Back to the Beginning…What is the point of raising a child?

Congratulations.  You now have – or are about to have – a child.  You are about to embark upon two decades of experiences that will frequently seem like a forest for the trees experience because of appointments, practices, events, homework, trips, activities and chores.  It will seem as though you’re sailing through weeks and months and you think that you’ll have these children forever…but you won’t.  The typical child born today will live approximately 80 years and you will have him for perhaps the first quarter of that period.  So maybe it’s appropriate to consider a simple question before you enter the undergrowth of parenthood.

What is the point of raising a child?

It seems like a stupid question on the face of it.  You take care of them and they go out when they’re adults.  I’m not a guy who overthinks things, but is it – should it be – really that simple?  It isn’t.  Given the complexity and costliness of modern American society, it’s important to have a sense of what you want to accomplish.  It’s eye-opening to hear young people say such things as…I wish someone had told me that I should dress a certain way for an eventI wish that someone had explained the terms of my student loans before I took them onI wish that someone had told me that I couldn’t get a decent job with a bachelor’s degree in Western Civ Studies.  You hear enough of these things and it occurs to you that providing a roof and food is insufficient.  Granted, those are critical but it doesn’t have to be a slate roof and haute cuisine, either.  What matters is two-fold: that your child have guidance and an ongoing dialogue about what’s happening both to – and with – her; and teaching her how to think and navigate her way through adult life.

Consider this.  The cost of raising a child born today is now more than $230,000 and that’s even before any higher education.  It’s an expensive proposition.  Now suppose that you were going to build a new house that cost $230,000 and would be taking out a mortgage with a twenty year term.  Anyone would give forethought to the process at the outset, about placement and design and materials.  This isn’t to say that just as countertops should be granite or the flooring a rich hickory hardwood, so your baby should be directed to play in the school band, join a particular activity or take a specific class.  However, it is to say that just as you have a concept of what you’re trying to achieve in a house, you should have a concept of what you’re trying to achieve in raising this child.

So, what is the point?  If you sit back and listen to people – one of my favorite hobbies – you’ll hear those who are parents say some amazing things.  They want their kids to have a particular occupation or attend a specific type of college.  They raise their children to have more than they had growing up, or live in a particular style house or neighborhood.  They only want their children to date others of their own race.  They want their children to grow up to be devout Christians.  Or Jews.  Or Muslims, for that matter.  But they forget one simple fact: this infant that just puked on your new suit is a completely unknown quantity and it’s impossible to predict who she will be and how she will wind up.  Certainly, there are genetic factors, parental traits and family influences, but you don’t yet know what they are and you can’t account for how the outside world will impact this baby.  You have no way of knowing that this bundle might someday:

Attempt to set a new land-speed record;

Go to the local Ren Faire while cross-dressed;

Spend idle time using his bedroom wall for knife-throwing practice;

Run a simple errand to Kmart and within an hour, flip an ATV;

Satisfy the entrepreneurial urge by selling outmoded electronic games for a sizeable markup on Ebay;

Win a science fair, graduate with honors and become bilingual;

Graduate from Cal Tech;

Win a national award for high school theatre (yes, there is such a thing);

Hit home runs and provide support for a female friend who has been accosted;

Become a successful oil trader that can buy and sell you thrice over.

Make any bet about such events at this age and you’ll lose.

So again, what’s the point?  My own take long ago was to keep it simple: I wanted to see my children able to walk out the door into the great wide world as productive adults.  They should be able to think for themselves and be able to provide for themselves.  My wife and I weren’t going to raise Republicans, Christians, heterosexuals or lawyers.  We would raise them to make their way in the world and if they wound up as gay Republican Christian lawyers, then that would be on them.  I’ll grant you that that would be a particularly tough combination, but it would be their combination.

Take some time to consider what you think is your own point and use that as a simple guide going forward.  Look for experiences and opportunities that help support that point and be prepared to talk – a lot – with them with that simple point in mind.  Then enjoy the adventure of seeing who they become.

And yes, the instances noted above have all occurred.  Welcome to the adventure.

Volunteering:  When Did I Become That Cub Scout Guy?

There was a recent article which statistically highlighted something that I, like many other involved fathers, have anecdotally noticed.  The number of parents who are willing to volunteer is declining and those of us who participate are being stretched increasingly thin.  The result is that we’re having to continue running activities after our own kids depart lest they collapse and this is leading to some hard feelings.

