Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fatherhood: the Ultimate Balance of Teaching and Learning

No doubt the current influx of reading material on fatherhood means Father's Day is just around the corner. I came across a celebrity pictorial profile of dads and their kids in the current issue of Men's Health Best Life magazine, in a series of stories about fatherhood. A couple of things jumped out:

X-Men actor James Marsden says his son Jack “...has taught me that before him, I was just going through the motions.”

Renowned chef, Todd English, says his children have taught him “Spontaneity, and to find the little boy in myself that makes being a father so much fun.” His older son, Oliver, says his father has taught him “To look at life with open eyes.”

The father-child relationship is an amazing cycle that provides purpose through reciprocity. Fathers and their kids take turns being teachers and students, and sometimes the greatest lessons come from the smallest moments.

Here are a few tips I found that help remind me that fatherhood is an ongoing, organic and mutual process of growth and development with your kids:

> Start early, never stop
> No one is a natural
> Teach by example
> Say you're sorry
> More awe, less frustration

Monday, May 29, 2006

Fast Takes

I came across some interesting information at fathers.com:
Playing games, drawing pictures or initiating other fun activities are wonderful ways to enhance and strengthen your fathering skills. Researchers have repeatedly confirmed that when fathers engage in systematic playful activities, it benefits their children in a number of ways: 1) It helps their children develop a problem-solving capacity. 2) It increases their trust in their father. 3) It allows them to express new emotions. 4) It builds their self-confidence.

The study also showed the impact play can have on fathers, like increased empathy toward and acceptance of their children, lower stress levels and fewer problems with their children's behavior.

Looking at my own experience and pulling from some of the best ideas I've read about, some great (and fast!) ways for busy dads to let off some steam and also make a world of difference for their kids include:

1) Play a board game (don't be fettered by a 3-hour game of MONOPOLY, you can play a 2-minute round of Boggle or a quick game of checkers)

2) Play cards (my kids love UNO--it's fun and it's fast!)

3) Assemble a puzzle together (they're not all 1,000 pieces, but if it is a bigger puzzle, do a little each day after work until it's finished)

4) Build a LEGO structure together (admit it, Dad, you love LEGO, it makes you think of being a kid yourself and truth be told, you never would have stopped if you hadn't become so "cool!" Come on, feel the rush of that LEGO sound as you rifle for the right piece and build the skyscraper you always imagined! Like the jigsaw puzzle, add a little each day until the moonbase is complete)

5) Grab the crayons or markers and draw a picture (a quick and great after work activity--maybe suggest that you and your kids draw what you did that day at school or work, then tell each other about it after you draw it)

As Father's Day approaches, I'm going to give myself a gift: more quality time with my kids--playing, exploring, creating and growing together.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Precious Present

In my last post, I mentioned I'm reading Tim Russert's book, Wisdom of Our Fathers. One man's story really made me think hard about my own life as a dad:
"While the biological act of fathering entails no real commitment, the ongoing process of daddying requires a lifelong commitment to your children. But it's never too late to begin the process of becoming the father you want to be, the one you always wish you had." -- Allan Shedlin, Jr., Chevy Chase, MD

As I read Russert's book, I try to remember some of things about my own dad that stick with me and have made me the man and father I am today.

I went to the shelf in our living room to find a book that my father gave me, called The Precious Present, by Spencer Johnson, M.D., that I will remember always for two reasons. One, Dad gave it to me on June 30, 1987, I was between the 6th and 7th grade, and I don't recall there being any special occasion attached to the day, which is why it was so perfect--he did it for no partciular reason. Second, I think it is the only thing my father gave me with a personal inscription. It reads:
Dear Mike:

I wish that I had had the opportunity to read this book when I was your age. It shares a beautiful message. Try to fold it into your character because it will yield rich rewards to you for the rest of your life.


I have read the book countless times, and I won't reveal its message but urge you to pick up a copy. But, thanks to Mr. Shedlin, yesterday was the first time I read the inscription for what it really says. My father was moved in 1987 to become the kind of father he wanted to be. I was 12. He was always a good dad, providing the best of everything all the time, taking me "downtown" to galleries and museums, good restuarants and shows, always sharing his "words of wisdom" and beng playful in his own ways, but it took him 12 years to put pen to paper and give me a lasting symbol of of his love. I have never told him how much that book means to me, how many times I have read it, and how many times I reread his own words at the front. So, Dad, here is my very public thank you.

