A PracticalDad’s Language

My father was an artist with language, and obscenity was his medium.

                                      – Ralphie Parker, "A Christmas Story"

Fathers need to understand that their language skills will be absorbed by their children, especially the words they choose.  I always identified with Ralphie Parker since my father was a Korean Veteran who closed out his army career as a Drill instructor.  Consequently, I heard obscenities – scatological and otherwise – which I didn’t learn until adulthood were physically impossible.  And yes, my father didn’t react terribly well when he heard me use some of this language.  You’re a kid and I’m an adult so you can’t use that language.  Dammit.

First and foremost, understand that today’s general society isn’t your friend when it comes to language.  Or to a lot of other things, but that’s another article.  You can feel like an utter idiot on some days, but that doesn’t alter the fact that when they are small, your children will truly look up to you and strive to emulate you.  On a general time frame, they’ll suspect idiocy in elementary school and positively believe it in their teens.  You have to make a conscious effort to monitor your language and it’s this effort that will largely set the stage for their own use of language. 

After cracking down on your own profanity, remember to always ask the question, where is this coming from?  Knowing this can help you define a context on how you address the foul language.  The smallest children can simply stumble across a word as they play with sounds.  One of my children, then a small toddler, happened upon the word f*** while we were with a large group of people at a Relay-for-life event.  He wandered around experimenting with sounds ending in -ck when he blurted out that one.  Prophetically, that’s the one that he came back to repeatedly until we redirected him to a different sound.  The where is this coming from question is essential; once the child recognizes that a line’s been crossed it frequently becomes more difficult to ascertain the source.  Seeing something on cable or hearing raw lyrics?  Another kid at school?  Your own mouth coming back to bite you? 

As the children age, they’ll start to bring words to you for explanation.  My approach has been to first define the word and then place it in context, followed by a warning about usage.  My sense of this approach is that while it can be uncomfortable, to shunt the question aside or refuse it runs a greater risk of closing down the communication avenue between you and your child.  Nah, don’t take it to Dad ‘cuz he’ll just turn red and find something else to do.  The kid is better served getting any information from you and your mate than some middle school reprobate. 

For example, one of my children, a sixth grader, asked me about the term douchebag.  Where’d you hear that word?  Bocephus was using it to describe another boy during a playground basketball game.  I explained the technical definition – uncomfortable to have to tell a daughter – and then placed it in its appropriate context.  This was topped off by the warning that this language isn’t used by Dad and any further usage will have consequences.

There are other things to remember and consider with your – and your child’s – language.

  • As stated before, very small children will often stumble across the word inadvertantly and the best option is to redirect them to something else.  It’s likely that they won’t even know that they’ve hit the mother lode.
  • If you do drop a major word, don’t necessarily bring attention to it since it’s liable to have totally escaped them.  If they ask how you know the mother of the man in the car ahead of you, then you need to make things right.  Otherwise, keep rolling and listening.
  • Work to respond calmly when you hear your child use foul language.  If they’re hearing it at school or in the media, they probably have little understanding of the meaning.  Dropping the hammer on an unsuspecting child is poor form and will make it more difficult to find the source. 
  • That said, feel free to drop the hammer if they’ve been warned on more than one occasion or are certainly old enough to know better.
  • The response that you can use that language since you’re an adult really has no merit.  Like it or not, you’re an example.  Be one.

Unless you’re Amish or a mute, expect to screw up and drop language bombs as you spend time with your kids.  But also expect to have to explain and even apologize for poor language when you get caught.  It’s best to handle it on the spot then in front of the folks at the store, the PTA or church.

As my brother-in-law related, the pastor at a children’s sermon complimented a little girl on her dress.  Her response was:  thank you, but Mommy says it’s a bitch to iron.

Enough said.





A PracticalDad Afterschool Routine

Developing a good daily routine for managing kids after daycare or school is crucial.  Life is chaotic enough with children, and when you toss in the occasional financial/banking crisis, the lack of a routine makes life far more difficult.

I have to admit that having cable and the internet makes for ringside seats at the 2008 Financial Crises, and the stunning speed with which events have passed has been attention-absorbing.  Goldman and Morgan Stanley are morphing into bank-holding companies?  The Lehman bankruptcy is a straw horse for bailing out JP Morgan Chase?  What’s this mean and how does it affect me? 

It also means that dinner is thrown together on the fly and the necessary post-school items have been knocked aside.  And that can’t happen.