I’ve been a cub scout leader for eleven years, starting in the program with my oldest son as a den leader and then continuing when Youngest came along.  Along the way, I also became the cubmaster when that person left as her son moved on to boy scouts; it was my intent to do the same last year when Youngest moved up to boy scouts and indeed, I stepped down as cubmaster last winter.  Despite more than year of notices, entreaties and warnings however, no one stepped up to the position for the remainder of the cub scout year.  The pack committee chair also resigned when her son decided to quit scouting and as late summer progressed, it appeared that the pack would fold.  No one else took the positions and scouts left the pack as it flirted with folding for lack of volunteer leadership.  When another scouting mother – who was also an assistant scoutmaster with an Eagle scout son – stepped up to the committee chair and asked me, I returned for a one-year gig as cubmaster, where we’re still awaiting someone to take over as cubmaster.  My expectation/plan/desire/hope is to leave that slot and step up to become more active at the boy scout level where Youngest now resides.

But somewhere along the line, the cub scout gig morphed from being a temporary stint with my son to the apparently permanent job as Cubmaster.  This change was brought home by an encounter at the grocery store last week when I passed a woman whose son is a new cub scout; we glanced at one another in the doorway and each of us muttered a perfunctory hello when she did a double take and blurted out Oh it’s you…I didn’t recognize you without the uniform.  And I suddenly was in an alternate DC Comics universe in which a simple change of shirt hid my identity as Lord Baden-friggin’-Powell.  This isn’t an isolated situation as it’s a scenario playing out across activities and areas.  There are other cub packs and boy scout troops in similar straits and the Girl Scouts are literally dying for want of leadership – on top of the whole interest problem.  The local little league is looking for coaches and the list goes on.

When you review the BLS article, what stands out is that those in the prime parent categories – ages 35 – 44 and kids under the age of 18 – remained strong at 30.6% and 32.7% respectively.  There are plenty of parents who step up but still plenty more who don’t and when you talk to the organization folks at the regional levels and higher, what they’re seeing is that fewer younger parents are stepping up; my suspicion is that this is the early cusp of a trend that will be reflected in the BLS in future years.

One of the comments that I’ve heard repeatedly across years and activities is I don’t know anything about that stuff.  I respect the concern because no parent wants to look like a flaming moron in front of their child but the reality is that we’re all confronted with situations in which we have no real experience.  We do our best and let the chips fall where they may.  But the other reality is that the kids really do appreciate what their folks are willing and able to do for them and as they age, are able to show some graciousness when our team doesn’t do well or something goes awry at a scouting event.  For the kids, it isn’t necessarily how much you know about something as your behavior and manner in dealing with it and that’s the lesson that we need to teach them as they in turn grow into adulthood – it isn’t necessarily what we know at the outset, but how we learn and then act as we move along.

Redefining Fatherhood – A Response

This site’s Father’s Day article asked the question what is the role of the father?  There have been huge changes affecting fatherhood and the family in the past four decades and as is typically the case, the structure has been badly outpaced by events and trends.  As families have struggled with the upheaval, attention has turned periodically in the press to the attempts to cope; with women now heavily in the workforce, the question has generally been asked as how much housework and childcare is the father doing to assist the mother.  Is Dad doing enough in the household to help Mom?  How much time is spent on dusting and childcare activities to make life easier for Mom, who’s also now in the workforce?

On one level, those are entirely appropriate questions.  Caring for, and raising, children is hard work; it’s physically intense when they’re younger and more intellectually and emotionally intense when they age and move out to interact with the world.  But the undertone of the conversation is that Dad is the junior partner in terms of the parenting with the bulk of the real power in the hands of Mom, who’s more qualified and capable of managing the kids.  This isn’t just a media perception either, but one that men themselves have stated in the media.  It’s saddening to read the comments of fathers in national publications that I’m just watching the kids until their mother gets home and the kids are my boss, I work for them.  Seriously, the kids are your boss and you work for them?  Sweet Jesus, that’s the kind of scenario played out in comic books in which the Joker is somehow made warden of Arkham Asylum.   While I no longer listen to Limbaugh, he is right when he states that words have meaning and while that father meant that he worked in the household on their behalf, the wording leaves one with the sense that many fathers view themselves as the junior member of the parenting partnership.  Bucky, the sidekick parent

In the main, most mothers do have innate insights into their kids’ heads and feelings that most fathers don’t, and probably never will.  Perhaps the best description of a mother’s insight was penned by JM Barrie in the first chapter of Peter Pan:

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds.  It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day.  If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her.  It is quite like tidying up drawers.  You would see her on knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight.

