Bickering Kids in the Car: A Practical Dad Solution

Perhaps the worst place to have children bickering is the family car.  You’re stuck behind the wheel as the kids whine, accuse, pick, poke and annoy one another – and you.  In many instances, this is caused by the kids feuding over who gets to sit in what spot.  It might be who gets to sit shotgun or in our case, who gets to sit by the automatically-closing minivan door.

You could hit a storefront for the distraction it causes, so you have to figure out some workable, consistent and verifiable solution for the problem.

My favorite was created by a Practical Dad for his quarreling kids.

He ran an older vehicle without front passenger airbags, so the kids could sit shotgun.  But who’s turn was it?  And the last trip really wasn’t that long so it doesn’t count, does it?  And you forgot that I didn’t get to sit there last week when we went to the mall, didn’t you?  Huh?  Huh?  Dintja???

Bill’s a precise guy with an affinity for building and creating.  He stole a page from Isosceles and created a triangle from thick cardboard, reinforced along the edges by heavy tape.  Each corner was then labeled with the name of one of his three children.  He kept the device inserted into an easily visible seam on his dashboard and when he had the children in his vehicle, he shifted the triangle so that the name of the shotgun child was on top, towards the ceiling.  He kept it in that position and when the next trip came along, shifted it to show the next child’s turn in the seat.  He used this device faithfully until he was able to retire it.

But kids being kids, it might still come in handy.

Helping Children Cope with Ear Pain on Flights

If you’ve taken small children on airline flights, you understand that one of the constant complaints is the nagging ear pain from the changes in pressure.  Our early solutions used the obligatory movement of the jaw and pretend yawning.  We met folks who would magically produce juice boxes early in the flight so that the sucking on the straw and swallowing would help alleviate the discomfort.  This was made moot with the banning of liquids on flights.

While on a flight with a bothered toddler, the flight attendant directed me off of the plane during a layover.  She sent me on a run to a candy kiosk for a unique solution.  She "suggested" that I purchase a bag of sour fruit-flavored gummy worms and bring them for the child.  According to the attendant, the sour flavor promotes salivation – and swallowing – while the chewing helps clear the child’s Eustachian Tube.  It’s this tube which links the back of the throat/nose and the middle ear, and clearing it equalizes the middle ear pressure with the ambient pressure.  This approach worked brilliantly and the subsequent flights have been problem-free.

At least for the ears.  I wonder if a Snickers bar quells air-sickness?

A Practical Dad’s Pre-Vacation Checklist

What To Do Before You Even Leave

Congratulations, Dad.  You’ve graduated from tossing a gym bag in the back of the Jeep to planning a troop movement worthy of the First Infantry Division.  And like the army, things will be FUBAR for the first efforts.  Just be patient and remember the good news about travelling with a child is that Walmart is never too far away – whether you like them or not.

Before even considering what needs to go along for the first trip with your baby, here’s a list of things to cover before exiting the driveway.

Action Item                                         Time Frame

Arrange petcare                                  three – four weeks

Stop paper                                           one week prior

Stop mail                                              one week prior

Check auto tires/fluids                        two – three days prior

Obtain cash/travellers checks           two – three days prior

Empty perishables from fridge          one day prior

Empty diaper pail                                departure day

Empty trash/check and flush

     commodes                                     departure day

Unplug all electronics                        departure day

Adjust thermostat                     &nbsnbsp;        departure day

Assure kitchen appliances/

     all faucets off                                 departure day

Spare housekey set?                         departure day

Other Considerations

Will your trip cause your credit card usage to vary from its norm?

Card issuers have fraud units that will suspend the card if it encounters usage that is different from the norm.  Several years ago, my issuer contacted me about a purchase to my account in Australia when I was nowhere near that hemisphere, preventing a bigger problem.  Consequently, I advised them of a recent upcoming trip to Canada so that their system wouldn’t start bouncing back any charges that I might be making.  I also gave them my cell phone number if they noted other problems.

Do you need to pack the full load of disposable baby supplies or can you restock at the nearest store?

What kind of crib does the hotel have for use?

Not all cribs are created equal and some otherwise fine facilities will present you with a crib that hasn’t seen a baby since it held Little Ricky Ricardo in a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy.  It might be worth your while to just tote along the Pack-and-Play but why do that if the hotel already has one for you to use?  Save that car space for something else.

Have you left a contact number with family or friends in the event of a problem?

Cell phone coverage isn’t universal and cell phone batteries die, or the phones are lost.  You’d hate to come back from Wallyworld to find that they’d planted your mother-in-law in your absence.

If you’re travelling with school-age children, is this trip causing them to miss school?  If so, what paperwork must be completed for the school system prior to departure?

With the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation, schools are sensitive about kids missing for family vacations; one of the criteria for successfully meeting the requirements is cumulative attendance of 90%.  Consequently, almost all schools have guidelines about requirements before and after the trip for it to be counted as an approved absence.  On top of the obligatory homework, there might be age-appropriate extra work, such as a journal that asks questions of the student:  What kind of clouds did you see on the airplane?  What was your favorite activity of the trip?  How many hours of Cartoon Network did you see each morning?

What identification/safety measures do you have in the event of a missing child?  How do you keep tabs on the kid(s)?

Companies that do student pictures will now include an identification card with the photos.  A copy of this in your wallet is invaluable when you travel.  You can also get child fingerprint identification kits and keep the cards in the dash or suitcase – and pray you don’t need those.

Some families have travelling "uniforms", or outfits that all the children wear when travelling or for visiting a park or museum.  Nothing fancy, but simple bright cotton shirts of the same color so that they are easy to distinguish in a crowd.  Likewise, it’s helpful to wear something that your child can easily spot.  More than one child has come up to hug my leg to discover that I’m the wrong daddy, so I usually travel with a brightly colored baseball cap when at the airport or in crowded areas.

It might seem to be a lot to cover, but remember that you’re now thinking for three.  And a little preparation can help keep it a vacation and not an ordeal.


Case Study:  A Child’s Tooth Decay

When you have a cavity, you go to the dentist and have it filled – some novacaine, an hour and around $160.  Then you leave knowing there’s another appointment in six months.  For a small child, cavities aren’t that simple.  Let’s examine why in a not too far-fetched scenario.

Ralphie is four years old and an exam with the family dentist finds three cavities, two on the upper level on either side of the mouth and one down below.  Because she doesn’t feel comfortable doing significant repair in a small child’s mouth, she refers you to a pediatric dentist.  A pediatric dentist specializes in children and understands that a scary experience can have huge repercussions later on.

The pediatric dentist’s judgment is to remove the teeth due to the severity of the cavities.  These aren’t little pinhole cavities, but large and discolored pits that crater the center of each tooth.  Since Ralphie could wind up traumatized from the stress of having multiple shots and devices in his mouth, she suggests that it be done on an outpatient basis and under a light anesthesia.  She also suggests coating the teeth with a thin veneer to help prevent further decay.  You’ve now gone to two dentists and are looking at outpatient surgery.

After the teeth are removed and the veneer applied, you’re going to spend the better part of that day and the next with a groggy and sore preschooler.  Ralphie is utterly miserable, which means that you’ll be too.  You’ve missed that time from work and incurred outpatient surgery charges dwarfing your adult dental costs.

But wait, it gets better.  Ralphie now has gaps in his mouth from three missing teeth.  A small child’s mouth is not immobile.  It is dynamic and the teeth can shift like the North American tectonic plate.  Like a teenager that expands to occupy any free space on a couch, Ralphie’s teeth will start to move to allow themselves more room in this newly vacant area.  Because Ralphie’s mouth will be gradulally increasing from 20 baby teeth to 32 adult teeth, there are other teeth coming that might not be able to grow into Ralphie’s mouth because they are blocked by those free-loading baby teeth.  Then you have to consider additional surgery down the road.  The pediatric dentist wants to forestall that chance by now referring you to an orthodontist.

If a parent isn’t scared by the thought of an orthodontist, it’s only because he is one.

The orthodontist can handle this particular problem by inserting little devices into the gaps called spacers.  These are metal bands – fortunately not heavy – that wrap around the teeth adjoining each space in order to maintain the empty space.  Because the bands are attached to the teeth, they will remain there until those teeth come out.  And by the way, Ralphie can no longer have chewy candies like Tootsie Rolls, licorice or gum due to the risk of displacing the spacers.  In which case you’re back to the orthodontist.

This may read like a worst-case scenario and other cases aren’t so severe.  Yet it highlights that the changing space needs of the mouth, and the effect on the child’s psyche will involve more than would occur with you or Mom.  Unfortunately, it isn’t far-fetched either.

And if the next dental visit  isn’t an experience this side of hell, then it’s a testament to the manner and care of the pediatric dentist.

Be sure to let her know it. 

Caring For Your Child’s Teeth

It’s finally time to start brushing your daughter’s teeth.  You’ve been using a damp gauzepad to wipe her teeth and gums and she now has enough teeth to justify using a small, soft-bristled brush.

And if you’re like me, the question is…now what?  How long until she can brush for herself?  When can she start doing it without my being there?  Just how long should each brushing session be?  When can we start flossing?

How long until she can brush for herself?

There’s no hard and fast answer for this question, unfortunately, and depends upon the parents’ judgment.  It can depend upon how well she can hold a brush and how thorough – and her thorough differs from your thorough – she appears to be in brushing.  You might consider doing it simultaneously and then letting her finish, or vice versa.  It will simply depend upon your comfort level.  But this leads to the next question.

How long do I have to be there while she brushes?

This is going to be for a long time.  My dentist’s hygienists asked me if I was there for my kids’ brushing, even when they were five years of age.  It’s only by being there that you can determine how she’s doing and correct anything that she might be doing wrong.  And it’s only by being there that you can develop that comfort level.

When we brush, how long should we brush?

A simple way to track how long you should brush is to hum "The Birthday Song" twice through.  Make it a standing tradition to hum the tune and then when she’s old enough to hum it, have her do it for you since you love to hear her hum it sooooo much.  It consequently becomes an ingrained habit.  Others have simply used an egg-timer set to two minutes.  Enterprising toothpaste manufacturers even now have a musical cap that plays a melody once the cap opens and the child brushes while the music plays.  Just bear in mind that with this method, your daughter should be old enough to swish and spit.  Or simply create your own song to accompany the act. 

When can we start flossing?

Flossing can also start very early, but you’ll have to do it at first.  To ease the job, your dentist can provide a small flossing device that resembles a tiny bow – as in arrow.  The floss is strung between two ends of bent plastic and it can easily be held and manipulated by small fingers.  There is no difference between when a child and an adult should floss.

There’s more than just a financial cost to a small child’s problem mouth.  Invest the time necessary and you’ll find that you hopefully won’t have to invest the time, money and emotional energy later.

Your Child’s Teeth – A Primer

While most guys are only unfamiliar with the medical development and needs of their kid, they are utterly lost about their kid’s mouth.  This is the child’s business end since the dollar cost of not caring for it properly can be huge.  Dollars aside, the child can become very insecure and embarrassed by their mouth’s condition as they age.

Baby Teeth Basics

Over the next 20 or so years, your child – who we’ll call Ramona – will first gain a full set of 20 baby (also called primary) teeth.  These will last until they are finally replaced by the adult complement of 32 teeth.  You will probably start to see the first tooth "erupt" at several months of age in the front of the mouth.  These are the incisors and they will later be flanked by the canines.  This process continues until all 20 teeth have arrived at about two years of age.  They will then remain intact until the first adult teeth start arriving at roughly six years of age.  Something which confuses most parents is the arrival of the six year molars, located immediately behind the primary molars.  These do not  replace the original primary molars, so their arrival isn’t preceded by the loss of any primary teeth.

You can expect that the first teeth lost will be the lower incisors (front teeth) at age six, followed by the upper incisors.  Molars and canine teeth are generally not lost until 10 – 12 years of age.  From the loss of the incisors, you then have several years in which to arrange financing for the coming orthodontia.

What is Teething, and How Many Buckets Will I Need?

Teething is the time when Ramona gains a new tooth and covers the period from its approach to the gum from below to its final arrival.  You’ll hear the term erupt to describe when the gum is breached; this is a misnomer penned by some sadist to induce you to hold out hope for some uninterrupted sleep.  You’ll know Ramona’s teething by:

  • increasing amounts of drool, as though this were possible;
  • a marked desire to chew and gnaw;
  • a shriek from Mom while breastfeeding.  Welcome to Extreme Nursing.

If you suspect that she has started teething, look in her mouth and you’ll find the gums inflamed.  An arriving tooth will also physically appear to be pushing through the gum as though a finger were pushing through a balloon.

You can help relieve Ramona’s pain – and it does hurt – by giving her a cold teething ring, available at any grocery or pharmacy.  You can give her a cold, damp washcloth to suck on, or even your clean finger.  Only consider using any form of pain reliever, like infant acetaminophen, after speaking with your doctor.  Oh, and remember to wipe the drool from her face or you’ll add insult to injury by allowing a rash to develop on her face.

How Do I Care for My Child’s Teeth?

Start mouthcare long before the first teeth arrive.  After feeding, whether breastmilk or formula, use a clean and damp gauzepad or cloth to wipe the gums.  This removes bacteria from the food and also gets Ramona used to the practice of doing something to keep her mouth healthy.

Because a toothbrush might cause undue distress to the baby with only a few teeth, continue to use a clean, damp washcloth to wipe the teeth.  When you do decide to move to a toothbrush, get one with soft bristles on a small head so as not to irritate the gums and create even more unnecessary problems.  Replace the brush every four months and also after any time that Ramona’s been sick.  Even after you start brushing her teeth, toothpaste shouldn’t be introduced until the third birthday when she has a clue about how to spit.  Even then, use a non-flouridated training toothpaste; she’s still going to swallow a fair amount of paste and the flouride can upset her stomach as well as potentially cause flourosis.  This condition will eventually show itself by a discoloration to the permanent teeth.  The training toothpaste is available in the baby section of any grocery or pharmacy and be sure that it’s approved by the American Dental Association.

And see?  Now you have a reason to teach your little girl to spit.

When Should My Child See the Dentist?

Today’s rule of thumb is that Ramona should see the dentist at about her first birthday, something endorsed by both the ADA and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.  It might seem overprotective, but the dentist can advise on how you’re doing with mouthcare and see if the mouth and teeth provide insights into future problems.

These early visits would encompass an examination of her mouth and teeth, as well as what to expect with the sequence of eruptions.  The dentist can also advise you on childhood habits such as thumbsucking and pacifiers, as well as the use of sippy cups and bottles.  Excessive use of these cups with juice has led to a major rise in early childhood cavities, which is not something that you want.  Because not all water sources are created equal, you can also consider whether to supplement the flouride available to Ramona to forestall later teeth problems.

For additional information, visit the website of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry at

Many Thanks to Dr. Maria Meliton for her review and comments to this article.  You can visit Dr. Meliton’s website at


What Else Can You Do After Five Minutes?  Just Talk.

What else can you do with a very small child? If nothing else appeals, just talk. You’re doing far more good than you might expect.

According to a childhood language study from UNC’s FPG Child Development Institute, the language skills of three year-olds were examined. This study measured their verbal abilities in light of parent education, child care quality and finally, how the parents verbally interacted with them. The surprising finding was the impact of the father’s vocabulary on their language skills; two year-olds with fathers using a wider vocabulary scored significantly higher on tests given when they were three. This impact even outweighed the vocabulary of the mothers, who were found on tape to talk with them more frequently than the dads.

So what does this mean? Even at the earliest ages, talk to your child. Let her hear the rhythm of your speech and tone of your voice, and as she ages, expand the vocabulary. Describe things to her and talk to her about what she’s holding. Read to her – a lot – and even if she can’t yet speak, ask if she can point things out in the book. When she’s started speaking, ask specific and simple questions (what’s floating in the sky?) and then ask more open-ended, general questions as she progresses (what does that cloud remind you of?). Just keep talking and working with her.

But remember, the key to the kingdom is a wider vocabulary. Save the different meanings of “dude” for your buddies.

