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Nate Burleson on His Ideal Father’s Day and Parenting Philosophy

The CBS Mornings host and former NFL star shares the parenting lessons he’s gleaned from football, and his journey to nurture emotionally available sons and more.
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By Wyndi Kappes, Associate Editor
Published June 13, 2024
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Image: Courtesy @nateburleson | Instagram

Nate Burleson is the epitome of a modern multihyphenate. From his impressive career as a former NFL wide receiver to his Emmy-Award-winning role as co-host on CBS Mornings, Nate seamlessly balances professional excellence with his most important role: being a father. Alongside his wife, Atoya, Nate is raising three remarkable teenagers—Nathaniel (Nate Jr.), 19; Nehemiah, 17 and Mia Pearl, 13. Together, they redefine what it means to be a dynamic, emotionally intelligent family in today’s world. We recently caught up with Nate, who was out picking up yet another bouquet for his wife’s birthday week (yes, week!), to discuss his strategies for balancing career and family, his unique parenting approach, the legacy he hopes to leave and his ideal Father’s Day plans. Dive into our conversation below.

The Bump: Between a record-breaking season at CBS Mornings and the busy lives of your teens, how do you ensure you’re available and showing up for your kids when they need you?

Nate Burleson: I feel like being a parent—it’s fluid. Just like with anything else, you get better with time. I think a lot of parents get caught up in trying to be perfect right out of the gate and it’s just unrealistic. We are creatures of our own past environments, so everything that we do as parents is typically learned behavior from how we were raised, what we have seen or how we were influenced. I had to give myself some grace throughout the beginning when it came to being a parent and being available. It can mean so many different things. Being available could mean being in the house, and being available could mean showing up at an event or a sporting game. Being available could mean being the one they go to talk about their issues with. And I had to realize that as times change and my kids get older, I have to remain fluid and nimble on my feet and meet them where they are.

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They all have different needs. There were times when my oldest son wasn’t as talkative. We thought he was going to be the quiet one, and then he became the most expressive; we started to talk more than ever before. My daughter—she’s gone from Daddy’s little girl—Daddy’s baby girl to this young woman. I had to really adjust my conversation and how I talked to her, and how I built her up and encouraged her and made her believe in herself to feel as beautiful as I see her.

The way that I parent is just understanding that you have to be able to change the play. In football, we call it “an audible.” And I think the biggest thing I’ve learned raising teenagers and now having two going to college this fall is that you have to be able to change the play in a moment’s time in order to cater to your son’s or daughter’s needs.

Image: The Bump

TB: What other lessons have you learned on the football field and in the studio that you use in your day-to-day parenting?

NB: I think in football you learn that the quarterback might get most of the attention, but everybody has a chance to contribute. Everybody has a chance to be a star. And the same thing applies to being on CBS Mornings and at home. What I’ve realized is that if you’re well prepared, if you show up with the right mindset and if you’re unselfish, we can all share the ball and contribute to the success of the show and family. I was raised in a household of four boys, and I just thought, “Oh, the older brother runs his show, he’s the boss and he’s going to give his little brothers wet willies and noogies, and he’s going to tell them what to do.” And you just always fall in line, which I guess there’s some truth to it, right? The big brothers, the big sisters, that’s what they do. But the way I started to pivot in my parenting was allowing each kid to have their moment and be the star in whatever space they’re in. They all have these individual talents; the greatest coaches that I’ve been around realize you can’t coach everybody the same to get the best results. You can treat everybody fairly, but you can’t coach them the same. I can treat all of my kids fairly, but I can’t parent them the same.

