How To Earn “Major Dad Points”

On the way to school this morning, #2 and I stopped to pick up breakfast. We parked, tumbled out of the car, locked hands, and skipped into the shop, hoping to chase down a couple bagels. We held the door for a young woman who, leaving, smiled at me, and said:

That was great. You get major dad points for that.

Thank you. I appreciate the compliment and the endorsement of my skipping despite, no doubt, the fact that I must have looked like a lanky, spasmodic gorilla.[1] Her compliment underscores how easy it is for dads to get compliments. Organize the class party, receive praise. Skip into the bagel shop, get points. Fathers can get credit simply by not injuring their progeny.

These compliments irk a number of fathers because they presume some Y-chromosome-linked deficiency or some cultural vestige from our neanderthal past both of which prevent men from being competent dads.[2] Fathers who are upset by such compliments urge people to stop making them. The act of complimenting a father for relatively insignificant or quotidian parenting reinforces the cultural stereotype of the failing father. Previously I seemed to come to a similar conclusion.

My real point in that previous post was ambiguous. I want to clarify my thoughts here. Rather than ask people to stop complimenting fathers when they are engaged, caring parents, let’s recognize and compliment mothers for being engaged, caring parents.

Being a parent is tough. None of us are parents because we want compliments. Still, we all could use a little recognition and a kind word now and then (or daily, for that matter). Let’s be generous with our praise and in our acceptance of others’. Let‘s strive to repay the compliments we receive by passing them on to other parents who, like each of us, is struggling to do right by our children.

So, to the young woman who was kind and generous to me: Thank you for noticing. Thank you for saying something. I, in turn, will compliment a parent I see tomorrow. Hell, I’ll live on the edge and compliment two parents.

  1. Let me clear, I am not graceful. And at well north of 6 feet, I am hard to miss, arms and legs akimbo. The shocked looks of the people sitting just inside the shop were totally justified.  ↩

  2. I wonder if fathers are equally upset when such compliments come from women or from men, from mothers or from fathers. What is the source of this unease?  ↩


Go Visit Your Child’s Class

This afternoon I spent a couple hours with #2’s class. Her class is learning about ancient Greece, so I offered to design a little project so they could calculate the size of a ball, the same way Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth 2,200 years ago.[1] The reason for my visit was and remains unimportant. What mattered to #2 was my being there.

Our model earth that we would have used to see how Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth.

Our model earth that we would have used to see how Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth.

My visit wasn’t a surprise to anybody. I had been working with the teachers for a week or so putting things together. #2 knew I was coming and, as the day approached, she grew increasingly excited, asking each morning: “How long until you come to my class?” Nevertheless, when she saw me today her smile bloomed across her face and she ran over to hug me.

Fathers seem to be excluded, or to exclude themselves, or not to be interested in their children’s education. I see mothers around the school with some regularity—certainly mothers dominate the drop off and pick up, as well as the field trips and parent morning. Despite the changes in parenting that we rightly celebrate, fathers remain an endangered species at school. Arrange with your child’s teacher to spend 30 minutes in class. Read the class a story. Share with them one of your hobbies. Tell them about your work. Just go play with them.[3]

I am lucky, my career allows me flexibility during the day. I can rearrange my day to spend an hour or two at #1’s or #2’s school or to accompany a class on a field trip.[2] Do whatever it takes to get a morning or afternoon free so you can visit your child’s class outside the obligatory “back to school” morning or special assembly.

Go because you will enjoy it. Go because it will make your child’s day. Trust me.

Postscript: When the sun retreated behind a thick blanket of clouds all shadows disappeared, preventing us from doing our little experiment. Alas. We’ve rescheduled for next week.

