Talk show host and Queer Eye favorite Karamo fathered his son Jason at age 15, not long before he came out as gay. But it wasn't until Jason — now known as Jason "Rachel" Brown — was 10 that his dad even learned of his existence. While the news blindsided Karamo, he knew early on what kind of father he wanted to be, and what generational patterns he wanted to break.
"I grew up in a very, very toxic male household where emotions were not expressed," says the TV personality. "My sisters had full authority to be able to express their emotions, but I never did."
When it came to raising two boys of his own — after gaining custody of Jason, he went on to adopt the boy's younger half-brother, Chris — Karamo "made sure that I modeled something different."
"I think people forget that anything we want to change about our self-esteem, about the way our lives are, it's practicing new behaviors daily," he tells Yahoo Life. "And it doesn't mean that things have to change overnight. It's just every day saying to your child, 'It's OK to say how you're feeling.' It's OK to give more hugs and say 'I love you' and these things that sometimes we tell men that is counterproductive to being a man, which it's not."
Jason says his upbringing was the "polar opposite" of how his famous father was raised — and, indeed, how he and his brother were treated before Karamo came into their lives.
"We were told from the beginning that it's OK to say 'I love you,'" he says. "We were getting hugs and kisses. We were getting all these reinforcements. Before I had met my dad, I kind of went through the same position. But once he got in the picture, I have known nothing but love [and encouragement] to express myself, to express how I'm feeling anytime I'm feeling any way."
Father and son are hoping to empower other families to recognize and honor their feelings with their new children's book, I Am Okay to Feel, which features illustrations from Diobelle Cerna. A follow-up to their first literary collaboration, 2019's I Am Perfectly Designed, the book sees a dad teaching his little boy how to name, and express, his emotions when their trip to the park is interrupted by a storm.
Karamo, who is currently hosting his own syndicated talk show, hopes the book tamps down cultural and societal messaging that feelings aren't something to be discussed. Given his childhood experience, it's especially important for young boys to have that validation.
"You see your sisters being able to talk about what they're feeling and then all of a sudden you turn 9, 10 as a little boy and then all of a sudden it's like, you no longer get to do that," he says. "You have to be strong now. You have to toughen up. You gotta protect your sisters. You gotta be there for your mom. And it's like, I'm a little kid. Why do I have to do of this? Why can't I just tell you I'm feeling sad or scared or nervous? And so it was important for people to understand that it's OK for kids, especially little boys, to feel their feelings."
The book also shows how kids can work through those big emotions — including a breathing exercise in its pages — and how they can feel safe. Though Jason is now an adult, he says that his dad continues to make him feel secure.
"My dad has just always been that person to just show up and be there for me and accept me for who I am and what I've done," he says. "There's so many things I've done in my life where I've thought, this is it — no one's gonna accept me. ... I'm at a low and no one's gonna truly understand. I always play myself, and I realize that my dad, [even] if he's not been there, then he understands. And that's kind of the main way he makes me feel safe."
How does he do it? By asking, and not assuming says the Emmy winner, who says curiosity is his "greatest gift as a father."
"I think sometimes as parents, we forget these are still human beings ... that have their own thoughts and feelings," he explains. "And I think asking a lot more questions [instead of] assuming that I knew what was best was perfect for me."
He recalls asking a young Jason what he thought the purpose of life was, simply to get a sense of how his son saw not only the world but his own existence too. Jason's responses allowed him to understand where his son was coming from and "guide" him accordingly.
"And so I always encourage people, if you want your children feel safe, make them feel heard, make them feel seen," Karamo notes, "because in seeing them and hearing them, you're not assuming that you already know them. You allow yourself to be open to really understanding how they feel about the world around them. And it gets hard because sometimes as adults, we're frustrated, we are exhausted, we are so ready just to get the routine going, that we forget our little humans have thoughts and feelings that they need to be able to express openly and honestly without judgment."
Both Browns see their next children's book addressing the topic of healing. Says Karamo, "We turn into these adults who don't know how to heal ourselves, and we walk around with the trauma of what happened to us in the past that we never actually healed." He'd like to give young readers the tools to work through whatever negativity they encounter, whether it's from the adults in their lives or bullies. As a gay man and a father, the latter is something the Netflix star knows all too well.
"I still get pushback," he says. "We were just in New York for Thanksgiving and I was walking down the street with my partner. This woman had the audacity to have a homophobic comment in the middle of New York. And, you know, those things still affect [us]. Even though my children are older, no one wants to hear that, see that. I think that there's been growth, but we have a lot of work to do. I hate that we always have someone who's politicizing people and people's lives, and then it turns into these things ... you're just enforcing hate. I think that it has gotten somewhat better, but, you know, still a lot of work to be done."
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