I allow them to be themselves and shine in their respective spaces. My oldest, Nathaniel, he is a guy who can come in and grab a room’s [attention] in a second’s time. He’s also very bright when it comes to numbers and stats as it pertains to sports. We allow that to be his cool thing and he shines in those moments and I highlight it. My second child, Nehemiah, he’s the engineer. He’s the guy that if something breaks down, he’ll figure it out. Whether it’s something super techie or something that he actually has to take apart, break down and then put together and get it working again, we highlight that and make him feel good about that. We encourage it so much. So he’s thinking about going in that direction for college. My daughter—she’s the creative—she’s me. She’s a Nate 2.0. She can sing, dance, write—she has so many talents, and as much as our family dynamic was based around athleticism, I didn’t want to force the idea that she needed to be an athlete in order to feel special. I wanted to make sure my daughter knew that we were going to meet her where she wanted to be. Once we started to really see her and recognize that, “Oh, maybe sports isn’t her thing. Maybe it’s media, maybe it’s art, maybe it’s songwriting or script writing, maybe she’s going to be in the front or behind the camera.” The moment we started to highlight those things, this young woman just blossomed. So they’re all stars and they all contribute. And that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve learned being a football player that relates to parenting.

Image: Courtesy @nateburleson | Instagram

TB: In order to be there for your kids, you’ve got to first be there for yourself. June is Men’s Mental Health Awareness month and you’ve opened up about your struggles with depression and mental health in the past. How do you safeguard your mental health as a parent in a busy profession?

NB: That’s tough—especially being a football player—because, oftentimes, you have this bravado and this ego and you’re taught as an athlete that you don’t really talk about your mental health. And if you get knocked down, you get back up. So there’s some things that we learned as athletes that really don’t apply to real life. And if they don’t apply to real life, they for damn sure don’t apply to parenting. So I had to check myself early on—especially with my boys… I was creating a culture of young boys that will turn to young men who are masking their emotions because they’re afraid of being judged by their father. So I had to embrace the emotional side in myself, embrace being able to cry in front of them, embrace being able to share whenever I may feel weak in order for them to open up about that.

And it worked. It worked because now they can open up and talk to me about anything, and they’re not afraid to cry. Having that emotional availability, I think my kids were able to see that and learn from that. And I really apply that to my boys because sometimes you grow up in a culture where young boys don’t show emotions, especially young Black boys. For a long time, mental health conversations were almost taboo in the Black community.

Now with my daughter, it’s like you can be the best father in the world and you can tell your daughter how beautiful she is and how smart she is. And you can do that every day, a thousand times when she walks out that door. There’s a vulnerability that she has, and the world can be brutal and that can cause fractures in her spirit, and that used to frustrate me because I’m doing my part. I’m doing everything I can to support her mental health. But with kids in school, social media, the perception of beauty, all of these things that young girls have to deal with, life can be rough. Even if your life is blessed, you’re loved and hugged and reassured, the world can really break you. And I had to realize that she’s going to have to go through some of that in order to become a strong young woman. But what I can do is continue to bolster up her self-perception.

Image: The Bump

TB: So I know you talked a lot about fluidity in your parenting, but are there any golden rules, you would say define your family or your approach to parenting?

NB: I don’t know if we have golden rules, but we have unwritten rules. [In a big household] it can get very personal, very fast. And sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not. My wife would always say, “Okay, alright, now say something nice about your brother.” It kind of forces you to get back into saying something caring.

If your child is doing everything right—academically, being a good person, being a good friend, being a good sibling, cleaning up, just doing all the things, we allow them to have freedom and give them more responsibilities to accelerate their maturity. I feel like sometimes parents don’t reward their kids as much as they should. I like that because life is a results-oriented business. That’s what life is. Whether it’s your academics or sports, put the work in and you’ll see slow improvements. Hopefully, you’ll find success. Your job, you wake up, go to your 9 to 5, you put the work in, you get the check. Hopefully, that turns into promotions and then you climb the ladder. So I like to mimic what life is going to be in my home. And it’s not always a financial thing. We don’t really do monetary rewards, but it’s more just allowing them to get more freedom, extending curfews—little things like that.

I want my kids to be thankful and have a sense of humility. Little jerks turn into grown jerks. And I don’t want my kids to grow up into grown jerks. I really don’t. It’s the best way I can put that.