  1. Yes, Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth. His method used simple geometry and produced a reasonably accurate result. Like the overwhelming vast majority of educated people throughout recorded history, he knew the earth was a sphere. No. People in the middle ages did not think the earth was flat (there are perhaps, maybe, three people in recorded history who might not have thought the earth was a sphere—you probably haven’t heard of them because nobody paid any attention to them). No Columbus didn’t prove the earth was round. In fact, Columbus and his detractors knew of Eratosthenes’ result. They disagreed on the value—Columbus’s book included an error, so he thought the world was much smaller than everybody else. Inexcusably, most kids continue to be taught that people in the middle ages thought the earth was flat. More disturbingly, prominent political leaders (e.g., the current U.S. president) and educated scientists continue to traffic in this myth.  ↩

  2. As I write this I realize how much like my father I have become. His career had a flexibility that allowed him to come to my school on a regular basis, at least as frequently as my mother. As a kid I didn’t understand the larger cultural forces at work. I just thought it was strange that other kids’ dads didn’t come on field trips or pick them up from school.  ↩

  3. My underlying point about parents spending time with their children at school applies equally to mothers as it does to fathers. But there are plenty of blogs and magazines out there urging mothers to do these things. I am more interested in urging fathers to step up and do more.  ↩

We Become our Parents

This morning we woke to another 3" or so of snow. As I was dressing to go shovel the drive, #2 called from her bed:

When will I get to help shovel the driveway?

She has asked every snow this winter. I have, in the interest of efficiency, put her off—a 6-year-old rarely speeds up the process. This morning, however, I didn’t have a good reason not to let her “help.” “So on with the boots, back out in the snow” the two of us trudged.

I shoveled to the garage, moved some tools, climbed over some others, until I found and could retrieve her little red snow shovel. She stood by the side door watching excitedly.

As I climbed over my Havahart trap and reached back for her shovel, I realized that she was watching me the same way I had watched my dad climb over his tools to extract my shovel or rake or whatever when I was her age. I remembered how excited I had been when he would let me “help” work on something, the yard, the car, the house, whatever. As I turned to hand #2 her shovel and started explaining that we would get her started with the front walk, I heard my father voice saying similar things to 6-year-old me: “Let’s get you started on the side yard” or whatever. My father always spent a few minutes helping me get started, minutes he could have been spent actually doing whatever task was at hand. So too, this morning, I spent a few minutes helping #2 get the hang of it. When I left her to the walk while I started on the drive, she told me not to shovel it all because she wanted to do some. So I promised to leave a section for her to finish, just as my father had always left a section of whatever for me to finish.

As an adult I now realize how much longer projects took when I “helped,” at least for a number of years. I also suspect that my dad knew two important things. First, although initially projects took longer because I “helped,” he knew that at some point I would be able help him. Then projects would be easier and quicker. Second, he felt that time spent with me was worth whatever extra time and effort it added to a project. He always welcomed and encouraged my “help,” even when I must have slowed work. I can recall countless mornings, afternoons, and days working on various projects. We had fun. We chatted. We got to spend time together. I am thankful every day for his having spent the time with me.[1]

Sure, #2 and I spent an hour or so shoveling the walk and the drive, a task that would have taken me less that 30 minutes, but it was worth it. One day, she will make projects quicker and easier. But that’s just icing on the cake. The important thing is we got to spend some time together, just the two of us. We had fun. We chatted. We spent the morning together shoveling snow. As a parent, I am thankful to have the chance to spend time with #2 and rejoice in her wanting to spend time with me.

In the hectic, annoyance-filled, over-scheduled days of our adult lives, it’s easy to forget how little things, like shoveling snow, can be so enjoyable. And as Harry Chapin pointed out years ago, it’s easy to forget that our progeny are going to become us one day.

  1. I have many similar memories of my mom, though in very different contexts and doing very different things. Here I focus on my dad because I am, well, a dad, and because #2 and I were outside this morning, where my dad and I worked together most often.  ↩

The Difference Between With and For

Two recent episodes prompted me to think about how parents can confuse doing something for children and doing something with children.

Episode 1:
#1, #2, and I were playing UNO at the local bagel shop. A couple tables over a mother sat across from a father and young daughter. At one point, the mother said: “What do you mean? I do all sorts of things for you.” She then cataloged the many things she does for the daughter: takes her to school and playdates, makes her lunch, takes her to the mall, ….

I don’t know what prompted this response, but I’m going to go out a on limb here and say the daughter accused the mother of not playing with her or not spending enough time with her or not doing enough something with her. Whatever the charge, I think many of us can sympathize with the mother’s reply. Some version of this scene occurs regularly.

Episode 2:
On a whim one recent afternoon #1, #2, and I made gingerbread cookies. Out of the blue yesterday, #1 hugged me and said: “Thanks for making cookies with us.”