It’s lovely writing but in the language of the twitter generation, Moms are generally better at getting inside the heads than Dads.

So what is our role? 

I’m trying to not sound sexist, but while women are better turning inwards to the family, I believe that men are generally better at facing outwards, towards the world.  When the kids were very little, I believed that my first and foremost job was to not only care for them, but protect them.  They were incapable of handling whatever was out there and it was my job to assure that no harm came to them.  But as they grew and moved out into the world, the physical aspect lessened but the sense did not.  My job was to prepare them as much as I could – and they were willing – for life in the world.  My job as a father is to teach them not only about the world but also, and more importantly, how to handle what came their way.  This could be done via conversations but also by example and behavior.  How do you handle people who might come to the front door?  What do you need to remember about handling money matters with salespeople and others?  Are there situations that you and the kids witness that need to be discussed?  For example, my wife and I were taking the kids to a summer evening event in a nearby city and as we drove down a street, saw a man – surrounded by others – beating another man.  As my wife dialed 911 from the cellphone, I wheeled the car up a side street and away from the fight. 

Why didn’t you stop?  Why didn’t you help the guy? 

Because I’m in a car with three children, the oldest in middle school and there are a number of people surrounding this fight.  Why aren’t they stepping in and am I creating more issues by trying to intercede?  What happens if I’m outnumbered and the disturbance shifts to our car?  Courage is important but smart is even more so. 

Our world is an unfriendly place and it’s only becoming moreso.  Behaviors have grown more callous and crude and if there’s nobody to teach kids how to respond to unpleasant people and situations, then the potential for more problems rises.  Not only is our world increasingly unfriendly, it’s increasingly complex.  Kids might be technological whizzes, but they’ve so immersed themselves in their electronics that they pay no attention to the actual workings of the world.  Turning in a job application is only the first step in the process.  Have you actually asked somebody for a reference before they get a phone call from a potential employer?  When and how are you going to follow up?  What do you think that you’re going to say?  If you want to go to the beach after graduation, where do you plan to stay?  Is there a contract that you have to sign and more importantly, have you read it?   

Situations and circumstances in the outside world can certainly be handled by women, but there are moments when a male presence makes a difference and it’s important for the kids to see how.  This is especially the case for boys, who desperately need a stable male presence to provide a model for manhood.

So what is our role?

Prepare them for the world.  Educate them.  Search out and seize teachable moments at all ages, whether it’s pointing out how a helicopter is like a hummingbird, how to handle a bully or change the tire on a car and bicycle.  Do your best to manage yourself in tense situations so that they have a model on which to build their own behavior when older.  Explain the world to them at every opportunity, talk to them, chat with them and reinforce your core values and beliefs whenever possible.  Understand that even when you aren’t overtly teaching, they are watching you intently and learning as they go. 

All of the other stuff – housework and childcare – matters greatly as it’s upon this mundane minutiae that households are given form and structure and turned into homes.  The women in your lives deserve your support and they in turn owe you likewise; just remember however, that raising children should be a partnership between mother and father and the best partnerships are built among equals with neither one being junior to the other.

Generations move forward through time.  When the children are youngest, they’ll be behind you for their protection.  As they grow, they’ll learn to take a place at your side and when they’re adults, they’ll advance ahead of you into a new world of their own with its own trials and pleasures.  And when they become parents, the cycle will continue anew as they protect their little ones standing behind them.




Refining Fatherhood – The Need

Another Father’s Day is upon us and it’s ironic that it was preceded by a controversial Time magazine cover and article asking women if they’re "Mom enough".  It’s another shot in the on-going, low-intensity war amongst mothers pitting stay-at-home moms and working moms as a significant minority of the stay-at-homes practice attachment parenting; the philosophic premise is that strong bonds and stronger babies are the result of a high-contact environment between mothers and infants.  Natually, there are women – such as the young mother on the cover – who tend to take the philosophy to an extreme.  It does however, beg the question of what it means to be a father.

If I’m going to be a father, what does that mean?  What precisely does a father do and what is my primary role with the kids and family?  This isn’t a theoretical exercise as several decades of social and economic change have whipsawed the American family and American fathers in particular.

Rise of Divorce 

While the divorce rate amongst American marriages has leveled off in recent years, it rose significantly from the 1960s in part to the adoption of no-fault policies by many states.  With courts siding with the mother for child custody, a significant number of children found themselves in family units in which there was minimal paternal involvement.  These kids became adults and the results of the divorce became apparent as co-habitation became acceptable with fewer opting to marry so as to preserve their ability to simply walk away should things not work out.  The girls of divorce also saw their mothers struggle as they were forced to both parent the kids and keep a roof over the heads; while difficult, there was a role model for the girls.  The boys of divorce weren’t so fortunate as the fathers were largely removed and sidelined, some struggling to stay involved in a meaningful way and others simply giving up.  These boys were often left with no meaningful role model for a father who was involved on a regular basis.

Portrayal in the Media 

Television has been a central role in American culture since the early 1950s and the portrayal of the American father has changed dramatically in that time.  Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best is an early portrayal of the American father, but while unrealistic, Dad was portrayed positively.  The paternal roles shifted with society over the decades until the late 1980s with the arrival of Married with Children’s Al Bundy, and the floor completely gave way under television’s view of Dad.  While the entire family structure was lampooned, the idea of Dad took a huge hit and the hits kept on coming with Homer Simpson and any number of other television fathers who were portrayed as clueless, well-meaning fools who were kept in line by the watchful eye of Mom and more often than not, the kids.  There were isolated instances in which fathers received a friendly portrayal, but it’s only been in the past two or three years that the father has begun to receive realistic portrayals, such as in NBC’s Parenthood.

Feminism/Changing Role of Women in Society 

Women have advocated for change in their place in society and that’s a good thing as our resources are wasted when half of our society’s members are relegated to very gender-specific roles.  But change isn’t always pretty nor is it easy.  Hard-core feminists have advocated for the right of women to fully enter the political and business realm, but while that push talks up the ability of women, it has frequently also entailed denegrating men in different facets.  For more than a generation, women entered the workforce with the expectation of having a successful career and a family; the notion was pushed by media and feminism that you really could have it all.  Unfortunately, being successful financially and professionally requires commitment and time –  what children require in spades.  There’s an additional impact upon children as a small but growing number of women opt to finally become single mothers after spending the time and energy to become professionally successful at the expense of their personal lives.  While the number is small, the ripple effect is the question what’s the use of a father? to younger women.

Economic Change 

It’s become apparent in the past decade that the Golden Age of the American economy is coming to a close.  Globalization has shifted high-value employment overseas and our own economy has become much more dependent upon the service and public sectors for employment.  Family income is now dropping and it’s become apparent that the American standard of living has been maintained by an easy flow of credit; we could afford the niceties because of our ability to borrow to pay for them but the debt has reached strangulation levels.  The effect of globalization has also been pernicious upon the family as many of those jobs flowing away were traditionally filled predominantly by men.  Likewise, the collapse of construction spending meant that predominantly masculine construction jobs also took hits.  Women in the workforce is now not only a matter of choice, but of necessity. 

All of these factors have come together in a nasty, potent brew greatly affecting the institution of fatherhood in America.  Men are working under considerable pressure to create workable models of fatherhood for their children and it would be helpful if there was at least a template of expectations against which they could draw the components.

Next article:  Redefining Fatherhood – A Response







Some Thoughts on Becoming a “Stay-at-Home Dad”

What should I be aware of if I’m going to stay home with the kids?  It’s a move that’s being increasingly made by men, whether by choice or by necessity, via job loss.  Whatever your situation, there are certainly things to be considered since the overwhelming majority of men were never raised with the thought that they’d be the primary caregivers for their children and it was never in their top 25 list of occupational choices when they were kids.  So what should you consider?

What is your timeframe?

Is this something that you’re doing while you’re looking for a paying job or is this a more permanent role?  It matters because it impacts how you structure the day with the kids, and with kids, structure is crucial.  Children thrive when they have some sense of structure and routine because this creates a sense of security and with this sense, they’re more likely to actually feel more secure and confident of their ability to handle life. 

If you understand that this is a one year gig, then give serious consideration to maintaining a bedtime/morning routine that reflects the fact that your child will have to arise early enough to make it to daycare in the future.  This doesn’t mean that every morning has to be up and moving by 6:15 AM, but if you get into the habit of letting the kids awaken later, then you’ll have to be prepared to gradually work them back into that schedule when the return-to-work date becomes closer.  Kids can be flexible but most will do better if they’re eased into something over a period of time.  If you’re staying home with the kids while you’re looking for a job, then try to take the kids into account as you do the followups.  If the kids need to be quietly occupied while you handle phone calls, then  consider when those calls have to happen and build the television time into that time frame; early afternoon calls dictate that screen time occurs in the early afternoon.  Bear in mind however, that having the kids in front of the television or computer for the average six hours daily is probably one of the worst things that can happen so you also have to structure other activities for the morning and late afternoon.

How do you handle being the odd-man out?

Everybody’s talked about job discrimination for women and it’s a legitimate issue with true grievances, but most aren’t aware that the issue has also existed for men who are at home with the kids.  While it’s certainly better than it was and there are many women who have happily accepted my children and I into their lives, the fact is that there have been some who aren’t comfortable with their children playing at the home in which the man is the primary caregiver.  While it’s not an issue now that my kids are a bit older – and we actively encourage our kids to bring their friends here – there were definitely periods when they were very young that I, and my kids by extensions, was the odd man out.  When Eldest – now a high school senior – was very little, I had a real sense of being isolated as neighborhood mothers that I met at the park would balk at establishing playdates when they discovered that I was the one with whom they and their kids would be spending time.  In the moment, it was terribly frustrating as my toddler was unable to play with her peers outside of the park.  Was it because of me personally?  Were there concerns about the appearance of any sexual impropriety?  Were they uncomfortable with the fact that a historically female role was now being filled by a man?

Do you and your mate have common expectations?

The blending and shifting of parental roles has really grown in the past quarter century and while it seems like a long time on a personal level – I wasn’t even married then – it isn’t a long span on a societal level.  We’ve now had roughly two generations of women who have been raised with the idea that they are every bit as capable as men professionally, but the offset is that we’ve only had about one generation of men who have begun to literally decide that they are every bit as capable raising children as their mates.  Does it make the women bad mothers?  Absolutely not.  Does it mean that men are automatically great fathers?  Absolutely not.  But it does mean that there are very different levels of expectations by both parties on what’s involved in raising the kids and running the household.  It also means that there’s real potential for anger, miscommunication and discord on the part of both of you.

Where’s the balance between housework and hands-on childrearing?  Who’s responsible for paying the bills and the everyday finances?  Who’s responsible for the longer-term financial planning?  Is it one of you or do you  share?  Who decides the menu and does the cooking?

Even if and when you and your mate answer these questions, consider what the expectations are within each of the categories and even whether the expectations are achievable by the parent charged with the role.  This is especially the case regarding men and housework since most men were never purposefully taught about housework by their parents, either what should be done or how it’s done.  The result is that working women returning home are frustrated that one thing or another either hasn’t been accomplished or else is poorly done with the woman doing it herself to much exasperation on both her, and the man’s, part.  Honestly, this is an area which has periodically plagued me and it’s only been through considerable effort and time that my wife has come to realize that housework simply wasn’t something that I was ever taught;  I’ve had to learn to acknowledge that questions borne out of frustration are simply that and that I really should learn so that’s it done properly in the first place.

Do you define your value to the family in terms of money alone?

Men have historically been the breadwinners and have come to very narrowly define their contribution to the family in terms of how well they provide, and that’s measured in dollars and sense.  Women have viewed their role in a wider sense apart from money, although that’s also been included to some degree as economic necessity dictates.  Spend some time deciding how you view your role/contribution to the family and whether you actually believe that there’s more to it than money alone.  Just as I’ve met women who didn’t quite know what to do with a male homemaker, there have also been men who’ve been dismissive because I have no income so you’re going to periodically hear it from both genders.

How comfortable are you with uncertainty and doubt?

This sounds odd and it’s taken me some thought to consider whether to include it, but raising children is an uncertain proposition.  The uncertainty starts early – why is she crying?  What’s going on with her teeth? – but is localized to a specific area bounded by the child and the immediate vicinity.  But as the child grows and moves out into the world, and that’s precisely why we’re raising them, the circumstances and the reasons for the uncertainty change from the physical and concrete to the mental/emotional and the abstract.  How is she developing?  Who are his friends and how is he interacting with them?  Because men have historically directed themselves outwards, it’s been the women who’ve focused on these aspects and these questions and concerns.  Now that women are increasingly spending their time and attention with the outside world, it’s up to the father to begin taking up that particular slack.  These are questions for which there are no easily discernible answers and it’s a world of grey.  Understand then, that if you’re going to take much greater responsibility for the childrearing, then you have to be both willing and able to consider these amorphous areas.

Becoming the primary caregiver – the "homemaker" – was never something on my radar and when my wife first suggested it years before the birth of our first child, my response was incredulity.  But despite the challenges and trepidation, it’s been an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world; in a sense, a journey in a country largely unexplored by many of my male peers.  Like any successful expedition however, the trick is to have a sense of what lies ahead and some decent preparation for what’s to come.




The Little Things – Bathtime Songs

It’s sometimes the little things that truly stay with the kids as they age.  They might be drawings that you make for them or games that you play and my case, it’s the bathtub songs that helped me work with them through washing. 

Kids respond to music and tunes and simply having a small song for something that has to be done "makes the medicine go down" far easier.  In my case, I would mess with the kids from when they were babies and I had to wash them in the bathtub and soon developed a series of songs that I sang when a new phase of the job had to happen.  There was a ditty about cleaning the bottom, a knock-off of Figaro for the hair-washing, and a Doo-Wop tune for drying off with the towel; these were things that I sang to them each night as I bathed them and only stopped when they were old enough to clean themselves.  I haven’t sung them in years as Youngest has long since been able to handle cleaning himself.

Twice in the past week – once in the car and again at dinner tonight – I’ve chatted with the two older kids and found that they can recite and sing the doggerel bathtub songs that I sang to them when they were very young.  In the first instance, Middle actually sang harmony as I sang it for him again while driving the other evening.  The second occurred at dinner tonight as all three were present and each remembered all of the songs (although Youngest didn’t recall as well, a function of my not bathing him as often as my wife).  I was stunned at the laughter as they recounted the tunes and the verses and could only think that it’s the little things.

Kids don’t need all kinds of toys or things, but they do need you.  Find something – anything – that you can make your own with them and then do it again, and again, and again.  This is what the kids need, and want, more than anything else to connect with you, your time and attention.

Yes, Dad, It’s Okay to…

…tell your child that something they’re wearing makes them look ridiculous.

…tell your child that you love them, whether girl or boy.  Kids need to hear more of the corrections for them to learn – which can be tough on the ego – and knowing that they’re loved will at least take some of the sting out of it.  It’s probably something you should tell me more than anything else and as I write this, I’m realizing that I don’t do it enough.

…tell your child that what they’ve done is bad or dumb.  Many adults no longer want to take the time and effort to do so for fear of offending or upsetting the parent, which means that  the kid isn’t going to hear unless you deliver it.  As I’ve told any of my own kids on any number of occasions for a smart kid, that was an incredibly stupid thing to do.  You know better than that.

…take action about the bad, dumb or poorly done thing.  There are consequences to behavior and sheer stupidity and it’s not going to damage them to get called up short and it  could frankly save their lives.

…tell your child that he can do better.  That said, be ready to provide concrete and hard details as to deficiencies and then be ready to assist with how to improve; surprisingly, many kids will appreciate it.  As one teen once told me, when I want praise on something that I’ve done for school, I take it to my mother.  Then I take it to my father to see what needs to be improved.

…raise your voice and/or speak sternly to your child.   Many fathers don’t realize that their voice is a valuable disciplinary tool that can be used to help maintain some order and discipline before things get completely out of hand.

…tell your child that it’s time to move on to something else, especially in terms of dealing with the electronics.  Kids typically have no sense of when to stop and electronics, particularly games, aren’t designed to help develop that so it’s up to the parents to say enough.  I’ve had to really work on handling the resulting whining that accompanies such a directive and I still have testy moments, but kids need to do more than just sit in front of a screen.

…squelch your child when they’re older and frankly, the teen ego sometimes needs it in order to be brought back into line.

…take privileges away even when they’re older.  They’ll survive without the car, cellphone and iPod for a period of time.  That said, it’s usually helpful to lay out such a prospect with the original groundrules so that you don’t come off as arbitrary and capricious.  I expect you home by 10 pm and if there’s a problem, contact me immediately.  If you’re late without contacting me, then you lose the use of the car for the next two days/the trip to the beach with the Jones family/the cellphone for a week/whatever works in the situation…

talk and share information with the parents of your child’s peers.  Kids and teens usually hate it when parents want to call other parents because it appears to limit their independence and at the worst, prevents them from conspiring to do something phenomenally stupid.  But a brief chat at least eases some of the angst and reassures that there are others who also pay attention and try to monitor what’s happening.  My son and his friend, Opie, were embarrassed when the boy’s father came to our front door to meet me one evening before his son’s first sleepover at our house.  I frankly appreciated it and could easily defend it to the two boys, who grumbled afterwards, and thoroughly understand why that father did what he did.  Thank God, I’m not alone here.

ask about what adults are overseeing things and nix plans when you’re not comfortable.  Hell, I did it last week.  Stupidity is contagious and in an adolescent brain, one of the last things to mature is that part which controls judgment and risk assessment.

Must I Really Answer This?  Explanations For The Kids

Why must I explain such a simple thing to a kid?  He – or she – is no longer a preschooler and some things are simply so self-evident that explanation beggars the imagination.  But thanks to the presence of the MRI, which demonstrates how the teen brain is literally rewiring itself during that decade of growth, I can at least convince myself that there’s a legitimate reason to have to explain what is abundantly clear to 98.9% of adults.  Our parents simply would shake their heads and weep for America.  I now have a greater appreciation for Red Forman of That ’70s Show.

What are some of the questions that make me want to honestly plant a foot in someone’s butt?

Question:  Why must I use a topsheet when I put clean sheets on my bed?  (I’m really okay without them).  So that we only have to wash thin sheets made dirty by your body oils and sweat instead of the comforter/quilt/bedspread that can only be done at the laundromat in the commercial washer.

Question:  Why can’t I learn to ride a unicycle while riding on a brick retaining wall?  So that you don’t really hurt yourself when you fall.  But Dad, I won’t fall/get hurt on this unicycle.  And that’s why it’s called an accident.  Now get off of the wall.

Question:  Why do you care if I go in my bedroom and draw my name on the hardwood floor with permanent marker/shoot Airsoft pellets at the wall/use the wall for knifethrowing target practice/repeatedly throw myself on my old bed when I’m having a tantrum?  A, because I said so.  B, because you’ll someday move on and I’ll have to fix/repair/paint/clean it to sell this place.  C, because I said so.  And if you aren’t certain, D, because I can remove everything to prove that it’s really mine.  And did I mention because I said so?

PracticalDad note:  It’s this preceding question that elicits a Red Formanesque mutterance.

Question:  Why can’t my buddy and I stand on opposite sides of the house and shoot arrows over the rooftop at each other?  (Silence)

Question:  Why can’t I ride the skateboard while hanging onto a moving car?  Michael J. Fox did it.  Yeah, and unfortunately, Michael J Fox now has Parkinson’s.

Question:  Why can’t I play two story bowling with the pins at the bottom of the steps?  Just because, son.  Just because.

If it appears that these are mostly male-oriented questions, you’re right.  Teenage boys are wildly poor at assessing risk but even the teenage girls are notable in their ability to skewer rationality and common sense.

Question:  Hey Dad, Junior managed to handcuff himself to the chair without checking to see if there were handcuff keys.  Why can’t we tie bows in his hair and put makeup on him?  He did it to himself.  (Silence)

Many have read the mass email talking about the destructive qualities of small boys and what they can accomplish.  It doesn’t go away as they age, but it does change considerably.  And for the record, each of these situations that I’ve referenced has really happened although not necessarily with my own kids.  But if the incidents aren’t firsthand, they are secondhand – none of them are thirdhand.




Fathers and Fear

Dad, do you ever get scared?

I recall asking my own father that question one night before bedtime.  My world was scary even without the constant news of inflation and threats of nuclear war with the now-dead Soviet Union.  I had a test for which I really hadn’t studied and there was some neo-neanderthal who made my life miserable in the hallways.  My gut was twisted and I dreaded bedtime because I knew that immediately afterwards I awoke to a stressful new day.

My own father seemed to be made of an iron core that nothing shook.  He took surprise with great steadiness and simply acknowledged the ongoing mantra of doom with equanimity.  I might even see him jump on the bed to Motown – a truly surreal moment – but I never once saw him scared.  Concerned, perhaps, with his face set in a neutral mask when something really big happened.   But I never saw him scared. I was surprised to hear him answer that question with Yes, at times I am.  Everybody gets scared, but I think that things are going to be alright.  He talked about fear as being something that everybody – everybody – had but he then added that if you stepped back and considered, the fear was generally overstated.  It was one of those conversations upon which you later look back and consider as special.

You had to really be there in the mid 1970s to appreciate it.  Rising prices and job losses that struck repeatedly.  School thermostats turned low enough that I routinely wore my coat in class and even occasionally my gloves.  And in the midst of all of this, I asked my father if we would be alright or if we were going to lose our home.  His response was that we would be fine and come through this, so you take care of school and let me worry about this.  I actually did go upstairs to bed feeling relieved and reassured that things would be alright.

