that's just the way he was. My father was very affectionate. He was a big hugger, and I'm the same way. Kids need that.
And what's the best advice you can give to all the NYC dads out there?
Don't ever underestimate how important you are to your kids. Whether you know it or not, they are hanging on everything you do, particularly for kids ages 3 to 12. You are on a big pedestal. Act like you know it, and you'll do better. Kids watch every move you make, so realize that the role that you play is even bigger than you might realize. If you're a parent, it's the most important job you'll ever have. Also, limit the number of times you can say "no," if you can avoid it. Your kids want to hear "yes." They want to hear positive, positive, positive. And I can't stress that enough. Children respond to positive reinforcement much better than they do to negative reinforcement.