Images of Grace Photography
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, 32, is dad to four kids—sons CJ, 8, and Cooper, 6, and daughters Landry, 2, and Hadley Grace, who arrived Nov. 21, weighing in at 6 lbs., 11 oz, and measuring 20 inches long. (The first photo of the proud dad and Hadley is above.) He opened up to Yahoo Parenting about life in the Witten house, his early days of fatherhood, and what his wife has taught him about being a dad. Plus, how his rocky relationship with his own father affected his parenting style.
I’m a very hands-on father to my kids, but I still remember the uncertainty I felt when my first son was born. It was the middle of the football season, I was working full-time, and whenever I’d come home I’d try to take over for my wife or at least help out. And those first couple of months, I felt like, “Man, I’m not going to be a really good dad. This doesn’t come naturally to me.” Still, I did the diapers and I did the bottles and, just like any father, I got the hang of it. I had to, because I didn’t want someone else — a nanny, or a babysitter, or whoever — raising my kids. My wife and I are the parents, and it’s important to both of us that we be the ones reading the bedtime stories or fixing the sippy cups or making sure the kids brush their teeth. We realize the opportunity we have to impact our children’s lives, so it’s something we take seriously.
The Witten family. Photo courtesy Jason Witten
Of course, it’s not all serious. Life in the Witten house is fun. Our days consist of everything from playing football in the backyard with the boys to reading Elmo books to having tea parties with my little girl. We do everything with the intention of creating a loving home.
Witten and his 2-year-old daughter, Landry. Photo courtesy Jason Witten
To be honest, a lot of what I do as a father is influenced by my childhood. Growing up, as far as a dad was concerned, most of what I saw were illustrations of how not to do things. So when my wife and I decided to have a family, not only was I excited, but I was determined to be different than what I’d experienced.
Fortunately, when I was a teenager, my mom was able to get out of a bad situation and we moved in with my grandparents. I got to see how a father carries himself and how he interacts with his wife and treats his kids. Like my grandfather did before me, I want to foster an environment that is encouraging and safe for my family. I want my kids to know that, sure, not everything is going to be easy, and you don’t get everything you want, but you should always continue to chase your dreams, and do so in a way that builds character.
For my older kids, especially, that message is important now more than ever. My boys are getting old enough where real-life obstacles come up. There’s more and more competition for them with other kids, and I want them to understand that it’s okay to have adversity — not everyone makes the basketball team or gets straight As all the time. It’s okay to be knocked down, you just have to learn from it and get better because of it.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images
My oldest, for example, is having some trouble in class with his penmanship. He’s upset about it, but all I can say is, “Hey bud, you’ve just got to work at it. It’s okay if your handwriting isn’t perfect, but keep practicing and that will pay off.”
Penmanship may be small in the scheme of things, but that lesson — that not everyone has success all the time — starts with the little things. As a parent, letting your kids face obstacles, without jumping in to help or protect them, is the toughest part. Oftentimes the best decision is to step back and let children work through challenges on their own. I’m a big believer in getting knocked down and getting back up again—you have to be, to play football—but it’s hard to watch your kids experience failure.
Luckily, whenever I do want to give in or bolster my kids when I shouldn’t, my wife sets me straight. She is such a loving mother, but she’ll be the first to tell me, “Jason, you can’t do that. We’re going to stand our ground here,” whether it’s letting our kids work out a problem for themselves, or disciplining them when they misbehave. She was an ER nurse for 10 years, so she has this way of caring for them but also seeing the big picture. She doesn’t get caught up in the little things, and I’ve learned so much about patience from her.
Photo courtesy Jason Witten
Maybe I’m being too honest, but when you get married, you don’t know what kind of mom your new wife is going to be. You hope and expect she’ll be great, but honestly, it’s a little scary. Michelle has exceeded all my expectations. I’m very fortunate as a football player who is really busy this time of year to have a wife that does such an unbelievable job of being the rock of our house.
And good thing! Our fourth [just arrived]. It’s a girl. With our third, we didn’t find out the gender – she was the only one that was a surprise. It was really special, and so when she was born we didn’t immediately announce her name. When you live your life in the public eye, there are things you want to experience together as a family, so we kept her name quiet for a while. It was something just for us.
My wife didn’t want to find out what we were having this time around, either, but I get antsy. This is our last one, and I just needed to know.
So, now we’re a family of six. And while it’s awesome that I get to play professional football, my family is the thing that defines me. I want my kids and the way that I parent to be my legacy more than any touchdown catch or block or big game that I play in. I want people to remember me not for playing the game with integrity, but for living my life the same way.