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FATHER’S DAY: What it means to be a 21st century dad

Posted at 8:07 AM, Jun 17, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-17 08:07:01-04

By Roland Martin, CNN Contributor

(CNN) – “Hi Daddy Uncle Ro Ro!”

When I first heard my twin nieces utter those words a few years back, I was stunned. I asked my wife, “Where did that come from?”

“Got me. They came up with that on their own,” she said.

At the time, my wife, Jacquie, and I were caring for Rachel and Raquel, my sister’s children. We got the girls when they were 1½ years old. My sister and her then-husband were having a difficult time raising the new additions to their family, which included two older daughters.

So Jacquie and I chose to bring the twins with us to Chicago. We had been married about five years, and didn’t have any children of our own.

We had been asked by church members and strangers alike when and if we’d have kids. Our position was simple: if the good Lord wanted us to have children, his will would be done. It wasn’t embarrassing to us at all.

We enjoyed our time together and never thought twice about the issue. Yet when faced with family dysfunction, we had no problem asserting our role as godparents, living up to the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. I’m thankful that my wife, an ordained minister, has a truly wonderful spirit and isn’t one of those wives who resents the curve balls of life that family members throw.

The decision to raise Rachel and Raquel wasn’t the first time we had to be surrogate parents.

In our first year of marriage, another sister and her two daughters, ages 2 and 5, left a failing marriage and came to my home in Dallas. When we got the call, Jacquie and I didn’t hesitate to tell my sister to come immediately to Dallas. All they had were a few items in a backpack when they walked into our home.

Five months into marriage, we went from newlyweds to a house of five people.

I’ll never forget going to the grocery store to buy food for our new brood, and man was I shocked at the prices; the bill totaled nearly $600! I never bought cheese slices, frozen chicken nuggets, and the other stuff kids eat. I remember calling my parents and telling them, “I have no idea how y’all were able to raise five children with food costing this much!”

When I decided to leave Dallas and join the Chicago Defender in 2004, it was a difficult choice. The opportunity was an awesome one, and the income was needed to provide for our family, but it was painful for me to leave because my nieces would no longer have the presence of a strong man in the house.

They had witnessed a dysfunctional relationship between their mother and father, and it was vital to me that they see how a loving couple behaves each day. It was critical for them to see Jacquie and me holding hands, kissing, being affectionate, talking to one another calmly and lovingly, and for the girls to experience a stable home.

The relationship that I established with them was a strong one. I was always close to my nieces and nephews; this only intensified our bond. My connection with the 2-year-old was particularly strong.

She would often follow me around the house. I had to be careful in stopping suddenly and turning around because I would run her over!

That same strong connection existed when their cousins, the twins, joined us. Like every other parent, we had to teach them right from wrong and all the other life lessons. Our home was a 24-hour education laboratory (Jacquie is a certified early childhood development teacher). All around them they had to learn, learn and learn some more.

After a year, my sister and her husband had stabilized their life, and the twins returned home. It was hard not having them at our house; they were such a joy to watch grow and develop. The girls were so connected as twins, and to listen to them as they learned was fantastic.

About two years later, Rachel and Raquel returned to our Chicago home, this time with their two older siblings. In all, six of my nieces would live under Daddy Uncle Ro Ro’s roof at one time or another.

Again, my sister and her husband were having issues, and this time, it was negatively affecting the children.

When I went home to Houston, I discovered the older girls were almost three grade levels behind. They had never spent a full year at one school; moving with their parents from apartment to apartment. I was angered by all this, and made clear to my sister that this was unacceptable.

A few months later she agreed the girls would come and live with us.

This time it was a lot different. We had gotten the twins at the right age, and they soaked up everything and were far more advanced than many children. It was stunning to see their development in the year they spent with us.

But this also showed the lack of development with their older sisters. Many of the things we were able to teach the twins, whether it was cleaning their own spaces, reading, doing math and other things, were totally foreign to their older sisters.

Again, our home was completely transformed overnight.

