Wish I’d Known Then What I Know Now:  Time

Next week is the fifteenth anniversary of my resignation from work to stay home with the kids.  And I’ve been asking myself the question, what do I wish that I’d known then?  And the first answer is:  time.

Adults live in a world that is typically regimented in terms of time.  There are work deadlines and due dates for bills.  Many usually have one or more favorite activities that fill in the unused blocks.  We fit in a trip to the gym for a workout before work or between work and dinner.  We arrange for a weekend away with the mate or schedule a regular poker night with the buddies.  And there are constant complaints about the lack of time and the constant rush to be somewhere or do something.

But kids are born with no innate sense of time.  Their awareness of time is something that is absorbed from the parents and they will frequently later take on the habits and attitudes of their folks.  But when they’re first born, they have no need to be somewhere and the only activities are the ones that the parents schedule for them.   

What kids are born with is an extreme egocentrism.  Initially, it’s necessary since a baby simply cannot take care of itself, but as the child grows and becomes aware, the egocentrism reigns supreme until he or she learns to consider others.  And until this starts to develop, you have to understand that your life is no longer your own.  You do need to find time for yourself to maintain some sanity, but your child isn’t going to care whether you were able to make the gym or have the poker night.  And the reality is that with the new requirements of parent- and fatherhood, you aren’t going to have time available for them. 

One of my major challenges over the years has been to find a balance between schedule and flexibility, especially when the kids are very young.  I have to make the doctor and dentist appointments work within the construct of their daily needs – feedings and naps – but what can be jettisoned if they’re in a growth spurt and need the additional sleep?  How do I reapportion the daily task load when she’s teething and especially needs hands-on attention while I should be making dinner?  What has to go away to make time for coaching the soccer team or leading the scout den? How do I function when I’ve gotten four hours sleep from caring for a kid with a g-i virus?

The irony is that while kids have no concept of time, time is what they require most.  You don’t have to give them a new toy a week to maintain their interest and you don’t have to sit them in front of the television or computer to occupy them.  What you do need to do is spend concentrated time with them.  Take them for walks or to the park, play games with them and read to them, and talk to them.  The child isn’t going to be terribly aware of what he doesn’t have until he’s taking in more television and spending more time with other kids.  And if you give him the time that he requires for his development – and no, there’s not a hard and fast number – then he really isn’t going to give a damn that somebody has more Bakugon cards. 

So don’t get terribly frustrated when it seems like there’s no time.  There is time and God willing, there will be time again when they’re older.  But accept that what you considered to be timely – in terms of activity and time spent – is going to change for the next number of years.  And try to enjoy them.  As someone once wrote to me, I miss those days.

Kids and Contracts

As the kids age and take a larger role in the world, they’re going to come across things called contracts.  And it’s crucial that you take a few moments to review the contracts with the kids so that they learn to do it in the future. 

I’m a purist by nature and professional training.  I’ve written contracts, reviewed them, altered them and signed them.  My previous career was in the insurance industry and I memorized the quote what the big print giveth, the small print taketh away.  So I read every contract that I sign and I admit to amusement when a clerk doesn’t know what to say when I alter a standard contract.  Trust me, the typical place will cave when you walk to the door with your money.

Contracts matter.  And while we don’t expect minors to understand business law, they should have a basic enough understanding to know that they have to read them.  We live in a period of economic mayhem, when thousands are losing their homes because they were locked into mortgage products that made no sense.  And some have proffered the response that they couldn’t be expected to read the documentation.  Unfortunately, that response isn’t forestalling the loss of their homes.

Eldest is working as a volunteer this summer and part of the preliminary packet was a confidentiality agreement.  I became aware of it when she asked me to sign it as the parent witness.  Before finalizing it, I asked her to explain her understanding of what it meant and was pleased that she covered the bases well.  I also impressed upon her the fact that as a minor, her screw-up wouldn’t lead to civil litigation against her, but me instead. 

Parents will have different takes on handling the situation, but here’s what I do:

  • Assure that both you and they have read the contract.
  • Ask them for their understanding of what the contract means.  Don’t assume that you’ve both understood it the same way.
  • Consider asking a "what if" situation question, or just provide some examples of a situation that might arise under the contract.
  • Not only give them a situation or two, but help them frame an appropriate response.  In our situation, don’t assume that someone has a right to know by virtue of being in the office, but refer the person to an adult employee that you know.  Then dummy up.
  • Discuss the consequences of failing to honor the contract.

And remember that when they’re with you and you are presented with a contract, you take the time necessary to read it.  They’ll learn to do that when they see you do it as well.

Safety Notes on Kids and Hot Days

When you take the kids out for summer vacations, they’ll look for the fun stuff but you have to pay attention to them.  The combination of heat, humidity and activity can be a major problem for children.

We recently took the first trip to Orlando with the three kids and this became apparent as we waited in a slow line for a Universal Theme park ride.  Further ahead, a teenage girl leaned against a wall and then proceeded to slowly go limp.  Her father began talking to her as he supported her by the shoulder but her head suddenly lapsed into her chest and the support became an urgent effort to control the fall as she went into a heap.  Someone produced a cold bottle of Gatorade and the parents finally managed to induce her to sip the liquid; after several minutes – during which no park personnel were present – she was able to stand and leave the line, hopefully for an air-conditioned spot.  My mate is a physician who assisted and I could only feel for the father as I watched my own three.

And I already pay considerable attention to how they’re doing.

Children – especially smaller ones – are more susceptible to heat-related problems than adults.  This is partially due to differences between the child’s and the adult’s body.  Another part, however, is that kids are simply too caught up in the activity to pay attention to their body’s needs.  They don’t think in terms of rehydration; they think in terms of a sudden awareness of thirst or nausea arising from dehydration.  And by then, it’s already on the verge of too late.

So what should you consider as you prepare to take the kids for those summer days of family outings?


  • Push water.  Not soda, juice or milk – water.  While the others contain water, the body does best with clear and colorless liquid that contain no additives to process.  If you have a baby less than nine months, you can even consider whether to give it water in addition to formula.  But seriously ask yourself if it’s in the best interests of the infant to be out in mid-day heat.
  • If you aren’t certain when to give the child water, use yourself as a guide.  Remember that thirst is a sign that you’re already becoming dehydrated, so make it a point of pacing yourself with regular water intake.  And when you do drink, be sure that your child also drinks; kids are notoriously proud and drinking with you will go over better than Know-it-all Dad forcing the kid to do something utterly uncool as drinking because they need it.  The typical kid under twelve years of age should have an average of six cups of water daily so be sure to use that as a baseline and increase it with the heat and activity. 
  • When you change a diaper – or take a smaller child to the bathroom – pay attention to the color of the urine.  A lighter color urine is preferred since darker urine indicates that the urine is more concentrated and thus demonstrating dehydration.

Clothing and Accessories

  • Like everybody else, kids should wear lighter-weight and -colored clothing to reflect the heat.  It should also be looser fitting, so those pretty tights on your little girl are a bad idea.
  • Take an additional set of clothing to replace the sweaty clothing later in the day.  Children are more susceptible than adults to heat changes and a child wearing a sweaty/damp outfit will feel the chill more as the day’s temperature decreases later on.
  • Kids should also wear hats to provide some protection from UV rays on the nose and forehead.
  • Any stroller should have a shade to protect the child.  If you think that your kid needs something additional, I’ve known some parents to carry a collapsible umbrella in the tote bag should the kid need additional protection.
  • Hot, humid weather wouldn’t be the best time to use a snuggli or other close body device.  The nearness of the small body is uncomfortable for both of you and could even drive up the child’s body temperature further.
  • Keep a good supply of diapers and wipes for more frequent changes, to forestall an increased risk of diaper rash and discomfort.
  • Be liberal in using a diaper rash ointment – A&D for example – to protect the child’s bottom from chafing or rash.

Skin Care

  • A child’s skin is more sensitive than an adult’s toughened skin.  This means that before you depart for the day, apply a base coat of sunscreen and then reapply as the day progresses.  The back of any bottle will provide guidance on how often to reapply.
  • The peak of the sun’s effects on skin are from 10 AM to 2 PM.  If possible, plan to spend some of that time inside.  For example, we planned to spend the bulk of that time in Orlando inside, in covered shows or eating lunch.


  • Understand that your child is more likely to crap out earlier than he would otherwise and will later require more and/or longer naps.  This is typically accompanied by a cranky tantrum as the kid melts through the last of the energy reserves.  It isn’t because he chooses to be nasty, but is instead finally overwhelmed and is no longer capable of providing self-control. 

If this seems like a lot to remember, then understand that one of your primary jobs as a father is to protect them so that they can enjoy these things.  And as they age, you can teach them so that they can pass it along to their own children.

Maintaining Discipline On A Vacation

So how can you maintain discipline with the kids while you’re on vacation? 

You’re typically going to feel constrained because you’re in a public area and the usual measures – loss of toys or privileges, room confinement, corporal punishment, whatever – aren’t available.  What can you do to maintain order?

First, remember that while you’re on vacation, you probably need to exercise even greater patience than at home.  If you’re travelling, the bedtimes are probably shot to hell and the activity has the motors revved to the point of burnout; the kids are going to be more tired than usual and their ability to control themselves is going to suffer. 

Bearing that in mind, you might consider a three count warning with the punishment being a one minute timeout – or longer if the kid’s older – at the front of the park on arrival. 

What’s a three count warning?  Simply put, you’re putting the kid on notice and providing them with an opportunity to control themselves before the third count causes the correction.  How does it work?  When you go somewhere, tell the child up front that when you find them misbehaving, you’ll start to count to three.  When the child hears ‘one’, it’s the signal that he needs to stop.  If he doesn’t, then you’ll count ‘two’.  If the child hasn’t stopped after the ‘two’ count, then you’ll count ‘three’ and the correction will occur. 

We’ve used the count system for years and it does work.  The beauty with the timeout on entering the vacation spot is that the first several minutes there are typically spent orienting yourselves; the child can sit in a timeout at a specified spot while you figure things out, and then you can move on to the first activity with the correction out of the way.  And the kid has learned that there is a consequence without realizing that he’d probably be hanging out at the same spot anyway.

So the correction is immediate, consistent and enforceable.  It might not work on all occasions but it can take care of a number of them.

When You’re About to Lose Control

I know that I shouldn’t hit, but it’s like my hand has a mind of its own.

                       – Female Acquaintance of the PracticalDad

Almost any parent with a child, especially a pubescent ‘tweener, can relate to the comment from an acquaintance many years ago.  This woman had two kids, one of whom was in middle school while the other was in fifth grade, and they could seriously tick her off through any number of means.  She related that she’d try to speak with one of them and would be met with enough disrespect and argument that her hand would just reach over and slap the child.

If you really believe that you don’t want to do this, what are your options when you’re seriously torqued with the kid?  Because believe me, you will get to that point.

  • Send them to their room immediately.  I’m fairly old-fashioned in that there are moments when I’m the father and I don’t have to provide a reason.  Yes, I believe deeply in communicating with the kids, but there have been times when they don’t deserve a reason apart from my approach to the PsychoDad realm.  You should later speak to them and follow-up on the situation, but the moment doesn’t necessarily require an answer since they aren’t your equals.
  • Simply put your hands in your pockets when you have to speak with them.  My kids have come to understand that when I speak with them in a certain tone and my hands are in my pockets, then I’m really fighting the urge to give them a "dope slap" across the back of the head.
  • Go to your own room for a few minutes, assuming that the kids are old enough to manage themselves without self-immolation.  Take that time to get yourself together and then head back to the combat zone.

One final note on this topic.  Understand that these are strategies to handle your own anger and to minimize hitting.  But this shouldn’t be confused with corporal punishment since corporal punishment – if to be used properly – is not done on the spur of the moment but only with sufficient detachment. 

Big Events:  Preparing Your Kids

Kids love a good vacation or special event as much as anyone else, but most don’t have the capacity to handle the pace and change unless they know what coming.  So that means that you have to spend time in advance – sometimes weeks in advance – telling them what’s coming up.  What complicates things tremendously is that children typically have a limited attention span or don’t really understand unless it’s presented very clearly and plainly.

I Should Start How Long In Advance?

Yeah, give them as much notice – weeks or months – as you possibly can.  Special events aren’t the same as grocery shopping, and there’s no real reason – apart from a purposeful surprise – to keep it from them.  This is especially important when the event is one that an unprepared child can seriously disrupt.  So take the available window to work with them and help them build the foundation for a successful outing.  Since kids deal best with information presented in smaller bites, you can expect to have to use that time to go back to the same well again and again.

Preparing the Kids Is Like Building A House

Knowing that you have a window of time to prepare them – and that they don’t usually handle large information doses well at one time – handle  it like building a house.  The foundation is the most basic and broad information presented over several days and when they show that they’ve got it down, move onwards to more specific items presented on multiple occasions.

For example, let’s say that Uncle Dirk is getting married.  Start with the most basic items, like do you remember your Uncle Dirk?  When Junior demonstrates that he has a clue of Uncle Dirk’s identity, then you can move on to other items:

  • What does it mean when a man and woman are married? 
  • What if Uncle Dirk is marrying another man?  This isn’t meant as a joke remark since small children are seeing this.  I’ve already had to explain the situation to a young child and it can truly complicate your previous conversations with the child.
  • Where will it be and will we have to travel?  Will we stay in a hotel?
  • Who else is going to be there?  Will there be any other kids there?
  • What kind of behavior is expected?  How will you deal with misbehavior?

And kids will have all manner of other questions about the situation. 

Another aspect to new situations is that kids tend to be concrete thinkers.  If a kid thinks that he’s going someplace fun, he probably won’t handle it well if other twists are thrown into the events of the day.  Dammit, Daddy, you said we were going to the beach – why are we at the Kmart now?  He isn’t going to register that you’re buying water wings for him and the resulting snit will only create some resentment at the outset of what should be a fun event.

Communications with children are also cumulative.  People can wonder why the kids don’t want to participate in after-dinner conversations, but if the kids haven’t had the opportunity to participate in those talks when they were younger, then they won’t care to when they’re older.  And when they are younger, the conversations will be short or might veer into talk about Barney the Purple Dinosaur, but they are cumulative.  Be patient.

So when you learn of something new on the horizon, think about how to present it and what you can do to make it a good event for the child as well as the other adults in contact.  He really does want to please you.


Monitoring Kids and Electronics

Kids are spending an average of six hours daily in front of the an electronic screen – PC, TV or game console.  A timespan so long that even I was surprised.

And I don’t surprise easily when it comes to kids.

In a June 2, 2009 JAMA news release, Dr. Victor Strasburger reported that the typical American kid spends an average of six hours daily in front of an electronic screen – either TV, PC or game console.  It’s at the point that two-thirds of all kids have their own television; which gives credence to my kids’ claims that they’re in the minority when they have no TV sets in their rooms.

Most are aware of the long-term concerns.  Desensitivization towards violence, increasingly casual attitudes towards sex, greater obesity rates. 

But are they aware of how hard it is to control the electronics?  We have purposefully tried to limit the electronic exposure – no bedroom television sets, one family PC in family room, one DVD player in the basement – for the kids.  And even though I’m home, it’s a constant struggle to keep tabs on who’s doing which media and how long they’ve been doing it.  It’s seductive and seemingly addictive.

So what do I presently do? 

  • With the summer months, there are no electronics before noon.  No television, no computer games and no handheld games.  And yes, I have to periodically prowl the house to verify that it’s being upheld since children tend to "forget".
  • Try to enforce a two hour electronics limit in the course of a day.  That means that I have to sometimes appear like a member of the Gestapo, forcing the kids off the device when that time limit is up.
  • Actually kick the kids out of the house so that they’re in the outdoors or simply tell them to read or go listen to music.

What am I considering?

  • Sitting down with the kids and the television section each morning to teach them how to use the schedule.  The oldest two know, but are simply used to flipping on the box and switching around.
  • Helping the kids work out how they want to divide their screen time.  All TV for a good movie?  Nothing on the box, so a Wii tournament?  Even if it sounds overly controlling to an adult, the large majority of kids do not instinctively know how to make these distinctions so the process has to modelled for them.
  • Perhaps create a grid showing the date and each kid’s name with the start and end time for each electronic activity?

That last proposal is probably too impractical, but the real nut is probably in the second proposal.  The kids get their cues from us, and if they see us come home and collapse after a meal in front of the television, they’ll take it to heart that that’s how things happen.  You take to the brain candy to escape from the daily grind of living.

So perhaps while I sit with the kids to review the schedule, I can also demonstrate that I’m likewise planning the time available to its best electronic use.

Your Life Is No Longer Your Own – Re-evaluating the mp3

When you have kids, you begin to understand that your life really is no longer your own.  You can still have some favorite activities or hobbies, but they have to be more tightly scheduled and some of them have to be curtailed.  Especially in terms of media – music, movies and television.  Kids are affected to one degree or another by what and how often they see something and you simply have to closely monitor what you enjoy.  An example would be my use of the mp3 player.

I have a real fondness for the Pogues, especially their raucous Bottle of Smoke; another favorite is Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Lights.  When I finally got an mp3 player, I was delighted that I could finally hear my own music and not have to worry what kids were in the vicinity.  But it’s sunk in that even with the mp3, I have to curtail the music since the earbuds prevent me from hearing what else is going on in the household.  When you become more familiar with the kids and their habits and routines, you learn that the household has a tone and rhythm as alive as any music itself.  The kids have their own give-and-take and you can start to determine when things are moving out of sync.  The term "mother’s intuition" is frequently used for knowing when something is amiss, but it can also be attributed to an increased awareness of how the kids act and interact.

This was brought home the other day as I worked in the kitchen while the three were upstairs.  I put the buds in but then removed them when I remembered that my spouse was gone.  And within a few minutes, I began to note a shriller tone to the play, one that I wouldn’t have heard using the buds.  And yes, within a short while I was upstairs to intercede with the squabbling ones.

So I now have another device that I’ll use intermittently until the kids are gone.  And by then, I’ll have to learn to use another platform and hope that I can still get Meat Loaf and the Pogues.

Did I Use an Unexpected Consequence?

Earlier in the week, I noted that one of the kids had major behavioral issues in the morning and I posed the question of whether I should apply an unexpected consequence that evening

He’d been through significant corrections in the morning and would be in bed more than an hour earlier that evening.  But I wondered whether I should take the other kids out for a treat after his early bedtime; it wasn’t planned before the behavioral collapse but would serve to highlight that he’d really missed something with his actions.

So, did I apply the extra consequence that night?

No, I didn’t.  Had we already planned the treat before things fell apart, I would’ve happily taken the other kids.  But it seemed to be "piling on" the kid by making him sit out a good event when it was only planned to tweak his figurative nose.  Good discipline happens when you can help the child see the connection between behavior and consequence.  Kids are concrete and literal and many aren’t good at extrapolating their actions into unseen consequences.  Indeed, my concern is that if I were to blindside the offending child, he would develop a fearful attitude about his actions.  If I don’t do something exactly right, then God knows what will happen next.

At 7:45, the offending child was safely in his bed and crying himself to sleep for missing family time.  I think that that was quite enough, thank you.

Activities With the Kids – More Work For You?

Having a kid means having to change  your expectations of what a family activity means.  A family activity will usually hark back to what you enjoyed before kids, but their presence will create more work for you and less enjoyment for the activity; it can still be a good time but you have to alter your expectations of the event.

My wife and I have lived in cities with minor league baseball teams – Richmond, Virginia (Braves), Winston-Salem, North Carolina (then Cubs) and Central Pennsylvania (Harrisburg Senators and Reading Phillies).  Our experience is that the games are affordable and fun, and the beer is relatively cheap.  Or at least was cheap.  And we began going again when our hometown gained a franchise four years ago.  But going to a game with small children isn’t the same as without them.  Our first game with the kids was mixed.  We had great seats behind the visiting team dugout, but I spent most of my time with the younger ones in the play area.  The area sat in a raised portion of the venue so that you could overlook the field, but the presence of numbers of children meant that I spent almost of that time monitoring their location and behavior.  I left the game frustrated and annoyed, thinking that it was a waste of money and time, promising myself not to return.

But we did return for several other games that season.  More importantly, we returned with the kids and the experience improved.  As I chatted with my spouse, several things became clear about shared family activities.

  • The activity is how we teach the kids to behave and carry themselves in public settings with a wide variety of people.  If they spend all of their time at Chuck E. Cheese, they’ll never know another level of behavior.
  • The activity is how we pass along our own interests and values, and provides a common ground for those later times when the relationship is strained.
  • The activity provides you the opportunity to see how your child behaves in a public setting and provides some insight on what topics or issues you have to cover with them.
  • The activity provides the child with an opportunity to see a part of you that they won’t see in the home.  Gee, Dad can explain how a knuckler is thrown?  He’s not a complete idiot, after all.

My wife and I spent the evening at a minor league game with six first grade boys and four teenagers.  I monitored the playground, fetched food and drinks and maintained control of a few disciplinary issues.  And I even managed to see one of the home team’s five runs being scored.  And all things considered, I enjoyed myself far more than sitting home nursing an attitude.  I just changed my expectations.

Now I have to adjust my expectation of what constitutes a cheap beer.