Children and teens do better when they know that there’s a standard routine to the day when everybody gets home.  Dinner is made and hopefully the family can spend a little time together catching up on the day’s events; and the schoolwork can be checked. 

As the school year starts, the flow won’t become discernible until the second week as the studies gear up.  At that time, you can determine who needs to do what.  Does the elementary schooler need to do a certain amount of reading or are you to read to her?  Are you supposed to sign the student’s planner to assure that you’ve seen what’s hanging out there?  Are they supposed to practice for music lessons and if so, on what days?  What activities are there and when do they meet?

I’ve found that a general routine helps keep things on track.  What can help with this routine?

  • Find a regular and visible place for each child to place their backpack when they arrive home.
  • Spend a few minutes with them over a kitchen snack to let them share what happened that day.  Some days are minimal information while others lead to in-depth conversation or bull sessions.
  • Check the school planners to see what homework or test is awaiting. 
  • Help the younger children plan how they should tackle the afternoon/evening activities.
  • Use the available time to read to the younger ones and monitor homework/studies for the older ones.
  • Assure that all of the necessary items are done before they settle down for any electronic time, i.e. time spent with an electronic device of any kind.

Once you settle on a general format, the flow of the routine will take over and make life more manageable.  And that’s part of what it’s about, isn’t it?

PracticalDad Notes on Teaching – Setting Up For Success

One of a father’s primary jobs is as teacher, and successful teaching sometimes requires preparation.  Even for something as simple as tying a shoe since breaking it down into teachable component parts is daunting.

Even after several kids, I had to sit down and think about what wold work for teaching a child to tie shoes.  What I recalled most was that it’s like teaching other tasks, you have to set them up to succeed.

  • Keep the time frame short.  The task for a child can be harder than it appears and too much at one time can be self-defeating.
  • Break the process into smaller parts so that even if the shoe isn’t tied, he can be praised for what he did accomplish.
  • Don’t try to teach when you know that you have to leave.  He probably won’t get it immediately and if you have to tie the shoe prior to departure, then it creates a sense of failure.  Find a few moments to spend at other times.
  • Avoid shoes with velcro straps that can get in the way.
  • Let them practice with the shoes in their laps and off of their feet, then let them work on it after they’ve mastered the mechanics.
  • Plan for a date for him to do the job himself before leaving and make sure that he has some extra time.

And then praise the bejeezus out of him.  For a job well done, he deserves it.

How Much Do I Protect My Child From Current Events?

Parents have always been faced with the question, how much do I protect my child from current events?

This came home to us on 9/11 when we scrambled to pick up our children from schools which had early dismissals due to the attacks.  My own child, then in elementary school, stated in the car that they were being sent home because planes were coming to bomb our homes.  It was a chilling moment and my exact thought was of the parents in Poland in September, 1939.  What’s happening and what do I tell my child?

My immediate response then was that there was no one coming to bomb us and that there was no physical danger; she would be alright.  And in the coming days, we explained what many others did, that there are bad people who didn’t like our country and wanted to hurt our country.  We avoided the immediate use of the first person plural, we.  And as time progressed, we continued to fill them in as we thought appropriate.

My general philosophy is that children do best when they have some preparation.  When we know that there’s a new experience on their horizon, we talk to them in advance and revisit the conversation several times.  What’s the event?  What can you expect and how should you behave?  Do you – or we – have to prepare?  If it’s a social, macro-level event, is there a way to describe it in terms that are more immediate to them?

My other philosophy is that children do need to be aware of what’s going on.  Small children are attuned to their parents’ sense of calm and can tell when something is amiss.  In his terrific oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Studs Terkel interviews a women who was a small child during the time of the Crash.  She recounts that she heard her parents’ frantic whisperings after the children were in bed and the sense of fear feeding off their fear even when she couldn’t hear the words of their conversations.  They know that something’s up, so don’t just gloss over it.  That said, Bill Cosby was correct.  Kids just want an answer.  Cosby responds to his child’s question, why is there air?  He realized that kids don’t want the full science answer, just something to assure that you’ve got it covered.  His response?  To blow up basketballs.  And you expand as they age.  By the time they’re in upper elementary/middle school, they should be able to handle the larger details.

And that includes how it affects their daily lives.  Is the economy in turbulent times and are you cutting back?  Then share that with them; that everyone has to economize in order to better prepare for uncertainty.  Will something happen to them?  Probably not, but that’s why you prepare.  And as you progress, you share that with them.

And then you really do make sure your bases are covered.


