Thin Smith

OWhen Columbus resident Summer Clayton opened his TikTok account a year and a half ago, he never imagined it would lead to him being a surrogate father to more than 3 million followers.

“I really enjoyed engaging with people,” he said. “After a few months I had about a thousand followers, maybe less. I just liked getting up in the morning and seeing what was going on. There was no message or idea that I was trying to make pass. It was just for fun.”

At the end of 2020, a follower asked him, “Hey dad, can you show me how to shave?” In his next TikTok post, Clayton showed how to shave.

Until then, Clayton had never thought of taking on a dad character, but the shaving video caught fire, adding thousands of subscribers to his account in just hours. Stunned by the backlash, Clayton changed his TikTok account to “yourprouddad” (also his Instagram account name) and built the content around Clayton sharing a virtual meal with his son or daughter.

By early 2021, these “Dinner with Dad” or “Breakfast with Dad” videos had boosted his TikTok audience to half a million. His subscriber growth is exponential – he now has 3.1 million. It’s not like it’s going to stop anytime soon. In June, CNN told her story. NBC is also working on an article on Clayton, an exhibition that is sure to push its audience to even higher numbers.

Videos

Clayton posts on TikTok once or twice a week. By far the most popular videos are dinners or breakfasts with dad. Using his smart phone, Clayton greets his “child” and shares a meal, putting the child’s food front and center and creating a virtual conversation at the dinner table.

Clayton asks two questions during mealtime conversation: “What’s the good thing that happened to you?” and “What is the challenge you face today?” »

He pauses after each question, as if listening to the answer, then offers an affirmation with a “that’s cool” or “I’m so proud of you” after the good thing. After the challenge, he adds, “I’m sorry you have to deal with this” or “Remember, you’re not alone. You can talk to someone about it. You can do it. Now let’s eat!”

This is a simple, necessarily generic, exchange over the short time allowed on the TikTok platform.

But somehow, the videos connected to an audience in ways Clayton never imagined.

An unlikely character

In many ways, Clayton is ill-prepared for the role he is playing. First of all, he is only 26 and single with no children. Her experience with her father, especially during her teenage and teenage years, left much to be desired. He has no training as a psychologist or therapist.

But what he has, if his huge following is any indicator, is an almost magical rapport with his audience. There is a sweetness and optimism that shines through in his messages. No judgment, just an affirmation. It’s the ideal kind of casual exchange between a father and his child, full of acceptance, warmth and encouragement.

A look at the hundreds, sometimes thousands of comments after each of his TikTok posts indicates that there is something that resonates deeply and emotionally with his audience, some of whom are, in fact, old enough to be Clayton’s father.

His latest TikTok post on Friday drew nearly 700 comments.

Some examples :

“I’m in a very bad situation with my friends and a girl I like, can you wish me luck? I’m afraid she doesn’t like me…”

“I wish my dad was like that. we barely talk.

“When you had a tough day and you’re smiling because your video came up first and now it doesn’t hurt that bad. Thank you!”

“I haven’t had a father figure in my entire life and you always make my day you even gave me my favorite dish!”

“My problem today was that I got kicked out of my old group of friends that I was with 24/7…”

“Hey! I have daddy issues lol he’s not a bad dad but he’s just a workaholic and he’s barely home. That made my day, thanks!

“I’m going to the university!”

What is happening here?

Clayton spent his formative years in North Dakota and his interests have always been fitness. He holds a bachelor’s degree in corporate fitness and a master’s degree in kinesiology. He moved to Columbus in mid-April where he works with the Columbus Air Force Base Airmen as a civilian fitness trainer/coach. When not at work, he enjoys photography, cooking and weightlifting.

You can think of Clayton as “Mr. Rogers with muscles.”

“I think when people look at the content that I create, they think about how their parents treated them or what role their parents played in their lives,” Clayton said, noting that her relationship with her own father has grown. has improved considerably over the past year. “I think maybe it’s the lack of love or (maybe it’s) the peace or joy they get from my content. Having content like mine is kind of a template for what a good relationship with a parent looks like, even if there is no perfect father. It can even be a chance to heal a relationship. For me, it’s such a joy.

For Clayton, joy has an emotional cost. Some comments are poignant and sad. At first, when his audience was smaller, he could reach out to them for a personal message. Now, with hundreds and thousands of comments after each post, that’s no longer possible.

“I had a kid who asked me if I wanted to adopt him,” Clayton said. “I remember I shed a tear. It’s so sad. Now there are so many comments, I’m scared now that I’m missing a comment from someone having their worst day. Good advice that I I received recently was, “Their wins are not your wins. Their losses are not your losses. But that’s still something I struggle with today. I have to remember to take a step back. You don’t can’t do much.

With 3.1 million “children”, this “only” turned out to be a lot.

“I guess that means this content is doing what it’s supposed to do,” Clayton said.

Slim Smith is a columnist and editor for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]