Friday, June 30, 2006

Hang it Up

Between our garage and our house is nerve central: our laundry room -- the general catch all, mud room, always-a-mess-but-never-visible-to-company, most trafficked area of our house. There is a metal door that leads from the garage into nerve central.

And that door is also our shrine to our children's creativity.

We buy magents every time we go anywhere as a family -- the zoo, the science museum, a fun rest stop on a long car trip (you name it, we have a magnet for it) -- and we plaster the door top to bottom with a rotating gallery of our kids' artwork. We see it every time we leave the house, and the magnets remind us of special family times.

Not a day goes by that our kids don't point out something on the door.

"There's Skylar's beach picture!" "Look at Fiona's funny dog."

Putting a child's creation up in a prominent place is a sign that creativity is valued. Sometimes they'll sit down to make something new, "because the door needs to be freshed." A simple shrine to budding artists can encourage them to continue exploring their creative talents.

A tip: tape works just as well on non-metal doors, but the magnets are fun, so buy a quart of metallized paint to turn any surface into a magnet board.

All We Do is Play

Is it me, or does it seem that dads sort of got the shaft in media coverage around Father's Day?

I've come across several stories where, despite the fact that it's a day to celebrate dads, we got bashed for not being as dedicated as mom, not as diligent about child chores like scheduling doctor appointments and the like.

Fredericksburg, Virginia parenting columnist Kim Baer's Father's Day story carried a subhead that said "You've come a long way, Dads. Happy Father's Day! But you still could improve."

Ms. Baer's story has me particularly vexed. Why? Apparently, Ms. Baer thinks that playing with children is not a valuable contribution to the parenting scheme.

She said:
"Dads spend most of their child-care time playing with their children. Moms still do much of the grunt work: scheduling doctor's visits, choosing preschools and arranging for baby sitters. Dads pick up the slack on the weekends, according to recent research. Fathers spend about six hours each weekend day on child care, about the same as moms, she said. But moms rule the roost during the week. Dads spend about 2 hours each weekday on child care, about a third of what moms do." She also said "Help your wife get the kids into the bath. Take over a household chore: Become the Designated Dishwasher or the King of All Laundry. Don't just play with those kids: Read to them or give them a hand with their history homework. Do some of the car-pooling. You'll do more than please your wife. The more time dads spend with their kids, the more attuned they are to their children's thoughts and feelings...Think about it. You could get the best Father's Day gift next year: a richer, more rewarding relationship with your children."

I'd argue a dad gains more insight to his child's thoughts and feelings by playing than by giving a bath. I'm not dismissing the need for dads to be involved in ALL aspects of parenting, but why is play so easily dubbed a "throw-away" contribution?

Time to play is a vital pillar of childhood. Play allows children to explore their thoughts, to role play their reality and fantasize about other worlds. And time for play is constantly under pressure from all sides. Families deprioritize free time and play time for overstuffed calendars of social gatherings, classes, errands, organized activities and sports. A recent study shows that children have less than one hour per day of free time, but they're spending up to 8 hours per day multi-tasking with electronic media.

Ms. Baer should be congratulating the dads who are spending time playing with their children, not chastizing them for what she seems to think is an empty exercise. There are lifelong lessons that can be learned through play, and children need more and better role models for carrying playfulness throughout their lives.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Little Things

My daughter just had her last day of kindergarten. A milestone for all of us.

We began the countdown 10 days out. My wife and I were stumped as to why she seemed so excited to be finished with school -- she absolutely loves going. But there's something about a countdown that makes anything exciting. Maybe we'll try it next time there is a dentist appointment -- "10 days until the dentist!"

So I stopped on my way home from work to pick up a bouquet of flowers for her. I know, flowers for a 5 year old?! But it was quick and I felt better than nothing. I chose a mixture of all pinks, her favorite color.

When I got home, I had them hidden behind my back, and as I walked in, she immediately leaned to the side and asked what I had behind me and started giggling profusely.

As I revealed the flowers, he face lit up, literally, her mouth fell open and she laughed with excitement, and she said "For me?! What for?!"

I told her it was because I was so proud of her for doing a great job in kindergarten. She hugged me 10 times over and said she loved them. And she hasn't stopped smelling them, commenting on them and reminding everyone that they are for her. Much to the consternation of my cheeky 3 year old, who demanded an explanation -- with a stomp of the foot and arms crossed over her chest to add a little drama -- for why there wasn't a bouquet for her, too.

