He's a 'proud dad' to 3 million people

Originally Published: 19 JUN 22 03:01 ET

Updated: 19 JUN 22 09:27 ET

By Faith Karimi, CNN

(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 to dinner and a virtual chat with his "kids." He looks into the camera with empathy and tells them he's proud of them. He teaches them how to shave, and reminds them it's OK to feel pain when life hurts. Some days, he prays with them.

"All right, how was your day?" he says in one recent video after setting down a plate of birria tacos and soup for his virtual child. "Tell me one good thing that happened and one challenging thing that happened."

He pauses, allowing time for a response.

"OK ... I see you. That's really cool .... I would definitely celebrate that! OK, what's one challenge that you had to overcome today?" he asks.

Another pause.

"Well, I'm sorry you had to go through that," he continues. "But I hope that you keep talking to people about how you feel. I love you, I do. Let's eat!"

Clayton, a civilian fitness trainer at Columbus Air Force Base in northeastern Mississippi, is not a therapist or a life coach. He's also only 26 and has no kids.

To some, his one-way conversations may seem silly. But his compassion and charisma come through in the TikTok videos, which have struck a chord among people who need a father figure -- or just someone who appears to listen to their troubles.

"There's a lot of great memories that I pull from in my childhood, but there's also these deficits that I don't want other people to experience, whether it's the feeling of sitting alone in the schoolyard when I was younger or just not having that relationship with my dad that I wanted," Clayton says about his approach to the videos.

"It allows me to practice what it means to be nonjudgmental and to be kind."

He got the 'dad' idea from one of his early followers

Clayton is a health buff who has a bachelor's degree in corporate fitness and a master's in kinesiology. When he's not working at the base or making his videos, he loves lifting weights, taking photos and cooking.

He started posting on TikTok in late 2020 with inspirational and how-to videos, prompting followers to jokingly call him "dad." His first video to go viral was a shaving how-to -- a response to a follower who sent him a message asking, 'hey Dad, can you teach me how to shave?"

The video blew up, earning him tens of thousands of new fans within hours.

Now he goes by "yourprouddad" on TikTok and on Instagram, where he has an additional 68,000 followers.

"I truly could have been called 'your proud brother' or 'your uncle' or anything like that. I think 'your proud dad' stuck 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 guess I'm kind of taking on this 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 him and one for his virtual "kid." With a big smile, he gives a quick breakdown of what's on the dinner plate. Sometimes, he blesses the food. Other times, he digs right in. Almost always, he asks, "How was your day?"

Clayton is part of a growing cadre of online surrogate dads, including Rob Kenney of the "Dad, How Do I?" YouTube series and Bo Petterson's DadAdviceFromBo on TikTok, who provide fatherly advice, how-to instructions, moral support and dad jokes.

In one recent video, Clayton addressed the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. His trademark grin was missing. There was no dinner plate, either.

"Hey, you know, today is kinda a sad day for a lot of people. A lot of people are waking up without a family member there," he said. "It's OK to feel sad ... I just wanted to say that. I love you all, OK? I hope you have an OK day today."

While Clayton is working on building a better relationship with his own father, it wasn't always that way, he says. He tries to show his followers unconditional love and ask them questions he wishes someone had asked him when he was younger.

"When you look at my content, maybe you can think back to how you were treated and you can say, 'I want better for my children, or for myself,'" he says. "And maybe that little bit of empathy or reflection may allow you to 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 ages. Many of his "kids" are old enough to be his parent -- something he says doesn't bother him.

"Advice is advice, whether you're getting it from an older person or a younger person," Clayton says. "There's some younger people who I completely admire. I'm like, 'Man, you are wise beyond your years. I will gladly take some of your advice.'"

Clayton's youth doesn't seem to bother many of his fans, either.

At 58, Sarah D'Imperio may not seem like Clayton's target audience. But the New York City woman believes that 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 paternal role model that listens or has time to listen," she says. "It's just heartwarming to see someone trying to fill a small part of that role for anyone."

Jess Brunelle of Portland, Oregon, says Clayton's posts resonate because they address a real need in the world.

"I am a mental health therapist myself and I specialize in multigenerational trauma. ... There's so much trauma in the world and there are so many people who don't have a family system or even one adult that has their back," says Brunelle, 47.

"I know so many adults who are still trying to figure out how to navigate a healthy adult relationship without knowing what that even looks like."

Also, she says, "This world feels so negative and divided and ugly a lot of times ... His content is so simple and sweet and positive."

Andrea Harvey of Chicago echoes 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 pause and answer those questions for yourself," says Harvey, 40. "I genuinely answer his questions, and smile at his responses."

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 he's started asking her the same questions that Clayton asks.

"His videos almost always bring me to tears," Lopez says. "And it's not because I have a bad relationship with my dad. I just can genuinely see that he is an amazing person. Whenever he posts a video and he's talking to us, having a one on one, asking questions and listening to us, I feel like he's right in front of me, caring 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 much as he can.

On a recent day, he said his inbox had about 3,000 direct messages from followers telling him about their lives and asking for advice -- fatherly and otherwise -- on a range of issues, from hygiene to how to handle a romantic breakup.

Many of the messages come from young people who don't have a supportive parental figure in their lives, he says.

Clayton says he tries to respond to as many messages as he can. But he says he also had to learn not to take on too much.

"It was hard to let go of this thought that I had to be there for everyone," he says. "As these messages are coming in, there's not enough time in the day to get to them. And that tore me up at first, because sometimes I would get ... these heavy messages and I would be like, 'Man, what if I miss someone or something?'

"It took some conversations with people who are therapists and close friends for me to realize that first of all, I am blessed to have this. But however much I wish I could ... I can't be there for every person. I can barely be there for myself sometimes."

Clayton, who wants to have a child of his own one day, also recognizes that the responsibilities of a virtual father figure don't come close to those of a real dad.

"I can never replace someone's actual biological father or fill that void, but maybe throughout my content, I can create just a little snapshot (of a father figure) and allow them to have a little bit of a choice," he says.

And give his digital kids some emotional support. And life skills. And a virtual meal.

And what does he do with the extra plate of food? As soon as the video's over, on most days he chows it down.

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