GW Alumnus Shows Fathers How to Grow Up Along with their Children

Just in time for Father’s Day, a new PBS television series aims at helping men be better dads.

June 11, 2024

GW alumnus Joe Gidjunis talks with his son, Gabe.

Joe Gidjunis, pictured here with his son, Gabe, found immense joy in being a dad—and sadness in the fact that no one told him to expect it. (Contributed photo)

When Joe Gidjunis, B.A. ’04, became a father seven years ago, he knew he wanted to be more than simply a disciplinarian and breadwinner. He wanted to be a positive presence for his son, Gabe. But when he asked other fathers how they approached being a dad, he was saddened by the response of many: “I just do the opposite of what my dad did.” Realizing that other fathers could benefit from the kind of guidance he sought, he created the new PBS television series, “Grown Up Dad.”

“When I kept getting the same answer, almost word for word, I knew I was on to something,” Gidjunis said. “Fathers need to talk about this, and we’re not socialized to have these conversations. That’s why it’s so important.” Too often, he added, mothers are seen as “the real parent” while fathers are merely providers or, at best, the babysitter.

As a student at George Washington University, Gidjunis had originally planned to major in political science, but he switched to a journalism major after the terror attacks of 9/11.

“Journalists had a purpose that day, and that’s what changed my life,” he said. “I wanted to ask questions and be close to important stories.”

Joe Gidjunis talks with Jeremy Givens of Black American Dad Foundation
In the pilot episode, Gidjunis talks with Jeremy Givens, president of the Black American Dad Foundation, about similar advice each heard from other men about fatherhood: “You don’t have to worry about the loving or the caring. That’s what mom does.” (Contributed photo)

The main question he asks in “Grown Up Dad” is what it means to be a good father. The half-hour pilot episode is airing on PBS stations around the country. Additional episodes, now in production, will air next year. In each, Gidjunis interviews a range of men and women, in the U.S. and abroad, to learn their advice. A shining example for dads, he believes, is shown in “Bluey,” the popular Australian cartoon about a family of dogs. Bluey’s father, Bandit, Gidjunis said, is “the most authentic dad” he’s ever seen on TV, and a great role model. There are T-shirts and online support groups asking “What would Bandit do?”

“My dad was a provider,” Gidjunis said, “but I missed a lot of experiences, I think, because he wasn’t around much. The role models I saw on TV and in the media were like Al Bundy on ‘Married… with Children’ and Tim ‘The Toolman’ Taylor on ‘Home Improvement.’ They’re lovable and funny, but they’re bumbling. They’re not someone I wanted to emulate. It’s funny, but with ‘Bluey,’ my TV role model became an animated cartoon dog.”

The most important lesson he learned watching “Bluey,” he said, has been intentionality—to parent with purpose. But episodes of “Bluey” are only seven minutes long, and one of the biggest criticisms levied against the show is that the parents are too perfect.

“It’s not that they’re perfect,” Gidjunis counters. “It’s that they’re great parents for seven minutes. When I’m exhausted and don’t think I've got it in me to make it to my son’s bedtime, I think, ‘Can I be a good dad for seven more minutes?’ And then I can think about it in those short bursts.”

Some of the topics covered in “Grown Up Dad” will include the particular challenges faced by blue-collar workers and those deemed “essential” employees, as well as how to address screen time—the problems posed by social media, video games and cell phones—and masculinity and the high costs of having children.

Social media presents different challenges for sons and daughters, Gidjunis said, with parents of boys generally trying to monitor the amount of time their sons are interacting online, while parents of girls are more focused on messaging and how damaging it can be in terms of bullying and image.

“Parents are trying to navigate a really difficult process,” Gidjunis said, “because screens are in front of our kids all the time, at home and even in school. Trying to find a healthy balance of screen time with other activities is difficult, and every kid is different.”

Sometimes ideas of good parenting conflict with common notions of manliness. Qualities like compassion, care and sacrifice are often attributed to moms, but may be perceived as unusual in fathers. The main message he wants to get across, Gidjunis said, is that there are different ways to be a good father, but that it can be the best part of life.

“I found more joy and fulfillment in being a father than I have in anything in my life,” Gidjunis said. “It is life-affirming and joyous, and that’s a message I never got about becoming a dad. No one told me it would be joyful. I was sad that no one said that to me, and now I tell that to everyone.”