Timing the Special Moments

With fathers having a greater role in raising the kids, they’ll be there for more of the "first" moments than in the past and Mom might be missing them instead.  Some of these things are unavoidable but it pays to think about those "firsts" than can be scheduled.  I believe that most mothers do miss the ability to be there for these instances and it can soothe a relationship if you pay attention.

It was fourteen years ago this Thanksgiving that my eldest had her first bite of solid food.  I remember this date as we were in a Naval Officer’s Club with relatives for a Thanksgiving meal with our first-born baby.  She’d been making headway in readiness for solid food but it didn’t occur to me that it was that soon; I excused myself to the restroom and returned to find Mom and Mother-in-law had decided to make the leap and the baby was happily finishing up her first green bean.  It wasn’t that she had taken the first bite, but the fact that the decision for this situation was made in my absence, that bothered me.  You can’t exercise great control over rolling over and the first steps, but the baby didn’t put the food in her own mouth.  Since then, I’ve tried to bear this experience in mind as we’ve moved forward with other firsts and other children.

A little forethought can make absence a bit more bearable for Mom.

Happy Thanksgiving and pass the green beans.

PracticalDad Examples:  School Lunches with the Kids

If you want to really see what daily life is like for your kids, follow the examples of Patrick and John, and have lunch with the kids at school.

Both are fathers of elementary school students and take the opportunity to periodically join their kids for school lunch.  They then join them on the playground for games of soccer and football with the other kids.  As Patrick stated, if you really want to get the kids united, score a goal from across the field and they’ll mob you.

It’s not a practice that the overwhelming majority of parents use, let alone fathers.  But it does serve several purposes.

  • It allows you to meet the teacher on more than just the periodic parent/teacher conference and see how he or she handles the class.
  • It allows you to meet some of the other kids and put faces to names that you’re hearing repeatedly.
  • It allows you to see how your child interacts with the other kids, and how they interact with him.  Your kid will most likely become so involved in play that he’ll forget that you’re watching – or even playing – and you can see the real kid come out.  It can be eye-opening.
  • It allows your child to "show you off" as a father.  There are children out there with little, if any, knowledge of what’s it like to have a father so any modeling that you can offer – even as minimal an amount as this – is beneficial.

It really isn’t difficult to do this and greatly worth the time.  Contact your local school and inquire about the procedures, which will probably involve registering at the office and using a clip-on pass.  Also let the teacher know ahead of time so that they have a "heads up".

And then, go play.

A PracticalDad Primer to Germ Control

Having a sick child is a difficult experience, but things can really augur into the ground if the sickness is passed amongst the family and one child to another.  Effective germ control is an imperative to at least give you a fighting chance in the sick period.

Almost every parent with whom I’ve spoken over the years acknowledges that their child tended to get more cold and viruses after they entered an environment with other children.  Any classroom or daycare facility will facilitate more disease spread and only the most rigorous handwashing regimen there can combat it.  And let’s face it, kids don’t want to waste their valuable play time washing their hands.  And once they get something, it’s going to come home and become your problem.

So how can you at least maintain some control in your house and mitigate the spread of germs amongst the family?  You can try some of these ideas but be ready to have to adhere to things rigorously.  And guys aren’t known for being rigorous about hygiene.

  • Wash your hands rigorously – both in terms of time spent washing and the number of times you wash.  Antibacterial soap is ideal but any soap will work if done properly.  This means for about 20 seconds of solid lathering and rubbing, including between all the fingers and up to the wrist.  In warm water.
  • Keep some hand lotion available since your hands will probably crack and dry from all of the washing.  This PracticalDad prefers something with aloe to help the skin.
  • Monitor the children closely for clean hands and stay on them.  After using the toilet and before any meal or snack.  After you notice them wiping their nose or coughing in their hands.  Make them wash and if they can’t count to 20, then they can sing the Birthday song as a general guide for time spent.  I clocked my rendition at fifteen seconds, so they may want to go for two rounds of the Birthday song.  When the kids get sick, there isn’t much rest and you simply have to suck it up and watch them carefully.
  • Work to keep all utensils and plates/glasses from being shared.  If there’s a common bathroom cup – and frankly, there should never be one – give each child their own cup for use.  A disposable cup is best, since you can mark a particular child’s with a favorite sticker as an identifier for that child and that child only.
  • Stay on top of any and all surfaces and disinfect them frequently.  This PracticalDad will stock up on disposable disinfectant wipes and wander the house when able to wipe down common surfaces.  These surfaces can be bathroom and kitchen counters, doorknobs, bath and sink faucets, surfaces of remote controls and electronic devices, toilet seats and rims and the floors around the toilets, sink surfaces, appliance handles – particularly refrigerators. 
  • Commonly shared toys should be removed and later wiped down.
  • Sick children should be relegated to their rooms for as long as practicable, but this shouldn’t be to the point of their feeling as though they’re being punished.
  • Sick children should never be allowed to rifle the fridge or bread drawers for food.

Naturally, this means that you and Mom will have to ride herd on this process so fully expect that the regular daily stuff of life is going to take a hit due to lack of time and pure exhaustion.  This especially will get worse if there’s one or more vomiting and nothing brings more joy than a family pukefest.

One final note on germ control.  When you do use any cleaner or disinfectant wipes,  be sure to keep them out of the way of your children.  Small children are used to being cleaned by baby wipes and a non-reader could get hurt if trying to wipe themselves with a disinfectant wipe.

For further information, check out the Centers for Disease Control site at www.cdc.gov/germstopper/home_work_school.htm



PracticalDad:  A Flu Vaccines Primer

A major concern for a PracticalDad during the Fall season is setting up Flu vaccinations for the kids before the official flu season "kicks off" around January.  Anyone with a child in (pre-)school knows that these rooms are incredibly efficient germ incubators, even with stringent hand-washing follow-up by teachers.  There are cases in which the flu virus can wipe out a third of a classroom at any one time.  Consequently, it’s important to make sure that both you, your mate and your children receive the flu vaccine.  Fortunately, most kids can now receive the vaccine via a nasal inhaler.

Flu and its symptoms

More serious than a common cold, influenza – the flu – is a highly contagious virus spread through infected droplets from coughing and sneezing, or left on surfaces.  That means that any classroom with small children will be inundated with the germs when the flu season really takes off in January.  Any child with a true case of influenza can suffer from regular cold symptoms as well as fever, and can also have to deal with nausea/vomiting and diarrhea.  The flu’s duration will typicall last for several days with a resulting cough lasting up to two weeks.  Even before your child shows symptoms of the flu, he can be contagious and that contagion stage can last to five days after becoming sick.

Worse cases of the flu can develop into pneumonia and dehydration, requiring some hospitalization for further treatment.

Flu Vaccinations

In February, 2008 the Centers for Disease Control changed the recommended ages for children to receive the vaccine.  The previous suggested age range was for any child from six months to five years of age, but studies were finding that the illness rates for all children was up to three times that of adults.  The consequent change is for all children from six months to 19 years of age.

The start of the vaccination period is usually in September/October adn the vaccines are available through late December.  It would be better however, to have the vaccines given earlier since it generally takes several weeks for the immunity to build.  Additionally, a child receiving the vaccine for the first time will have to have two shots, one several weeks before the other in order to help prepare the body for the full effect of the vaccination.  After that, any further flu vaccinations will only have to occur once annually.

To find out about flu vaccine availability, contact your family doctor or pediatrician in early September and they should be able to tell you when vaccine clinics are scheduled; these will be run to improve the efficiency of vaccinating a large number of children at one time.  If you don’t have a physician, then contact your local health department and they can direct you.

How do the kids receive the vaccine?  Any child over the age of two – except for those with asthma or other chronic health problems – can receive the vaccine via a nasal inhaler, called Flumist.  Those younger than two, or with these problems, will receive a shot so expect a nasty but short interval of crying.  The Flumist vaccine is administered via the nostrils with a burst up each nostril, followed by a quick inhalation by the child.  The vaccine does not guarantee that your child will avoid the flu, but it can at least lessen the impact as the body has had an opportunity to develop some immunity to the virus.

What is your child is less than six months old?  In that case, the child should not have the vaccination; however, YOU should.  That way, you are protected and don’t have to take all of the extra precautions to ensure that the baby doesn’t catch it from you.

Yes, there is the possibility of a slight reaction to the vaccine, usually with the onset of minor cold symptoms, nausea or diarrhea  within about 24 hours.  One of my children responded to the vaccine with nausea the following day, but my wife and I deem that an acceptable risk versus the much higher likelihood of flu should there be no vaccination.  That same child has had to be admitted to the hospital for treatment of dehydration after becoming dangerously dehydrated.  There is a very small risk of a serious reaction to the vaccine, but these incidents are exceedingly rare.  If you do have such a concern, please speak to your family doctor or pediatrician for a better understanding of the risk.

I understand that parents have concerns about the long-term effects of vaccinating their children but our family’s practice has been to have the vaccinations since we have lived with the effects and after-effects of childhood flu.  If you do have such concerns, please contact your physician in order to address your concerns.

PracticalDad and Sleep

How does a Dad handle the altered sleep schedule and survive?  After you have children, your sleep habits will change dramatically and a full night’s sleep will become much more dear.  I write this before dawn after spending part of the night curled up with a first grader to help him sleep. 

Having a child is a tiring thing and part of this will result of sheer lack of sleep.  When they are babies, it’s only fair that you take turns handling the night time duties; this isn’t just Mom’s job and she needs rest, too.  And as they age, you’ll continue to lose sleep because of child fear, nightmares, bedwetting and illness.  Once you think that they’re beyond that, you’ll be staying up late to wait for them as they proceed into the world.  This PracticalDad found out last night that he’s going to be a chaperone until 2 AM for a high school cast party.  I’ve found that as I’ve aged, I’ve had to rethink what is acceptable for my own sleep.

So how can a Dad cope with an interrupted sleep schedule?  Here are some possibilities.

  • Take turns with the mother on being "on call" on alternating nights so that you can get a decent night’s sleep.
  • When it’s not your call night, retire earlier to catch up on what you’ve missed.
  • Rethink your attitude toward naps.  I’ve historically felt guilty taking a nap since there’s always "other stuff" but I’ve come to accept that a nap is an acceptable way to compensate for the lost sleep since it helps me continue to function.
  • Keep a favorite kid’s video handy to occupy the kids when you need a rest.  One of our children slept horribly at night for about a year and I had to contend with an older child as well.  When the younger one went to sleep and the older one was awake, I’d pull the video out and let older child watch it as she curled up in my lap – while I napped.
  • Synchronize your nap with the child’s nap and even curl up with the child for a period.  I found that a half-hour snooze at the start of the child’s two hour nap left me 90 minutes – refreshed – to get work done.

Raising children is a marathon and when you have several of them, it’s akin to an Ironman competition.  Take care of yourself so that you can take care of them.

Why Kids Don’t Always Listen

Like other parents, I’m frequently frustrated when the kids don’t listen when told something.  The word "no" means no and "stop" means stop.  Why don’t they always listen?

And tonight I realized one contributing factor to the problem. 

While middle kid was at an activity, youngest went with me to a bookstore to read some books and have a hot chocolate treat.  As we waited there for the drinks, I gently rubbed his neck while I thought about something else.  And it didn’t even register when he – actually – politely asked me to stop.  I was caught up in my mental world and enjoyed the sensation of being affectionate with my son.  And then he used the phrase that struck me:

"Dad, you tell me that I have to stop when someone tells me to!"

I had to apologize for doing that, agreeing that he was absolutely correct.

So that’s something to remember when the kids are listening when someone tells them to stop.  They’re frequently in their own world of thought and imagination, and if they do hear it, they don’t always have the self-discipline to stop doing something that they enjoy.  This doesn’t mean that I won’t keep following up with them to remind to honor the word no, but I will try to use tonight’s experience to keep some perspective.

PracticalDad and Teens:  What Happens After High School

As the teens age, one of the tricky parts for the PracticalDad is how much to involve himself in deciding what happens after high school.  I want to raise the kids to be able to think and survive in the great wide world so while there may be times that they require some help, my intent isn’t to have them moving home for an indefinite period.  I’m not Amish and I won’t be adding onto the house.

So the period around the end of high school is problematic.  How do I measure my involvement in such a way as to ensure that they make the best decision that they can – whether I agree with it or not – versus just assuring that they make a decision at all?  Parents can become frustrated with the kid if they perceive no activity or movement in the post-high school process and assume laziness.  But it’s just as likely that their child is overwhelmed by the situation.  For some, frankly, it akin to being a deer caught in the spotlight of adulthood.

For this PracticalDad, I have to remember that part o the tuition for whatever comes next will be on the back of my offspring via scholarships and work study.  They absolutely must take responsibility for whatever decision is made.  But most haven’t the experience or knowledge base to adequately evaluate the choices and opportunities.  This means that the parents must take an active hand.  So part of my job is to provide a framework in which they can make the best decision possible.

And how in God’s name does that happen?  As usual, it isn’t a process into which you just jump one morning.

First, start early to help determine whether or not they even are the kind of person who would benefit from a college education.  There is a growing and increasingly critical need for people with the skills to actually do and make things.  In our future environment, those who can actually provide something of value will in all likelihoood prosper more than most.  If this is the case, then there are absolutely valid alternatives in technical education and the guidance department can provide the resources to determine what they might be.

Second, ascertain what the Guidance Department offers to help your kid with career exploration and possible educational matches.  When I was in high school, the Guidance Counselors were largely silent on career exploration and existed to help counsel the student if there were problems and to assist in the college selection process.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that they now plug incoming freshmen into software packages and websites to help identify their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes.  These packages then link the results to potential career paths across the employment spectrum.

Third, early in the high school years, determine what the general timeframe for specific milestones are.  When are the college tests, i.e. the SAT and ACT?  When should the student start considering what the school alternatives are out there?  When should they be expected to have a realistic idea of what their college major might be?  When should they start exploring schools and do those schools have programs that match the prospective major?

Then work with your kid to set up a schedule that satisfies all of these general timeframes.  Some will take to it readily and others will struggle, but at least you have a sense of what has to happen and can adapt accordingly to help move things along.

And you might be pleasantly surprised at how they handle it.

PracticalDad and College:  Shooting at the Sacred Cow

Colleges and universities are non-profit entities and paint themselves as caring for the best interest of your child.  But let’s be honest, they are a huge business and it’s good to remember that. 

My local school district found itself in a controversy last year when they sponsored a seminar by a for-profit specialist in college financial planning.  This person made the comment that colleges were a big business and you had to bear that in mind when speaking with them and reviewing their material.  The word leaked out and the next thing anybody knew, the local colleges – state and private – were sending angry letters to the editor decrying this viewpoint and steadfastly maintaining their care for the welfare and best interest of the student.  From what I understand, that session won’t be happening again.

But this financial planner was correct.  The cost of tuition has gone up significantly faster than the rate of general inflation and no one can provide an adequate rationale for justifying this.  Indeed, is this a big business?  It might be not-for-profit, but it acts like any major corporation.  Consider the state of Pennsylvania.  The state financing agency is the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority, hereafter referred to lovingly as PHEAA.  This group has gained recent notoriety for a lack of accounting controls on spending with executives making paid trips to the California wine country and the corollary perks of cigars and wine excursions.  Even when the information was divulged by a local newspaper using the Freedom of Information Act, PHEAA turned around and spent almost $100,000 to take their employees and families for a day at the local amusement park.  Indeed, the head of PHEAA makes an annual salary of $285,000, which is more than the governor of Pennsylvania.

And the Chancellor of the state university system, comprising fourteen universities, is pulling down $325,000 annually.

There is an institutional bias toward keeping the gravy train rolling, at least for the powers that be.

Likewise, many colleges and universities are competing not only for faculty, but also in terms of the plushness of the facilities.  One local private college even offers a Mongolian Grill for the students.  And this is generally matched by the upgraded student commons facilities.  These institutions have a vested interest in assuring that the steady flow of students and funding come through their ivied portals.

So when you read the materials and meet with the Admissions and Financial Aid people, be prepared to negotiate as hard as you can and be prepared to walk if you must.  There are other institutions available and they need your child and money more than you need them.

PracticalDad Economics:  A New College Paradigm

Seven years of college, down the drain.

          – Bluto Blutarsky

I went away to college and when I came to, I was on the six year plan.

          – High School Friend of the PracticalDad

There was a time when college was more affordable and financing was easier to come by.  The new – and lasting – realities from the recent financial turmoil are that further education is a necessity for economic advantage and that the student must find the most cost-effective means of obtaining it.  Viewing college as an opportunity to "grow" are long, long gone.  This awareness of cost and benefit is foreign to the large majority of most teenagers, so one of the jobs of a PracticalDad is to help frame the decision’s parameters for the teen.  They still might not make the best decision, but at least they’ve had the opportunity to do so.

So just what are the segments of the new realities?

First, no one can disagree that a typical high school graduate will outearn a high school graduate.   CNNMoney estimates are that a college graduate will make $20,000 more annually than a high school graduate of similar age.  With the shifts in the economy to a greater knowledge-based need, that will probably widen further.

But this information is incomplete without further examination.  The present circumstances now require even greater educational requirements in order to stay ahead of the economic curve.  According to statistics in CNNMoney, the average bachelor degree holder lost 4.2% in earnings from 2001 to 2006.  A graduate degree holder earned 4.6% more over the same period while the holder of a doctorate gained greater than 9% in average earnings.  So if your child is going to get ahead of the economic curve as an adult, they will have to prepare, if they are of that bent, to obtain even more than a Bachelor’s degree.  Not everyone is cut out for graduate education and not all graduate degrees are created equal, but an advanced degree is increasingly a necessity to get and stay ahead.  So why load up on the debt for the bachelor degree?

Second, the cost of obtaining a college degree has and will continue to expand greater than the rate of standard inflation.  www.finaid.org provides statistics that show the historic tuition inflation rate at almost twice the CPI general rate.  And the simple truth is colleges have little incentive to control their costs; the supply of colleges is largely set and they don’t just spring up or go out of business.  Demand for a college degree is rising however, as everyone jumps on the bandwagon.  And any basic economics professor will sketch out how price rises with demand when the supply curve is fixed.  A shining contrast to this trend is Harvard, which actually dropped it’s tuition cost in 2008 in response to the pressing financial demands on families and students.  Of course, Harvard has a $35 Billion endowment so whether this leads the way with other institutions remains to be seen.

Providers of higher education state that financing is certainly available for any college whether through scholarships, student and private loans, grants and work study opportunities.  This is true.  But the mix available has changed dramatically in the past decades.  Government grants have been overtaken by government loan programs and even these loan programs are now in trouble.  In March of 2008, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) ran into the credit mess and found that it was unable to float a sufficient number of bonds necessary to support student lending.  Six months later, this PracticalDad knew of two local students forced to make changes in their plans to account for this financing failure.  Scholarship programs will also be affected since their investment returns will suffer along with everybody else’s returns.

So the cost of further education is rising and the financing options are narrowing.  What can a PracticalDad do?

  1. Early in the child’s life, decide what financing mechanism is best for your needs.  There are a variety of savings mechanisms available, ranging from UGMA (Uniform Gifts to Minors Act) accounts to various state 529 plans.  Then, as much as possible, utilize some of the college cost sites mentioned above to help plan what should be deposited regularly.  If that’s possible.
  2. After deciding on the mechanism, monitor it regularly and make the appropriate changes as the need arises or the environment changes.  Like your retirement savings, the plan has to be regularly checked and updated.
  3. Spend time figuring out what the generic college costs might be for your child at both a public and private college.  My recommendation would be www.bankrate.com, which is an excellent site for all manner of hands-on financial tools.  You can specify the length of time until college and also the estimated inflation rate.
  4. Start talking with the children early – and I measure early in terms of years – about what college is and isn’t.  What they see in the media doesn’t necessarily jibe with reality and for most anymore, it’s not an opportunity for self-exploration.
  5. When they reach high school, meet the guidance counselors and learn what materials the guidance group offers.  What’s available in terms of scholarship resources and what other programs are offered that would be of benefit.
  6. Utilize the other publicly available reading materials.  This PracticalDad recommends What Colleges Don’t Tell You by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross and How to Go to College for Almost Free by Ben Kaplan.  The former is a large collection of tips and "secrets" for successful admission provided by the author, who’s advised students and families on admission for more than a decade.  The latter is a "how-to" guide to maximizing scholarships written by a Harvard graduate who’s become one of the leading experts on working the scholarship system.
  7. And constantly reiterate to the kids about the need to keep up with the studies.  And then reiterate it again.

If you have a newborn, it might appear that you have an almost infinite time until she is ready for taking that step and from a financial standpoint, there is a lot of time.  But like anything else, it will pass faster than you know so use your time wisely.