By Faith Karimi, CNN
Summer Clayton may not have children in real life, but he’s a “proud dad” to 2.8 million people on TikTok.
Every week he sits down for dinner and a virtual chat with his “kids”. He looks empathetically into the camera and tells them that he is proud of them. He teaches them how to shave and reminds them that it’s okay to feel pain when life hurts. Some days he prays with them.
“Okay, how was your day?” he says in a recent video after handing his virtual child a plate of birria tacos and soup. “Tell me one good thing that happened and one challenging thing that happened.”
He pauses and takes his time to answer.
“Okay… I see you. That is really cool …. I would definitely celebrate! OK, what was a challenge you had to overcome today?” he asks.
“Well, I’m sorry you had to go through that,” he continues. “But I hope you continue to talk to people about how you’re feeling. i love you i do Let’s eat!”
Clayton, a civilian fitness trainer at Columbus Air Force Base in northeast Mississippi, is not a therapist or life coach. He’s only 26 and has no children.
To some, his one-sided talks may seem silly. But his compassion and charisma are evident in the TikTok videos, which have resonated with people who need a father figure — or just someone to listen to their troubles.
“There are a lot of fond memories from my childhood, but there are also these deficits that I don’t want to put on others, whether it’s feeling like sitting alone in the schoolyard when I was younger or just not having the relationship with my dad that I wanted,” says Clayton of his approach to the videos.
“It allows me to practice what it means not to judge and to be kind.”
The “father” idea came to him from one of his early followers
Clayton is a health freak with a bachelor’s degree in corporate fitness and a master’s degree in kinesiology. When he’s not working on the grassroots or filming his videos, he loves lifting weights, taking photos and cooking.
He started posting inspirational and instructional videos on TikTok in late 2020, prompting his followers to jokingly call him “dad.” His first viral video was a how-to shave — a response to a follower who sent him a message asking, “Hey Dad, can you teach me how to shave?”
The video exploded, earning it tens of thousands of new fans within hours.
Now he calls himself “yourprouddad” on TikTok and on Instagram, where he has another 68,000 followers.
“I really could have been called ‘your proud brother’ or ‘your uncle’ or something like that. I think ‘your proud dad’ stayed because one of the people who follow me commented on one of my posts and said, ‘Hey dad,'” he says. “And I said, ‘Well, I think I’m kind of taking on that role.’
From there, his videos have morphed into various recurring series, including his popular “Dinner With Dad,” in which Clayton sets down two plates of food—one for himself and one for his virtual “kid.” With a big smile, he gives a quick breakdown of what’s on the plate. Sometimes he blesses the food. Sometimes he intervenes directly. He almost always asks, “How was your day?”
Clayton is part of a growing cadre of online surrogate dads, including Rob Kenney of Dad, How Do I?. Bo Petterson’s YouTube series and DadAdviceFromBo on TikTok, providing fatherly advice, guidance, moral support and dad jokes.
In a recent video, Clayton addressed the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. His typical grin was missing. There was no plate either.
“Hey, you know, today is a sad day for a lot of people. A lot of people wake up there without a family member,” he said. “It’s okay to be sad…I just wanted to say that. I love you all, okay? I hope you are having a good day today.”
While Clayton works to build a better relationship with his own father, it wasn’t always like this, he says. He tries to show unconditional love to his followers and ask them questions he wishes someone would have asked him when he was younger.
“If you look at my content, maybe you can remember how you’ve been treated and you can say, ‘I want something better for my kids or for myself,'” he says. “And maybe that little bit of empathy or reflection will help you be a better person for someone else.
Fans say his videos address a real need in the world
Clayton’s extended family comes in all age groups. Many of his “kids” are old enough to be his parents – something he says doesn’t bother him.
“Counseling is counseling, whether you’re getting it from an older person or a younger person,” says Clayton. “There are some younger people that I absolutely admire. I say, ‘Man, you’re wise beyond your years. I am happy to take some of your advice.’”
Clayton’s youth doesn’t seem to bother many of his fans either.
At 58, Sarah D’Imperio doesn’t seem like Clayton’s target audience. But the New York City woman thinks it speaks to the breadth of his videos’ appeal.
“It’s a brilliant idea…especially for young men or women of color who may not have a fatherly role model who will listen or have time to listen,” she says. “It’s just heartwarming to see someone trying to fill a small part of that role for someone.”
Jess Brunelle of Portland, Oregon, says Clayton’s posts resonate because they address a real need in the world.
“I’m a mental health therapist myself, specializing in multigenerational trauma. … There is so much trauma in the world and there are so many people who don’t have a family system or even an adult to have their back,” says Brunelle, 47.
“I know so many adults who are still trying to figure out how to have a healthy adult relationship without even knowing what that looks like.”
Additionally, she says, “This world often feels so negative and divided and ugly… Its content is so simple and sweet and positive.”
Chicago’s Andrea Harvey shares a similar sentiment. She says she’s not very close to her father, which makes the virtual conversations with Clayton more meaningful.
“I love his content because it forces you to stop and answer those questions for yourself,” says Harvey, 40. “I really answer his questions and I smile at his answers.”
Bogar Lopez, 33, of Fullerton, California, came across Clayton’s account two months ago. Now he gets notifications to make sure he doesn’t miss any future posts. Lopez has a 16-year-old daughter and asks her the same questions as Clayton.
“His videos almost always bring me to tears,” says Lopez. “And it’s not because I have a bad relationship with my father. I can really see that he is an amazing person. Every time he posts a video and talks to us, has a face-to-face conversation, asks questions and listens to us, I feel like he’s standing right in front of me and he cares about me.”
He struggles with how much he can do to help people
As his following has grown, Clayton says he struggles with wanting to help people as best he can.
He recently said his inbox had about 3,000 direct messages from followers telling him about their lives and asking his advice – fatherly and otherwise – on a range of topics from hygiene to how to deal with a romantic breakup.
A lot of the messages come from young people who don’t have a supportive parent figure in their lives, he says.
Clayton says he tries to reply to as many messages as possible. But he also had to learn not to take on too much, he says.
“It was hard to let go of the thought that I had to be there for everyone,” he says. “As these messages come in, there isn’t enough time in the day to get them. And that was what tore me up at first, because sometimes I’d get… these heavy news and I’d be like, ‘Man, what if I miss someone or something?’
“It took a few conversations with people who are therapists and close friends before I realized that first of all I am blessed to have this. But as much as I wish I could, I can’t be there for everyone. Sometimes I can hardly be there for myself.”
Clayton, who aspires to one day have a child of his own, also recognizes that the responsibilities of a virtual father figure are inferior to those of a real father.
“I can never replace someone’s actual birth father or fill that void, but maybe I can just create a little snapshot (of a father figure) with my content and give them a little choice,” he says.
And give emotional support to his digital children. And life skills. And a virtual meal.
And what does he do with the extra plate of food? Once the video is over, he devours it most days.
The CNN Wire
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