I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of fathers from all walks of life, and my conversation with Sean Patrick Thomas was one of my favorite to date. The actor, widely known for his roles in the Barbershop trilogy and most recently for his role as President Claude Galbert in CBS’ Madam Secretary, is also a thoughtful, committed, and inspiring dad. Sean brings a spirit of excellence to being a father, and I hope you are as encouraged by him as I am.
Jeff Johnson: What are three principles that guide how you father?
Sean Patrick Thomas: Make them feel valued — Every time either of them wakes up in the morning or walks into the room, I let them know how excited I am to see them. I’m genuinely thrilled in their presence, and I let them know that.
Respect — We model and reinforce respect for everyone, their elders in particular. Seeing them treat people with kindness, manners, and respect brings us more pride than almost anything else they do.
Mental Toughness — I have Black children growing up in a world that is hostile to their existence. It’s important to me to teach them to be resilient in the face of whatever obstacles may come their way. Life is a gauntlet for everyone. For us as Black folks, it’s even more treacherous. They need to be ready.
JJ: How do you teach mental toughness?
SPT: For example, I don’t shy away from explaining to my children what’s going on in the world right now regarding Trump and all of the MAGA madness that goes on. It’s important to me that they understand the realities of the world we’re living in. There are those outside our home who tell them they have to respect the President. I tell them they don’t. They don’t have to respect anyone who is cruel, ignorant, or racist. Even if that person is the president. I teach them to have the courage of their convictions, no matter who outside our home tries to sway them.
JJ: As you reflect on your family’s early challenges with getting pregnant, what was the most emotionally stressful aspect of your journey towards fatherhood?
SPT: The most stressful aspect was the toll it was taking on my wife. At times she felt like she was failing me or disappointing me, and it was difficult to reassure her that wasn’t the case. Once we began dating seriously, we fantasized early and often about having babies, so starting a family was a core component of the future we saw for ourselves. So, along with the uncertainty of our situation, making her feel safe and secure that I was with her no matter what ultimately brought us closer together emotionally.
JJ: Tell me about the moment you held your baby the first time.
SPT: My Lola Jolie. The overwhelming feeling I had was gratitude. Gratitude to my wife Aonika for her perseverance and strength. Gratitude to the universe for allowing me the privilege of being the caregiver and protector of this perfect angel.
JJ: You’re the son of Guyanese immigrants. What is the one thing you do as a father that your parents think an affront to what “good Caribbean” parents do?
SPT: I can’t think of anything I do as a father that is counter to what a good Caribbean dad would do. I prioritize education, work ethic, respect for elders, family first…basic West Indian values.
JJ: As a man who makes his living providing content for audiences, what kind of parent are you when it comes to “screen time”?
SPT: When it comes to screen time, our philosophy is fluid. While they’re in school, no iPads during the week. They get a couple of hours over the weekend. During the summer, it’s a bit more relaxed. As long as they are reading actual books at a much higher ratio than they are watching YouTube, then they get screen time during the week.
JJ: Who is your favorite animated character for your kids and why?
SPT: Two-part answer. For my daughter, it’s Belle from Beauty and the Beast because she’s educated, independent, kind, and devoted to her family. For my son, it’s Miles Morales [from the new Spider-verse film] because he overcomes self-doubt to become extraordinary, is devoted to his family as well, and because like my son (a competitive gymnast), Miles Morales can fly through the air.
JJ: Who is more fun — Mommy or Daddy? Did this surprise you?
SPT: I have to admit, Mommy is probably more fun. She will spontaneously erupt with goofy songs or dances, and it takes me a second to catch on and keep up with them. It doesn’t surprise me at all. Their mom is from the Big Easy.
JJ: What is one thing your wife says you do better than her with the kids?
SPT: I just asked her. The verdict: I’m more firm with the children. I take that to mean that in our good cop/bad cop routine, I’m the bad cop.
JJ: So it sounds like you’re better at discipline. Does it come naturally, or does it pain you to be the bad cop?
SPT: I suppose it comes naturally. My babies respond well to guidance, and we often hear that they are kind, courteous, hard-working, and polite. So I don’t second guess myself about needing to be firm sometimes. Seems like it works. My only concern is that they should feel free to come and tell me anything at any time. Kids don’t want to confide in the bad cop.
JJ: Who is your fatherhood mentor(s)?
SPT: That’s a tough one. My father passed when I was 18, and my grandfather passed long before I had children. That said, both of them mentor me from the great beyond. Everything I know about being a good father and family man, I draw from their examples. I am blessed to have a fantastic father-in-law who is a great example of what it is to be a patriarch of a large family.
JJ: Who is your favorite TV Dad?
SPT: It used to be he who shall not be named, but now I’d have to say Ned Stark, Game of Thrones. He taught his kids to have honor, loyalty, and integrity. His children are survivors who are wise, but they also know how to fight if need be.
JJ: Is there anything you intentionally, or as you think about it unintentionally, do differently with your son than your daughter?
SPT: I find that I make a point of making sure my daughter’s self-esteem is healthy and robust. I tell her as often as I can how smart, talented, capable, and beautiful she is. My gut instinct is that is my number one job before she leaves my home – build her esteem.
We live in a world where girls and women are under constant scrutiny and scathing critique. I’m very sensitive to that when it comes to Lola. I want to make sure her skin is thick enough to repel all of the negativity that may come her way. I do many of the same things for my son, but I admit I worry less about him in this regard.
JJ: What did you learn about marriage through becoming a parent?
SPT: I learned that parenthood reveals the best in us as a married couple. Every bit of our generosity, patience, and selflessness comes out when we are parenting our children. For Aonika and I, we’re our best selves as parents, and it has carried over into how we are with each other. It has taught us that if we can be our best selves for our children we can and should be our best selves for each other as well.
JJ: We spend so much time teaching our children. What’s the coolest thing your kids have taught you?
SPT: My son taught me the Orange Justice, and my daughter continues to teach me how to use the features on my phone and laptop. She’s a gadget whiz.
JJ: Orange Justice?! You have video of this, right??
SPT: Sorry, there’s no footage that I know of.
JJ: When all is said and done, how do you want to be remembered by your children?
SPT: I want my children to remember me as someone who made them laugh, made them think, and made them feel unstoppable.