When Do I Stop Reading to My Child?

There’s no doubt that your child benefits from reading with you.  Her vocabulary improves.  Her speech improves as she takes in tone, cadence and pronounciation.  She’s better able to focus and follow extended thought processes.  Her memory improves, especially if you periodically ask questions about what was just read.

She looks forward to spending time with you in a shared activity that strengthens the father-child bond.

And someday, it ends.  But when?

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a final answer on the age at which to stop reading together.  But my sense is that the transition to fully self-reading from read-to occurs in the second or third grade.  At this point, most of the books are chapter books and have the story and plot line that lead onwards to adult reading.  And some kids use this as an independence step, demonstrating that it’s something that they can do just like the parents.  But others will want to continue reading a common book together even as they read their own books and that’s something that should be encouraged, even if it does happen because the school requires a certain amount of free reading each night.

I continued reading with Middle through the fourth grade and we polished off books like The Hobbit and Treasure Island.  When he was in third grade and Eldest was in sixth, we spent the Thanksgiving/Christmas evenings walking through Dickens’ Christmas Carol.  He’s now moved onwards to F. Paul Wilson and Ian Fleming while Eldest is cruising through Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Where I believe that I’ve slipped is with Youngest, who’s caught amid the hustle of a busy household and elder siblings.  He happily reads to himself and is working through a Whitman’s child edition of The Invisible Man, but our reading together has lapsed because of the demands of the household.

And that’s something that I believe has to change.  He’s the youngest and the days that he’ll be willing to do that instead of Nintendo and Baseball are numbered.


PracticalDad Solution:  Preventing Even More Housework

The more involved you are in something, the more that your perspective changes.  Especially in regards to what you find important.  In this instance, what’s important is keeping the housework that’s generated by three kids, a dog and three cats to a minimum. 

Case in point is my returning home from an errand and noting a toy jutting out from under the family room sofa.  There’s no material that obscures the area under the sofa so that I could see another toy further back when I reached down to get the first item.  I put my hand further under the furniture and as I moved it towards the back, felt a jagged pain as a protruding spring gashed my right hand open.  The laceration was like a bible school song – deep and wide – and it bled freely.

And my first thought was, blood’s gonna ruin this carpet!  So to save the carpet while getting up and running to the kitchen sink, I raised my arm in a symbolic oath of loyalty to the carpet and let the blood flow down my arm and into my leather jacket sleeve.  It’s easier to clean a leather jacket than to have to try to remove copious blood stains from carpet; and the blood only stained the inside of the sleeve so that it really doesn’t show anyway.

And that’s one less thing to worry about with a stitched and bandaged hand.

PracticalDad and Moms as Breadwinners

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the number of women who are primary breadwinners is rising, thanks in large part to the recession.  The recently ended recession so badly whacked the manufacturing and construction sectors – providing predominantly male-oriented jobs – that one economist dubbed it a mancession, a term that’s taken root.  But is this purely an economic change or one driven by sociology?

Why should it make a difference?  Because if it’s economics-driven, then the figures should drop as the recovery takes hold and men return to the labor force.  If it’s a sociologic change, then the trend will continue albeit at a lesser pace. 

Frankly, I believe that it’s both.  There’s been a discernible shift in the past fifteen years, the time that I’ve been home with the kids.  A 2008 study found that fathers were spending more time on childcare and housework than in the past, regardless of whether they were at home full-time or working.  I can also anecdotally note this simply in the manner in which I – and my choice as a stay-at-home father – have been accepted over the years.  When I first stayed home, most mothers tended to avoid my children and I at the park when they realized that I was the one at home.  I was isolated for some time until developing a network of friends – mothers and fathers – through our church and preschool.  Until then. there were moments comical in retrospect; situations reminiscent of Animal House’s Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman journey to the primo Omega House during Rush Week and being steered through to join the likes of Mohammed, Jagdish, Sidney and Clayton.  There’s still a very occasional kidding – do you macrame? – but people appear to be far more comfortable than they were before and the isolation is long gone.