And now it's my turn to start being the kind of father I want to be. To pay more attention to the little moments between a father and his children that become the lasting memories.

Being There

One of the biggest challenges to being a great dad is time. Between working full time, traveling, chores, yardwork, and general life tasks, finding room in the day for quality time with kids is tough.

I'm reading Tim Russert's new book, Wisdom of Our Fathers, a collection of the letters he received from sons and daughters across the country after he wrote of his relationship with his own father in Big Russ and Me. One section of the book, called "Being There," recounts stories of men and women who recall their fondest memory of dad being when he made time to be present for them. Russert opens the chapter saying:
"...Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is just showing up. With apologies to Woody, I would amend that statement to read 99 percent of parenting consists of just being there."

Reading the short stories in Russert's book makes me realize it's the smallest things we do as dads that make the biggest impact. Making time for kids is one of the most important, and often the hardest to do.

The U.S. Dad Market Report 2005 from Silver Stork Research reveals:
> There are about 66.3 million fathers in the U.S. today, average age 29
> 65% of dads report working more than 40 hours a week
> Almost half of dads wish they had more time to spend with their kids
> 72% would sacrifice pay or job opportunities to make more time for their kids

And the report suggests there is a "New Dad", presumably the generation of younger dads who were raised in the 70s and 80s when consumerism kicked into overdrive. Among this group, it's noted that:
> Fun and play are the cornerstone of much of the interaction between dads and kids
> More dads have special routine ‘Dad Times’ with kids (bath time, reading, etc.
> Time is the #1 priority for dads in that they nearly unanimously seek more time with their children and fathers today are taking more steps to balance career/work with family more actively
> Men are much more involved as Dad consumers than past generations

The picture above perfectly captures the pride and joy of my oldest daughter the night my wife, younger daughter and I made time to attend her school's open house. She waited for that night with desperate anticipation, dreaming of showing us the classroom, the zinnia seeds they planted that had started to sprout, the five caterpillars they had been watching move into chrysalises and soon to emerge as butterflies, the weather chart, the reading center, the art room, her tissue paper butterfly hanging in the window, the music room, her writing journal, her published book. She couldn't wait for us to have a glimpse of her world. And she was overwhelmed by it all when we were actually there, so much so, that she almost couldn't focus, couldn't take it all in.

While I was extremely busy at work, I left a little early that day and I'm glad I did. I will never forget the night my little girl reminded me of what it's like to be in kndergarten again.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Consider What You're Throwing Away

I recently came across a humorous but thought provoking story by Michael Chabon called "Disposable Memories," in which he recounts the many times he has crumpled, tossed or recycled a piece of his children's artwork -- and they few times he has been caught red-handed.

It happened to me...three or four times, maybe more.

Children are art factories. We have bin upon Rubbermaid bin of marked up paper, glued down yarn, twisted pipe cleaners, glops of glitter and pencil rubbings. I mean, seriously, you can't save it all, right? Every random squiggle, polka dot and scribble. Some of it just has to go, so we play curator over the trash can after they empty their backpack then look the other way.

Chabon says:

I'm not trying to excuse the act of throwing my children's artwork away. The crookedest mark of a colored pencil on the back of a bank-deposit envelope...is like a bright, stray trace of the boundless pleasure I take in watching my kids interact with the world. The set of processes joining their minds to their fingertips is a source of profound interest and endless speculation, a mystery...I know that if I live long enough, a time will come when their childhoods will strike me as having been mythically brief. Almost nothing will remain of these days, and they will be women and men, and I will look back on the lost piles of their drawings and paintings and sketches...and rue my barbarism. I will be haunted by the memory of the way my younger daughter looks at me when she chances upon a crumpled sheet of paper in the recycling bin, bearing the picture, the very portrait, of five minutes stolen from the headlong rush of their little hour in my care.

Only it's not just her artwork that I'm busy throwing away. Almost every hour that I spend with my children is disposed of just as surely, tossed aside, burned through like money by a man on a spree...the truth is that in every way I am squandering the treasure of my life...every day is like a child's drawing, offered to you with a strange mixture of ceremoniousness and offhand disregard, yoursd for the keeping. Some of them are rich and complicated, others inscrutable, others barely more than a stray gray mark on a ragged page. Some of them you manage to hang on to...but most of them you just ball up and throw away.

In managing life's challenges, we learn to block and tackle, quickly make decisions and prioritize one thing over the next to get the job done, so it's easy to understand why we don't easily recognize life's little moments.

I'll continue to save only those masterpieces that really strike me. And I'll be more mindful that every day with my children, like their creative drawings, is a gift.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Trash or Treasure

I love this Family Circus vignette that speaks to the power of a child's imagination. It makes me think back to when I was a kid. My cousin and I would fasten our grandmother's wildly colored afghans to the posters of her twin beds with rubber bands, propping the center up with a broomstick, to make a fort. Sofa cusions turned on end were the walls. Stories ensued over battles with neighboring countries, ammo that couldn't penetrate the fort and ambushes still to come. We'd leave the fort, slink thrugh Gram's living room hiding behind tables, chairs and the console TV so as not to be seen, then dash outside and wage war on the evil aliens lurking in the Arborvitae.

Or we would set up our little folding chairs like a car. The toilet brush with a handy stand-up holder was our gear shift. Gram's fancy standing wooden ashtray was our steering wheel. And a high-tech push-the-top-to-advance-the-date desk calendar unit placed backwards on the floor made for an excellent accelerator. We drove to the baseball game, to the Toys 'R Us, and when my cousin took the ashtray, I think we even drove to the moon.

And yes, the good Catholic boys that we were, we even role played church services. That same afghan fastened over the shoulders made for a priest's cassock, while the small nightstand in between Gram's twin beds was our altar, the runway between the beds our aisle, and Cheez-its served as communion. In our church, stuffed animals listened to the sermon and got into trouble for burping and farting during mass.

As I type this, I have a grin from ear to ear. Those memories will be with me forever, and will always make me smile. And what I also remember is that Gram never told us to stop making a mess. To put the cushions back on the couch or to stepping on the desktop calendar unit. Though I'm sure she was appalled that we were farting in church.

Instead, she would marvel at the construction of the fort. Or she would say "Kiddies, I need you to drive to the store and get something for me." She never played with us, but she never hindered our creative adventures. She was a visionary, always suggested new objects for us to use along the way, like the potato masher that could be a laser blaster and the Coca-Cola that could be our church wine.

So now, I try to remember that things may be what they seem to be, but there's always something else there. I think in the working world we call it resourcefulness or problem solving. And until I became a dad, I never realized that my skills in those areas came from downshifting the toilet scrubber.

Mr. Mom

Newsweek's recent "My Turn" column (reader-submitted essays about life) is called "It Takes a Real Man to Be a Good Mother," penned by Robert Wilder, whose mother died of cancer when he was young, leaving his father to work full time and raise their four children on his own.

Although his dad wore many hats around the house before the family change, Wilder suggests the very interesting idea that his father is "strong enough for a man but detailed like a woman." He continues, saying:

"He never worried about his masculinity...and was always happy to play any role we needed to make our lives seem less damaged...I've learned from watching my dad (and myself in his light) that defined gender roles have been cultivated mostly out of fear and blindness, not out of the kind of love I know a man can have for his children."

So I didn't feel like running to put on an apron after reading it, but I did really start to think about the best way to be a great role model to a child. Notice I didn't say great dad (or mom). Does it matter what symbol is on your public restroom door when you're parenting? To a child it doesn't: gender profiling is a foreign concept to a child (which is why my girls love to dress me up in their boas, jewels and makeup.) So what children want (and need) is a role model, not a dad who does "x" and a mom who does "y," or is that "y" and "x?" Notice Wilder says "and myself in his light" -- he has picked up his own way of being dad from his father's example. It goes back to the cliche: it's all in how you're raised.

So I fast forward to a time when my kids will articulate the kind of dad I was -- playful, supportive, quiet, creative, busy, handy -- and I wonder if I can be great enough to be called "strong enough for a man but detailed like a woman." Because for my girls, that's the best thing I could be -- selfless.

In a previous post I mention dads spending more time playing with kids on average per day, and I wonder if dads are spending more time doing other things that make him more "detailed" like a mom...something on which I will continue to dig for future posts.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

We Interrupt this Program for a Message from Our Sponsor

I think I may have shirts printed for the entire family: "We survived Break Free of TV Week."

My older daughter, a proud kindergartener, pledged to "Break Free of TV" for one full week last week - part of a school sponsored effort to get families spending more time together.

I saw the panic in my wife's face when she considered missing an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" as I verbalized my concern over not knowing what happened on "American Idol." We gave each other the "yep, that's right" wink and nod as we declared 8pm bed time would be firm that week.

Shame on us for not seeing "Break Free of TV Week" for what it really was - a chance for us to be good parents. Sure, we cheated and watched while the girls snoozed, but more entertaining than the taboo tune-ins every night were the fun moments we shared as a family.

We started Friday night with a family bingo night at school. We actually got home from work on time to be there. And it was fun. All week long, we read stories, painted pictures, went for walks, played board games, sang songs and made up jokes. I was aschooled in the fine art of those pattern clapping games to songs like "Miss Mary Mack" and "A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea." And my older daughter plays a mean game of Tic-Tac-Toe. We even busted out the camcorder for the first time in months to capture my youngest getting carried away with a story about a little girl who was in the forest and rescued a baby kitten during a snowstorm. We created memories because we were tuned in to one another, not to the TV.

My kids didn't once ask to watch TV at all that week. Not one time. And here's what I realized: kids are only interested in what you serve up. Like lollipops, bubble gum and soda (all on the "no way no how" list in our house), TV is something kids only want if you offer it in the first place. My wife and I realized we use the TV as a way to distract the kids when we get home from work so we have some sanity as we prep dinner, review the mail and throw in a load of laundry.

But truth be told, I found more sanity, more perspective and more reward as a dad in the last week than I have in a long time.

But it Makes a Mess

I was recently in a meeting where results of in-home research on how LEGO is used in the household were revealed. One mother on video admitted “Although I realize the good that comes to my son when he builds, it just makes such a mess that I usually don’t let him bring out the Legos.” Imagine the shock and disbelief. How could a mom who knows how much creativity and learning this toy inspires say it’s just too messy?! I was gutted.

The following Saturday, I ran out to grab our standard ubercoffees while my wife showered so we could dash off to do that Saturday’s chores – get to ballet class (on time), return a video (on time), buy a birthday gift, wrap the gift, drop one girl off at the birthday party (on time), swing by a drive thru to feed our other daughter (on time), remember to pick-up from the party (on time). Working moms and dads all do the weekend chore shuffle, I’m not complaining. But we always feel crunched for time.

So it was no surprise when I got home that my oldest daughter couldn’t find her leotard and my youngest was still in her PJs, refusing to dress. So we found the leotard (oops…not washed since the last class) so girl #1 is all set…onto girl #2 who needed coaxing. As I struggled to get her dressed, my oldest daughter asked for help – she was getting all the watercolor paints, paper and cups of water out.

“Oh no you don’t. What do you think you’re doing?”

“But DADDY, I just want to paint a picture for my ballet teacher.”

“Absolutely not…we don’t have time for that! Put all of that stuff away, it makes way too much mess.”

Suddenly, I froze. I was the woman on the video – the LEGO blocker. We had 15 minutes before we had to leave, she could have finished something, but I was having none of the paints. My daughter had that shattered look. What kind of father was I?

A couple of things my wife and I have learned to do to encourage creativity, even if we’re on our way out the door:

> Suggest crayons instead of paints – they’re less mess and satisfy the creative urge.

> Send them out to the driveway with a big bucket of sidewalk chalk until it’s time to go.

>Keep sketch pads and pencils in the seat pockets of the car so they can draw on the go – or better yet, one of those Magna Doodles is even less messy and reusable.

Bottom line: let them create and worry about the mess later.