In our harried, chaotic, over-scheduled adult worlds it is easy to equate doing for children and doing with them. Taking a child to a “playdate”[1] is, after all, doing something together. So too is taking a child shopping at the mall. But making cookies with children is, I think, qualitatively different. Just as playing with them is, whether sliding down a slide together or kicking a ball or playing hide-and-seek or coloring or whatever.

We have all suffered accusations of not spending enough time with them. We often defend ourselves, entirely justifiably from our adult perspective, e.g., Arguing with a six-year-old. In defending ourselves, however, we lose sight of an important difference between doing things with our children and doing things for them. Our children, by contrast, make a clear distinction between doing something for them and doing something with them.

Children would rather we did things with them.

  1. A term I don’t like and a social encounter that I find awkward at best: The Dreaded “Playdate”  ↩

You just don’t understand…

At a cafe recently, a mother and her preteen daughter argue about something ultimately inconsequential but in the heat of the moment of great import. At the mothers increasingly terse replies, the daughter carps, “That’s not it.” Frustrated, she finally blurts, “You just don’t understand….” The daughter retreats into silence.

At the dinner table the other night, #2 tries to explain something. She searches for words. As we respond to what we think she means, she grows increasingly upset at our seeming refusal to understand her. “That’s not what I mean,” she objects. As she starts to cry, she complains, “You don’t understand….” #2 finishes dinner in silence.

I was struck and alarmed by the similarity of these two scenes: a child’s inability to make a parent understand what she meant and, in the end, the breakdown of communication between child and parent.

Parents often don’t understand their children, their priorities, their seeming inability to listen and remember (except when you don’t really want them to do either), their music, their preferred pastimes, their dubious-until-they-become-obsessive hygiene practices, etc. As parents, we often place the burden on them to explain those priorities to us. What happens when they can’t, as #2 couldn’t? What responsibility do we as parents have for helping our children express themselves? What if I rephrased my observation:

I was struck and alarmed by the similarity of these two scenes: a parent’s unwillingness to understand a child and, in the end, the breakdown of communication between parent and child.

Perhaps we will get further if we approach encounters with our children with empathy, generosity, and respect. Rather than trying to shoehorn their thoughts and expressions into our molds, give them the space and the resources to articulate their own ideas. Work to understand their world and its priorities. We may not agree with those priorities and may try to disabuse our children of them. But we can’t know that until we understand.

Playing Cards

Uno has long been a staple pastime in our house. Most nights before I read to #1 and #2 we play a few quick hands. In the past week, we have revived a handful of games I played as a child. Most popular are 99, Golf, 31, and double solitaire, which we have renamed “Duotaire” (head-to-head Klondike).

A recent (teaching) hand of 99 moments before #2 whipped me.

A recent (teaching) hand of 99 moments before #2 whipped me.

I marvel at how much #1 and #2 like playing cards. We seem always to be playing cards these days—at home, at the cafe, at the bagel shop, waiting for food at the local pub.

I could argue that they are developing math skills (99 requires on-the-fly addition and subtraction) or strategy and memory (Golf and 31 require paying attention to which cards people are collecting and judging probabilities). But in the end, what I enjoy most is simply the time together. Just the two or three of us playing cards.

It’s the simple things.

Lessons to learn …

As the parent of a son and a daughter, I find What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid disheartening for different reasons.

On the one hand, no father can read this and not worry about the prejudices, discrimination, societal expectations, and cultural norms that define and limit women’s opportunities today. Whether it’s silencing their voices in classrooms or reinforcing stereotypes about their skill sets and possible careers or compelling them to cover their faces with makeup. As a father I am trying to raise #2 so that she deliberately, explicitly, and regularly rejects such limitations.

Teaching daughters to reject societally imposed limits is not enough. Daughters are the victims of those prejudices and that discrimination. How perverse to oppress them further by requiring our daughters to remove the chains that society has shackled to them.

That is why, on the other hand, no father should read this and not worry that his son will be complicit in reinforcing the prejudices, discriminations, societal expectations, and cultural norms that define and limit women’s opportunities today. Whether it’s silencing their voices in classrooms or reinforcing stereotypes about their skill sets and possible careers or compelling them to cover their faces with makeup. As a father I am trying to raise #1 so that he deliberately, explicitly, and regularly rejects such limitations.

If we are going to make this a better world for our children, fathers have some lessons to learn from What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid.