When Does a Kid Need a Cellphone?

The general PracticalDad philosophy is that so long as your feet are under the table, then there will be rules by which you will abide; according to my father, it’s been a philosophy that he knows for certain was handed down over the past four PracticalDad generations.  And this certainly applies to the Electronics as well as everything else.

Before you react, bear in mind that we also believe that there is an appropriate time for introducing things and that we do allow leeway as the kids age.

One of the ongoing questions has been when can I have a cellphone?  Our standard response has been when you actually have a need for one.  Thus far, that takes us to about driver’s age for a teenager. 

When we were told that alot of friends had them, we also learned that part of having the phone was the understanding that numbers of parents told their kids that they were liable to be called randomly and the kid needed to respond with where they were, who they were with and what they were doing.  Eldest seemed to think that this was a selling point in the drive to obtain one.  My response – and that of my mate – was the opposite.  I recall that part of the joy of growing up was the time and freedom that came with friends away from parental intrusion.  I had clear expectations and rules, but my parents let me have that time with only those expectations to provide constraint.  And yes, there were moments of pubescent nonsense that were within the expectation boundaries but I still wouldn’t want to have to divulge them at any particular moment to the ‘rents.  My honest take is that this kind of tie to possession of a cellphone only tends to encourage dishonesty. 

But we reviewed things last week when our eldest went on a school choral trip to Disney World.  Eldest is a year away from driving and we understand that most of the peers also have cellphones, so it’s not as though there would be no way to communicate.  But I permitted eldest to take mine just in case.  There were no requirements about nightly bedtime calls, apart from the request to contact us about an hour before returning to the pick-up point so that I could retrieve her.  Eldest also understands from a previous experience that I’m not on a text plan and that any text message costs $.50 each; because the need for her to know never occurred to me, I paid for that one but informed her that she’d be paying any future bills.  What’s been nice is that she’s chosen to call from different points in the trip to let us know what she’s been doing on her first real trip away from the family.

I have truly missed Eldest and I pick her up this evening.  I will have dinner with her and listen to the stories of doing what with whom and how the performance went. 

And in several weeks, I’ll review my phone bill to see the usage.  The results will help form our final decision on whether the phone actually comes before the driver’s license.

Notes on a Home-bound Sick Kid

Disclaimer:  I’m not a physician and I don’t play one on TV.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t pass along some tips on handling a sick kid at home.

Yep, Middle is home for the second day with a recurrent fever after violent nausea two nights ago.  Some comments.

  • After a kid’s been sick in bed with a fever, it will feel good to have fresh sheets to replace those dampened by sweat.  Having to change the sheets is more work but the kid will appreciate it.  Even if they don’t mention it.
  • Keep the paper towels and disinfectant solution handy for the bathroom, light switches and doorknobs.  You may also want to wipe down electronic devices – phones, remotes – with a disinfectant dampened towel or wipe.
  • A kid with a fever is more prone to be sensitive to violent or scary imagery.  My new rule of thumb is that a kid with a fever will never again watch NCIS prior to bedtime.  Or any other "alphabet" show (SVU, CSI, etc.).
  • It pays to have a "sick supply" of carbonated non-cola available in the case of upset stomach.  In our case, we try to keep a bottle of Sprite or 7-Up available since it’s easier on the stomach and can help keep a kid hydrated.  Always a good thing.  In today’s case however, I had to make a quick run to the store since our supply had been used and not restocked.
  • Go to bed earlier since there’s a higher likelihood of middle-of-the-night disruptions.  You can fold the laundry or watch TV later.
  • Clear your schedule for several days later if possible since you’re likely to get sick as well.  In my case, a three day lag is pretty routine.

The workload with a sick child is heavier, especially if there’s stomach or bowels involved.  But it doesn’t have to be unbearable.  So good luck and stay healthy.

Managing the Kids’ Clothing – Sort and Then What?

Part of a parent’s job is inventory control, and the more kids you have the larger the job (Kid’s Clothing – Managing the Hand-Me-Downs).  Clothing comes into the house via your own purchases, grandparents and extended family, and hand-me-downs from other families. On top of that, the kids will start buying some of their own things as they grow older. But with everything coming in, clothing should also exit the house and especially in today’s economics, you should pay attention to where it goes.

As a PracticalDad rule, the only clothing that is actually thrown out is that which is ruined beyond meaningful and cost-effective repair.  What does that mean?

  • The cost of repair or hemming is greater than the cost of the clothing itself.  Kmart’s Basic Editions line of clothing is cheap enough that paying to have it repaired/altered makes no sense.  If you can mend it yourself, then bully for you since that’s even less to throw out.
  • The stains are so bad and egregious that once it’s outgrown, you can’t envision having another child wear it.  Show some respect; just because someone else is taking your kid’s clothing doesn’t mean that theiri kids should dress in a way that you would find unacceptable for your own.

Determining Where It Goes

When you’ve culled through the clothing and decided what doesn’t need thrown out, you can move things accordingly.  I have some points that I consider in this.

  • Am I looking for tax deductions or do I even care about itemizing?

             If time is an issue, then you should consider whether you should go for the itemized deduction since the IRS has tightened the criteria on the value of what’s deductible.  Since Hilary donated Bill’s underwear for $5 a pop, the IRS has cracked down and home packages like TurboTax will assign an IRS approved amount dependent upon the quality of the donated item.

  • Do I care if the recipient is local or further away?  Do I even care if the recipient actually has financial concerns?

              Have you ever seen a photo of some impoverished African kid wearing a Stanford or Cowboys t-shirt?  I occasionally wondered how that kid got that shirt and it was about two years ago that I learned that the local rescue mission to which I donated clothing actually sent some of those donations on to third world countries.  Likewise, there are a fair number of middle class teens who shop at Goodwill and while I applaud their frugality. I’m less concerned with subsidizing their fashion taste.

               In today’s world, I want my clothing to stay as local as possible since middle class need doesn’t generate much press coverage or outcry.  Learn who’s in your kid’s class and neighborhood and you’ll start learning who can use what.

  • What does a recipient organization need or accept?  How much work am I willing to generate for myself?

              I’ve learned that our local Goodwill won’t accept shoes or baby toys/equipment for fear of liability issues.  Likewise, our local rescue mission will take shoes but not toys and I can never find anybody at the local Boys & Girls Club to actually accept the toys.  And frankly, having thirty seven piles of stuff is way beyond the pale of acceptable workload.

This PracticalDad’s Guidelines

So I’ve changed how things are distributed and adopted the following guidelines.

  1. Neighborhood schools and families who respond that they need and are willing to accept the clothing.  Yes, some school districts are sponsoring events where families can bring in unneeded clothing for use by those who might need it.
  2. Local non-profit and church thrift shops who don’t send the items out of the area.
  3. Rescue missions and other entities who serve under-privileged populations.  And yes, I still send some things to Goodwill.

While you might look at the stuff and feel a need to just get it out of the house, remember that the best use and greatest need in today’s world isn’t necessarily miles and time-zones away.


Moral Kids in an Immoral World

You’re too honest, Dad.

I was really stung by the words from my middle-schooler, who’s someways down the road to being a full-blown cynic.  They came in response to a conversation about the ways that the new Geithner Private-Public Investment Program could be abused – and for the record, our personal conversations can appear to the average reader as seriously bent.  He and his older sibling are aware that I’m worried about the economy and the country and I’ve shared a fair amount with them both.  I laid out the general idea of the plan and then stated that theoretically, I could wind up legally owning our own home for about $15,000.  Our credit would be ruined, but the mortgage money could eliminate the need for credit.

Great, so why not?  Lots of others are doing it, why shouldn’t we?

He has a point.  Do I honestly believe that the bastards at Citi, BlackRock and the rest are stepping back for fear that what they’re doing is wrong?  That they’re not actively figuring out new and innovative ways to enrich themselves at the public trough?  I’d be a fool since it’s become abundantly clear that the controls stopping such action – both internal and external – are slipping away into a kleptocratic  nightmare.  How do I respond to this, Messrs. Geithner, Bernanke and Frank?

Because we simply can’t.  That’s all that I could muster in the moment and it’s only been in the last while since I started this that I can give better words to it. 

Because we simply can’t.  When we allow ourselves to start down that road, then we eventually come to a point and which we willingly betray our own neighbors, friends and family.  And then we can no longer continue without wondering whether they are playing us for fools as well.  It’s called being a moral person and it has to be a conscious choice.  In other times and places, it’s pretty easy to make the moral choice but in today’s society, it will require effort.  If everyone fails the effort test, then it really will be a bleak and dangerous world.

Thank you for letting me puzzle this out in print.  Tonight will be a revisited conversation about the original "honesty" comment.

Boy Talk (Part 2)

As kids grow, they still need to be reassured but might not want to come out and show that there’s anything that requires reassurance.  This is especially the case for boys who will go through a lengthy period of false machismo matched only by a stunning lack of common sense.

Eldest son knows that I’ve gotten larger in the waist and the doctor has suggested the Flat Belly Diet to get my waist back below size 40.  As we shot basketball this afternoon, he remarked that if I would get back to the gym – to which I hadn’t returned since an illness last year – I could take him in wrestling without being winded.  The subject changed and then he came back to exercise again. 

As we talked, I asked whether he was worried about my having a heart attack. 

No.  Well, maybe a little…

I told him that having a heart attack wasn’t on my calendar – not that it couldn’t happen – and his response was direct and pointed:  So get to the frickin’ gym!

So my history with boys is that if an issue comes up another time, it’s best for me to put it on the table.  That way, the boy can concentrate on the issue without having to appear as though he’s worried or even scared.  When he’s older and more secure with himself, then he can learn the direct approach.

And I’ll save the choice of language for another time.

Kid’s Clothing – Managing the Hand-Me-Downs

One of the first signs of Spring in our household is managing the clothing inventory.  With multiple children and a network of friends with children, there’s a constant flow of clothing through the house and it takes periodic time and attention to keep everything in some order.  Early Spring – and early Fall – is a good time to check what fits, what’s needed and what needs to go away.

Getting Started

If you have multiple recipients for the outdated clothing – whether charity or another family – the first question is whether you want to sort by recipient or just toss everything going into one pile to be sorted later.  If you have time issues, you probably want to have one larger pile in an out-of-the-way area that you can go back to later.  In our case, we have a charity box in the garage to hold what’s leaving the household.  I can always go back to sort out later when the kids aren’t around.

The next step is deciding where to start.  I’ve made the mistake of starting with an older child whose clothing goes to a younger one.  The end result is a clothing pile bottleneck until I can clear out the old clothing from the younger one; that bottleneck is presently residing in the upstairs hallway.

Involving the Kids (Unfortunately…)

Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid doing it without the kids to try things on.  A couple tips?

  • Pay attention to the weather and shoot for a poor-weather weekend so they can’t argue about missing nicer weather outside.
  • Choose one set of jeans, slacks, pullover shirt and dress shirt to use as a pattern.  After finding one of each that fits, you can lay it on the bed and use it as a benchmark by laying others over it for sizing.  That way, the kids don’t have to try everything on and you can pull them in for only those questionable items.
  • Yeah, there are moments when a bribe helps and this is one of those times.  You can talk until blue in the face about how they gain from this, but it’s not going to work.

After the clothing is sorted and on to the next location, take the moments to clean out the drawers and refold what’s needed.  When the kids are a little older, it’s also a good opportunity to teach them and let them practice folding and hanging things up.

As the clothing shifts through the house like a rat in a python, you can then disperse it to its destination(s) from the garage.  One final question is whether the outgoing clothing should be washed before leaving the house; I generally look at everything as it comes through and wash what actually needs it – grass stains on knee, food stains on shirts.  Honestly though, since kids usually toss things in the hamper after wearing once, things are typically clean when I go through them.

Managing the Household Electronics

I try not to let the kids spend too much time, but there are moments when I feel Amish.

Neighborhood Mother, 2002

Through the years, I’ve tried to rein in the household electronics so that the kids don’t spend all – or even most – of their time staring at a screen.  Having grown up with a TV and the early cable, I firmly believe that the majority of stuff on any kind of screens is simply a waste of pixels.  There are good programs and also good websites, but most is dreck.  But the past year has forced us to reconsider what is an acceptable accomodation.

As a practical guy, I never put much faith in psychology/self-help literature and I’ve rarely found one that actually made me change how I operate.  One of the few exceptions is The Shelter of Each Other by Mary Pipher, an experienced family therapist.  This book is based upon observations drawn from a long career as a therapist; her premise is that the modern American family is harmed by a combination of factors.  The first is the consumerist belief that bigger is better, especially when it comes to housing.  The typical house’s square footage grew so much over the decades from the 1950s that a parent could be in the kitchen – where I practically live – while never being able to hear what was going on in the far corners of the house where the offspring would spend their time.  A second factor is the rising ubiquity of consumer electronics, to the point that many children have computers and television sets in their own rooms.  Consequently, there is no appreciable reason for them to gather with the rest of the family; especially during the teen years when they might consider the ‘rents as trainable idiot savants.  The third reason is the attention of the ‘rents to those things in the outer world, like work and outside activities.  That isn’t meant to denigrate parents who have to work, but the first two factors make connecting with the kids all the more difficult.

The book made such an impact on both of us that several things occurred.

  • We moved our sole computer from the guest room/office to the family room so that the screen would be in a common area.  This was pre-emptive in order to avoid any possible hurt feelings when moving it after she started using it. 
  • We decided to assure that the size of our house would never be larger than it was at that moment.  We’ve since moved into a smaller house, willingly giving up the space to assure more intimacy.  To clarify, we moved from a home of about 2600 square feet to 2200 square feet so it’s not as if we moved into the storage shed.
  • We agreed to not allow the kids to have computers or televisions in their rooms.  We’ve compromised on personal music devices – CD player/radio and mp3 – when they reached a specific age.
  • Cell phones would not happen until we were very comfortable that there was a real need, i.e. obtaining a driver’s license.

And here is where the situation rests.  Over the years, both my wife and I have acquired laptops for use in work.  Hers is purely work while I use mine for this website and financial matters.  My laptop has aged along with my eldest child, to the point that mine is frankly clunky and she requires more time on the computer for classwork.  If and when I replace this, is giving her this particular device violating what we agreed upon?  And if not, what restrictions do we place on it’s use?

My mate is more comfortable with this than I am.  From my perspective, questions to be answered would include:

  • About how much would it be used in her bedroom versus the common areas?
  • Since she is still a minor – not even driving – do we have access to her passwords? 
  • Do we reserve the right to inspect the contents?
  • What are the consequences of not meeting the guidelines?
  • Indeed, am I setting a better example by just using this until it dies and making her continue to use the family PC?

The situation will play out in the next several weeks as my wife and I discuss our concerns.  And while I refer to myself as an electronic Nazi, I’d hate to be referred to as Amish.

Taking Over at Home

While I chose to stay home with our first child – and her siblings – this article, More Laid-off Men Equals More Mommy Breadwinners, brought back vivid memories of the first days at home. 

The most pointed was the dogging worry about money.  We gave up almost 60% of our income to have me at home and in Washington, DC that meant something.  We also knew that it would be almost two years before my spouse’s fellowship ended and she could look forward to an income that previously approached our combined salaries.  Dinners out?  Largely gone.  Movies?  Gone.  Weekends away?  Gone.  Bookstores?  Browsing, but no buying.  And make that transportation last since a newer vehicle – we’d never bought a new car – would be out of the question.

Hunting and gathering took on a new meaning as I started truly shopping for the best deal on everything from bread to diapers.  Hit the newspaper coupons and sales flyers, but only after first determining what was actually needed.  I found that it was easy to confuse an impulse for a need – yeah, those bookcases could really come in handy for the toys – when I hadn’t really even previously considered whether a bookcase was necessary.  After working with my mate to find the best buys, it then shifted to the "Traveling Salesman" scenario to find the best combination of stops for particular errands in a set timeframe.  With a baby and small children, I was constrained by the need for consistent feeding times and naps.  And the realization that I wasn’t home so that the kid could spend all her time in a carseat.

The next biggest concern was deciding what needed to be done versus what could be done.  When did it make the most sense to do dishes versus laundry?  How often should the vacuum be run or the bathroom cleaned?  Believe me, with small children, the bathroom needs done a whole lot more than I ever thought necessary.  Since I was up frequently with the children as they grew, should I grab a nap with them or put the time to other use?  And how much time is optimal for interacting with my child?  Let’s be frank.  I wasn’t staying home to do housework but to raise the children, and plunking them in front of the television was defeating our intent.

Perhaps the biggest question dealt just with me.  Was I actually letting my family down by not bringing in a paycheck?  Did that lack of a paycheck make me less of a man?  Was it wrong to look forward to time alone and away from the little one?  It took time to recognize that childcare – being the househusband – was actually far more difficult than I ever understood; balancing the needs of the household, the child and the mate was and is sometimes an antic juggling act.

Finally, the simple fact of having to answer the question what the hell do I do now? was tiring.  There are tons of resources out there for women but very little oriented towards a guy who’s having to decide between managing a fussy baby and cleaning Gerbers off of the walls.  It would be easy to just call my mate but pride prevented that.  After all, I’m a self-reliant guy who should know how to figure this out.  The flip side was the humility of what I was doing.  No income meant that what I did was less important than her and I should avoid bothering her since I only took care of the kids.

These concerns largely resolve with time – learning to live on less, making best use of your time, and even coming to grips with your manhood.  But there are still challenges even after years and these will never resolve until the children are making their own way in the world.  And then they’re back just in time for the grandkids…


Kids and Volunteering

Early pubescence is a truly challenging time for all parents and kids.  Many families have tried to shelter kids from the problems of the outside world but the parents are noticing an increased curiosity about their larger world.  At the same time, the kids are starting to experience more independence at the same time that they’re typically weak in the common sense/judgment department.  How can these disparate threads be pulled together in a decent marriage?

Perhaps the best way is to find a way for the kid to volunteer in the community.  How is this a good solution?

  • It provides a structured opportunity to introduce the youth to the lives and issues of others who can be in extremely different economic and life situations.
  • It provides an outlet for some of the free summer time that would be otherwise wide-open.
  • It gives the youth a chance to experience some responsibility for having a schedule with responsibility to others.  This isn’t just a class or camp for their benefit, but their failure to show will have an impact on someone else.

Don’t be surprised however, at finding some resistance to this.  The kids are growing and there is the sense that the larger world is starting to eat into their free time.  Likewise, this world can place them in situations outside their comfort zone and that’s difficult even for adults at times.  There are several routes that you can take to handle this.  Understand that this is going to require an investment on your part.  Just throwing them the situation is setting them up for failure.

  1. Do your own homework up front.  A good starting point is the Volunteer Coordinator at your local United Way agency.  The United Way is an umbrella for many disparate non-profit groups and will typically ascertain the needs of the various groups; it will also help these groups better understand how to structure the experience for the youth so that bad situations are avoided.  In our area, the United Way will provide an updated list of groups, listing their age requirements and job outlines.
  2. Start planning early, probably in mid-winter.  Because there are only a certain number of volunteer positions for different groups, start in the mid-winter so that your youth has a decent shot at finding the best match.  If there are various scheduling spots, the earlier you can get things rolling the better it can be for your own family/transportation situation.
  3. Talk with your youth and help them define what they want to do.  Some kids know up front while others need to talk through things to find a reasonable match.  If your kid has a natural aversion to something, don’t place them in a situation that sets them up for failure.
  4. Walk them through the process of contacting the potential choices.  While the organizations are actively looking for volunteers, they don’t want just a body and you don’t want your kid in a mess.  You can turn it into a practice for future job interviews by helping them frame their own questions, answering questions in turn and teaching them about presenting themselves.
  5. Understand that this investment on their part is also going to be an investment on your part.  Transportation is on you – whether you take them yourself or help arrange it – and keeping track of the calendar and schedule will rest with you until they improve.
  6. Keep talking with them about what they’re doing there.  Is it in keeping with what’s offered?  My eldest spent last summer working with the local WIC (Women and Infant Children) program and I suddenly realized that she was now helping in the lab area.  Since the lab area deals with drawing blood for samples, what would be the exposure to used needles?  A quiet phone call to the director allayed my concerns and things moved along.

Volunteering is not a panacea for all situations, but it’s a good start on meeting the various needs of a youth, family and community.  The resources are there and some forethought and planning will make it a win/win/win.

Warning Kids without Embarrassing Them

As children age, they obviously become aware of the world around them, which means that they will reach a point at which they can become embarrassed when corrected.  Each will differ in the degree to which they care, but they all care.  Your life will be easier if – when they’re old enough to understand signals – you arrange a signal that indicates that it’s time to stop.

One of my children is a budding comedian and the stuff in his head is far beyond his years.  This means that he can be screamingly funny, but he will also push the boundaries when it’s neither the time nor the place.  There are moments when, in the interest of stopping a train proceeding down the wrong track, I directly and openly intercede.  The train is stopped, but the child is embarrassed and it can lead to hurt feelings and further issues.

So what can you and I do?

  • Arrange a pre-set signal between you that is understood to mean "knock it off".  A highly raised eyebrow or a brief slash of the finger across the throat would be examples.
  • Since children are generally lousy at watching others when the spotlight is on them, assure that they understand that you’ll do things to get their attention before even delivering the signal.  Cough repeatedly, clear your throat, whatever you mutually decide is okay.
  • If you do have to interrupt, try to do so in a lighter manner.  I recently warned this child off by moving my right hand – first two fingers extended – in a mock Jedi wave while intoning this is not the joke you want to be telling.  I had to do it a second time to drive it home, but it went down easier.
  • Before taking your children into places or situations, give them a "heads up" about what it is appropriate language and behavior.  Also remind them of whatever signals you agree upon.  This is frequently enough to forestall any situations.

There are bunches of adults who are lousy at controlling their mouths and actions, so don’t be surprised if the kids goof.  But with sufficient follow-up, you’ll raise kids to be adults that can control their mouths and actions.