I woke up one day and Jacquie had affixed flash cards to everything in our Chicago penthouse. DVD player, TV, light switch, computers, windows, toilet, sink, stove, closet and the list went on and on. We wanted them to awake every day in a learning environment.

I mandated that any time they got in the car to go to the day care, which was about 20 minutes from our downtown home, they had to read. The DVD player in my Navigator only played educational DVDs; no movies. Did they have computer games? Yes. What kind? Educational.

Look, we were playing catch-up. We needed to close the educational gap with the older girls and didn’t have much time.

That meant breaking some serious bad habits.

The two older girls in particular had a penchant for leaving their homework at school. No matter what we tried, they refused to focus. When they showed up at the library to work with a tutor, it was always the same story: either they didn’t have any homework or they forgot it.

The one thing I refuse to tolerate is lying.

I sat in my living room with my two nieces in Chicago and said, “Here is the rule: if you lie, say hello to the belt. If you leave your homework, you’re getting spanked.” I made each of them repeat to me the repercussions of lying and leaving their homework so we had total buy-in.

The next day, one of them left her homework at school. She stood in front of me and lied and lied and lied. Then I busted her in the lie by reaching out to her teacher. Bad move. I said, “What’s the penalty for lying?” She said, “A spanking.”

And that’s exactly what she got.

Now, I know some of you will say, “That’s not right. You should never spank a child.” My response is simple: “Do you, and I’ll do me.” A child needs discipline, and I refuse to allow a child to run amok. Forget the timeout box. That doesn’t work on all kids.

You may not like it, and that’s fine. But it did the trick. Those girls didn’t leave their homework again. I wanted them to have the fear of facing me if they messed up. One of the reasons I didn’t act a fool when I was in school was because I feared my father taking the belt to my butt, and that was enough to keep me on the straight and narrow.

These are vital life lessons I learned as a kid. My mom and dad love me and my four siblings immensely, but they were no pushovers. I got my share of spankings (I led the family in that category!) but I was raised right and am thankful that my parents never had to bail a child out of jail, send us to rehab or have a single issue with drugs or alcohol.

I wanted to have the same effect on my nieces. When I accepted the responsibility of raising them, all that came with the job.

Anyone who knows me understands how I feel about fatherhood. I don’t consider someone who impregnates a woman a father or a daddy. They are just a sperm donor. It’s what you do when that child is born that determines your title.

So, how is everyone doing today?

The first two nieces who fled to our home with their mother are in high school and junior high. They live with my parents, who are retired. We still see them often, and yes, we continue to parent them, whether it’s having Skype discussions, chatting with them via text messages or phone calls. Just because I’m no longer living with them doesn’t mean “Daddy Uncle Ro Ro” doesn’t still hold sway.

The twins? Oh my God. They are blowing the other children away at school. I just love their critical thinking skills and the things that come out of their mouths. I often think about where they would be had we still had them. But I recognize that it was important for their mother to make the effort to raise them, and for their father to have a role in their life. Yet let me be clear: My sister has been warned that if there is a misstep, those girls will join us in Washington and won’t come back to Texas until they turn 18.

As for the twins’ older sisters, both are now honor roll students. They, too, are doing tremendously well in the classroom, and are developing quite nicely.

Folks, it cost us a lot of money to care for six kids who were not our own. I could have been angry at having to raise children who weren’t mine and ticked that the money wasn’t being invested in stocks and a mutual fund, but that’s not how I look at it.

What Jacquie and I did was an investment in their future, and we strongly believe it will pay tremendous dividends in the future.

Where did I get this intense view of fatherhood? From my dad, Reginald Lynn Martin Sr. He served as my role model for raising children. Neither of us is perfect, but I know that he did right by me, and I’ve done right by my nieces.

When I look at the state of black America, with 72% of kids being born out of wedlock, I get angry. What we need are more people who make better choices and take care of their responsibilities. We also need more family members who choose not to be drive-by parents, but step up when necessary.

Jacquie and I don’t have biological children, but when I look at these girls, they aren’t just our nieces; we call them our children. And they know full well that no matter what happens, Daddy Uncle Ro Ro and Aunt Mommie Jacquie will always be there for them. No matter what.