Generational Diversity?

A friend related that her employer had a seminar on generational diversity.  Huh?  Simply put, it is explaining to the present staff how it should understand and adapt to the new generation of young employees coming into the hospital.  This comes on the heels of a newspaper article about "helicopter parents" now involved in their adult child’s workplace.

I initially thought that the article was reporting incidents in major urban areas and was surprised to find a local example in a small city in flyover country.  The flipside question is, are the younger employees given similar training in how to adapt to the older, more experienced adults who have been performing their job for years?

And I ask myself, is this how I want my children to go through the world, unable to adapt to the rigors of life and unable to fight their own battles?  I recall conversations with my late father in which I griped about some adult’s personality; his response typically that as a person aged, they were increasingly unable or unwilling to change or be flexible.  Get over it, you have to adapt and figure out how to make it work.  And then, he’d help me with strategies on making it work.

Yet now, the older generations are being asked to adapt to the vagaries of the Y Generation.  We’ve decided that the children and teens have to be protected not just from the real threats, but also from the things that just come along in life.  Odd working hours.  Unpleasant job situations and performance standards.  Performance reviews.  When does that generation learn to stand on its own two feet and adapt to what happens in the world?  When does the child finally and fully become an adult?

How do I teach my own children to adapt – and thrive – in the world and handle what comes at them?

Because I won’t always be there.

Where’s That Coming From?

One of the things that I’ve had to learn is to consistently ask the question, where’s this coming from?  It has become a mantra as I deal with the daily workings of the child/teen mind.  You will see and hear – and occasionally smell – things that will make your sensory organs bleed, and that mantra has to be close to you since it has a distinct bearing on how you respond and address them.

The key to successfully finding the answer to that question is to work at remaining calm even when your organs want to bleed.  Even small children aren’t stupid and if Junior realizes that he’s stepped in a steaming hot pile, then your access to accurate, truthful answers shuts down fast.  It doesn’t mean that you can’t show surprise or shock, but the initial responses need to be as matter-of-fact as possible.

For example, as I walked out the back door, I witnessed one of my children trying to perform a stunt worthy of Johnny Knoxville.  The immediate response was to grab the child before he could hurt himself and remove him from the situation.  It’s in the minutes afterwards, when I’m recovering from the shock, that I consider the question where did this come from?  Not surprisingly, I found that Rupert at school was boasting of doing this.  Mind you, there are moments when I wonder how Rupert will survive long enough to contribute to the gene pool.  This led to a conversation over physical safety, common sense, gravity and believing everything being spouted by a third-grader with a death wish.

Another time, I’m driving in the car and the preschooler in the back asks Daddy, what does M*&^%*(&&k  mean?  Does this require a later conversation with an older sibling or child, or did Junior see or hear something on cable?  In this particular instance, I pulled the car over and after talking with him, found that it had been dropped by another preschooler when her block tower fell over.

And sometimes, the answer is that there was no particular reason for doing something, like using permanent marker  to doodle on the hardwood floor.  In that case, all you can do is shake your head and have the child get their toothbrush.



Headlice and Persistence

If you have a kid with headlice, I can’t stress enough that there is no way to get around nitpicking, or manually examining the hair and scalp.

While you certainly treat with chemically laden shampoos like Rid and Nix, there is no guarantee that the lice won’t have a tolerance to the chemicals.

While we were in the process of treating two of our children, I received a call from a friend whose daughter was also infested.  She’d done the examinations for a full week and then stopped, trusting in the efficacy of the shampoo treatments.  After three weeks of living with that assumption, her stylist had found the daughter’s head again infested and had immediately stopped cutting the hair.  A few of the eggs had survived the treatments and after birth, had matured and started the process once again.  This led to another three weeks of head checks for the daughter as well as the siblings; avoidable had she kept up the examinations.

It will make your scalp crawl, but suck it up and handle it.

Essential Niceties

Stuff is expensive and while I support the kids trying new and different things, I have usually drawn a line. 

For sporting equipment, shoes and shinguards get passed down one to another; I refuse to buy soccer cleats in a girls model and even shorts can be passed from one gender to another.  If there’s team equipment, then they can share with other members of the squad.

And I continued that line until watching one of my kids playing baseball the other night and put on a batting helmet laid down by another boy.  My wife nudged me and suggested that in light of the headlice article, it might be worthwhile to just invest in a helmet all of his own.

And for all of the heartache from handling a past lice infestation, I agreed.  Tomorrow we go shopping.