But the economics reinforce the sociologic aspect and will probably continue to do so.  Like the 2001 recession, I anticipate that this is going to be a jobless recovery especially in regards to the manufacturing and construction sectors.  The US is still a manufacturing leader, but we’ve shipped millions of jobs overseas to much cheaper locales and these won’t be returning unless our own labor costs drop significantly or multinational corporations remember their civic loyalties.  The former is a long-term likelihood and the latter is…well, don’t hold your breath.  The construction sector is hampered by an inventory glut of residential and commercial properties as well as a debt-burdened consumer.  Neither is set for a comeback in the foreseeable future and if things stall further, then the fathers and the families are in for a real sea-change.

Regardless of the cause, more men will continue to take a greater role in the family’s life, caring for children and managing the household.  Some will do this because they were forced home and others simply because they see their mate working longer and harder.  Both groups will come through with a greater understanding of what’s involved than what they might have  had otherwise.  And as the economic factors play out in the distant future, there will be what University of Michigan sociologist Pamela Smock refers to as a move in the "…direction of egalitarian roles."


Keeping Up With Youth Websites

Even if you’re a techno-saur, it’s important to try to keep tabs on what the kids are finding popular on the web.  In this particular case, Eldest shared a new iPod app for a site that she finds hilarious.  www.textsfromlastnight.com is an ongoing compendium of very recent text messages submitted by people who find them particularly humorous or interesting.  It’s popularity is noted by the banner promoting their new iPod app as well as the announcement that their new book will be issued next week.

www.highDEAS.com is a site devoted to real-time entries made by those who are stoned.  I came of age in the late 1970s/early 1980s and have too vivid recollections of stoner humor and commentary, so I find it tiresome and banal; per Eldest, her friends find it humorous.

So why do I try to keep tabs on these things? 

  • It gives me a snapshot of what’s going on with the Youth Culture and what my own child, now a teen, is seeing and what she knows.
  • It presents me with the opportunity to evaluate what I need to speak about.  When the kids become teenagers, your authority is still existant on some issues, but much of it derives from moral authority.  If we want to raise children who can handle the world, then we have to accept that there are things with which they will come into contact and the best hope comes from knowing what’s out there and speaking to it.  Talking without sermonising is a difficult thing, but the attempts have to be made.
  • If my child wants to share this with me, I will try to accept the experience and not create barriers to future offerings.  There are certainly exceptions, as with vulgarities and violence, but I otherwise try to keep my surprise in check.

What will I try to use as talking points with Eldest in the next several days?

  • That unlike conversation, electronic texting is permanent and is liable to end up in the unlikeliest and most uncomfortable places.  Be thoughtful with your posts.
  • That there is nothing glamorous or especially hilarious about stoner humor, and that marijuana is indeed a gateway drug for many people.  In keeping with the first point, do you want posterity – or your parents – to read you when you’re stoned?

We will come back to these conversations in the next several days and I’ll make every effort to remember the difference between injecting a moral tone and sermonizing.

Wish me luck.

Grocery Shopping With Children

You have to take care of the kids and  you also have to shop for groceries.  And having to combine the two is unavoidable.  So what are some things to remember when you have to shop with small children?

First, the experience starts before you even leave the house.

  • Know when your kids are going to tire and when they take a nap.  Is this a trip that you can make in the time available or can it wait?  There’s no sense in setting yourself and your child to publicly fail because Junior’s going to hitting the nap-time wall in the canned vegetables section.  If you simply need some milk to carry you through until dinner, then you can stop at a convenience store and do the major shopping later.
  • Know what you’re going to get and work from a list.  Children simply require a lot of attention and you’re liable to become cranky having to bounce back and forth between Junior’s questions and trying to figure out the label data.  Again, those issues can be handled at another time so just get what you need on the list. 
  • What can you take along in your pocket or bag to help distract or entertain Junior?  When she’s starting to get antsy and spastic simply because she’s three, you’ve got a better shot at managing the situation through distraction than correction and warning.  I kept a cheap toy cell phone in my pocket and would pull it out for Eldest and Middle when they started to fuss.  When that didn’t work, I produced a ring of toy keys and sometimes managed to alternate them with the child throughout the store.  Remember, distraction is a great tool.

Then things continue before you enter the store.

