A PracticalDad Guide to Teenager Games

If you pay attention to what the teens – and tweens – are saying, you can learn some interesting games that they play amongst themselves.  They’re a fascinating and sometimes disturbing example of the teen mind, adrift somewhere between childhood and adulthood.  And before you react, just take the time to ask and engage them before rendering a value judgment.  These three particular games range from goofy to existential to simply base, a distressing concept when you realize that your kids are playing along with everybody else.

Goofy – "Yellow Car"

This goofy game requires observation and is great for passing time while traveling.  The first person to call out "yellow car" when they see one receives one point.  Likewise, calling out for a boat lands a point.  But calling out for a cemetary is the big win:  the caller gets ten points and everyone else loses ten points.  If you listen, the arguments pertain to such questions as whether a jet-ski constitutes a boat or is a taxi disqualified from the competition? 

I’ve caught myself calling out "yellow car!" while alone.

Existential – "The Game"

 This game is the oddest one yet.  There is but one rule and that is that you can’t think of the game.  When you think of it, you lose.  It’s puzzling to walk around near teens and see one of them suddenly smack himself in the forehead with the palm of his hand and mutter dammit, I lost!  Eldest has exclaimed that she’s lost the game on multiple occasions and each is noted by a comment exclaiming her loss.

Base and Depressing – "Marry, Dump or Bang"

A group game, this is one in which a participant has the floor and has to answer others’ questions about whether he or she would marry, bang or dump a particular person called out by the group.  This can include people within the playing group or not present. 

As a father, it’s distressing to find that your own kids have been present at playtime amongst their peers.  Forbidding their participation is as useful as baying at the moon so I have to content myself with using it as a departure point for further conversation; and that it’s important to add a moral element to the game.  Did it bother you that this kid viewed you in such a manner?  How would you feel if someone made it clear that she wanted only to dump you?  Forbidding participation won’t work since I’ve found that this game has occurred amongst teens – and tweens – by themselves even during church-sponsored events. 

Keep you ears open for what’s going on around you.  And if you hear something odd, just ask what it is they’re saying and prepare for an experience.

Preparing Meals:  The Kids

Of the multiple factors that affect feeding the family, the kids rank up there with money in terms of impact.  Both how many kids you have and their ages.

There’s no difficulty whatsoever when the child is an infant and not yet graduated to real food.  It’s when that happens that the challenge starts.  The earliest eaters are learning to eat solid foods that are limited in variety to ascertain if food allergies exist, so they’re generally easy to fix.  At the same time, the small children are near the end of their days and hence more prone to being cranky and needing additional attention – and grace.  If you are pressed for time, consider shortening the preparation time by having their meals pre-made on microwaveable dishes and ready to go immediately.  Be certain that the food is warm instead of hot before you serve it out of the microwave as small children are more sensitive to food temperature.

Having a family meal is not innate to children as they’ll frequently want to bolt to play and television afterwards; it’s an experience that children learn from their parents through countless repetition.  If you are feeding the kids before you yourself eat, try to take the time to sit with them while they eat and engage them.  Talk to them about their day and listen to what the say, even if only for a brief period so that they learn the experience.

As kids age and move beyond the toddler stage, it does become easier as you’re no longer fixing multiple simultaneous meals and the bedtimes are pushed farther back, allowing a greater meal window.  The kids are also not as worn out as when they were toddlers.  That said, you then have to work out the routine of checking the backpacks to ascertain what homework has to happen.

So what can you do to ease the situation, especially if you work?

  • Have the kids preset the table for the next meal after it’s been cleaned from the evening meal, which cuts the next day’s work considerably.
  • Choose to fix meals that are largely premade and ready to eat when you arrive home.  This would include crockpot cooking that occurs before you leave in the morning.
  • Cook in bulk during the weekend and refrigerate portion-sized servings to place in the microwave upon return in the evening.

The unfortunate reality is that there’s no simple – and inexpensive – way to prepare family meals without taking enough time to make it work.  But the time spent can make the evening family meal something that helps cement the family despite the rush and rigors of everyday life.