TB: Is there one best piece of advice that you give to other parents whose kids are entering high school or heading off to college?

NB: I would say give them some grace. They’re dealing with a lot. I know we like to believe that life was harder for us, and maybe in certain circumstances it was—I don’t want to be dismissive of anybody’s story. But for me, I feel like meeting the kids where they are also means understanding what they’ve been through. This young generation—they have been through a lot. Just think about it, they’ve had conflict on American soil, societal issues, they’ve seen conflict all around the world, dealt with quarantines and COVID. Some have missed elementary graduations and middle school graduations, and some of them missed college graduations. They might be smiling, they might be dancing on TikTok, but there’s a lot of trauma that this generation of kids has dealt with. So give them grace, give them absolute grace.

Image: Courtesy @nateburleson | Instagram

TB: Being a parent on a public platform isn’t always easy. What’s one thing that you wish the public knew about your life as a dad?

NB: It’s my biggest motivating factor. I don’t believe that I’d be as motivated if I was a single man. Not even close. I joke with my wife. I’m like, “If I didn’t have y’all, I’d be living in a really, really nice cardboard box. I’m going to have everything I need, but I’d just be living in something small, something quaint.” And I probably wouldn’t be working as many jobs because I wouldn’t be as motivated to spoil myself. I’m so motivated by my family and taking care of them and being a representation of what hard work is.

When my sons say to me, “Dad, I’ve seen you work your butt off in so many different careers, and I appreciate you for showing us what hard work is.” That means a lot. Bigger than just a roof over their head, clothes on their back, food on the table or a nice vacation that I may take them on; it’s a bigger representation of what they can achieve. Hopefully, that’ll pass that down when I’m gone. Hopefully, my footprints will be left behind and their kids and maybe their kids’ kids can walk in those steps, and they can say, “Man, great grandpa Nate. He was a beast. He worked his butt off.” I want that to be the lasting impact I leave.

TB: So at the end of working your butt off as a parent and as a professional, what do you do to relax and recharge?

NB: When I feel depleted, when I feel like my battery percentage is low, I just hang around my family. I don’t need to do anything special. I’ll just turn my phone off and I’ll just sit there and I’ll just watch. We’ll laugh, we’ll joke, cry if we have to. And then after that, my battery’s full. We love to go to the movies. Even when we’re on vacation, whether it’s a staycation or we travel somewhere, we love to break bread together. The dinner table is where we have our most fun. My kids listen to different types of music, they watch different shows, they like different entertainment. So we love to have these conversations about which era of music is better, which movies are better, what celebrities, gossip, all that. That’s what we do to really enjoy each other’s time—just sit around and hang out with each other.

Image: The Bump

TB: Father’s Day is around the corner. What does your ideal Father’s Day look like? I know last year you gave your kids a gift—watches to represent the time you spent together—do you plan on switching up the narrative and giving them a gift again this year?

NB: Last year I was trying to do something different and get them to mature when it comes to gift giving. As a father, you do all the gifts for the kids. When it’s Mother’s Day or my wife’s birthday or Christmas, I go get their cards. I go get a couple of gifts and I say, “This is from you; this is from you; this is from you.” So I gave them the gifts last Father’s Day as a “Hey, yo, this is my last gift-giving event from now on. You guys need to give me something.” And I was hanging out with my oldest Nate over the weekend, and I was joking with him about never buying me anything and he said, “Dad, come on now. You might be right, but this Father’s Day, I got you.” So now he’s 20, and has a little money in his pocket, he’ll be able to buy me something.

This year, I’m not going to lie, I want some flowers. I do. I get why women like flowers— they smell good, and they brighten up the room. There are these happy feelings I get. And then I just want a lot of food: big breakfast, big lunch, big dinner, big dessert. And I want to be treated like a king. I don’t want to lift a pinky. I don’t want to do anything. That’s it.

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