Get Used to it, Dad

In the current issue of DETAILS magazine the article “Is Being a Good Dad Ruining Your Career?” raises an interesting point:

“A 2002 survey by the Families and Work Institute found that the amount of time a typical dad spends at home with the kids – crawling around on all fours and roaring like Wookiee, say, while a 3-year-old in Pull-Ups rides him into the kitchen – has increased by nearly an hour per day within a generation, while parenting time for working moms has plateaued. Men in dual-income unions are spending about 42 minutes more per day on household chores—and women about 42 minutes less (thought they still do more in total, and make sure we hear about it). Not surprisingly, according to the survey, men are stressed out about balancing work and family. As for women? We’d imagine they’re used to it.”

I could have sworn my wife told me just last weekend that I’m not attentive enough to my kids’ needs.

I need to commit more time to really being with my kids. They know how to have fun. They’re uninhibited…they find a way to make everything playful, otherwise, “It’s BORING, Dad!”

I’m getting used to viewing time with my kids less as a chore and more as an opportunity. It’s downtime. It’s easy. There are no deadlines. No calls to return. Just unplugging, getting down on the floor and having fun. But it’s so hard!

Recently, we were cleaning for company, rushing around dusting and vacuuming. But my kids were playing dress up, making a mess in their rooms. I thought I would explode. “We have to get this place clean for grandma and poppy, so please stop making messes as fast as we can clean them up!” They looked at me like I had five heads. My older daughter said “But that’s not fun!”

I gave one the Swiffer duster and the other the vacuum hose. No, they weren’t going to get it totally right, but it made them feel like they were helping me instead of in my way, and it was fun for them to help me do the “important” stuff. My youngest wrestled a vacuum attachment twice her size with such determination and purpose, it was pure comedy. I went from red in the face with anger to red in the face with laughter. They helped make my chore more fun.

It’s not hard for kids to find fun in even the most mundane…I just need to get used to letting them show me the way.

All Work, All Play

Hey, welcome to my blog.

I have no shocking hobbies, deep-ridden angst (ok, well maybe some) or corporate secrets to spill. So what's my excuse for blogging?

I’m a corporate professional on call at all times, so I know a thing or two about the relentless stress of the daily grind and what it takes to survive in the corporate world. Married to an awesome woman for 8 years, together for 11, so I know a LOT about the trials and travails of compromise and commitment, rewarded by the lasting company and comedy of my best friend. But perhaps the best title I’ve ever had is “Dad.”

I have two beautiful girls, 5 and 3, so I know about Barbie and ballet and have learned how little patience I sometimes have, but also have discovered a side of my typically jaded self I never knew existed – the one that can be stopped on a dime by the smallest gesture, word, look, smile or question from my daughters. And, I’m realizing that adults can learn more from a child than we can usually teach them. In fact, I’m learning more as a dad than I ever did as a student. But I still don’t have it all figured out -- which is perhaps the most vexing feeling I've ever known: to have a great life, to be educated and successful, but to not always know how to lead a child to the same fortune.

I’m in the business of toys, lucky to have followed my childhood passion for building by scoring a job at LEGO, so a big part of my job is thinking about kids – other people’s kids and most often my own experiences – to help me get the job done. I’ve talked with a lot of moms and dads in my travels. I read a lot about kids. About trends. About increasing societal pressures on time, creativity and innovation. About parents, like me, who are stumped when it comes to engaging kids in meaningful activities. About kids who crave realism at every turn. And how all of this will shape our future generation of leaders. And it gets me thinking about my life as a dad – with all of this information ingrained in my brain all day long – who still finds it hard to prioritize what I know is right and good for my kids as I juggle work and family and wrestle with my own selfish needs.

So, here I’ll share my thoughts on how hard it is to be a great, even good, dad in today’s world. How to focus on what’s most important, to be open to new things and new knowledge, to celebrate it. How to be consistent, decisive and committed to the evolution of a dad in today’s world. Between examples of great ways I’ve found with my own family to make play time my most important work, my observations of my own family (and maybe even some other families – anyone who knows me be on guard, I’m watching you now!), random magazine tearing, Web trawling and general discourse on the chaos of life in suburban Connecticut, hopefully I will inform and entertain anyone who drops by. Maybe you’ll find comfort in knowing you’re not the only dad trying to figure it all out day by day. I may even be lucky enough to have you help me in this giant game of connecting the dots to see the big picture. And maybe even find the inspiration to be a better Jack (of All Trades, that is).

I am yours truly,
Dad in Progress