Lesson #4:  Dad’s Follow-through is Crucial

Apart from provider and caretaker, the largest fatherhood job is role-model; demonstrating how a man should act and behave.  One of the keystones to being a good role-model is credibility and the groundwork for that arises out of keeping your word.  And while it flows through all aspects of fatherhood, this reputation for follow-through will be especially important when it comes to maintaining discipline.

This reputation starts with the simplest things from your kid’s youngest age.  Following through on a simple request.  Can we go to the park?  Will you read to me?  Can we play a game?  Will you help me build a fort?  The request’s timing is frequently poor, balanced against the press of the daily "to-do" list and the demands/requests of others.  But you must gain this reputation.

I have to fight saying "in a little while" since there’s a disconnect between what a child and an adult consider "a little while".  A child has a short attention span and when you come to her a bit later to fulfill your promise, you’re liable to find that she’s gone on to the next thing; and while it’s unfair, in her mind, you haven’t followed through.  Enough instances of this and a pattern is set, even if they’re too young to remember individual events.  Yet if you do what they ask when they ask, you’ll have problems finishing those things that really have to be done.

While the sheer frequency of requests diminishes as they age, the requests grow more intricate and time-intensive.  Will you take me around to sell for a fundraiser?  Can you help me build a Pinewood Derby car?  Can you help me learn how to drive?  Will you look over this essay that I wrote?  You want these requests to come your way  but they won’t if there’s no reliance on you keeping your word.

So what can you do to help yourself follow-through, and still get things done?

  • Avoid indefinite phrases like "in a bit" or "in a while".  Since small children don’t tell time, tie it to something definite and definable like "when I’m done raking" or "after we’ve cleaned up after dinner".
  • Learn to build kid-time into what you’re doing.  Expect interruptions and allow time for them or even better, allow time to include them in what you’re doing right then if possible.  If time is short, make arrangements to have the kids kept busy; I’ve hired a sitter for the occasions that I have to do something without interruption.
  • Keep a "wish" list and for longer term projects, schedule them on the daily calendar.  I once built a cigar-box banjo for one of m children and explicitly set aside time for gathering the materials and then assembling it.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no if you have to.  If there’s no way to get to something, say no to that request and put it on the schedule.  If he request is simply beyond your capability or time, it’s better to say no instead of starting something that engenders more heartache than it’s worth.

Be patient with yourself; this is a long-term balancing act and even the best gymnast falls. 

Oh, and the banjo?  He still has it in his closet eight years later.

A PracticalDad Tip:  Keeping Children Occupied

You have an outdoor job that needs done and the kids want to "help".  Your options?

  1. Let them help and spend two or three times as long finishing the task;
  2. Re-direct them – again and again – to the playset or toys and finally lose patience.

Option 1 works if you plan ahead and build lost time into the project.  But if there’s no time allowance, then you probably select Option 2.  I’ve been caught in both scenarios and each can be hugely frustrating.

Let me suggest another option.  Give the kids some larger paint brushes and a bucket of water and let them "paint" the driveway, patio or playset.  They can "paint" to their heart’s content and the creation will dry to nothing, letting them start again.  The larger brushes and bucket are out of their usual experience and the novelty can last as long as their creativity and the bucket.

And in the meantime, work like mad to finish the job.

A PracticalDad Primer:  Buying Kids’ Birthday Gifts

You check out the daily mail and for once, you can tell Junior that he actually got real mail.  And gee, it’s a birthday invitation.  Great for him but not so great for you since you now have to purchase a birthday gift for little Jimmy Nebbish.

When many parents spend a huge amount of time running to and from work, store, activities and sport practices, it’s a real effort to have to make time to get to the local Toys R Us or KB.  The product line is largely the same and given the ubiquity of television programming and advertising, most kids will generally want the same type of thing. 

So what is your best option, apart from firing up the minivan for another gas-consuming KB run?