There are some things that just make sense despite the philosophy and cost.

A PracticalDad Primer:  Headlice

Lice and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

You’ll get used to the various gross things of childhood – vomit, stool, blood and snot – but nothing will get to you like headlice.  Even if you don’t get it from the kids, you’ll be scratching your head and it won’t be in surprise.

Charlie’s got cooties!  Charlie’s got cooties! is a common memory from elementary school and Charlie hated it as much as the next kid.  In today’s world, when a school gets wind of a child with lice, the administration will send home a note apprising other families that there’s a problem.  A necessary part of this letter is the reminder that having lice is not emblematic of a poor household or social problems.  Headlice are a nasty insect that can be passed from one person to another through physical contact and a kid’s homelife is not an indicator.  Despite being highly egocentric creatures, kids will share the most amazing things – hats, combs, pencils and even already-chewed gum – and it’s this thoughtlessness that can create the problem.

The Deal with Lice

Headlice are insects that survive and thrive by living on the blood of a human host.  They live in the hair of the host, where they lay their eggs – called "nits" – attached to the individual strands of hair.  They prefer a moister environment so that they’ll typically be found near the ears.

Lice don’t jump or fly and it doesn’t take long for them to move; a louse can move almost nine inches in the course of a minute.  They are passed physically from one person to another, typically via the sharing of personal items like hats, scarves and combs.  As an example, Johnny can get a lice transfer by wearing Bob’s hat but won’t have a problem sitting next to Bob on the school bus.  The louse isn’t going to walk across the bus seat to Johnny since that would entail leaving his preferred habitat.  He is a smart and lazy little bugger.

The typical louse is damned near indestructible, able to survive underwater for hours as well as away from a human host for up to a full 24 hours.  This is why simply taking a hot shower is inadequate for the problem.  They’re difficult to find unless you’re looking for them since an adult louse, eating all it’s Wheaties, can grow to a whopping 1/8" in length.  The nit itself is tiny, perhaps 2 mm long, and can only be found with a focused search of the scalp.

Your child won’t notice one louse and will only start to scratch after fully infested, typically in a month’s time.  Let’s do the math.  An adult louse has a lifespan of about 30 days.  It can lay eggs after reaching maturity in about 8 days and will lay an average of 6 eggs each day until it dies.  No, there’s no menopause here.  After eight days, the louse lays its first six eggs with another six eggs each day thereafter.  By the time Johnny has reached the 14 day mark, 42 eggs have been laid and at 16 days, the first days hatch to begin a new lifecycle in which those six now-mature lice hatch about 36 eggs each day.  I’ll spare you the math since I can’t count that high, but you get the picture. 


Finding the Problem

Apart from a barber/stylist finding an infestation – which happens – the best sign of lice is when you note the child persistently scratching their heads.  They’ll even do it in their sleep without awakening.  The problem is also found by school nurses in class examinations performed periodically.  This isn’t necessarily a foolproof method since the staff are moving quickly to cover a large number of children in a short period of time.

Handling an Infestation/Shaving the Head

The first thing to remember is that you, the adult, have to remain calm and measured; you might want to start scratching your own head and make remarks – or worse – but you cannot. the reason for the calm is that the child must remain relatively still.  If you have a conniption fit, the kid probably will, too.

The first question is whether you should just shave the child’s head.  Not really an option if it’s your daughter, but it is a possibility if it’s a boy and the weather’s warm.  Barbers and stylists will not want this job since it raises the risk of their shop becoming infested, so shaving the head would be up to you.  Electric clippers are available at most pharmacies and box stores.  Here are some things to remember if you opt to shave the head:

  • Do the job outside or in a garage so that the hair and lice are out of the house;
  • Shaving the head will remove nits – attached to the strands of the hair – but not necessarily the lice, which will have to removed by hand;
  • Even after the hair is removed and your child’s lice removed, you should still make it a priority to recheck them for several days.

Handling an Infestation/Keeping the Hair

Treatment of headlice takes a two-prong approach.  The first is treatment with a shampoo to help kill the nits and lice and involves chemical based products such as Rid and Nix (including the chemical pyrethrin) or Kwell (including the chemical lindane).  The second – and most important – prong is to physically examine the scalp and hair. 

Yes, this is where the term nitpicking comes from.  And the need for this, despite living in a quick-fix society, is that lice are increasingly resistant to both pyrethrin an lindane.  You can use the shampoos but if the lice are resistant, then the shampoo is useless.  So resign yourself to nitpicking and doing it scrupulously.


Before you start the process of examining the head, get organized.

  1. Find a well-lit spot in which you can work.  Since this is a time-consuming process, move lights in front of the TV and find something that can keep your child relatively still and occupied while you work.
  2. Have a vacuum cleaner at hand so that you can vacuum the floor immediately upon finishing, catching up any lice that might have fallen off the scalp.
  3. Keep a bowl filled with rubbing alcohol handy to take the lice/nits that you remove.  Remember that lice can survive in water for about half a day so you want them dead and immobile immediately.
  4. Have the appropriate comb for use in checking.  The teeth of the standard comb are not close enough together to catch the nits on the hair; lice-shampoo can be purchased in kits which have an appropriate comb enclosed.  Wash the comb in rubbing alcohol or boil in water when you’re finished.
  5. For longer hair, have hair clips to clip together those segments of hair that have already been checked.

When you start, find a section of the scalp to examine and run the comb through the hair, pulling the comb upward towards you.  As you find lice, remove them immediately from the scalp and place them in the nearby bowl and then return to the section being searched.

In this process, you’ll find nits typically attached to ahri strands about 1/2" from the scalp.  The nit can be distinguished from dandruff  by the readiness with which it comes off of the strand since the nits are literally glued on when laid.  Remember that the nit is oval and can vary from white to tan , depending on whether it’s an old egg sac or a live, unhatched egg.  When you encounter a nit, remove it and place it immediatley in the bowl, returning to the same segment.

Being methodical and persistent if essential in this process.  Be ready to repeat this process again and again; you’ll only know you’re finished when you find nothing on a thorough examination.

When you’re finished, immediately send the child for a bath or shower and vacuum the surrounding area. 

Household Concerns

What also makes a lice-problem so nerve-wracking is that it takes over your life and household.

  • Since lice are mobile and can live a day without a human host, consign yourself to changing the bedding daily.
  • Put the pillows through the dryer on a high heat setting before use.
  • Vacuum the mattresses, furniture and carpets daily.  If you aren’t going to change the bag any more frequently, keep the vacuum cleaner in the garage or basement and out of the family living area.
  • Stuffed animals and non-essential pillows should be bagged and placed away for about two weeks.
  • Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about pets since the lice only feed on a human host.

You and your family will survive this problem; there are worse and you can take small comfort in that.  But it will require a degree of self-discipline and self-control that goes beyond the typical, so be sure to get rest and prepare for a long haul.

In my family, with two kids simultaneously infested, it was three weeks.

For further information, go to www.headlice.org

Photo of Adult Louse courtesy of Rahul Goyal

Photo of Nit courtesy of Jon Law

A PracticalDad Tip:  Helping Your Child Nap

A PracticalDad Tip:  Helping Your Child Nap

Her body might be crying out for a nap but she’s too excited or overwrought to be able to actually get to sleep.  It’s certainly possible to let her scream herself down but if she starts to equate naptime with turmoil, then all naptimes will become more difficult.  You can help her get to sleep – without a dose of Benedryl – with the investment of a little time and a bit of patience.

Children have almost nil control of their emotions and her screaming isn’t because you’re a rotten father for wanting her to have to stop and nap; it’s exhaustion ripped through with frustration.  She’d be screaming at her mother, Santa and the Easter Bunny if they were there.

What To Do?

Lie down with her and talk with her quietly until she can regain some form of calm; I’ve sung at times as well.  Once she’s slowed down a bit, wrap her in your arms and begin a steady pattern of long and slow deep breathing.  If she’s fidgeting – typically in an attempt to stay awake – then gently hold her hands in your own.  Continue this process and you’ll likely find that her breathing pattern begins to match your own and she’ll nod off to sleep in several minutes.

For those instances when she can’t calm herself, consign yourself to taking the time to actually wrap her in your arms and hugging her until she stops.  While doing this, follow a deep and steady breathing pattern; not only does it provide a pattern for her to mimic, but it will also serve to help you remain calm as well.  Again, you’ll likely find that she’s asleep within a few minutes.

The real key to this is your own self-control.  Even if she can’t adequately express or understand, seeing you control yourself in the face of outbursts will provide a model for her future behavior.  If, at any time, you note your own self-control flagging, then it’s time to simply leave the room and let her have at it. 

On most occasions, this technique has worked for me.  But there have been times when I’ve been best served to walk out and let the child go – there’s no sense compounding her misery with my own.