A Few Notes On Playing With the Kids

All parents live under a microscope in which our actions, attitudes and comments are subject to intense and early scrutiny.  But it’s generally more dangerous for fathers since we’re the gender that engages in the more tasteless behaviors.  I’ve been threatened with death if I teach the "pull my finger" gag and an accidentally pressed cell-phone key led to an answering machine recording of my belching contest with the kids.

These isolated examples aside, remember a few practical facts when you do play with the kids.

  • Children have no "off" button, so they don’t know when to quit.  Make the toddler laugh by chucking a wad of paper at his head and you’ll be inundated with paper wads until you’re ready to climb a wall.  Know how to end something if you’re going to start.
  • Children have no judgment, so all things for them are equal.  You toss a playful wad of paper at them and you’re likely to get smacked with Great-Grandma’s heirloom vase.  If you’re going to throw something, make sure it’s meant to be thrown.
  • Children have no sense of time and place.  All things being equal, they might think that Grandma might enjoy the fun by having that heirloom vase heaved at her head.

Perhaps the simplest way to remember these comes under the question, "will I regret this?"  If so, move on.

First Lullaby

In War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise croons a war-zone lullaby to his daughter – a horrible, tone-deaf rendition of Little Deuce Coupe.  He can’t sing and doesn’t know squat about lullabies, but he does manage to do it right.

During the first several weeks of a child’s life, the feedings happen every several hours, non-stop.  But that doesn’t mean that the baby will necessarily want to sleep after nursing.  My first night stint with our baby was terrifying; my wife was back to sleep and I carried this small package that was only grudgingly giving way to sleep.  "Ah," I thought, "hit the rocker and turn out the light, sing a lullaby and turn out the kid."  Simple.  So we settled into the chair in a darkened nursery and the only song that I could remember at 3 AM was the Washington Redskins fight song.  You know the one:

Hail to the Redskins!

Hail Victory!

Braves on the Warpath!

Fight for old DC!

No, wait.  What was that one that James Taylor did?  Oh yeah, the Redskins fight song.  Wasn’t there one about the cradle and a treetop?  How does that go?  Yeah, being circled by braves on the warpath, that’s the one.  Geez, it wasn’t even preseason yet.  Multiple efforts and that same sorry team song continued to clutter my mind.  So, I gave in and worked with it and it finally came out like Tom’s Little Deuce Coupe.  Very soft and calm, and I found that when sung in waltz time, it worked in this bizarro way.  My little girl finally gave up and I tucked her in, then stumbled out of the room.  Only then did I do the tomahawk chop.

And the next day, I made it a point to learn some real lullabies.  But I haven’t forgotten the Redskins fight song.

Dressing Your Child for the Weather

Even taking a walk or run outside with Junior requires additional thought and preparation, particularly in dressing him for the weather.  For the first several months of life, a baby’s body isn’t yet able to adequately adapt to cooler temperatures.  In fact, he feels better in temperatures that you find hot.  Consequently, he’ll be bothered when you find it comfortably refreshing.

My first child was born in Spring and it took time to grasp that she was underdressed – in a cotton sleeper – for a mid-morning Spring stroll.  What should have been a pleasant father/child session became an exercise in fret-management.  Unfortunately, I also underdressed her for the indoors as well until I adapted. 

So what are some guidelines in dressing Junior so that he’s warm enough?

  • As a rule-of-thumb, he should be wearing about one more layer of clothing that you are wearing.  In running shorts on a comfortable Spring/Fall day?  Keep him in clothing that covers his limbs and feet.  Wearing a sweatshirt or sweater in the house?  He needs likewise.  If it’s the height of Summer, shorts are fine but not during other seasons unless it’s justified.
  • If outside, dress him in layers so that you can remove or replace clothing as necessary.
  • He’ll tend to stay warmer in a chest carrier because of the proximity to your own body heat, but legs and arms still need to be covered.
  • Keep the head covered.  In colder weather, the bulk of a body’s heat loss is through the head; in warmer weather – colder, too – you want to provide protection from the sun.

He still can’t don ratty shorts and running shoes for a brisk Fall run with you, but give him time.  Until then, he’ll still like the run, but in something heavier.