First, talk to Jimmy’s Dad or Mom about what kind of things he likes or if there’s anything that they’d prefer Jimmy not receive.  In every instance of talking with the other parent, the response has been very generic – art, action figures, sporting stuff, games – and they’re sometimes frankly hoping that Jimmy has someone show up for the party.  I’ve never received a response that Jimmy has to have a Darth Vader Star Wars Helmet (although I have encountered that request on a Wedding Registry) or the Purple Little Pony. 

Next, just go to the gift box in the closet and pull out a generally appropriate toy or game for a gift.  What box in the closet?

The one that holds the general assortment of items that you buy on sale at the local store for just such an occasion.  Wait for a time that you can go to the local toy store and buy two or three gifts for each particular age level child you have.  Use the sale as an opportunity to stock up for the next two years so that the ill-timed party runs are minimized. 

What to get?  A good rule of thumb for Pregifting is that anything that’s a supplement to an existing system or product is best left to the grandparents or Uncle Louis – Jimmy has a Dell in his room and would love the latest Halo 3, playable on an XP operating system.  You can buy it at GameStop or Amazon for… – since they usually haven’t much of a clue about what to get and can get the information easily from Jimmy’s folks.  So consider these possibilities.

  • Games that aren’t gender specific.  For the toddler/preschooler, games like Chutes and Ladders, Candyland and Guess Zoo are always popular among kids.  I once had a bunch of high-schoolers at my house for a youth-group session and the first hour was spent playing Candyland; the teens took turns playing so that everyone could have a chance to play.
  • Storybook Collections.   If you buy a specific book, there’s always the possibility that Jimmy has already read it.  A bound collection minimizes the chance that Jimmy won’t be interested since he’s read it, and also gives Jimmy’s ‘rents an opportunity to see what other authors might hold Jimmy’s interests.
  • Avoid electonics, even Leap-Pad and Leap-Frog.  There are too many alternative systems available for such a warehousing operation as this; you buy Leap-Pad and Jimmy has Leap-Frog, a wasted effort.  As to PC games, what’s the Operating System?
  • Art and creativity products.  Various Play-Doh products are popular, as well as things like Etch-a-Sketch.
  • Certain gender-specific toys.  Action figures are great for boys, but be sure to at least update the gift stash so that Jimmy isn’t getting Skeletor or Space Ghost.  Girls usually go to dolls and accessories, or craft bead and accessorizing kits.

As the kids age, they’ll probably want to spend time shopping for the gift but you can always keep a small stash of giftcards available in a drawer for such moments.  Even your kids might hit a wall as to what Jimmy wants and the travelling onus will then be on Jimmy’s folks.

The above ideas all indicate the same general premise – old isn’t necessarily bad and simpler is better.  So get stocked up.  Birthday season is coming.

Boy Talk

Even though everyone in your family speaks – or will speak – a common tongue, you will have to relearn one language and learn yet another.  The first is the language of boys and the second, the language of girls.

These are unspoken and play out in actions and gestures, stances and looks.  And it requires considerable attention to comprehend; each family has its own particular dialects and slang and are prone to change over the years.  Pay attention carefully and watch the interplay.

While on vacation, I’ve had to remind myself of boy language – uttered by a child or youth who might have the words but not the skill, judgment or humility to utilize them.  A boy’s mouth is a dangerous thing and it proved to be so one night while on vacation.  Harsh words were spoken by this Dad, who was put out by the "smartass" remarks to more than just me.  I left the room after making myself heard and the son went elsewhere.  After a half hour, Son entered another room I occupied and proceeded with a lengthy ballet to assess whether "the situation" was indeed finished.  He sat nearby and made comments about the Olympics, asked questions about what was being discussed.  Still ticked, I finally left the room; he waited a bit longer and then joined me again to continue the dance.

This ballet continued until I remembered the Boy Language and relented with a hug, tucking away the anger. 

The Klingons believe that Revenge is a dish best served cold.  I likewise believe that a learning conversation is also best cold, after the initial heat has subsided and the child’s feeling no longer threatened.  This particular Father/Son conversation continued the next day.

A son really does want your approval.  He might be stung by your reprimand or – hopefully – embarrassed by the thoughtlessness of the action.  Regardless, this desire to make right and regain your approval will find a way through the silence imposed by the pride. 

And it will, if you remember to look for it.


Saying “Yes” to New Situations

Yes, I know that as children grow and age, they become more argumentative and willing to push boundaries.  Some – hell, most – start to envision themselves as equals and thus disdainful.

The trap is that if you spend enough time around them, you begin to think that they are, indeed, equals.  Why should they give up something so that you can have a turn?  Why shouldn’t they be allowed to do as they please, with whom they wish, when they wish and where they wish? 

You understand in your gut that even teenagers are still children, but the constant pushing against the boundaries – especially by more than one in a household – will shift those boundaries.  I have a mantra that the older kids are learning:  "details, details, details."  And even with the details, without which nothing will ever be approved, I have to ask myself specific questions as I consider the request.

  • Can I depend on this kid, and his/her friends, to know how to behave in this particular venue?
  • Is there going to be an adult there to maintain safety and order?  Trust me, you have to be very specific when you ask if the parent is going to be there at that particular time and at that particular place.
  • Is the event appropriate for the age? 
  • Is there a precedent being set if you agree and will you regret it later?
  • What are the risks if something goes wrong?  Whether to let a kid see a particular movie is in a different category from attending a coed sleepover.
  • What’s the kid’s attitude and demeanor when they ask?  Cockiness is more apt to get a negative than a straightforward request since the cockiness implies a lack of thought before acting in a new situation.

The truth is that while I have agreed to their requests, there have been moments when the answer is no because of a simple gut feel that something’s not right.  And that’s actually okay regardless of what they say in response. 

Because the final responsibility for whatever happens in those new situations will rest with the adult and not the child.

Check the Horizon:  Setting Standards Early

A parent can easily get caught up in the mundanities of life, i.e. the forest for the trees, and miss what’s coming.  It helps to check yourself occasionally and ask if there are any changes with the kids or any changes in the household which require further thought.  If so, use the opportunity to start setting expectations and standards now instead of waiting for later.

For example, an elementary school boy gets calls from girls wanting to play or hang out.  You can’t send them to a monastery or ban girls from the home; many relationships are and will remain platonic in nature and acting as though any interactions will automatically lead to sex can send an unrealistic message about friendships with kids of other genders.  On the other hand, thinking that things can’t spiral out of control amongst hormones is horrendously naive.

What are some guidelines that you might want to set in place now?

  • Set a time limit on phone conversations.  The longer that kids are on the phone, the larger the possibility that things will spiral downwards.
  • Increase the conversations about how to treat girls (or boys) and what is appropriate behavior.  Dude, you can wrestle with Mike but you simply can’t do that with Michelle.&nbnbsp; And if she starts, then you have to take the lead and stop.  Yes, it’s expecting a lot but the kids have to at least hear it and many have a wonderful ability to rise to expectations.
  • Having said that, don’t get stupid and just assume that everything will be fine since you’ve spoken.
  • Don’t let the kids throw you off with comments about not trusting them.  You’re trusting them by just letting them get together with friends of the opposite sex; they have a like obligation (not a word they like) to listen.
  • Establish areas that are clearly off-limits or set guidelines.  If your 4th grader wants to show an opposite gender friend the rock collection in his room, then establish that he can but that the door has to remain open at all times.  Or just say that no boy will be in the girl’s room and vice-versa. 
  • Make sure that when any child is over, you keep yourself available and in the open at all times.  It wouldn’t be the time to spend an afternoon in the garage working under the hood.  And feel free to spend a few minutes eavesdropping as the opportunity arises; while the First Amendment doesn’t set an age limit, you’re still responsible for what they say and the parameters within which they live.

These are standards and goals that have to be considered and set explicitly, and only after consulting with Mom.  But the further down the road you look, the less likely you are to be surprised.