PracticalDad:  When Can I Stop Taking My Daughter Into the Men’s Room?

There are parts of fatherhood that I love and parts that…well, not so much.  One of the latter is having to take the daughter into the public men’s room because (a) there are men there, and (b) it’s often a germophobe’s living hell. 
So about when should you be able to stop taking her into the men’s room and what did I consider when mine was very young?

There is no magic number as with a driver’s license – Happy 5th Birthday to the Big Girl Birthday Princess!  You can go the women’s restroom now! – and multiple factors come into  play.  How they intersect is completely up the parent and what one father finds acceptable another might find repugnant.

  • Naturally, what’s your assessment of your daughter’s ability to tend to her personal needs?  Can she clean herself adequately and do a decent job of washing her hands afterwards?  So long as she’s still in any kind of training pants or unable to tend to cleaning/wiping herself, then it’s a non-starter and she’s with you.
  • What’s the condition of the men’s restroom?  There’s been more than one occasion that I’ve walked into the men’s room with her just to take a quick look at the cleanliness.  There’s likewise been more than one occasion that I’ve left with her to go elsewhere to find an acceptably clean restroom.  In those years, we lived in suburban Washington, DC and I could tell  you any number of acceptable men’s rooms on Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue and the vicinity of downtown Silver Spring.  I also learned to keep a clean change of clothes packed in the car in case there was a resulting accident.
  • If there’s a large women’s restroom, such as in some airports, how many entry/exit points are there to the facility?  I’ve been in the position of simultaneously caring for daughter and son in major airports where there were two access points into the women’s room.  My fear was that she might exit the other access point while I was preoccupied with the boy.  In that instance, I took her into the men’s room even though she could care for her needs.
  • What’s her common sense level?  I’ve actually seen a child pick a lollipop off of the toilet stall floor and stick it in his mouth.  I suspect that a girl’s marquee won’t be missing so many bulbs, but you have to consider judgment.
  • If there are multiple children with which to contend and only one small restroom, I’d consider sending her in the women’s room by herself while I managed the other children outside.
  • At no time if your child is in a restroom alone do you leave your place outside the door.

The point and trick in each situation is to assure that the child is either within view or in a place from which there’s no exit without your knowledge.  It can be a real test of your multitasking ability if you have more than one child at hand, and there will be moments of real stress as you manage the kids.

And at those moments, I tried to remember to thank God that I didn’t have to change a diaper in an airplane lavatory.

PracticalDad’s Law Of Unintended Consequences

Sometimes when you’re carried away doing something fun with your child, you – or worse yet, your child – is struck by the Law of Unintended Consequences.  And I mean that literally.  This was vividly and viscerally brought home while watching some poor father with his toddler daughter at the amusement park recently.

We took the kids and some of their friends to a local amusement park for the day.  This particular park has a large "Boardwalk" section composed of multiple water rides that range from high and long water slides to a "Lazy River" ride in which the rider is gently propelled via inner tube along a long, circular concrete river.  There’s also a large wave tank for older folks and in this particular situation, a smaller wave tank for children.

There were any number of component water toys and fountains as part of this kiddie wave pool and with the brilliant colors, it resembled something brought to life out of Dr. Seuss’ imagination.  As kids and parents entered the wave area, they passed by and under daisy-yellow pipes that rose out of the ground to a height of seven feet before re-entering the ground several feet away.  Suspended from the pipes were large cone-shaped buckets which swung back and forth and into which water streamed from the pipes overhead.  When the buckets filled with water, they tipped over and would spill water onto the people who walked underneath on the way to the wave pool.  This particular father, who I watched from about thirty yards away, held his little girl in his arms and wanted to get her a little wet before entering the pool.  He stood under a bucket as it slowly filled with water and chatted with his little girl awaiting the tip-over.  He unfortunately misjudged the amount of water the bucket could hold and when it finally tipped, his baby girl took a large volume directly on her head.  Yes, she cried and I pitied the guy as I watched emotions flash across his face that ranged frrom sheepishness to horror and finally, to disgust.  He immediately took the girl away and sat down to console her and apologize profusely.

I felt for the guy because I’ve been there.  Fathers throw their kids, wrestle and swing them and create all manner of mayhem that the kids love.  But the downside is that there will be accidents and mishaps and while you want to die, it doesn’t make you a bad father.  It does however, make you take a longer and harder look at what can go wrong so that you better appreciate the risksof playing with the kids.  

One of my hardest lessons was dislocating my preschool daughter’s elbow while swinging her like an airplane in the backyard.  The game was to simply hold her hands while swinging her in a circle so that her feet were off of the ground and in this, I was wonderfully successful until she cried out that her elbow hurt.  After icing the elbow and still finding her in pain, my wife contacted the pediatrician who saw her within the hour.  This doctor labeled it as "nursemaid’s elbow" and was intimately familiar with it since he’d had to reset his own children’s elbows after similar play in his backyard.  Unlike this physician however, I never played the game again.  Period.

The guilt of inadvertantly hurting your child is severe.  Bur the point is to learn to assess the risks and then adapt so that you either minimize them or avoid them entirely.  But don’t let the fear keep you from playing with them because they both love and need it. 

But Mom Said…(!)

When you have kids, expect to have the ends played against the middle and at some point, expect to hear the phrase "But Mom said!"

How do you handle this phrase when it’s tossed on the ground at your feet like a dare to be picked up?  In my case, it depends, plain and simple.  It depends on whether it’s an area in which I defer to my wife because of better skills.  It also depends on whether I expect that she really has a clue as to the reality of the situation.  And finally, it simply depends on whether or not I’m torqued at the child, period.

In tonight’s case, one of the kids wanted to ride back around the neighborhood in the failing light of a 9 PM evening.  The initial exchange as I returned home was whether or not the child mounting his bike had actually finished doing the dinner dishes.  When I had to dig, it became apparent that he hadn’t finished the dishes but instead, only "the dishes"; in his logic, all of the dishes were rinsed and in the dishwasher but none of the pots and pans had been touched.  The argument started with the demand to return inside and finish the job and the phrase "But Mom said!" was dropped.  But Mom said what?  That you could ride because you’d finished your narrowly defined segment of the chores?  That you could ride in the failing light and risk a serious accident on the street?  In this particular instance, my response was a simple "I don’t care what your mother says, go back inside and finish!"  Chagrined and surly, he returned to the house to finish the job.

So how do I typically handle the phrase?

  • First, I never simply accept the excuse without further questions.  Precisely what did Mom say?  What did you ask her permission for?  What information did you give her?
  • Second, God made cellphones for a reason and my response if things are still unclear is to pick up and call her to verify.  The reality is that kids will give incomplete information, whether inadvertant or by design, and it’s helpful to check.
  • Third, if it pertains to something about which I clearly disagree – like riding a bike with no headlight at night – I’ll simply refuse.  And Mom has come back to me on several occasions to determine why I refused, but she’s always honored my refusal.  Likewise, if she has real reservations, then I’ll honor them if they make sense.

In tonight’s case, the bike stayed in the garage as even the teen realized that it was simply too dark to ride after finishing his chores.  And boy, am I torqued.

Shopping Smart – Summer Menus

One of the perks of summer is the greater availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, of which I try to take great advantage.  The kids love picking the fruit from trees and it’s become an annual highlight; the family record of picked fruit was 2005 when we picked more than 300 pounds of varying fruits and vegetables.  But I’ve had to learn to pace myself in purchases so that I don’t waste and have to throw out spoiled food.

We live in a semi-rural area with a large number of farmer’s stands and pick-your-own orchards.  It’s easy to drop by and become overwhelmed by the variety and amount of fresh food available and on more than one occasion, I’ve engaged in impulse buying that has been a waste of food and money.  So what do I try to do when I’m shopping for summer foods?

  • Farmer’s stands and orchards are no longer "hey, I’m here so I might as well stop" occasions.  They are purposeful stops.
  • I have to have a good idea of what’s on the calendar for the next several days, and even weeks, before I make larger purchases.  This is especially the case if purchasing larger quantities of fruit which have to be cut up and frozen or preserved before going bad.  If we’re going out of town in the height of the peach season – late July/early August – then I simply forego the peach preserves until the next season because I won’t be able to get all of the fruit handled before it spoils.
  • Some fruits will simply be ignored because they’re too time intensive when there are children around.  Case in point was 2005 when I took my three and three other kids to a local orchard and gave them a half-hour in which to pick fresh Queen Anne cherries.  The kids had a blast but I simply didn’t think that they’d manage to pull in 30 pounds of cherries, all of which had to be subsequently pitted before they could be cooked down.  That evening, five of us sat at the kitchen table and manually pitted the cherries – a monotonous task only made bearable by great conversation and good beer.
  • Not only do I try to know what’s on the calendar for the next several days/weeks, I try to have a reasonable menu that varies from evening to evening.  This evening will be grilled eggplant and green pepper along with corn on the cob and chicken.
  • Remember to keep cash handy since most, if not all, of these places won’t take check or credit.  

Getting your food fresh is not only healthier but also cheaper and can be both fun and educational for the little ones with you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to mix some olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the grilled vegetables. 

Why Do Housework?

If there’s anything that I despise more – apart from the New England Patriots – it’s having to do housework.  Even with the labor-saving devices, and they really are labor-saving when you consider the old ways, it’s dull work and full of drudgery.  The presence of children only makes it more frustrating since everything just gets dirtier that much quicker.  So if I hate it so much, why should I actually bother doing housework?

There are actually some compelling reasons.

  • The reality is that a dirty house really is a breeding ground for health problems, especially for small children who still haven’t fully developed their immune systems yet.  Kids exposed to higher amounts of dust and dirt are likelier to develop difficulty with asthma than kids who reside in a more dust-free house.  Likewise, kids are always bringing in new germ variants and will wander through the place leaving colonies like England in the 1600s.  These will be picked up by you or the other family members and next thing you know, WHO and CDC are quarantining your place and foreign embassies are issuing travel warnings to your neighborhood.
  • It honestly becomes embarrassing to invite people to your home when the carpet is obviously coated with animal hair and the bathrooms haven’t been touched in weeks.  This is coming from a guy who isn’t really concerned about appearances.  When the kids get older and become aware, they’ll also become embarrassed and unwilling to invite their friends over.
  • A relatively neat house – vacuumed, dusted and with most things properly placed/stored – does give a sense of order and stability to the home and by extension, the kids.  There’s going to be clutter with children and more cihldren generally produces more clutter, but keeping it under control provides a sense that things aren’t out-of-control.
  • Kids learn a huge amount by simply watching their parents and if they see that the parents are responsible and able to manage the household, they’ll have a sense of what to do when they’re older.  When they are older, you can teach them how to handle some of the chores by themselves and just provide some oversight to assure that things are done properly.  Seeing Dad demonstrate some discipline will help set the tone of exercising their own self-discipline when they’re older.

I truly do dislike housework and several thousand loads of laundry have taken the blossom off of the rose, but it’s important that it continue to happen.  So tomorrow, I’ll clean my bedroom and bathroom before heading off to take care of other responsibilities.  And I’m going to crank up the classic rock when I do.

Letting Kids Drive the Project

Projects take time and that’s especially the case when the kid wants to head the project.  It’s not just that the project will take longer because the kids want to "help", but also in the sense that the kid may actually want to ramrod the project when he or she becomes older.  That means that  you’ve got to make a concerted effort to stay with the project and push it ahead lest the kid – usually a teen in this situation – starts to lose interest or heart in the sometimes lengthy project.

Any guy with some experience understands that do-it-yourself projects can be lengthy and occasionally frustrating affairs.  Things go wrong or there’s a situation that requires an additional step (or more) that simply wasn’t foreseen and it can be frustrating.  But if the teen hasn’t done anything like this before, she’ll have to lean heavily upon you for advice, encouragement and drive.  And if you don’t or can’t provide the time that’s necessary to make it happen, then there’s a fair possibility that the project will fail.

Eldest and I have a significant project that’s in danger of failing now and as much as I hate to admit it, a significant part of any responsibility for failure will rest with me.  In 2007, we purchased a house – a logistical move, not a "gee, we gotta have this house" move – and the kids noted when we first went through it that there was a DIY fish pond right next to the deck.  The kids’ response was "Daddy, it’s got a pond!" and my unspoken response was "Oh S*&^, it’s got a pond."  The pond survived decently until last summer (2009) when we encountered a full fish die-off and algae explosion.  The liner then proceeded to hole, meaning that the problem was now structural.  My thought was that this was the perfect opportunity to fill it in and lay out a small patio with fire pit while Eldest argued forcefully for another pond and with her younger siblings pushing the issue, my wife and I relented.  My caveat was that this would be a project that we did ourselves and that Eldest would be responsible for the redesign plans and cost estimates.  To her credit, she did these and actually did them well.

The problem was that we started in late July and proceeded to encounter technical problems, like when the dirt side of the pond wall collapsed in a major rain storm.  This led to a lengthy side project involving a wire and stone retaining wall that now undergirds the newly replaced liner.  The upshot was that the season ended before we could finish with the waterfall segment, which is where we came to understand the previous owner’s Rube Goldberg approach to things.

We’re now in another summer and the pond’s waterfall is as yet unfinished.  Eldest has agreed with her mother that it would instead be really cool to have a pondless waterfall and her interest in finishing the other has flagged considerably.  My stance now is that we’ll take another crack at the waterfall and if that doesn’t work, then we’ll seriously consider the pondless waterfall option.  With the proviso that we again do the project ourselves since I don’t want to spend hard money on something as frivolous as that.

So what do I take from this exercise on the eve of the last crack on the fishpond?

  • I was unrealistic to believe that a teen would have the ability to drive through a long-term project without greater support and drive from me.
  • I still want to do projects like this on a DIY basis in order for the kids to see that you don’t have to constantly hire people to do things for you (which is why I refuse to pay someone to do my lawn since I have child labor).
  • I have to be willing to commit the time to make this happen much more quickly than it did so that it doesn’t lose steam.

So that’s one more additional item on the to-do list, along with the relandscaping of the backyard, another gift of the previous owner.



PracticalDad Discipline:  The 25 Cent Solution

One of the purposes of discipline is to teach a child self-control; that good things can come from mastering oneself.  Folks who are older – some of us anyway – can grasp the intellectual concept of delayed gratification but that’s difficult for a child who lives in a world of the physical here and now.  One way of helping them grasp the concept of self-control is to pay them for good behavior with spending money when the goal is reached.

I was reminded of the technique while talking with the mother of two boys, one of whom is in middle school and the other in upper-elementary.  The premise of the 25 cent solution is each child is promised a set amount of money at the end of a defined time period and any violation of the rules is met by a 25 cent reduction in the promised amount.  In the case of the mother’s boys, each would receive $5 at the end of the day if they didn’t get called on an infraction.  In her case, the infraction pertained to either one smacking the other which is a common complaint for those of us with boys.  He looked at me funny so I smacked him!  He called me a name so I smacked him!  I am not adopted (smack)!  You are too (smack)!

It’s a technique that we’ve used on a few occasions as well, but only on longer car trips when the kids are in close proximity that invite border incursions akin to those practiced by the North Korean Army.  It’s honestly not something that I would use as a disciplinary technique on a daily basis for several reasons. 

  • First, the kids have to learn that decent behavior is something that is expected of them – and everybody else – if we’re to have a functioning civil society.
  • Second, rewards should really be for something exceptional and not commonplace.  Yeah, I shaved this morning!  I deserve a beer.
  • Third, there simply isn’t enough money to meet the growing expectations of aging kids who become more jaded with each passing year.  The first grader might be happy with some post cards and a souvenir pencil, but the eighth grader is holding out for an iPod.  The last time that I checked, the Federal Reserve was only providing liquidity to large banks and not to parents of kids with champagne tastes. 

There are instances however, when it’s a valuable tool.  In our case, we  used it on long car trips when keeping hands to one’s self really was a feat of self-control.  Additionally, the kid knew that the money would be earned and could be spent as he or she deemed fit with no input from us unless it was wholly inappropriate.  This meant that we wouldn’t have to listen to constant begging for souvenir money and allowed the kids to allocate their resources as they saw fit.

Here are some guidelines for using the 25 cent solution if you want to consider it.

  • Decide in advance what rules are to be followed and explain them clearly.  These might include don’t hit (or even touch one another in our car), no bad language, no throwing objects, no teasing/namecallling and whatever else you deem important.
  • All judgments are final and non-negotiable.
  • If one of the kids is an instigator, the second complaint about the instigator (Dad, I smacked him because he keeps poking me with his foot!) means that the instigator also gets dinged with the 25 cent solution.
  • It’s helpful to have a small pad/pen with which to keep a tally each time the child gets dinged for a quarter.
  • Specific situations – having to pull the car over – lead to double penalties for all children.
  • Expect arguments during the early stages but things will improve as kids and parents learn the intricacies of the solution.

It’s another tool in the disciplinary toolbox and an effective one at that.  It can help maintain some order for a period in the family’s life until the kids are old enough to truly control themselves and trips are enjoyable just because, well, they are.

PracticalDad Solution:  The Details Sheet

Doing things and having fun comes naturally to kids, but other areas like time management and thinking things through don’t come so naturally.  This is precisely why I’ve draftedand instituted the Details Sheet.

Kids are generally self-absorbed and egocentric, so not only do they NOT think through their own details, they won’t consider anybody else’s details either.  This is what drove me over the edge the other evening as plans were formulated and reformulated with no realization that the lack of drivers’ licenses meant that Dad would have to be formally involved.  When I required that these carefully – at least what two teens consider carefully – laid plans be re-laid with some foot in reality, the sparks flew.

The basis for time management in the PracticalDad household is the family calendar, which I assiduously maintain during the school year.  With the summer schedule, I haven’t been as attentive and have mistakenly thought that they’d be old enough to update some of their own activities.  Eldest will circle a date in crayon and list the time for a babysitting gig but there’s no info as to where and for whom and the rest is merely white space.  I realized this after the blow-up, which means that I bear some responsibility for the situation and can’t just peg it on a couple of teenagers.

The intent of the Details Sheet is simple and isn’t meant to automatically say no to a kid’s request although there’s going to be some thought that that is indeed the case.  The intent is to simply force the kids to examine the details and how their request fits into the greater scheme of the family activities – to make them think beyond themselves so to speak.  The questions are journalistically straightforward – what, where, when, with whom, transported how – and are supplemented by the question about what else is on the family calendar.  Going forward, any request that I receive will be met with another question as to whether the sheet’s questions have been answered.  When all of the questions are answered and everything makes sense, then I’ll probably say yes to the request and make certain that it makes the calendar, preferably following up that they did it.

The reality of any family system is that its effectiveness hinges  upon the ability of the parents to uphold and maintain the system.  That means several things:

  • When the system is rolled out, I can’t appear torqued – even though that’s what prompted the response – or it will be viewed as punitive and resisted;
  • I have to consider what questions they’ll pose when they learn of the system and digest it;
  • I have to be consistent in referring everything back to the sheet;
  • It’s my responsibility to assure that the calendar is still updated even though I want the kids to do it;
  • I have to realize that the calendar’s going to be messier as the older kids get used to updating it and will have to stay calm enough to handle things as educational when we discuss correcting the calendar.

The last item will be key.  If the intent is to have the kids working in tandem and considering others, then it’s my responsibility to follow through for as long as it takes.  And how long is that?  As long as necessary until my wife and I are comfortable that they’ve got the basics down and can routinely bring us the necessary information on which to make a decision.

Notes on Bicycle Safety – When Junior’s Not On the Same Level

Not all kids develop their skills at the same rate and that runs the gamut of activities.  Some are poor at hand-eye coordination while those who excel at that are lousy at gross motor skills.  That’s the case with all three of the kids here and notably the case with Youngest’s bicycle skills.  That’s normally something that doesn’t worry me but when other kids are riding on the neighborhood streets and he’s still uncertain with his balance and skills, then I have to pay particular attention.

Youngest is far and away a big boy, head-and-shoulder above his classmates and is wearing hand-me-down clothing that his older brother wore when he was three years older than Youngest is now.  Judging from the commentary of a physical therapist friend – who specializes in balance issues – that growth has impacted the balance skills which simply haven’t caught up and compensated for the larger body.  I haven’t pressed the issue and have let him set the pace for the past two years; we’d go to the local playground and ride around while he slowly learned his skills and it’s been in the last three weeks that he’s finally mastered the skills.

The issue that arose last week was his wish to ride back to his friend’s house and then ride with the friend and family to a neighborhood playground.  I’ve done no practical road skills with him apart from talking about road rules and that doesn’t qualify as prepared.  He desperately wanted to go, especially since this child will sometimes taunt if someone’s skills don’t measure his, but I refused and dropped him off at the friend’s house with his Razor Scooter.  That’s not so far-fetched I figured, since there are any number of neighborhood teens who ride their Razors and do stunts with them.  It worked on that occasion but the occasion will arise again and he needs to be prepared.  The other aspect is that road safety and skills are my responsibility and not that of some other parent; taking a child on the road involves issues of legal liability and that’s my problem.

So tonight began the road rules practicum.  We started with the rules discussion before we even left the driveway: 

  • Ride on the right side with the traffic;
  • Stop at every stop sign and look both ways AND behind;
  • Wear a helmet at all times;
  • Know the hand signs for right, left and stop;
  • Know the surrounding traffic and don’t think that they know you;
  • Ride single file but stay in front of me where I can see you.

After discussing the rules, we talked about the route and what we’d do, then we left. 

On one level, this shouldn’t be about "keeping up with the developmentally advanced Joneses".  Over the next week, we’ll take progressively longer road trips and will continue until I’m comfortable that he’s mastered the road skills.  But on the other hand, when he’s got the balance and riding issues down pat, then it’s my responsibility to help take him over the final hump and that might mean that I have to take extra time to assure that it’s done properly.  When I’m comfortable that he’s there, then I’ll turn him loose with the friend and family.  And if he’s still not there, I can at least honestly say that he needs some additional work but has the basics down pat.

I won’t push the skills faster than they seem to be capable of going, but once they’re there, I have to be ready to make the time to finish the job.