Planning Meals:  Things to Consider

One of the first ways that families cut back on discretionary spending is by cutting the restaurant fare and cooking more at home.  Indeed, restaurants have taken taken major hits in this recession with almost two full years of declining patron traffic.

 Meal preparation gets easier and cheaper when cooking for a larger number of people, but fixing meals for a family with children is complicated by a mix of factors.  Some are a function of kids and others are outside the family, but all have to be taken into account to make the dollar stretch as far as possible.

So what are these various factors?

  • Obviously, the number and age of your children.
  • Children’s activities as they grow older.
  • Family food preferences, such as my Eldest being a vegetarian.
  • Cooking time versus available time.
  • Desire to maintain a "family meal".
  • Cooking experience and recipe availability.
  • Availability of different stores and sales.

Over the next several days, I’ll explore these aspects further, starting as always with the kids.

College Planning:  Sharing Reality with the Teen

How much should a parent make the child follow the news?  I typically don’t, but tonight will be the exception as I discuss the stunning 32% University of California tuition hikes at the dinner table.

California is in the throes of near-bankruptcy and a projected 2010 deficit of $21 billion is leading to both draconian cuts and unsustainable cost hikes.  Given the situation, the University of California Board of Regents today announced that starting next year, there will be a 32% tuition hike for the approximately 175,000 students scattered at campuses across the state.  The response?  After what I can only surmise as stunned amazement, a number of students rioted.

California might be described as being at the far end of the Bell Curve in terms of budgetary woes, but there are many other states in a similar situation.  Virginia, South Carolina, Michigan, and the list goes on.  They are just experiencing now what I anticipate other states will have to endure although their tuition hikes will probably not be as bad.  The problem is simply that there isn’t enough real wealth to support all of the promised programs – education, law enforcement, social service network, transportation – that states manage.  There’s a great deal of paper wealth, but not enough productive assets to support the structure.

From news sources and bloggers, I’m aware that the UC system has dramatically cut back on services and construction, and eliminated staff via layoff and furlough.  But the cost structure to support a system constructed during times of plenty is too great to be controlled solely by contracting services.  So the students will take a substantial hit and I don’t expect that it will be the last.  The system will contract painfully until it can reach a new equilibrium where the services provided can be supported by the state and its students. 

So Eldest – and Middle, who’s more aware of news than his elder sibling – will hear about the California college riot.  And the point of this is that colleges have to pay for the classes and services that they offer and they will do what they must to survive.  So the questions once again:  How much will college cost?  What’s the final debt load?  Is this supportable?

We refer to our colleges and schools as alma maters.  The crucial difference is that real mothers love you back.


The Marathon

I have a friend – a mother – who runs marathons.  And throughout the course, there are water stations so that she can get a quick refresher for the next leg.  This is a great metaphor for raising a family.

Raising children is a marathon and each child is a slightly different course.  Most have a mix of up- and downhills; a few are strictly uphill and a rare number are downhill.  And that’s why you have to grab the watercup whenever and wherever you can since you have to be able to finish the race.

Hobbies are helpful, or some activity that takes you away for a short while.  But you have to stay on that course for the duration even when you’re worn down by the constant questions, occasional idiocy and sometimes raging egocentrism of the typical kid.

I’ve been there.

  • Carried a screaming child like a sack of potatoes from a grocery store?  Check.
  • Walked into my room and punched out the dresser?  Check.
  • Said goodbye to my wife as she pulled into the driveway while I pulled out?  Check.
  • Announced to the family that I was resigning?  Check.
  • Yelled at one or more children, rightfully?  Check.
  • Wrongfully?  Check.

You’ll have paternal side-stitches and parental shin-splints from the run.  But after your water, you have to stay on the course. 

The absolute greatest gift that you can give your child is your time, and I believe that most children would rather have time with their father than any thing.  So you’re going to have to understand that the egocentrism is part of their young nature and must be balanced by your own selflessness; your rules will be tested because that’s what they do; you’ll be questioned continuously, and be glad if they do because you can be relatively certain that the answer’s correct. 

 So have the hobby but don’t let it have you.  You can always take classes later, read that bestseller or catch that movie on DVD.  Remember that you cannot regain the time lost with that child.  There is only this one opportunity to raise this child well and there are no mulligans or do-overs.  You cannot turn the clock back to when they were toddlers or primary graders.  This is the marathon, so grab the cup but stay in the race.  You cannot run this course again.

College Planning:  Talking Reality with the Teen


To a father of three, the word is as frightening as orthodontist.

Like many parents, my wife and I wonder how we’re going to help our children cover the cost.  We’re aware that the economic reality is that the college sheepskin is worth more than the high school diploma.  We see the marketing push for our impressionable teen:  Eldest, you’re the kind of student that we’re looking for!  Did you see our rankings in Barrons/US News/Princeton Review?  Don’t you deserve to be here for all of your hard work?  Our graduates routinely earn entry salaries of $X, move onwards to advanced degrees and are positioned as the nation’s leaders of tomorrow!  We want the best for them and see them live a full and productive life and a good education is key to that.

We also question the current model, especially when we read that more than 20 private college presidents earned an annual salary of $1 million.  Many of these institutions have an annual cost in the mid five figures.  We understand the opposing reality in that there’s no pension and our goal is not to spend our dotage in Eldest’s basement.  So there’s real guilt when I have to buck the prevailing wisdom and fight the college marketing machine to talk frankly to the kids.

This morning was another chapter in the ongoing conversation about reality versus the college machine.  What points did we cover?

  • I’ve spent considerable time discussing money and economics with the kids and this conversation was about bankruptcy.  Eldest is familiar since we’ve discussed the concept and procedure before and she understands that debt can be mitigated or cleared in the process.  We talked about the fact that student loans from the government – the principal source of college financing – were not forgiven or affected by a person’s bankruptcy.  In fact, they’ll follow the borrower like stink on a skunk until paid in full or the borrower dies.
  • Does the institution have to be top-tiered and have a name?  Indeed, do the first years even have to be at the institution at which you graduate?  Hell, I graduated from one of the nation’s top liberal arts universities and look what I’m doing.  If the name matters, perhaps a better route is to save the money and transfer in for the remaining two years.
  • Does the degree justify the post-college debt load?  Suppose two people are attending similarly priced private universities.  One plans to be a chemical engineer and the other a historian.  They graduate with similar debt loads.  Are the job/income prospects of the two able to support the respective debt payments?  Remember that what doesn’t go to the debt could instead go to caring for your own family or retirement.  Because I was talking to a teenager, I also mentioned better wheels, nicer apartment and upscale electronics.

This is as far as time and attention allowed, but it will be repeated.  And then repeated again.  I hate to have the conversation, but the cost of not doing so is too high.

Note:  For a good extended handling of real-life college financing and college options, I would suggest The Truth About Money by Ric Edelman.  When I first read his book, my eldest was a toddler and I read it with intellectual interest.  Now that she’s a teen, I’ve reread it and found it worth the time, even twelve years later. 

Especially twelve years later.

Finding A Book At Your Child’s Reading Level

Christmas is coming and Junior wants that Goosebumps book that Freddy Merkle brought on the bus.  But Freddy’s in fourth grade and Junior’s in second, so how can I tell if he’s ready for Goosebumps:  Welcome to Dead House?  I don’t have to guess, since there are several ways to determine if a book is at his reading level.

Once kids get into school, it can be more difficult to find an appropriate level book since they can develop reading skills faster than you expect.  The first place to start is to simply nose through the book bag and see what he’s bringing home from the school library.  Teachers and school librarians do keep an eye on how the child is doing and will nudge him to something that’s at or near their reading level.  I once encountered a school librarian who permitted my then-first grader to check out an adult dictionary, but that one was an outlier on the Bell Curve.

If I’m not clear from the backpack, I can check with the teacher on the current grade reading level.  Autumn is a great time as many schools are scheduling the Parent-Teacher Conferences and one of the items discussed will be the assessment of Junior’s reading level.  Is he at grade level or above or below it?  And about where on the grade level does he reside?  The baseline for a child at the start of the second grade year is that he’s reading at grade level 2.0 or 20.  As Junior grows in his skills, his level is expected to grow to levels such as 2.4 and 2.8 so that he’s at Reading Level 2.9 by the end of the school year.

After you know his Reading Level, you can actually consider the book.  Unless I’m already familiar with the author, I prefer physically getting a book from a library or bookstore so that I can quickly peruse it.  Since Junior asked for Welcome to Dead House, I pick up a copy and turn to the back cover.  Children’s publishers will place guidance information on the lower right corner, next to the book’s spine.  This information is the audience Reading Level (RL) and an age range for prospective readers.  In Dead House‘s case, the information is listed as:  RL4  008-012.  The publisher is telling me that this book is on a fourth grade entry level; since kids don’t always read at grade level, most kids from ages eight through twelve years would appreciate it.  Since Junior’s at a reading level of 2.4, the book would most likely end up collecting dust for a year until Junior could handle it.

But what if there’s no information on the back cover?  Then the best alternative – Christmas secrecy aside – is to select a random paragraph from the book and ask Junior to read it aloud.  If he has difficulty with five or more words, then I need to steer him to something at a lower level. 

Remember that there’s a difference between the Reading Level and the scary content.  I’d rather wait and not contend with any nightmares.

Planning Meals:  A Historical Note

Sitting here and making a mess of multi-tasking, mixing up food preparation and notes on upcoming articles, I wandered to the pantry.  Like many other households, ours is filled and we prefer to keep it that way.  But why do so many of us prefer it that way?

The fully stocked pantry for many families is a learned behavior that was picked up from parents, who in turn got it from their parents and their grandparents.  And where did that generation learn that behavior?  From the Great Depression.

Supermarkets are a product of the 1920s, pioneered by firms such as the Great Atlantic & Pacific Company (A&P).  With a rising middle class and the start of sprawl away from the cities, supermarkets were a successor to the corner grocery that had served generations of Americans.  Buying habits began to change during this period as improvements in food storage and household appliances meant that food could be stored longer with fewer trips to the grocery that had marked the lives of those previous generations.  But the major change occurred after the onset of the Depression.

Job losses ripped through the economy and income dropped disastrously.  Those without jobs rapidly spent their savings and those still with jobs – only 75% of the wage-earning public – shut down spending to everything but the absolute necessities.  And the parents began to contend with the concept that their jobs could be next.  Adults saw that their jobless friends were running out of food and with kids and a roof to provide, began to stock up on the food necessities to carry them as far as possible should they lose their jobs.  Note that in some cities, existing charities estimated that fully more than 70% of the schoolchildren were malnourished.

These children – our grandparents – remembered the hunger and poverty.  If they didn’t suffer, they certainly knew someone who did and when they became adults, they changed their shopping habits to assure that there y would be food in the event of a lost job. 

That behavior was passed along to our parents, who’ve in turn passed it along to us.  But without the lessons of the Great Depression, what foods are in our pantries should we lose our jobs?




Feeding the Kids:  Portion Sizes

There are any number of factors in the increasing number of obese children:  lack of exercise; excessive snacking; poor choice of foods for meals.  But large food portions are a large portion of the problem.  Experts and writers point to fast-food restaurants but the reality is that the issue also occurs in the home.  And fathers, still new to the family management role, tend to overdo the food portions fed to the kids.

Why Portion Size Matters

Children have to be taught just about everything and much of that learning is absorbed through watching and repetition.  You won’t be able to lecture them on finding the right sizes – God knows I’ve tried that – but you can teach them by making sure that they repeatedly see the right thing being done.  If kids consistently note roughly the same amounts on their plate, then they’ll be set to take the appropriate amounts as they age.  They might still overdo it, but they’ll at least understand that what’s presently on the plate really is too much when you remind them.

