If you’re a guy, especially an emotionally reticent one like me, there’s probably no more awkward thing imaginable than telling your father you love him. (Except maybe hugging!) Full disclosure: I tried out the words once, over the phone, after a grueling weekend-long self-help seminar. It actually felt fantastic—so by all means, if you have the intestinal fortitude, do it—but frankly, it’s not something I’m likely to say all the time. Fortunately, even on Father’s Day, when the cultural pressure to emote is at its highest, there are other ways you can express your gratitude.
Give him credit. Parents love it when their kids succeed, so go ahead and brag about something you’ve accomplished. Then thank dad for instilling those qualities in you. Let him know he gave you the work ethic you needed to land that coveted job. Or maybe—like my father—he told you after college that “just living in New York” was accomplishment enough and you’d figure the rest out eventually. Twelve years later, at 34, I’ve finally admitted he was right.
Keep him tech-savvy. My father probably likes the Internet more than I do. He has multiple blogs, his own YouTube poetry channel, and more than a thousand Facebook friends. But as a Baby Boomer, he doesn’t feel the need for burning Internet speed the way Gen Xers and Millennials do. It was only after my brother and I pooled our resources to get him a new iMac that he even knew what he’d been missing. The Facebook updates started coming faster than ever!
Revolutionize his other habits. Introduce him to a new concept, ideally something functional. My father is notorious for his Einstein-esque hairdo, and I’ve rarely seen him more amused than the time I gave him a jar of high-end hair product to tamp down his trademark flyaways. He kept shaking his head and saying, “Product? Who knew such a thing even existed!” (Bonus: My grandmother was also delighted, though my mother said she liked his wild hair.)
Keep the cultural conversation going. I won’t waste my breath trying to explain to my dad why I love Kanye West. But knowing how much he liked Breaking Bad, I feel quite confident recommending True Detective, The Wire, Fargo, or any other great character-driven crime show. It gives us something else to fall back on besides sports, and let’s be honest, sometimes we need that.
Pick up the tab. Neither of my parents are big restaurant-goers, so when I wanted to show them a little culinary-based love, I bought a whole new oven for the house (again with the help of my brother). But most fathers would likely prefer a steak dinner at a restaurant with a nice wine or imported beer. If you have to take the waiter aside and give him your credit card in advance to make sure dad doesn’t pounce on the bill first, so be it. Bluster aside, he’ll be impressed.
Remember him during the rest of the year. When my father turned 61, I forgot to call or even email him on his birthday. When I apologized afterward, he brushed it off, saying: “I was actually glad to have my birthday slip by without much fanfare this year.” I wasn’t surprised. For some people, holidays can be off-puttingly perfunctory. A call on Father’s Day is great, but ringing him up on a random afternoon in April, July, or September might be even better. Hell, go for all three.
Write it down. Expressing tough emotions may be the reason email was invented. But don’t just fire off a rote one-liner. Include a favorite anecdote from years past. Attach a picture of the two of you together. Or make it a Facebook post that the whole family can see. Either way, you’ll be able to keep those awful, wonderful words safely on the page where they belong: “Dad, I love you.”