  • Spend time talking with them en route and if they’re old enough, remind them of some simple ground rules in the car.  Most small kids really do want to please you and will need to be reminded of the rules.
  • Remind them of the rules one last time before you enter the store.
  • Try to remember to have some fun and keep your voice light.  I generally found that if I kept an upbeat manner, I was setting the tone for the excursion; if I was irritable, I was more prone to have issues in the store.  Frankly, there were some days that I killed the shopping trip because I was in a foul mood and knew that things would spiral out of control.

Keep things moving inside of the store.

  • Talk to your child as you go throughout the store.  Actually, talk to your child a lot no matter where you are, but especially as you shop.  What colors do you see?  Can you help me find a can with the funny little Green Giant on it?  It does create more of a pinball effect as you’re bouncing between shopping and childcare, but an engaged kid is far less likely to develop issues on the outing than one who’s just hanging out in, on or near the cart.
  • I generally kept my distraction items away until Junior began to really fret and only produced them to distract and keep things under control.
  • Sometimes, distraction simply isn’t going to work and you’ll have to act accordingly.  Remind your child of the rules periodically and if you have to remove a problem child for a period of time, do so.  People would much rather see a child removed than have to listen to a pissing contest between a misbehaving child and an irritable parent.  My rule of thumb was to remove the child for a timeout in the car instead of doing so in the store and inflicting the angst on everybody else.  As for the cart, I found that a brief word to an employee on the way out meant that the cart would still be there in a short while. 
  • That said, hit the frozen foods last so that items don’t melt in the cart while you’re disciplining Junior.

It doesn’t end even after you leave the store.

  • Praise Junior if he’s done a decent job of behaving.  Note that a decent job of behaving isn’t perfection, because he’s a kid and he’s going to be loud and occasionally rambunctious.  But decent behavior to me meant that he responded to correction and didn’t create situations that required more extensive actions, like removing him from the store for a timeout.
  • Keep talking and ask questions.  What did you like best in there?  What did you see?  Many kids – if they’re not too tired – enjoy getting out to see someplace that’s bright and full of different things.  Use the opportunity to teach and play with them.

There is no perfect way to manage kids and I’ve had to haul kids out of the store like a sack of potatoes, but some preparation and understanding can keep it from becoming a routine nightmare.


When Opie Comes to Play:  What to Remember When Other Kids Visit

The more involved that you are with your kids, the more involved you’ll be with their friends, the Opies.  What are some things to remember when they’re over to play?

First, what’s an Opie?  Opie is short for Other Peoples’ Kids, any child that isn’t actually my own.  I know their names and use them, but Opie is the generic term that I’ve come to use over the years.  Likewise, my own kids are someone else’s Opies.

Your child’s earliest years will revolve around you and your mate but once they hit preschool, they’ll meet other kids and want to play.  This is natural and needs to be encouraged; playing with their peers and developing friendships is critical for them.  This also means that there are going to be playtimes at your house and you need to be prepared because not all Opies are created equal.

So what to remember?

  • How long is Opie going to stay?  Knowing this lets you know what else is going to be entailed:  nap?  snack?  electronic entertainment/play?  It may seem simple, but I had an early experience when the other parent didn’t come back for hours because we misunderstood one another.
  • Does Opie have any food allergy?  While not widespread, some children have allergies to peanuts, milk or other foods.  Likewise, find out if there any allergies to any pets that you have or any fears of animals and be ready to lock them away for the duration.
  • If Opie is a toddler, is he still in training pants or diapers?  For over a year after my kids were out of training pants, I kept a stash of clean training pants in case a visiting Opie needed one.
  • When they’re very young, stay close in order to keep an eye on what’s happening.  When you get to know Opie and are more comfortable with her, then you can give the kids some space out of sight.  I still kept it a habit to check in on things as the time progressed.  As a matter of fact, I still discretely check on the kids when they’re in the basement with friends.
  • Prepare to be patient.  Some Opies, regardless of their age, will press the boundaries to see what’s acceptable and what they can frankly get away with.  Apply the same rules that you have with your own kids and feel free to issue warnings and timeouts, but corporal punishment with Opies must absolutely not happen.  If things get that bad, call the parent to pick Opie up.  I’ve done it and it’s extremely uncomfortable, but not handling the issue only teaches the Opie that it’s Open Season at your place and sends a strong negative message to your own kid.
  • Try to keep the electronics under control.  Just sitting in front of a screen isn’t helping either child learn how to play and interact with one another.  My usual rule has been that any screen time happens later in the visit; the kids have played together and perhaps they’re needing a break from one another sooner than Opie’s parent has planned to arrive.
  • When Opie’s leaving, share any events or news with Opie’s folks.  This is especially important when the kids are younger because parents do have to keep track of things like snacks and bowel movements. 
  • I’m cautious as a father about informing the other parent if I’ve had to help Opie with wiping the bottom or cleaning up after an accident.  By cautious, I mean that I make it a point to tell the other parent so that they don’t scratch their heads when Opie later makes some weird remark about PracticalDad seeing private parts or helping wipe.  This is a judgment call based upon several factors:  How well do I know the family?  How old is the child?  I’ve had the situation of watching a Kindergarten Opie for several hours and found that the child needed help wiping himself.  Because I didn’t know the family very well and the age was older than what I would’ve expected, I told Opie’s Dad at pickup about helping the boy.
  • Make it a point to chat with your own child afterwards.  The more your child is used to just chatting with you, the more likely they’ll tell you things and you’ll be amazed at what you learn.  This will diminish somewhat in the future, but what smaller children reveal is a goldmine for later items to discuss with them.

Things will change as they age and by necessity, the ground rules.  But it’ll be easier for you later if you become used to it earlier.

Monitoring New Electronics and the Kids

I can’t say no to everything.  We’re not Amish.

                           – Neighborhood mother to PracticalDad

For those who try to control the household electronics, monitoring what’s used and for how long presents the greatest struggle.  This is especially the case with new electronic devices that enter the household.  In our case, an iPod Touch and a Nintendo DS, gifts that were given when Eldest and Middle reached a certain age in their teens.  But when does it become too much and how do I control it?  And yes, I consider it entirely appropriate to control the usage.

I have never believed that it’s alright to give kids unfettered access to electronics, whether it’s computer, television or game system.  Apart from the typical concerns – desensitization to violence and lack of exercise – my real worries are the stifling of their creativity and critical thinking skills.  It’s these gifts and skills that will most enable them to survive as adults.  Middle would argue with me about how his friends all had this or that particular system, a TV in the room or their own laptop by the third grade.  This began to slack off after I laid out my concerns by asking if all of your friends spend the bulk of their time playing games, who’s going to make the best living – the game user or the guy who spent the time learning how to think and develop the game?  I was surprised when this particular point paid dividends.

But still, we’re not Amish and the kids should be able to play or experience the technology.  So how much is too much and what can I do? 

First, understand that there is no data that says that X hours on electronics is optimal and Y hours is harmful.  You’ll have to use your best judgment and choose a time.  Since most kids are spending about five hours on electronics outside of school, we decided that each child having two hours of screen time – whether television, computer or game system – should be sufficient.  This ration increases on weekends.  And there are still individual variances.  Eldest spends more time than that on homework some days, so we give some allowance for free time since much of her homework is on the computer.  Likewise, another of the children gets snarly when told to turn off a game and we’ve had to learn that this child shouldn’t have such unfettered time on a screen.

Second, understand that there are some steps you can take to help control things.  The most important is that screens stay in public areas so that use can be monitored and times controlled.  This becomes more difficult with the arrival of the portable devices such as the Touch or the DS, which can move from room to room.  This means that I have to be willing to check on things like a housebound Shore Patrol.  If you think that you should be able to keep the devices in a central location and to be used with your approval, then that would work as well.  Establish ground rules.  I’ve now told kids that there will be no electronics at any dinner table, ours or friends whose own kids text at the table.  Likewise, if you’re talking to me, expect to put the device away for the duration of the conversation.  

Third, it’s alright to consider that you call the shots since it’s your house.  Kids will throw their friends in your face to provoke guilt, but there’s nothing wrong with laying down clear rules and sticking to them.  Your house isn’t a democracy.

Fourth – and this is my Achilles Heel – remember that kids have almost no sense of time.  They probably aren’t trying to push the envelope on screentime but have actually lost track of time.  Again, a timer would be a worthwhile tool.  And even if you have a timer, expect to wander the house to still close down screens.

Fifth, take the time to ask about the device and even play with it to an extent.  Many parents shy away from new technology, but this only lays the groundwork for further problems down the road.  I’m fortunate in that my mate is a bigger technophile than Eldest, so she can ride herd in that regard.  Still, the game cartridge and the Playlist provide some good information about the kids’ interests and activities.  And that kind of information is what you’ll need as they age and establish themselves outside of the house.

This isn’t going to be a "one-off" issue that easily resolves.  It’s going to require ongoing attention and considerable patience to make things stick.  Besides, it’s a hoot when you can beat a kid at his own game.


Obama:  A Few Minutes With The Kids

I was watching television the other day and noted a Public Service Announcement from the President.  His brief point was that it was imperative that fathers spend a few minutes with their kids each day in order to obtain almost incalculable benefits. 

I absolutely agree that raising your kids is your most important job.  But to be honest, I don’t know what to make of this.

Does he mean that fathers simply are ignoring the kids completely and losing themselves in their own activities?  Or that there has to be concentrated one-on-one or one-on-several sessions in addition to the everyday household time?  Or is this some push for quality time to help cement paternal and family relationships?

The simple truth is that raising your children to survive as productive and decent members of society is the greatest responsibility of any parent, father or mother.  This doesn’t come from trips or special occasions and celebrations, but from the everyday interactions that pass on values and beliefs.  Even if you’re sharing custody, the time spent doesn’t have to include trips to the park or movies.  It can simply be working in the kitchen or the yard, or chatting in the evening.  When you adopt this approach, then it no longer becomes a question of how much time was spent with them or trying to figure out how to stuff that additional few minutes into what appears to be a packed day.

Trips to Disney or the beach are a wonderful time for a family.  But those things are the icing on the cake.  What goes into that cake are the simple ingredients that gather no special attention but really do make it a memorable thing.

PracticalDad Physics

The more time that you spend around kids, the more you learn.  When the kids were younger, I realized that you can quantify the backseat nonsense on a trip.  Now that my kids comprise the gamut from elementary to high school, I better understand the concept of the Space-Time Continuum. 

According to the theory, we exist in dimensions that comprise not only the physical dimensions of space – height, width, depth – but also time.  But I’ve realized that this only applies to adults since children and teens don’t exist in the two until they’re actually adults.  Like with jobs and responsibilities.

Smaller children exist first solely in the dimension of time.  They actually take up almost no space – you can easily fit eight children into a double closet – but require a considerable investment in time.  Can you tie my shoe?  No, the other way ‘cuz the laces are touching the ground.  Will you watch a movie with me for the thirteenth time?  Can we make cookies now?  Later?  Again?  Daddy, he threw my bunny in the potty!  Daddy, can you help me find Wally?  I really need him to sleep with and haven’t seen  him since last Christmas.  But I really need Wally NOW!  Children will expand to occupy the time continuum and that is exponential to the number of children in the household.

But that changes somewhere around the age of thirteen.  It’s as though the onset of puberty causes a mysterious shift as the structure of the time continuum collapses upon itself and the space demands blossom like an ebola virus in a closed monkey colony.  Teens have absolutely no concept of time.  They can pass hours engaged in electronic conversations filled with acronyms or watch the entire Hannah Montana weekend marathon without voluntarily shifting from the sofa.  Oh, it’s really Sunday night and there’s school tomorrow?  I’ve got a whole ‘nother day so no problem on the Science Fair project, I’ll get on it real soon.  Hey!  Why do I have to empty a trash can that’s overflowing?  Can’t you ask me earlier?  Oh.  The space continuum not only pertains to their corporeal selves, but the items that they generate.  Soda cans.  Waste tissues with dried blood, mucus and/or acne residue.  Clothing that blooms from the fertile soil of the recently emptied hamper even though it appears already clean.  My mind simply boggles.

I prefer to work in the time continuum with the smaller ones and I really do miss that element.  But the teens represent a greater challenge and I’ll just have to risk a warp breech as I impose the time continuum on the spatial requirements of the elder siblings.  The results are sometimes a bit destructive.