The lesson here in my path to understanding how to be a great dad: sometimes the littlest things have the biggest impact on our connection with our kids. I'll leave with a quote I found recently that sums it up well:

"What's great about the experience [of parenting] cannot be conveyed in short, simple anecdotes which often grate like cell phone ring tones. It is a series of small often forgettable, often unnoticed details and psychological repositionings that add up to a rich, full life. In miniature it requires the talents of a poet. Expanded, it takes the sensitivity of a novelist."

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Happy Dads?

Do children really make us happy? Or do we just tell ourselves that they do?

"Rubbish!" you're probably thinking.

Check out Daniel Gilbert's thought-provoking essay in this week's TIME magazine.

I did some digging on the matter, and only 34% of American adults say they're very happy, according to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Fifty-one percent say they're pretty happy and 15% say they aren't too happy.

Among the things driving happiness are marriage, religious practice, money and sunshine. What's most compelling, though, are some of the other findings. People who have pets are not happier than those without. Retired men and women are not happier than those in the working world. And, shockingly, people who have children are no happier than those who don't.

Wait a minute. How can that be? Children bring so much joy, so what gives?

Taking a step back, I think that Mr. Gilbert makes a good point that the ongoing process of parenting, the added responsibilities and stress of rapid-fire decision-making -- the feeding and caring and nurturing and teaching and laundry and cleaning up, etc. -- are not things that most people view as sources of joy. I am not happy when I am folding laundry. I am not overjoyed to clean up all the toys on the floor. In fact, most times, I am annoyed...momentarily "unhappy." But, as Mr. Gilbert wisely notes, we tend to be able to rationalize these minor annoyances as the "cover charge" for the small rewards, like an unexpected kiss and "I love you" from a toddler.

But I question whether it's children that don't make us happy, or whether it's the act of parenting that rains on our parade. My children don't make me unhappy. But most of the "chores" that go along with parenting do. And typically, those same "chores" can be what drive mother and father, husband and wife, to be at odds with one another.

So, I found some more information and some good thoughts on how to maintain balance and stabilize happiness, or at least minimize deep unhappiness, summarized as:

1. Parents who live happy and fulfilling lives do more good for their children
2. Having a life outside of kids is okay, good even, to maintain happiness
3. No parent is perfect, so stop trying to be. Happiness can't thrive where anxiety and paranoia live
4. Have confidence in your ability to be a great parent

But so as not to run too far amok in fields of yellow flowers and sunshine days, I remind myself that too much of anything is almost always a bad thing. A balance of happiness and pragmatism can ground parents to provide children with stability, security and a sense of confidence for the future.

Insired by Daniel Gilbert on the topic, I found more of his thinking on the role happiness plays:

"Even in a technologically sophisticated society, some people retain the romantic notion that human unhappiness results from the loss of our primal innocence. I think that's nonsense. Every generation has the illusion that things were easier and better today than at any time in human history.

"Our primal innocence is what keeps us whacking each other over the head with sticks, and it is not what allows us to paint a Mona Lisa or design a space shuttle. It gives rise to obesity and global warming, not Miles Davis of the Magna Carta. If human kind flourishes rather than flounders over the next thousand years, it will be beause we embraced learning and reason, and not because we surrendered to some fantasy about returning to an ancient Eden that never really was."

And here I think can be found a link back to parents and children. A range of emotions is okay, in balance, to fulfill us as parents, as spouses, as individuals. Our children are the compass, sometimes the mirror, and most often the window to our possibilities and potential as human beings. Happiness, therefore, really can be found not just in our children, but, yes, in the very act of parenting.

Next time I fold underwear, I'll have to remember that a practical life -- with its chores, decisions and stress -- grounded by perspective, maintenance of some semblence of self other than "Dad" and particular attention to the unexpected moments our children randomly offer -- can be my kind of heaven.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Just Do It

I just saw the Nike commercial that honors Tiger Woods' father, Earl, who just passed away from a long battle with prostate cancer. The images are powerful, and depict a strong bond between father and son.

So I hopped online to learn a little more about their relationship and came across a story where Tiger himself sums it up best. When asked what his father's special gift was as a coach, he said:

"Love. That's basically it. The love we shared for one another and the respect we shared was something that's pretty special. To have my dad in my life and have him be that supportive and that nurturing, it's pretty cool."