It wasn’t until my adulthood that I learned and understood more of my father.  Being forced to move in with his grandmother during the Great Depression when his own father had a heart attack and lost the house.  Of the decades-long nightmares that routinely awakened him, a Chinese infantryman charging him with a bayonet aimed at his stomach; of having his full set of teeth removed by an Army dentist upon his return from a year in Korea and wrapping himself around a scotch bottle because there wasn’t adequate pain medication available.  And yes, the scotch bottle was given to him by the same dentist.

It’s especially during stressful times like this that I miss the old man and what he taught me.  It’s fine to be scared and it’s okay to even admit it to our own kids.  But it’s our job to master ourselves and reassure our own children because they both need and deserve to feel secure.  Part of that is because they’re our children and we love them and part is because what we teach them by our behavior, our response to adversity, will be passed along to their children.

After our eldest child was born, we took her to visit my folks at our old house.  Dad excused himself from the kitchen and several minutes later, returned with a bundle wrapped in a blanket that actually went clank when he put it on the table.  He unwrapped the parcel to show three 100 ounce silver bars that he’d purchased in the mid 1970s and kept stored away as insurance in case the economy went to hell.  It never did and the bars sat in the attic until he figured that there was a good need for his own grandchild.  And that was the final part of the lesson:  after admitting the fear and reassuring the kids, work to offset the problem as best you can.


Outsourcing Fatherhood:  Passing Along Knowledge

Sometimes it takes tripping over one small tree to make you notice the forest around you.  In this particular instance, a game of Fiki football was the catalyst to realizing just how many small activities and skills are being lost due to the failure of fathers to pass them along to the kids.  And believe me, business has noticed as they’ve taken up the slack and made money in the process.  We’re outsourcing fatherhood.

Fiki – Flick It Kick It – football is a cheap little game available at Five-Below, a glorified dollar store that caters to tweens and teens with individually minimal amounts to spend.  Along with a thinly stuffed leather triangle is a plastic football goalpost attached to a base.  The point is to take turns flicking the triangle across the table and if the triangle stops with any part of it extending over the opposite edge – your opponent’s goalline – then you score a touchdown.  Then kick it through the uprights and you score the extra point.  What struck me was that this is the exact game that we played on the cafeteria table after lunch thirty plus years ago.  Almost any of us could make a triangle out of notebook paper, with the ends tucked into folds, and proceed with play.  The goalpost was made by touching the opposing index fingers then holding the thumbs upwards.  But this never made it to the next generation and now some enterprising nebbish is profiting from it.

Other companies are profiting from this loss of institutional fatherhood knowledge.  Home Depot and Lowes regularly have Saturday morning classes for kids, showing them how to do basic woodcrafts like birdhouses and pinewood derby cars.  Things are nicely arranged and laid out in the workarea, typically located near the tools that the farsighted marketers hope to eventually sell to the 3 – 5% of kids who take up this type of hobby.  Kids might be there with a parent or they might be left in the charge of the employee while the parent shops.  If the kid has a parent there, it’s probably a parent – father or mother – who has minimal access to tools and/or little knowledge of what to do.  Likewise, there was recently a series of books for boys and girls with activities that were fun, cheap and popular in previous generations.  Authors and publishers have realized that there’s money to be made here and are pursuing it.

Not all of this loss can be pegged to fatherhood alone.  There was a time when kids were together enough that they passed childhood’s institutional knowledge to one another, and that amounted to the imagination and games.  But other knowledge isn’t being passed along by fathers, either due to not having learned it during their own youth, fear or self-absorption. 

This is why we’re outsourcing fatherhood and turning it over to those who largely have no interest apart from profit.  The divorce rate in the past several decades, climaxing at nearly 50% of marriages in the early 1990s, has left many men without the fatherhood model upon which to draw in their own experience as a father.  Their lack of a father to share this knowledge has deprived them of that same knowledge to pass to their own children.  This is compounded by the fear that their own failed efforts will lead to embarrassment in front of the kids and the self-absorption of many men in their own activities.

Fathers have to do more with the kids.  This doesn’t mean that they should pick up tools with which they have no familiarity and have at it, but instead focus on what they do know and work on sharing that.  Sports, hunting, tinkering, whatever it takes – just utilize it and pass it along to the kids.  And as to fear, follow the old adage that if you don’t mention you’re unfamiliar, they won’t notice unless you say something. 

Then go out and improve as you go.