Portion Basics

First, remember that they aren’t adults and don’t require the same amount as you.  Their plate might appear sparse to you, but it’s fine for their age and size and they aren’t going to go hungry.

The portion sizes for children will vary by their ages, which means that you may have to do some additional mental gymnastics when feeding kids of different ages.  In the PracticalDad household, that means feeding two teenagers and an elementary schooler, so be prepared for grousing when the younger ones have less on their plate.  The following chart is adapted from one provided by Kaiser Permanente.


Child Serving Sizes
Food Group Daily Servings 1-3 years 4-5 years 6-12 years
Grains and Breads <=5 1/2 slice or 1/4 cup 1/2 slice or 1/3 cup 1 slice or 1/2 cup
Vegetables 3-5 1/4 cup 1/3 cup 1/2 cup
Fruits 2-4 1/4 cup 1/3 cup 1/2 cup
Dairy 2-3 1/2 cup 3/4 cup 1 cup
Meat and Protein 2-3 1/4 cup or 1 ounce 1/3 cup or 1 1/2 ounce 1/2 cup or 2 ounces

Children bring chaos.  Kids are sick or have colic, schedules change and activities intrude, and there are meals that won’t come close to what’s recommended for nutritional requirements.  But the goal is assure that the kids have the necessary foods for the large majority of meals.

Finding the Right Portion Size

It’s simple to get the right portion size for children who are still on baby foods and cereal but that changes when they start to eat the same things that are on your plate.  So how can you find the right portion size?

  • Use a small scale or measuring cups to measure appropriate amounts.  This can continue until you are comfortable that you can reasonably estimate the right amount visually.  That said, you should consider occasionally still using them just to check yourself.
  • Learn some comparable amounts.  For instance, an adult serving of meat is four ounces which is comparable to a piece of meat about the size of your palm.  A one ounce piece of meat would consequently be a quarter of the size of your palm.  Likewise, a serving of peanut butter (a protein) is about one level tablespoon.  A good reference article for portion sizes can be found at Meals Matter.
  • If things are too chaotic in the moment, just consider what you would find appropriate and then cut it by one-half to two-thirds.  Trust me, it’s not a perfect approach but there will be meals like that.

Final Comments

The upshot of all of this is that meals require planning and forethought that goes beyond deciding what foods to serve.  You have to leave yourself sufficient time to prepare and then be ready to leave your own food while you tend to the kids.

And don’t let them load you with guilt because you or older sibling has more on the plate.

Sources:  www.permanente.net/kaiser/pdf/40863.pdf




When A Kid Wakes Up With the Flu

Even when your kids follow through on all of the right precautions, a virus can make it through and this morning, Middle awoke complaining of feeling feverish.  So what to do? 

  • Obviously, take his temperature and sure enough, he has a fever high enough to call for ibuprofen to help control it.  Bear in mind that for most people, their body temperature is lowest when they arise and if sick, will rise appreciably throughout the day.
  • Because taking ibuprofen on an empty stomach can cause nausea, assure first that he isn’t nauseated.  Then prepare dry toast and make sure that it’s eaten so that there’s some bland food in the stomach before the ibuprofen is given.
  • Provide a large cup of apple juice/water mix for him to drink and keep it filled through the morning.  Keeping him hydrated is essential.
  • Immediately pull the disinfectant wipes and start wiping down all of the bathroom handles and surfaces before the other kids arise.  Wiping down with disinfectant might seem like closing the barn door after the horse is out, but I may as well make the effort.
  • Then take the disinfectant wipes to other household surfaces, especially electronic remotes, telephones and door and faucet handles.
  • Banish him to his room to sleep and periodically check on him.

Now I have to settle in for the long haul as these cases can last for days.  That also suggests that I have to start looking at the calendar and if necessary, make changes in what’s scheduled.

Please note that this is not intended as medical advice.  If you have concerns or questions, contact your pediatrician or family physician.