How seemingly simple, yet so very complex. To love, respect, support and nurture.

The pictures in the ad show the comfort of a hug, lessons being imparted, the pride and joy of a shared accomplishment, a father taking care of his son, time spent together. I'm sure any of us could string together photos and videos of similar moments and memories. The challenge really is in boiling down the moments and memories to their core and folding it into our everyday lives.

But work gets in the way. Deadlines loom. Bills need to be paid. The grass gets taller. Daily tactics often distract us from the big picture. Every one of us has the potential to love, to respect, to support and to nurture. But that's not what's on my mind when dinner's on the stove, school papers come out of the backpack for review and comment, the phone rings, the girls procrastinate with every bite, baths need to be given, teeth need to be brushed and laundry needs to be folded every night.

So I went looking for some inspiration to regain perspective and found some good reminders. I owe it to my kids to remember that they won't be able to juggle life's challenges if I don't teach them by example. And I need to think about it every day, not just on the third Sunday of June.

At the end of the day, we're all raising little tigers.

Hooray for Hollywood

Fathers, take note: Brad Pitt was named Dad of the Year.

According to Life & Style editor, Debra Birnbaum: "He even skipped the Cannes Film Festival in anticipation of Shiloh's birth."

Wow, give that man a trophy. Oh wait, they already did. He's dad of the year.

Maybe Brad will impress us all next by "even" passing on a round of golf in Palm Springs and be there to hear Zahara's first word. Maybe he'll "even" skip the VIP lounge of an LA club to tuck Maddox into bed one night. He may "even" empty the diaper genie instead of having his hair dyed...again.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have any problems with "Brangelina" -- other than being sick of hearing about them and their family camp in Namibia. But there is a big difference between being superlative and, well, being a gentleman.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads who truly are both.

Friday, June 16, 2006

This Father's Day, Be a Dad

Considering that Father's Day is this weekend, it's a good time to consider who the day really honors.

Father's Day was inspired by a man who raised his six children singlehandedly while maintaining a full-time schedule on his farm after his wife passed away.

So this weekend, we celebrate the 66.3 million American men who have the distinct honor of being a dad...and I hope that dad makes time to celebrate being a dad by really being a dad and spending time with his kids.

Stay-at-home dads, reported by the U.S. Census Bureau to be 143,000 members strong this year, have what most dads want -- more time with their kids. In fact, a recent LEGO survey says dads would prefer to spend time with their kids 6 to 1 over a round of golf, 4 to 1 over good old solitude and 3 to 1 over immersing themselves in a favorite hobby for the day.

Die-hard "provider" dads (the "I need to work hard to bring home the bacon" guys)who spend more time eyeing their Blackberries than the play-by-play of their child's Little League Game perhaps need to get their priorities straight!...or at least consider their options.

Interestingly, only 15% of dads surveyed by LEGO say they are "at their best" while working, rather, the majority feel at their best when playing with their children (almost 50%) or helping with homework (36%). Another survey reveals that 44% of dads would be willing to take a cut in pay to spend more time with their kids. Bold moves isn't just a Ford tagline, huh? That's serious talk.

Find some good tips on work-life balance for dads that can help beyond Sunday.

And in the meantime, celebrate being a dad by making time to be one, at least for this Sunday. I plan to do nothing but enjoy the company of my two leading ladies.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

"New Dads" Stand Proud

There is a lot of talk in the media and here in the blogosphere about "New Dads" -- men who are becoming more emotionally involved with their children, spending more quality time with them -- either playing, caring for or just otherwise being together. Often, at least it's reported, the "New Dad" is met head on by the "Gatekeeper Mom" -- women who want their husbands to be more involved in the parenting role, but who secretly resent their husbands when they DO get involved, manifested through criticism of how Dad holds the baby, how he can't dress the kids to save himself and the likelihood that he will feed them Skittles and Coca-Cola for lunch without proper instruction. Po Bronson has a really terrific site with commentary on the New Dad.

One post has me wondering: where were the fathers of the "Gatekeeper Moms" when they were younger? It could just be a sign of the times, but today's young moms were children of the late 60s and 70s -- a time when gender stereotypes were being challenged and redefined. So how is is that these women are clinging to the old rule that dad makes the money and mom takes care of everything else? Does liberation mean freedom to be chauvinistic about mothers being the only fit parents to tend to children and the home?

The way in which we define roles as parents has a profound impact on the children we're raising to be tomorrow's parents. If dads are expressing more interest in active parenting -- and I believe wholeheartedly that this is indeed the case -- isn't that a good thing? Shouldn't society encourage it?

The fact is, it seems the media like to write about it, and will acknowledge that New Dads are growing as a group, but sometimes there is a context that questions the New Dad's intentions, his masculinity, his ambition. We really need to think about our own roles as parents and then question why there should be gender-based definition at all.

I think back to my own childhood, and I fondly remember the times when my mom was the best "dad" in the world. She has always been the streetwise parent, offering practical advice and tips. In many ways, I grew up in a household where parental gender deifnitions were constantly being redefined. Sure my mom taught me how to cook, how to do laundry the right way and how to really clean a room. But it was also my mom who taught me how to paint a room, how to hang wallpaper (straight and matching), how to use most tools, how to change a lightbulb, how to replace a washer on a kitchen faucet, how to reset a blown circuit. She showed me how to dig a flowerbed, how to mulch a tree well, the best way to wash windows and mirrors without leaving lint (use coffee filters instead of paper towels), how to reset a sump pump, how to fix a toilet, how to replace an air filter, how to change an electric fixture (don't forget the wire caps), and how to use a jigsaw. She taught me how to spackle holes, let it dry and then sand it well before painitng. She taught me how to use a level. It was really my mom who taught me most of what society typically thinks a dad will show you how to do -- and I will be forever grateful for her passing on what probably seem like small things but end up being big life lessons. Every time I spackle a hole and paint a room I think of her.

So was my mom a "New Mom?" Did my dad resent her for doing what's typically a dad's job to do, at least if you want it done the right way? I never got the sense that either of them resented the other for sometimes blurring parental gender lines. And I think that's what has made me truly a "New Dad."

And lucky for me, my wife doesn't mind at all when I do the laundry, tie a hair ribbon or make lunch for my girls. And it's fine with me when she's the one who signs my daughter up for soccer or plays a game of catch with them.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


So I came across a story in People magazine recently that told of a family that practices unschooling -- a form of homeschooling process of educating children by letting them puruse their own interests and follow their passions in a way that leads to self-learning.

I applaud any parent who takes their child's education on as a full-time job through homeschooling -- most of us barely survive providing the essential bath, three square meals and meaningful play time. Deferring to a child's intuition as to the best way to learn? Imagine that!

I'm not sure that a child's natural and inherent drive to learn are starved in a school environment, nor am I convinced that unschooling or homeschooling are superior methods of preparing children for the future. As with everything in life, there is a fine balance of the formal (okay, standardized) schedule and the less structured (let's say "free form") activities that, together and given proper attention, do fine by the majortiy of children.

What I love about homeschooling and unschooling philosophies is the notion of putting a child in charge of his or her learning experience. Most often, homeschooling activities provide hands-on opportunities for exploration, creative problem solving, trial and error and story telling. In a way, it's a playful education.

To put yourself in the shoes of three homeschooling/unschooling families, visit their list of recommended Web sites offered by NPR in conjunction with its "Changing Face of America" series.

While I think school curriculum could stand to be a bit more playful, it's not wrong to have an goal-driven approach to learning (by reviewing and doing these things, you will learn X).

Where I think the majority of busy families fall is somewhere in the middle. My older daughter loves school. She doesn't want her first year of kindergarten to end, and my younger daughter can't wait to start preschool in the fall. But I do wonder what lies ahead as I think of something MIT professor Mitch Resnick recently mentioned during a discussion on creativity:
"People complain a lot about the educational system, and often with good reason. But you generally don't hear people complain about kindergarten. Kindergarten works pretty well."

As my daughter heads to first grade in the fall, I wonder if she will love it as much as she loves kindergarten. Will as much art work come home? Will she watch caterpillars turn into butterflies?

We're not about to take our kids' education into our own hands (remember I've said they usually teach us more than we teach them?), but I'm guessing my wife and I will have to be more diligent about providing the creative play time she needs to offset the time she will be spending learning the more "practical" lessons in school.

After all, every creative play opportunity can, and also should, be an opportunity to learn.