Dads and the Bedtime Routine

Kids do well when there’s a standard routine for them to follow.  It provides a sense of comfort, especially when things are tense or rocky, and an anchor to which they can cling.  But a good routine has certain elements in common regardless of the child and his or her personality and age.

The rationale of the bedtime routine is that it provides the child an opportunity to calm down and relax after the course of a day.  They’re usually tired and the energy levels are lower after a busy day, but they can still become hyper and overly stimulated if the situation isn’t managed properly.  And an overly stimulated, tired child is a classic recipe for an evening meltdown.  So what should you remember?

  • Active play of any kind will tend to stimulate a child.  This includes chase/tag, wrestling and even playing in the bathtub.
  • Kids need to learn to remember things and a quiet talk about their day helps train their memory to what occurred.  It’s common to ask a small child what he – or she – did in a day and get a thousand yard stare.  It’s not being disobedient as much as simply not remembering and walking them through the day’s events will help train their memory for when they’re older. 
  • Early evening is not the time for additional snacks that contain sugar or any other kind of stimulants.  Any snack should be relatively bland or naturally sweet and devoid of sweeteners.  This ban also includes fruit juices, which typically contain significant amounts of high fructose corn syrup or sugar.
  • Most video games, especially action games, will stimulate the child so that the bedtime is damaged.  The child won’t want to stop the game and when they do, it will take additional time to relax and then fall asleep.

The key is to provide a calm environment.

So what might a bedtime routine look like?

  1. After finishing dinner, the child can have a bath.  Smaller kids get messier at dinner and an earlier bath simply avoids any additional mess.  The child also has an opportunity for wet hair to dry before bedtime – avoiding the morning bedhead – and if the bath gets boisterous, there’s still an opportunity to calm down before hitting the sheets.  And yes, bathtime was a rambunctious affair in my house.
  2. After the bath, you – and the child when older – can quickly pick up their room after putting on the pajamas.  This way, the day doesn’t actually end with a chore.
  3. When the pajamas are on and the room is picked up, he can watch some quiet television or play a game with you.  As much as I enjoyed Sesame Street, I found that the pace was just a little too quick for the time just before bedtime.  Again, this is an opportunity to play an easy card or board game.
  4. Take your child up to bed and curl up for a story or for some easy conversation. 
  5. Finish the routine with whatever customs you deem appropriate.  Prayer or final thoughts for the day can be done before the lights are out.
  6. Remember that kids crave physical contact.  They’ll someday grow up and avoid the little affections that they love when little.  It’s also important if there’s some anger or tension at bedtime, and yes, that’s liable to happen.  Even if you’re ticked off or frustrated, try to find it within yourself to provide that affection so that they don’t think that they aren’t loved because of something that they did.  I was surprised to find that children will believe that Daddy doesn’t love them anymore because of their behavior.  I also felt tremendously guilty.
  7. After they’re in bed, take a few minutes to hang around upstairs to assure that they’re settled.  A child who gets out of bed and walks into a lit area is prone to a bit of additional stimulation, so hanging around can avoid that situation.

You’re liable to find that the early evening television is ruined because of the bedtime ritual and I’ve found that some shows were almost off of the air before I was able to even see them.  But you can always catch the shows on cable, which is something that you’ll never be able to do with a child’s bedtime. 

Enjoy it while you can.

PracticalDad:  How Do I Avoid New Experience Meltdowns?

Involved parenting means that there are certain things with which you have to become accustomed.  And mothers, who are well aware of the true nature of kids, have learned that you have to look ahead to see what new situations are coming and how the child can be prepared for them.  In this instance, knowing that the child’s going to an activity that requires wearing a new form of clothing that they haven’t worn before.

Kids are creatures of habit and while some don’t care about what they wear, others will roar their terrible roar over having to wear something that’s beyond their experience.  Kids want to try sports but it doesn’t occur to them, especially with sports that don’t require football pads, that there are necessary protective items that aren’t seen.  More than one child has fretted and whined about having to wear shinguards for soccer.  They aren’t visible under the long socks – which are also outside the norm – and trying to get a whiny, recalcitrant child moving for the first practice is setting things up for failure.  The socks are too long.  They itch.  This plastic guard thingy on my leg doesn’t feel good.  Why do I hafta wear it?  The coach won’t see it, so she won’t know!  Why?  It’s fruitless to blame the child, who in most instances is behaving like most normal kids.  They don’t have the experience base with which to make comparisons – hey, it’s not as bad as this or that event – nor do they possess the patience.  And they don’t have the attention span and ability to focus so that they can concentrate on the coach and learning.  Instead, they put on a show for the crowd by doing some snazzy Bossa Nova moves trying to relieve the itch from the sock.

The frustration level ratchets upwards until the stage is set for a repeat performance of PsychoDad.  And yes, I’ve been PsychoDad.

So what do I do differently to avoid this and set up the child for success?  This season, youngest will be playing soccer like his elder siblings and have to wear shin guards.  But several days before the first practice, I’ll have him running around outside with the shinguards on for the first time in order to get used to the sensation of the device.  He’ll also wear the long socks and we’ll play so that he’s used to the feeling come that first practice next week.  It will be, in a sense, like taming a wild colt until it’s broken and ready to accept the bridle or saddle.  Except that through this period, if the whining continues, I’ll keep talking with the child and emphasizing the need for the guards.  And while I don’t think that it’s going to be an issue in this case, I’d rather take the time now than lose it a half-hour before the practice starts.

So think ahead to what new experiences face your child and what you can do to set things up for success.

PracticalDad::  Just Blame the Teachers?

Two of my kids are preparing in class for the upcoming state standards assessment, the one mandated by the Federal No Child Left Behind Act.  And as I watch them and their grades, I repeatedly run into the media flogging the newest bad boy for our national educational difficulties.  The newest group of floggees, freshly proclaimed by Newsweek, appears to be the teachers.  There are bad teachers in the schools – agreed – and it’s well nigh impossible to get rid of those bad ones – also agreed.  But blaming the teachers and their unions is simplistic and wrong.

I’m not a fan of unions in their current form as most are recalcitrant and prickly when confronted with any change to the status quo.  Let me use Pennsylvania for a brief example.  In 2001, the Pennsylvania legislature passed legislation mandating that teacher pension funds must be kept fully funded.  It was a worthy gesture, given that those in the rest of the workforce who still have a pension find theirs underfunded.  Of course, it also provided cover for the legislature, which was in the process of updating and improving its own pension system but they’ll never admit that.  Now shift to 2010.  The teacher pension – PSERS – is facing a large group of teachers retiring simultaneously and about 1.5 working union members supporting each retiree.  The fund has also been shellacked by the just finished recession and per law, has to be brought up to date by the state and the 501 state school districts.  Starting in 2012, many districts will find their pension contributions doubling and for some, tripling.  When my local school board voted unanimously to ask the state for help or relief in addressing this, the local union representative asked that they not send the letter at all.  Great, don’t move out from under the falling piano because hey, it’s a Steinway!

As much as that instance galls me, it’s simplistic to lay it all on the teachers.  The solution is as interconnected as the problem.  Poor teaching methods?  Yes.  Staff that can’t be removed?  Yes.  Outmoded equipment?  Yes.  But the missing key is, like the President says, the parent.  Do you review the backpack?  Do you practice the addition, subtraction and multiplication tables with them?  Do you hold your children accountable for their grades?  Do you have requirements on homework and studying for tests?  Do  you contact the teachers to find out what’s happening when there’s a problem, academic or otherwise? 

The principal reason that private and charter schools do so well, often with less resources, is that the parents are making the decision to send their kids there and that decision implies commitment.  This is important enough that we’ll spend the extra money and if we’re going to do without to educate you, you’re going to make it worth the money spent.  This should be the operative philosophy for all parents, regardless where the kids go to school.

There are any number of reasons that parents stand-off from the schoolwork.  Guilt for having to work away from the home, societal experts advising not to stress the kids, tired of the hassle from recalcitrant kids.  But whatever the reason, they – you – have the responsibility to push them.  It’s actually okay to tell them that they can do better if you believe that’s the case.  It’s okay to withhold privileges if they don’t measure up to their potential and yes, you can tell if that’s the case.  It’s okay to use guilt on occasion – I work hard to provide and it’s not right that you spend the time on the DS instead of getting the homework done – because that’s a way that they see that there’s someone else besides just themselves.  If the effort is clearly substandard, it’s even okay to describe that piece of work as crap.  Yes, I’ve done that and in the circumstance, it was entirely appropriate.

This matters because you aren’t always going to be around to pull their chestnuts from the fire and they’ll have to compete against people named Helmut, Sanjay and Addaya.  So hold the teachers accountable but be comfortable with the knowledge that you’re also holding yourself accountable as well.




Managing the Schedule:  Dinners and Activities

The final information is now in and the results are painful as three kids play three different sports.  If I’m going to manage affordable and well-cooked meals – family meals are now no longer a given – then I have to work with the calendar and plan ahead of time.

We’re a family that actually tries not to have everybody going in different directions, but kids need some activities and that means chaos when they get older.  So what’s the schedule look like?

Monday – Soccer and Volleyball

Tuesday – Piano and Baseball

Wednesday – Dance (evening, fortunately)

Thursday – Cub Scouts and Soccer

Saturday – Baseball

So for any given week, I’ve got three meals on the fly.  How do I manage that?

First, what are my meal parameters?  If possible, I want to make the meals made to minimize cost and maximize nutrition.  Second, even if everybody is eating earlier, I want us together as much as possible.  Third, I want to only have to prepare one time instead of cooking the same thing multiple times. 

My parameters favor crockpot and soup recipes.  These are meals that can be prepared in bulk and eaten over several nights.  They can also stay warm for the others if one has to eat earlier.  Additionally, I can use the evening hours to prepare the next day’s ingredients – cutting vegetables, mixing spices into a small holding bowl and assuring that everything is clean for the next day.  The leftovers are easily stored and reheated the following night.  And frankly, these kinds of foods usually taste better after sitting and letting the flavors of the various ingredients blend further.

So a sample calendar for next week’s meals would be:

Monday – Vegetarian Chili.  Beans provide ample protein for the kids doing the sports.

Tuesday – Chili leftovers with broiled cheese toast.

Wednesday – Fish fillets.  The activity doesn’t start until early evening so nobody’s running around dinnertime.

Thursday – Potato Leek Soup and sandwiches.

Friday – Grill night with burgers and grilled vegetables, such as peppers, onions and squash.

Saturday – Restaurant night.

Sunday – Lasagna.

There are two benefits to planning ahead.  The first is that you can control your cost by creating a decent shopping list.  When you shop, you aren’t wandering aisles like an itinerant nomad and falling prey to the marketing techniques.  The second is that you can gauge how to best use the available time to prepare the meal.  Even when you’re using the calendar and planning ahead, kids breed chaos and it doesn’t stop just because they’re no longer toddlers.

Just because the schedule is nuts – and there are requests that my wife and I have denied – doesn’t mean that life has to feel chaotic. 

The What, Why and Effect of the Federal Student Loan Program Change

Many were surprised – me included – to find that the recently passed Health Care Reform Bill also contained legislation that made significant changes to the Federal Student Loan Program.  And the healthcare uproar has carried over to the college funding program as well.  So why was it even done, what is in it and what does it mean for my family?

What Are the Demands and How Are They Being Addressed?

Like any major overhaul legislation, Congress is trying to meet multiple demands with one piece of legislation.  What are the driving forces behind this?

First, people are learning that college is America’s new default educational requirement.  The problem, from a public policy/society level, is how to best help the largest number gain a degree with the money available.

  • More money will be directed to the neediest students via the Pell Grant Program.  Pell Grants are federal grants for students that demonstrate financial need and do not have to be repaid if the student meets certain completion requirements.  These grants will be increased starting in 2013-2014 for five years and the increase will be linked to the Consumer Price Index.  
  • Those institutions that typically admit students from needier households are receiving more support.  More money is being directed to Community Colleges ($2 Billion) and historically African-American Institutions ($750 Million). 
  • Removing the Financial Services Industry and SallieMae from creating and  servicing federally backed loans saves tens of billions in costs. 

Second, this is actually a pre-emptive response to the moral hazard created by the government bailout of Fannie Mae and the housing industry.  Sallie Mae is a fully privatized lender that began as a Government Sponsored Entity is 1972.  It was created to serve a single purpose – facilitate student lending – and was finally fully spun off from the government in 2004.  This is exactly the same scenario as the now-bailed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Likewise, the default rate on student debt is rising significantly just as the default rate on mortgages.   

  • We’ve learned from the mortgage debacle what happens when banks are able to originate loans for which they have no final exposure; fees are kept and the risk is passed along to the taxpayer.  
  • The government has no real system to penalize the financial industry for originating loans that will ultimately default.  
  • The administration of a large portion of the federal student loan program will be passed along to the colleges themselves.  The government does have a mechanism – the Cohort Default Rates – to penalize colleges and universities that do a poor job of assessing the credit risk of a prospective student.
  • The government has effectively made the program administrators somebody with "skin in the game".

Third, legislators are hearing the complaints of burdensome student debt – debt that can’t be discharged via bankruptcy in the worst case scenario.

  • The interest rate on the PLUS loans from the federal government will drop from 8.5% to 7.9%.
  • The maximum monthly repayment amount for these loans will drop from 15% of income to 10% of income.
  • Loan amounts outstanding after twenty years will be forgiven, a decrease of five years from the previous forgiveness period of twenty-five years.  I do not know the tax consequences of this loan forgiveness.

So What Does This Mean For Me?

Here’s what I suspect will be the upshot of the changes, apart from the continuing shift of students to the community college model.

The federal loan money will still be there but the problem will be gaining access to it.  Colleges and universities are not in the business of personal lending, which is what this really is.  As they assume and learn the responsibilities, they’ll err on the cautious side to protect themselves from the Cohort Default Rate mechanism.  The result will be that students and families with marginal credit histories will be frozen out.  The institutions will probably also ask harder questions than families are used to asking.  Do your grades support the likelihood of success required to get a living-wage job?   Are your plans defined enough to merit the money paid for the degree?

The funding will dry up and more students will shift to local colleges and community colleges.  The timespan required to earn a degree will lengthen accordingly.  And we are all in for a cultural shock.

Multitasking the Housework

Do you wonder how some women complete all of the housework, powerwalk and volunteer six days weekly at the elementary school?  So do I.  But there are some things that I can pass along that make things quicker and simpler.  And it starts with a different mindset about the household.

It helps to think in terms of operations management – what can I do to streamline the processes so that the output is maximized in terms of time?

  • Before you start, think ahead about what has to happen and set up a working plan.  While I no longer put it in writing, I still have a mental to-do list that I compile in the evening.  What has to happen and who needs to be where?  And nowadays, what article do I need to write and what kind of research needs to be done?  Then lay it all out.  Frankly, there are instances in which I have to arrange things days ahead of time.
  • Is there something relatively mindless that I can do while I interact with the kids?  Folding laundry is a great possibility since there’s no loud noise to interfere.
  • Is there anything that I can have the kids do to help?  If I’m cooking, the kids can fetch and carry items or ingredients.  If there’s laundry, the kids can carry clean stuff upstairs or dirty stuff downstairs.
  • Remember to carry things with you as it arises.  Housework is a process and there is no point at which things are ‘done.’  It’s continual and you just try to have things in a decent state at any time.  So if you have to go upstairs and there’s something nearby to go up, take it with you and deposit it; save yourself a needless trip.
  • What can be done while you’re gone?  Washers, dryers and dishwashers are terrific labor saving devices if you utilize them properly.  So if you know that you’re going to be leaving for some time, build a few extra minutes into the schedule to load any of the machines so that the job can be done while you’re out.
  • Keep tabs on the schedule of family members so that you’re on top of the clothing needs.  Is there a concert or event requiring decent and clean clothing?  Is there a gym class requiring clean uniforms?  If I know that there’s a need for a clean and pressed white shirt in two days, I’ll do with a full load of like clothing so that there’s no water or electricity wasted.
  • Keep tabs on the schedule of family members so that you’re on top of the meal needs.  Starting next week, I’ll have three kids in three sports at three different levels and the crock pot will be used heavily as kids are shuttled.  When the kids were in preschool, I generally had them play quietly while I prepared the food or they could join me in the kitchen and play or draw at the kitchen table.  Their favorite programs were in the late morning and I used that time to fix lunch, so I had things laid out at the table in advance.

There are no magic tricks to getting this accomplished, just trying a different mindset and sticking to it.  It doesn’t eliminate the chaos that kids breed but it does make it more manageable. 

PracticalDad Solutions:  Frozen Food for Ice Packs

Kids play and that means bruises.  Little ones, big ones and the occasional goose egg that resembles another shoulder growing out of the forehead.  Icepacks are a reliable treatment especially for the whoppers since they keep the swelling under control.  But when Junior’s wailing in the moment, creating an icepack out of ice cubes and a plastic baggy and tie is a cumbersome and nerve-wracking effort.  It’s better if you have something available quickly.

We learned early on that the best alternative was to use a readily available bag of frozen food.  Why?

  • A screaming child requires immediate attention and the steps involved in creating the ice pack can lead to spilled cubes and angst as the child wails.  Grab the bag and run.
  • A frozen food bag is typically larger than the baggy with ice and will cover a larger area.
  • If the bag is filled with a larger number of smaller items – peas or blueberries – it will more readily mold to the form being covered and distribute that cold more evenly.
  • I found that it created more opportunity for distracting conversation; gee, does that feel like a blueberry bruise or more of a green bean bruise?  When they were a little older, the kids would even label the bruise as fruit or veggie and I took to keeping a bag of each sealed in separate freezer bags, lying flat in the freezer.
  • The plastic bag is sealed and does a better job of not leaking than a baggy.  That said, we keep ours in ziploc freezer bags since a blueberry leak will lead to stains.

Like many things, it’s something that I stumbled upon in the cold of the moment. 

Welcome to the Homepage Redesign

Thanks for visiting PracticalDad.

This site is presently akin to a room with the paint cans stacked on top of tarps and chairs. I do expect that the redesign work will be finished in the immediate future and the homepage will sport a whole new look.

In the meantime, enjoy the articles and thanks for coming!

Teachable Moments:  The U.S. Census

All parents, not just fathers, should live for those "teachable moments" that let you teach something to the kids.  And I received one today in the guise of the 2010 Census form delivered in my mailbox.

Tonight is a family meal night when all of the kids are home and my intent is to pull it out after finishing dinner.  They can see the form and we’ll discuss certain questions.

  • What is the census and why is it done?
  • What will the government do with the information?
  • Considering that the government is asking more information than in the past about household members – name, gender, age, race – should we answer it in its entirety?

Part of the teaching will pertain to the Constitution itself and yes, I have a hard copy in the bookcase.  If you don’t have a copy available, you can read it online here.  Other issues that might apply for the elder children is why so many Americans distrust their own government and what happens if we don’t return the form.

Kids need to hear this from parents as well as schools and don’t make the mistake of  thinking that they don’t hear what’s happening.  When Middle was six years of age, he entered the kitchen and inquired how the school knew who lived in our house.  I responded that I’d answered their planning questionaire and returned it with the names and ages of all of our kids; he simply stated that the government has need to know that and left the kitchen.

They are learning how to pay attention from watching you.  Look for the moments and grab them.

Checking the Returned Schoolwork

Part of the daily routine – at least for the younger kids – is checking the homework that’s been returned.  It might seem a waste as the work’s already been turned in and recorded, but there’s value in seeing what’s been done.

In my case, I’m concerned not with the work itself but instead the process of how the work was done since it’s never safe to assume that kids just know how to do something.  There’s a process in taking any test or homework and failure to follow it can render all of the hard work moot.  Did you go back and check all of your work?  Did you answer the questions sequentially or did you jump around the page?  Did you have a test-race with Lily in the seat next to you?  If you didn’t understand the question, did you ask the teacher to make it clear?

Assume nothing since all of these instances have occurred in this household, and I guarantee that the landscape is littered with other instances.

As the kids age, they’ll squawk but learn until there comes a time that you don’t have to perform the post-mortems.  They’ll really stand or fall on the knowledge base alone and that’s the point of the whole exam.