Dr. Jeffrey Gardere is the host of an unusual television reality show on VH1 called Dad Camp. The premise of the program is that Gardere, a clinical psychologist, will help prepare for fatherhood eight young men whose wives or girlfriends are about to give birth. In eight one-hour segments filmed over 30 days, Gardere tries to convey some sense of maturity and responsibility to young men who clearly have no model for what fatherhood means.
Gardere, who bills himself as ''America's psychologist,'' makes regular appearances on The Maury Povich Show but has also been on the programs of Ricki Lake, Sally Jessy Raphael and even Oprah. Born in New York of Haitian immigrant parents, Gardere attended the University of Rochester and earned his doctorate at George Washington University. A few years ago he went back to school (Columbia University), earned a master's degree in real estate and worked for a while as a broker and real estate developer. He sat down with The Root on Manhattan's Upper West Side, just a few blocks from the first apartment he lived in with his family.
The Root: Why did you agree to do VH1's Dad Camp?
Jeff Gardere: Quite honestly, they [the producers] gave me a call and said we're looking for someone who can whip these fathers-to-be into shape and we've seen you on The Maury Povich Show, and we'd like to submit your name. It was on a Wednesday, and they said we'll get back to you on Friday. They submitted my name and an hour later they called and said, '''The job is yours if you want it.'' So I owe it to the Maury show.
TR: What did you do on the Maury show?
JG: At the end of each segment, I'll come on (I usually the paternity shows or the lie detector shows—Is it really your kids? Are you the father?) I'll come on and give them a lambasting, bear up kind of boot-camp talk: ''You guys need to look at what you're doing.'' Give them this kind of tough talk, tough love, solution-oriented talk. I have to go in and in three minutes and undo the destruction that took years. So when they said, ''We'd like you to do this show.'' I said, ''Wow, here is an opportunity that I could do this, that I could do it on an expanded longer term level and really effect some change.''
TR: How did you get started on television?
JG: A good friend of mine, Dr. Craig Polite, was doing a show called People Are Talking. He was going out of town. They asked me to fill in for him. The phone never stopped ringing after that. I've given commentary on really everything: Wars, political process, financial, real estate, couples stuff, hard news, psychotherapy, celebrity couples.
JG: The biggest surprise, and I should have known, was that each of one those guys came from a catastrophic upbringing. They were just carrying the sins of the fathers.
TR: In one segment, I saw one young man who had tattooed on his knuckles: ''Deadbeat dad''
JG: It was a reminder that he didn't want to be a deadbeat dad like this father. It speaks to the critics who are like: ''These guys are a bunch of losers? Where did they find these guys? There's no way these guys are going to change. They're deadbeat dads to the nth levels.'' It really is character assassination.
I see these guys as damaged goods with real psychological issues and, working with them, I would never turn my back on any patient.
TR: How much effect can you have on these guys in 30 days?
JG: A tremendous amount. I really did change lives. I wasn't successful with everyone. They weren't successful for themselves. However, it's opened a dialogue and a door where they're still struggling with the issues; the women are saying, ''You started this process, you've got to see it through.''
TR: Why is there so much irresponsibility among these young guys?
JG: There's been a breakdown of the American family as we used to know it. We've been completely desensitized to the choices that some people have made. And some of them have made some smart choices and said, ''We're not going to stick around and wait to get a responsible father, we're going to do this by ourselves.'' People now really feel more than ever, ''What's wrong with having a child out of wedlock?''
TR: What about the women in the show?
JG: These women made catastrophic choices, too. For the guys, it's a cyclical generational thing about poor parenting. The women suffer from the same thing, where many of their mothers did not have steady men in their lives. These young women did the same thing looking for a corrective emotional experience by hooking up with another person that reminds them of their fathers who were there or who weren't there.
TR: There's a theory so many black women are vulnerable to men because of the absence of fathers?
JG: They repeat the same thing as their mothers. They become comfortable with the men who aren't there, who aren't available, who have the same destructive attitudes that their fathers did.
TR: What's next for you?
JG: I would love to have a talk show, I hate to say it, but a la Jerry Springer-Maury, that's very entertaining but that can deal with the tougher issues. I'm really into entertaining. Eventually, I'd like to produce shows, too.
Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter.