Is There Too Much Screen?  Guidelines On Establishing Household ‘Netiquette

Technology is constantly advancing and adapting and it’s a given that the young are always ahead of the parents on the techno-curve. It’s a given that many parents are looking back to the "good ol’ days" of their youth when they recall a simpler world – although their parents and grandparents seemed to always say the exact same thing. But the past ten years have provided an explosion both in the technological platforms available to people as well as forms themselves. While our predecessors also had to contend with the notion of yakking teens, it was contained by the simple phone technology so that unless a teen had their own phone in their room, or gasp, their own phone line, the amount of information and the number to whom it could be disseminated was limited.  For several years, the technology has gotten ahead of the social fabric and now the adults are starting to push back, as noted in The Guardian article on the rising tenor and amount of criticism of the effect of social media on today’s youth.

It’s natural for the adults to push back against change and the jury is very much out on the entire affair.  But the article does have a solid point on what one person refers to as the lack of "netiquette" amongst the users.  While the hue and cry is about the social networking sites, the problem goes back further to the entire presence of screens within the home.  Since the widespread availability of cable television and the ability to run lines to multiple rooms, the number of kids with their own bedroom televisions has grown to fully 70%.  With the TV in the room and the door shut, the parents have no real idea of the amount of time being spent on television and unfortunately, this carries over to the affiliated screen devices – laptops, PCs, and so on.  Given all of this, what can we do to help start to rein in the kids?

  1. If there’s a television in the room, consider whether or not to actually remove it.  Most parents are reluctant since the kids – of any ages – can frankly behave like asses in order to inflict enough of their own punishment to make the parent reconsider, but if the time is obviously creating issues then it should be considered.  There are devices that can be installed with parental codes to shut down the device after a predetermined period, such as TVAllowance, and this might be a decent alternative.
  2. Understand that you’re the parent and it’s entirely both your right and your responsibility to keep tabs on the kids habits.  Frankly, we’ve controlled the electronics and I still spend an inordinated amount of time kicking one kid or another off of a screen device.  Few children have mastered self-control and this is simply part of being a parent.  Deal with it.
  3. Establish ground rules apart from the simple daily amount of time.  What is unacceptable use of the device?  Trying to surf adult or mature sites?  Sexting or cyber bullying?  Texting at inappropriate moments?  While it’s imperfect, lay out the scenarios ahead of time and then list the consequences.  Most of the house rules pertain to the cell phone since there’s only one cable-ready television and the family PC is in the family room and the texting rules are fairly simple:  No texting or phone use when we’re at the table for any family meal; no texting or cell phone after 10 PM on any school night; no stopping something else just to respond to a text (if you’ve started a game with Youngest, finish the damned thing).
  4. Keep to the consequences.  Children who grow up knowing that the consequences are enforced will give you less grief when you have to do it.  Those who’ve been given more free rein will resist and this is where things can get ugly as the relationship can occasionally devolve into a test of wills.  You have to make a conscious decision as to how much argument you’ll tolerate and stick to it.
  5. Make sure that the house rules are followed by the other kids that come into the house because failing to enforce on others while enforcing rules on your own is sending a horrible message to the kids.  Don’t be surprised if other kids have a clue of the house rules already since kids talk.  Kids talk alot.
  6. Be careful of your own electronics use and whether or not it reflects the house rules.  Kids can smell hypocrisy a mile away and will point it out as happily as recent roadkill on the interstate.  Besides, time that you’re spending on electronics while the kids are around is time that you’re not spending with them.  That is perhaps the crucial element of being a father.
  7. Expect some confusion since what works at one age level simply doesn’t work at another.  I’m a firm believer in age appropriate and work hard to adhere to the philosophy that what’s okay for older kids is terrible for  younger ones but that means that there can be more gray areas and simple confusion as I try to keep up with things. 
  8. Expect pushback from the kids.  They’re testing limits and relationships and it’s likewise part of being a father.  It’s not easy, but it’s part of it.

There will be an ebb and flow to the electronics usage and there are times when it’s okay to let things go, such as on a snow day.  The proof will be in what you see when the kids aren’t online or onscreen.  How’s their weight?  How’s their sleep?  How are the grades?  How is their general behavior?  It will require regular evaluation and a whole lot of persistent effort.

So Are Parents Really To Blame?

American kids continue to fare poorly in comparison to much of the rest of the world’s students and we’ve thrown a ghastly amount of money at the issue to improve test scores.  We’ve blamed the educational unions – and yes, there is some validity to those criticisms of teacher protectionism – and we’ve blamed teaching methods as well as teachers themselves.  But a late 2010 poll by Stanford University in which they query adults found that fully 68%, more than two-thirds, blamed parents themselves.  The surprising part of this was that more than half of both mothers and fathers agreed with the assessment.  But it goes beyond education however, into general behavior, and I myself wonder, are we really to blame?

If there is blame to be apportioned, then yes, we deserve the lion’s share of it.

There’s a confluence of elements that have made parenting today’s children and teens especially difficult. 

  • A changing and increasingly competitive economy that demands greater and more intense attention for the dwindling share of the economic pie.  The prototypical Monday – Friday daytime workweek has suffered as more are thrown out of work or have to work part-time at whatever hours they can in order to provide for food and a roof.
  • A rise in the availability and prevalence of home electronics so that the large majority of American kids are plugged into some device for an average of 7 hours each day.  Couple this with the fact that many of these computers, game systems and televisions are in the kids’ bedrooms means that the parents effectively have little control over what the kids are viewing and seeing.
  • A stubbornly high divorce and single parenting rate so that the kids are overseen by only one parent who also has other household responsibilities with which to contend. 
  • A belief that there are limits to discipline and an increased permissiveness as parents shift away from being authority figures to something akin to friends and buddies.

Practically speaking, the parents who are around are being pulled in too many directions to effectively do those things that a parent needs to do – communicate with, monitor, discipline and enforce. 

There are factors over which we have no immediate control, specifically jobs and to an extent, marital/parenting status.  We have to keep a roof over the head and food on the table and I honestly don’t know how two people in a bad marriage can effectively keep things together for the kids.  But the other factors are huge and are very much within our power.

Those factors within our power are the presence of the electronics and their usage.  Does the child really need a cellphone?  Does the child really need a laptop or iPad that they can carry to their room?  Does each child require a game system or television set within their room so that they no longer have to leave that room to interact with the family?  The point is that we’ve created – and permitted – an environment in which the kids are allowed independence to such an extent that there is no longer any required interaction with the remainder of the family and parents, and the ubiquitous presence within their rooms means that we’ve ceded the ability to keep tabs on what they’re watching and doing. I’m not a fan of MTV and what they’ve done with their new show Skins is a prime example of hypocrisy, greed and our inattention to the kids’ viewing.  If my basic arithmetic is correct, Skins was viewed by a total of 3.3 million in it’s premiere with the majority – 2.7 million – of viewers between the ages of 12 and 17.  The basic arithmetic comes in with the fact that the majority here amounts to fully 82%.  My suspicion is that the majority of these kids have parents who aren’t aware that they’re watching the show in the first place.  It is entirely permissible and appropriate for a parent to set limits on what the child and teens are allowed to watch and this doesn’t constitute censorship or cruelty in any way.  If they’re watching something of which you don’t approve, turn it off.  If you’re not around because of work, block the channel or program entirely.

We as adults and parents have also largely bought into the line that kids really aren’t all that different from adults, just less experienced and packaged in a pint instead of gallon container.  Despite what’s been bandied about in the past, children are not just "little people" and while some say that it takes a village, the reality is that more than a few members of the village are working diligently to use the children as a wedge to separate you from your cash.  But in their growth, they bear a striking resemblance to plants.  They will absorb whatever attention they’re given like a sunflower absorbs sunshine and will continue, like the plant, to twist themselves in the direction of the light source to get everything that they need.  Knowing this, it’s imperative for their best interests and well-being that you be the source.  The research is becoming abundantly clear that kids are not junior adults and it’s imperative that we stop treating them as such.  Their brains are being reconfigured as they grow and scientists now peg the age at which the average brain reaches adulthood in the mid-twenties.  If they’re going to be out on their own in the world before that time – Please God, let it be so – then it’s crucial that they have a solid foundation when they leave the household for the great wide world.

Many families do have to work hard to make ends meet and provide food and shelter.  But that doesn’t mean that we can use that as a reason to absolve ourselves from the responsibility that comes with raising a child and it’s ultimately in that that many do fall down.

Preparing the Kids:  Teaching Value

There’s a new economic reality on the horizon and the old ways of spending and consumption are simply going to have to change.  How do I prepare my kids for this new economic world when the message put out by the media continues to be one of consumption and spending?  The overarching concept is that if you have to spend, do so by concentrating on value so that you truly get the most bang for the dollar.  But how do I achieve that?

First, understand that some of the most effective lessons aren’t taught in a sit-down session around a table.  The kids really are watching and taking things in – I was surprised several months ago to find that Middle mastered a particularly effective mimicry of one of my foibles – and to wait for the opportunity to handle things like a classroom is to lose opportunity.  Because I believe that basic financial education is crucial for young people, it is something that I’m usually aware of as I spend time with the kids.  The opportunities are plentiful as errands are run, trips taken or television is watched and when you see something, grab the chance to ask about it and explore it with them. 

In our household, we’ve taken to watching periodic episodes of Pawn Stars and American Pickers and these provide great object lessons in finding value as well as negotiating.  In the case of Pawn Stars, one of the big lessons is that value is often a subjective concept.  You can read somewhere or hear that your collection of antique magazines is worth thousands, but it doesn’t mean that that’s what you’re going to get.  Achieving that value depends upon multiple factors and some of those are probably beyond your control.  Another significant lesson is that when a negotiation begins, the final value can be radically different from the number named at the outset – just because somebody names a number, it doesn’t mean that that’s what they will settle for.  A corollary of the negotiation lesson is that in many cases, the people negotiating are influenced by factors far beyond purely monetary considerations.  I know what you’re saying, but my great-grandpappy loved that item and it would be insult to his memory to take less than what I just demanded.

Second, effective teaching is repetitive and has to be revisited again and again.  Teaching a middle-schooler about the mechanics of compound interest can be done in one session but teaching the real meaning of it will take multiple repeated efforts until most truly grasp the concept.  Our trip doesn’t pertain to what you see and want and I don’t have the money for it.  A debit or credit card in the wallet doesn’t mean that I have to use it.  Since most folks don’t pay off their credit cards, does it make sense to purchase a Whopper Value Meal and continue paying for it over the course of the next three months?  No, I only brought enough in the wallet for this and I don’t have extra for that.  Because the kids are fairly persistent in stating when they want something, the opportunities continue to present themselves.  As the older kids have aged, they’ll even speak about wanting something but immediately follow with the comment that it doesn’t make sense for one reason or another, or that they know that you won’t do so for whatever reason that you’ve taught over the years.  It’s occasionally done in a way to instill guilt but I don’t usually feel guilt. 

Third, don’t worry about specific details but stick to the general principles and hammer them again and again and again and again.  Some of my comments have become a form of family joke but the reality is that the lesson really does sink into their bones and it’s visible on occasions when they don’t even realize that they’ve followed them.  Yes, I drive an eleven year old minivan nicknamed Gladys the Rolling Dumpster but when you listen to the kids talk, some of the underlying philosophy leeches through as comments are made about it’s just a car, not a fashion statement.  Bingo.  The other aspect to this is that having a few hard and fast principles makes it easier to remember as well as explain.  My memory’s just not good enough to recall all of LeRoy Jethro Gibbs’ forty-odd rules.

Finally, try to stay consistent and on message since kids are great at smelling out hypocrisy.  There are times when I do veer from the norm financially and I try to remember to explain why I might be deviating from a usual principle.  For instance, I’m not big into spending large amounts for kid’s and teen’s clothing since the kids are both growing and rough on the clothing and the kids are aware of my attitude.  But when Middle and I went shopping for some clothing and waterproof hiking boots in anticipation of a winter campout, he was uncomfortable with the cost of a decent pair of boots and was surprised at my willingness to spring for them.  It’s an investment, son.  If you’re going to do more camping and hiking, then you need to actually take care of your feet and especially so in sub-freezing weather.  This isn’t like a pair of Kmart sneakers that will get trashed sooner than later.  And even though you’re almost guaranteed to outgrow these boots, I can pass them down to your younger brother since I can guarantee that he’ll be able to fit into them. 

Not everything that I believe and teach is going to stick and they’re going to make some decisions that I find simply dumb.  Hell, I make some decisions that some would find simply dumb.  But the more that I can pass along to them to help prepare them for this new economic reality will hopefully make their life easier.



PracticalDad Price Index:  January 2011 Index Drops to 100.55

The trips to the stores are done and the data is crunched, and the results of the January 2011 PracticalDad Price Index show that the index of the market basket in January dropped from 100.78 to 100.55.  For all of the talk about the threat of inflation, the index is down for the month so inflation must be a bogeyman…or not.  Let’s take a look at the results in some detail after one or two comments.  First, data doesn’t present itself in a steadily increasing or decreasing line from one month to the next.  On a monthly basis, numbers can bounce, chop and veer like a senator on a bender and it’s on a rolling, averaged basis that trends become more clear.  Second, gathering prices can be complicated by a store’s decision on various products, such as whether to swap out one product for another and this is something that I encountered during the price surveys.  In two instances, the absence of a product from the shelves caused me to simply not price the item at that particular store.

And now for some comments and the results.

  1. Multiple items rose in price – especially in commodity based categories such as rice and grains – but these were offset principally by the drop in cost of a single item, specifically a pound of cooked ham lunchmeat.  In this instance, the danger of a small market basket priced at three stores showed as one store apparently swapped out a product with a much lower cost competitor so that the monthly average for that item skewed downwards.
  2. Cereals – store brand kids’ frosted flakes, oatmeal and store brand rice chex – all rose in price with the frosted flakes rising almost 15% in a three month period.  Likewise, a pound of spaghetti rose from an average of $1.11/lb to $1.18/lb.
  3. Canned vegetables showed a slight rise from $.89/can to $.92/can and this is attributable to a single store with significant price rises in these items while the other stores held constant.
  4. Store brand vanilla ice cream has shown a consistent rise in three months from November’s $1.85/qt to January’s $2.04/qt.  What’s interesting in this case is that one store that held the item price constant did however, change the unit cost from a quart basis to a pint basis, setting up a possible future run-up in price. 
  5. Other prices remained flat or bounced around a bit and in another article, I’ll start with a three-month rolling average for the prices within the marketbasket.


PracticalDad Price Index – January 2011
Item Size Category 11/10 Avg Price 12/10 Avg Price 1/11 Avg Price
hot dog rolls, store brand 8 bread 1.09 1.09 1.09
loaf, wht brd, store brand (oz) 20 bread 1.12 1.12 1.12
spaghetti, store brand (oz) 16 bread 1.11 1.11 1.18
child cereal, sugar flakes, store brand (oz) 17 cereal 2.53 2.74 2.90
cereal, rice chex, store brand (oz) 12.8 cereal 2.69 2.66 2.74
oatmeal, one minute, store brand (oz) 42 cereal 3.12 3.12 3.18
milk, 2% (gallon) 1 dairy 3.54 3.54 3.46
butter, unsalted (lb) 1 dairy 3.56 3.49 3.56
vanilla ice cream, store brand (qt) 1 dairy 1.85 1.88 2.04
grated parmesan, store brand (oz) 8 dairy 2.99 2.99 2.99
American Cheese (lb) 1 dairy 5.85 5.52 5.52
peanut butter, store brand (oz) 28 grocery 2.96 2.96 2.96
grape jelly, store brand (oz) 32 grocery 1.82 1.82 1.89
kidney beans, dark, store brand (oz) 15.5 grocery .86 .86 .86
can green peas, store brand (oz) 15 grocery .89 .89 .92
can diced tomatoes, store brand (oz) 14.5 grocery .94 .94 .94
can cut green beans, store brand (oz) 14.5 grocery .89 .89 .92
can corn, store brand (oz) 15.25 grocery .89 .89 .92
spaghetti sauce, store brand (oz) 26 grocery 1.13 1.13 1.13
cola, store brand (L) 2 grocery .89 .89 .89
caffeinated coffee, store brand (oz) 13 grocery 2.96 3.25 3.24
diapers, size 3, store brand (ct) 104 baby 17.35 17.35 17.82
formula, Enfamil Premium, Lipil (oz) 23.4 baby 22.93 24.02 22.94
child ibuprofen, OS, store brand (oz) 4 hlth/bty 4.69 4.82 4.96
adult ibuprofen, caplet, store brand (ct) 100 hlth/bty 6.79 6.72 6.92
shampoo, Suave (oz) 22.5 hlth/bty 1.74 1.74 1.71
pads, long, Poise (ct) 42 hlth/bty 16.09 16.09 16.09
bath soap, Dial brand (ct) 8 hlth/bty 5.39 5.39 5.39
aluminum foil, store brand (sq ft) 75 hshld 2.90 2.97 2.97
kitchen trash bags, store brand (ct) 26 hshld 4.11 4.11 4.41
paper towels, 2 ply, store brand 8 hshld 7.26 7.26 7.26
hot dogs, meat franks, store brand (oz) 16 meat 2.46 2.46 2.46
ground beef, 80% lean (per lb, bulk) 1 meat 3.02 3.02 3.32
eggs, large (dozen) 1 meat 1.62 2.01 1.99
lunchmeat, ham (lb) 1 meat 5.56 5.12 4.59
chicken, roaster (lb) 1 meat 1.52 1.52 1.56
fish sticks, Gorton’s (ct) 44 meat 7.69 7.96 7.86
tuna, water packed, store brand (oz) 5 meat .96 1.32 .96
bananas (lb) 1 produce .58 .58 .58
apples, Red Delicious, bag (lb) 3 produce 3.66 3.59 3.42
carrots (lb) 2 produce 2.02 2.02 2.09
OJ, original, store brand (oz) 64 produce 2.66 2.16 2.43
potatoes,  Russet (lb) 5 produce 3.82 3.99 3.66
sugar, store brand (lb) 5 staple 3.12 3.12 3.12
flour, all purpose, store brand (lb) 5 staple 1.96 1.96 1.92
canola oil, store brand (oz) 48 staple 3.12 3.12 3.12
rice, white, long-grain (lb) 2 staple 1.69 1.59 1.59
total     178.39 179.79 179.38

This will be followed shortly by another article laying out the first information on a three month rolling average basis.  I regret the delay in posting this information and expect that this delay will not be occurring again.

PracticalDad:  Honoring The Other Parent, Honoring The Other Child

One of my cardinal rules of fatherhood – and one of the hardest to maintain – is to keep my mouth shut when I’m irritated with my mate.  Raising kids can be difficult enough and when the parents are upset with one another, it’s easy to spout off about the other parent in front of the kids.  The problem with doing this is that it eventually creates an atmosphere in which the child becomes a co-conspirator with the mouthy parent and places the kid in a position in which no child should find herself.  The out-of-favor parent subsequently has greater difficulty maintaining control and it’s not beyond some kids to practice a divide-and-conquer strategy which can truly damage, if not destroy a marriage.  For the most part, I’ve been successful in following this with a very few exceptions.

But with kids growing and each child fully capable of creating unrest and irritation without assistance, I’m finding that I have to learn to apply the same rule when I’m frustrated with their siblings.  Dealing with small children is akin to a real-life version of Laura Numeroff’s If You Give A Mouse A Cookie and while the physical aspect does ease as they age, the degree of confusion can actually increase as they constantly change plans or act without thinking.  The frustration can worsen for a parent who’s trying to keep tabs on things.  And because they’re now more in the world and out of your sight than when they were young, the capacity for trouble increases significantly.  While I can repeat to myself that they’re clearly not thinking because their brains are literally being rewired, the frustration can become severe; so severe that I find myself making comments in the presence of one or more of the other kids. 

Comments like calling a kid knucklehead are acceptable in the moment, but I’ve found myself complaining about the kid in question – and there are multiple kids in question – to one or two of the other kids.  It might be one thing to actually sit down with one of the kids and ask them, provided they’re old enough to have such a conversation, what he or she is seeing or hearing, but spouting off spontaneously in frustration.  Again, I’ll have to work on adapting the Honor the other parent principle because of the potential problems that can arise if I don’t.  Continuing to vent in front of the kids creates a difficult dynamic as it raises the child to the level of the parent, a role for which he is patently unprepared.  Further, it creates an unhealthy situation in which one child is clearly on the out against the other parent and child.  Finally, it can lead to a sense on the part of the issues child that she is now clearly out of favor with the parent compared with the other children.

Kids are difficult and I shouldn’t make it more difficult by shooting myself in my own foot with my own mouth.

Honor the other parent, honor the other child.  Otherwise, shut up.

The Kids Still Want To Play

As the family grows and ages, the desire by kids to play with Dad diminishes as they develop their own circle of friends and immerse themselves with their own activities.  As my own father used to say, that’s as it should be, and I respect that.  But even as they age, they still want to find ways to play even if they reach a place where it’s not always cool to ask.  While they’re becoming adults, they are still, in many ways, kids and they want to play.  Frankly, there are times when I want to play as well.

While there are instances where I completely miss the signs and I’ve had to learn to look for them.  Sometimes it’ll be an overt hey, do you wanna…? but it’s sometimes the unspoken actions.  A kid comes in and starts physically picking and messing is an obvious note that she’s ready to play.  A less obvious indicator is the older child who haunts you in your activities, hanging nearby but not actually saying that he wants to play.  There have been moments when I’ve actually shifted rooms to see if the youthful spectre flits behind and if so, then it’s an unspoken invitation to play.  The haunt won’t actually voice his wish but the intent will become clear and it’s up to me to put the ball into play.  I regret that there have been times when I’ve been aware of the wish and I haven’t taken the opportunity to mess around.

The nature of the play might change with the season or with age, but the desire is still there as the kids come back from their forays in the world to touch base and reconnect with the folks.  Be aware and take advantage of it since those days will come fewer and farther between.


PracticalDad Homework:  Helping Versus Doing

One of our mantras since the kids were very small is that all good things flow from schoolwork.  The school assigns a certain amount of work and our expectation is that it will be completed both correctly and in a timely fashion.  Well, it at least has to be done – and also turned in, by the way – by the appropriate deadlines; there does come a point at which the kid has to take his lumps for work that’s not right so as the kids have advanced, I’ve curtailed parsing every math answer and compound sentence.  But when they’re dealing with new subject areas or don’t understand something and come to me, where’s the line between helping and doing?

I’ve come to find the difference in:

  1. Is the child still sitting next to me;
  2. Who’s holding the pencil;
  3. Who’s answering the question;
  4. Are there electronics nearby to distract the kid?

So long as these four aspects indicate that the kid is involved in the process, then I’ll spend as much time as necessary to help get the point across.  In the case of math, I’ve even gone so far as to create additional problem sets and even a mock test.  But if I find that the kid is no longer invested in the process, then I’ll shut it down.  Surprisingly, when the kids – at least here – realize that PracticalDad’s done and now leaving them to their own fates, they become much more willing to invest themselves in the process.  It has led to some additional angst as we come to terms with the situation and there have been both times when I’ve gone back as well as other occasions when I’ve left in frustrated disgust.

Part of the homework process, if I think that I’m being abused, is a clear and repeated warning that if there isn’t immediate change then they’re left on their own.  It can lead to significant efforts at manipulation but this back-and-forth between recalcitrant kids and insistent parents is – I believe – a power play on the part of the kids to see just how much they can push the limit and whether they can manuever to their advantage.  Despite this though, the kids really do want to know that you’re involved and both interested and invested in their work.

The kids ultimately have to learn however, that if you’ll walk away because they’re sloughing off on you, then they really will be left on their own.  And for a kid, this is a scary place to be.