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'The making of a dad'

Ben Stein talks about becoming a father

(CNN) -- According to his own estimation, Ben Stein was a nobody in Hollywood after playing a character role in "Ferris Buehler's Day Off." Then came a little boy named Tommy, and Stein became a dad.

Currently the host of Comedy Central's "Win Ben Stein's Money," the actor-writer spoke with CNN's Bobbie Battista on Father's Day about being a father, and his book, "Tommy and Me: The Making of a Dad."

BOBBIE BATTISTA: This book is subtitled "The Making of a Dad," and I think most people would assume that being a dad is something that ... comes naturally. But that isn't necessarily the case with you.

STEIN: Not at all. Well it didn't come easily for us to get our son, because he was adopted and it was quite a struggle to get him. And once we had him, it was not easy for me to be a dad. I felt kind of estranged and inadequate. And I found that like almost everything else in life, it was a job. It just happens to be the best job and especially the best paid job in the world.

BATTISTA: Can you tell us a little bit more about how Tommy came to be with you?

STEIN: Well, my wife and I were not going to have children. We were revolutionary fighters for the proletariat and for peace and justice. And also we were too selfish and lazy. But also, we felt that, at least I particularly felt, I probably wouldn't be a good dad.

I wasn't a good athlete, I wasn't particularly inspiring or strong personality-wise. But then around our mid-thirties we decided we would be very lonely without children. So we tried to have them; couldn't have them. So we decided to adopt. And that was a major struggle. You run into some of the worst thieves in the world when you try to adopt.

And we finally got our son through a very fine, honest lawyer. And I was quite worried about it. I didn't like the fact that he was the center of attention, that I no longer was.

BATTISTA: Oh, you were jealous.

STEIN: I was jealous. And I also didn't know quite what to do. The nurse and my wife seemed to do everything, and I was sort of a fifth wheel. And but after maybe about a year and a half or two years of being a very bad and absent father -- although I wasn't like in another country or another house -- one night I was telling him a story. I guess he must have been two and a half or three.

And I told him this little story and I said, "Well, good night, Tommy," thinking he might go, "Goo goo." And he said, with perfect pitch and punctuation, "Good night, daddy," in the sweetest voice I've ever heard. And I was simply putty in his hands from then on. There's nothing that I would not have done for him, or wouldn't do for him after that.

And I also heard a pitch on the radio from Dr. James Dobson, who's become very controversial politically but in terms of child rearing is an absolute genius. And he said, "Don't worry if you're not the best athlete on the block. Your kid wants to be with you. If you will just pay attention to him, he will be a boundless reservoir of love and affection for you." And that is exactly what I've found to be true.

If you pay attention to your kids, they will pay it back to you a thousandfold. If you give them some of your esteem and status and share yourself with them, they will double, quadruple it for you.

BATTISTA: It seems like a lot of the material in this book comes from your column in the American Spectator, "Ben Stein's Diary."

STEIN: It's not really the same, but it's similar.

BATTISTA: Well, one of the things I have to ask you is it seems like you sort of attribute adult qualities to Tommy, and I just wondered if he's really that precocious.

STEIN: That is a very, very good question. In some ways, he's very precocious, but in most ways he's just a little child and he can ask very shrewd questions and act very shrewd in his dealings with us, but mostly he is just a little child and a very, very sweet child. And we don't really try to rush him into being an adult.

He'll be an adult for a long time but he'll only be a child for a short time. We want to keep him a child for as long as he cares to be.

BATTISTA: You are a lawyer, you're an economist, you're an actor, and some would say an intellectual. Is this book more about you or about Tommy?

STEIN: I'd say it's about all fathers who don't understand that their children should be the center of their lives. It's about me and about Tommy. I think it's probably more about me than about Tommy.

But it's really aimed at fathers who don't cop to the fact that their children can totally redeem their lives, and that whatever else is going on in their lives, if they pay attention to their kids, they have made their lives something meaningful.

I'm often on business shows and people say to me, "Well blah blah blah, what's a good investment now?" And I always say, "The good investment is to go home from work early and spend the afternoon throwing a ball around with your son. That's a really good investment.

"The returns on it are tax-free. There's no possibility that you'll lose on it. And your son will reap enormous benefits from it." So it's really a story about a father, moi, who was a crummy father and who learned, I think, to be a very good and devoted father and whose life was redeemed thereby.

You know, I had a lot of years of feeling that I was worthless, and ever since I've started paying a lot of attention to my son, I don't feel that way anymore. And I don't know any who pay attention to their sons who feel their lives are wasted.

BATTISTA: All right, Ben Stein. Thanks very much for joining us this morning.

STEIN: Thank you.

BATTISTA: Again, the book is "Tommy and Me: The Making of a Dad."

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