Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family and host of its daily radio show, likes to give pragmatic advice in a straightforward manner.
The world of relationship and parenting advice is filled with a million and one strategies and plenty of noise, but perhaps, here, people find some consistency and clarity. Over 6.3 million people tune into these broadcasts weekly; messages from advice-seekers and grateful listeners alike pour in by the thousands every week.
“We’re pretty straightforward. We believe in marriage, we believe in healthy child-rearing, and so that’s what we try to do every day,” Daly said. “The stability of the family is core to the stability of the culture.”
“I want to be authentic. I don’t want to project some kind of phony perfection. I think that’s been, you know, one of the detrimental legacies of the previous generation,” Daly said. “And I think we’re broken people, all of us. We’re not perfect parents, and we’re not perfect in our marriages, but trying hard to do the best we can.”
Sometimes he would come home, and his wife Jean would say, “That was a great broadcast! So what should we implement?” Daly said with a laugh.
This March marked Daly’s 30th year with the organization, which was started in 1977 by Dr. James Dobson.
Every Family Type
Daly, married for 33 years and father of two, can now reflect on how his difficult childhood must have primed him for the position he is in today. He knows very personally just how important family is.
He was the youngest of five children, a latchkey kid too young by too many years to play with his older siblings. He passed the time alone watching television shows of ideal families. His biological father was an angry alcoholic; Daly remembers him taking a hammer to the wall in a drunken stupor, beating holes into the wall, muttering about how he was going to kill his wife.
Daly sometimes only saw his biological mother a minute or two a day, while he was coming home and she was leaving to work. Despite the endless hours, and despite that some weeks there was no milk in the fridge or bread on the table, Daly vividly remembers the moments he did have with her; he remembers her larger-than-life personality that instilled in the Daly kids a sense of humor and the ability to shake off their pain—which would be essential for survival the next several years.
His mother eventually remarried a former drill sergeant, a harsh man who did not want children. At age 9, Daly’s mother died, and their stepfather packed up and abandoned them the day after the funeral.
Daly spent some time in foster care, with a family whose head of house reported out of the blue to their social worker that the 9-year-old had tried to kill him by pushing him off a cliff. Daly found safety in the structure of school and sports but otherwise tried to keep his head down and keep to himself.
“Many days that loneliness drove me to just cry, in elementary school. I’d walk out of class and sit against a brick wall or on a sand hill, and just cry because I was feeling so lonely and desperate,” Daly said.
Later, his biological father showed up, and Daly spent some time living with him, and then later with one of his older siblings after his biological father was found frozen to death, drunk, in an abandoned building.
“I think when God kind of led me in this position, and kind of put me where I am—that was one of the big thoughts—I’ve experienced just about every family formation type,” Daly said.”I think it helped me to do what I do today.”
An important factor came into Daly’s life at age 15. He was playing football, and a supportive coach sponsored him to go to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp.
“An NFL player was one of the speakers and talked about not having a dad, and what he had missed not having a dad, but what God makes up, being our Father and being a father to the fatherless,” Daly said. He hadn’t grown up in a religious household, though he was told his mother had become a Christian the day before she died, but he didn’t understand it. Nevertheless, he connected immediately with what this athlete was saying.
Daly, who has probably heard every relationship question under the sun, writes that building a family is not like building a house; there is no blueprint or template, though so many people wish there were. And perhaps this fear of failure is stopping many people from starting families, or even engaging with the ones they already have. He speaks about the culture, and of dads backing away from fatherhood, sometimes even just by retreating to the garage, because they don’t think they can get it right.
“I think when my first son was born, I mean, I stayed up all night with him the first night and just held him because I felt the enormity of it, the big responsibility of it,” Daly said. “I didn’t have a dad really involved with me in my life, so I thought I was ill-equipped to do it. But the reality is, nobody’s a perfect parent; it doesn’t come with a manual.”
“For me, it was learning how to love my boys well, and learning how to love my wife,” he said. “That, to me, is the core challenge and the core desire every day.”
The broadcast is largely marriage and parenting focused with the occasional interview about culture and faith more broadly.
“Stable families produce a stable culture,” Daly said. “For example, children do best in a home with a mom and a dad. And that’s true, and that has not changed.”
There are clear benefits from a public health level, economic level, and nearly every area of public life. If family has become politicized, it is a recent and unfortunate phenomenon.
One of the things that drew Daly to the organization was the syncing of social science and faith. Data consistently show that children do better with both of their parents in a healthy home and that society does better when children do better, and this is completely in line with Christian beliefs. As a result, the interviewees, authors, and experts, and people who’ve lived through extraordinary circumstances, can speak from their heart and be understood on many levels.
Focus on the Family is a Christian organization, and the interviewees are Christians called to create loving families.
“[Faith] is the underpinning of everything we do,” Daly said. “We can certainly give a family good advice on how to strengthen their marriage or help them with a parenting crisis. But at the core of all of it is our faith in Christ and what we believe to be the institution of the family being created by God for the purpose of nurturing and developing children.”
It hasn’t stopped their work from benefiting people in all walks of life.
“I read just last week from an atheist who listens to the program and appreciates it,” Daly said. “She said some very nice things about the authenticity of the program, the fact that she’s not a Christian, but she appreciates the input and the advice that we provide, it seems to be, as she said, practical and reasonable.”
Daly once had a meeting with the head of a national organization who told him right off the bat that they looked at the Focus on the Family website every single day, because they considered them their number one adversary. Shocked as he was by the statement, they had an open conversation and came to an understanding. Working with people who disagree with him doesn’t prevent him from having conviction in his own beliefs, which include reaching out to others with love.
Focus on the Family has worked with both churches and governments to help further adoption of foster children in Colorado, with the Wait No More program, which reduced the number of children needing permanent homes by two thirds, around 600, in about two years. They’ve also worked together with the Gill Foundation to pass a nonpartisan bill to strengthen sex trafficking laws.
“As a Christian, I believe relationship is part of how we’re formed and why we’re formed. So I think job one is to have a relationship with people who disagree with you,” Daly said. “I look forward to [the discussions] and I aim for them because I really enjoy them.”
And as head of the international division previously, Daly had spent 12 years traveling through 70 countries.
“I think the biggest takeaway in that experience was the universal language of the family. I could go to any of these countries, and governments, and business leaders, and church leaders—all agreed that strengthening the family was one of the core jobs of the culture,” Daly said.