Friday, February 19, 2010

I have something to say.

Not long ago, I was at the local community centre when I spotted a poster. A university professor was doing research on fathers and their attitudes towards their children’s safety. Long story short—I called and volunteered to be a part of the study.

A few days later we met, and I was asked a series of questions. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t shut up. At the end, I apologized for going on so long and asked how the study was going so far. Dr. Brussoni told me she had been overwhelmed by the number of enthusiastic men who wanted to participate and offer volumes of information. She was surprised that she had to turn some of them away.

“That’s because no one ever asks us our opinion when it comes to parenting,” I said. “They are probably just as thrilled as I am that someone actually wants to listen to what they have to say about being a dad.”

On an individual basis, I’m sure there are many people who care what men think about parenting. But on a societal level, it’s all about the moms: from magazines to media to marketing.

The purpose of telling this story, believe it or not, is not to rant about how society still largely sees dads as “the person who helps out” with the parenting (which, sadly, is the case in many instances.) This story is about the power of listening.

I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to have someone really interested in my parenting philosophies as a father. Instead of being pegged into a hole, I was being valued for my opinions.

We need to do the same for our kids.

If you are the father of a teen, you know how hormones and coming into adulthood can be turbulent. I can certainly remember as a teen resenting that no one outside of my peer group seemed to care what I had to say. I felt like society didn’t give a damn about my opinion; society just expected me to be a trouble maker.

If my three year old asks me a string of questions, at some point, I usually ask him what he thinks. I do this partly for the comedic responses. Mostly, I do it to strengthen our bond.

Asking your children what they think will help them develop critical thinking and deductive reasoning. In short, you are encouraging them to think for themselves. But more importantly, when you ask your child his or her view, you are showing them that you care. Our kids see us as knowledge keepers and benevolent dictators. By seeking their outlook, you are now teaching them that what they have to say is of value. You are empowering them. You are helping foster their self esteem.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Burned as the Olympic Torch passed

The Olympic torch was passing through our neighbourhood last week, so my wife and I took our two boys out to see it.

Our two month old slept (future Olympic champion in this discipline) but Connor was quite excited. We got some free hot chocolate, a Canada flag, lined the street and then waited…and waited…and waited.

Connor was a little tired, so he sat on my feet. I actually told him to sit on them as the ground was rather watery and I didn’t want him to get his bum all wet and cold.

After a while, my feet were starting to get numb and sore, so I said, “Alright Connor, it’s time to stand up.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because,” I said, before continuing a conversation with my wife.

“Daddy,” he grumped, “‘because’ isn’t a very good answer.”

The little scamp had me.

“You are right, sweetheart. ‘Because’ isn’t a very good answer. I need you to stand up because my feet are starting to hurt.”

“Oh, ok,” he said cheerily, and popped right up.

For some odd reason, I thought of Cal Ripken Jr.  I’ve witnessed him give several baseball clinics, and one of his mantras when he is talking to parents and coaches is, “Always explain the ‘why.’”

His logic is that kids will digest and learn better if they understand why they are doing something rather than just being told to learn it by rote.

“Keep your butt down,” is far less effective than, “Keep your butt down. That way, your eyes are lower to the ground, you can follow the bounce of the ball better and you are less likely to get hit in the chops.”

I’ll mail $10 to any adult who found “because” or “because I said so” to be a satisfying answer when they were a child. So why do we pull the same BS on our kids? Your kids find it as unsatisfying and maddening as you did. “Because” is nothing more than a power game; it says, “I am more powerful than you, you will do what you are told.”

Don’t agree? If the boss asked you why the monthly report was late, would you ever consider barking, “Because I said so!”?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: dads can be saddled with the lion’s share of the disciplining of a child. By default, our actions in these moments can almost be unthinking—dictated by how we saw our dads act.

I challenge you next time the situation arises to “explain the why”—not only to your child, but to yourself. I can understand, when your child is stringing you along with seventeen ‘why’s in a row why the ‘because’ might come out, but most of the time it is a cop out.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Socks and nose rings

Socks, the former "first cat" who has nothing to do with this post.

Remember being a teen?

I remember when I was around eighteen having my ears pierced (for about a week), and a friend’s dad told me that if I was his son, he wouldn’t let me through the door. I’ve never understood that “no child of mine will have purple hair” mentality -- which is why I was a little taken aback when I found myself arguing with my three year old this morning over his desire to wear two socks that didn’t match.

My first thought was, “But what will they think at his daycare? That we get our socks from the Salvation Army? That we neglect our son and leave him to do his own laundry? What if Fashion TV unexpectedly pops in to his preschool?” Fortunately, this was quickly followed up with, “What do I care what anyone thinks about my son’s socks?”

Part of your bounden duty as a teenager was to try and shock your parents—usually in the form of loud music, outrageous clothes, or coloured hair. If you did any of those things, you probably did so mainly because you thought it was cool. But I also think teens do those things to express who they are, or perhaps more accurately at that stage, who they aren’t: namely their parents. There is some testing going on there, too. Teens are hoping for a partial conniption from the parents (shock value) but are ultimately hoping to be accepted for who they are.

My son, though not trying for shock value (sock value?), was surely exercising his independence. The reaction I was having was less a concern about what people would think about him, and more a concern about how people would judge me as a parent.

Generally, dads aren’t overly concerned about a matching wardrobe when it comes to dressing a toddler. But we are often the ones who rail when our child comes home with a tongue stud or purple hair. We’ve all had the experience as parents when we hear ourselves uttering things from generations-gone-by and then catch ourselves saying, “Oh my god, I sound like my father.”

Let it go.

If your three year old puts on mismatching socks or your teen comes home with a ring in her nose, look past the exterior to the person within. You can tease them and roll your eyes a little so they still get to enjoy the shock value (or you can tell them you really like it and totally take the wind out of their sails) but then let them know that frankly, you don’t care what they look like on the outside—it’s the person on the inside that you love.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Good boy or good job?

My wife and I are currently finding great humour in a general societal trend we’ve just noticed.

Our little two-month old, for whatever reason, seems to be a very happy baby. If he’s not sleeping, he’s happily gurgling away, either to himself, or to a doting parent or grand-parent. More than once, when we’ve been out in public—at a movie or a restaurant—we’ve had people come up to us and say, “Oh, what a good baby! He hasn’t made a peep.”

It makes us wonder, if he’d been crying the whole time would people say, “For heaven’s sake, what a bad baby you have!”?

This leads me to think about good and bad. I have never uttered the words “good boy” to my sons, and I never will. Why?

Well, let’s say my son does something positive—picks up his coat, takes his plate back to the kitchen, or even hits a baseball. If I say, “Good boy” then what is implied when he refuses to pick up his coat, doesn’t clear his plate, or strikes out? Surely, if doing those aforementioned things makes him a good boy, not doing them makes him a bad boy. I think we teach kids about good and bad early enough that they can easily make that interpretation.

Early childhood educators will tell you to praise or condemn the behavior, not the child. One study I came across aptly illustrates why that is sage advice. In the study, kids were divided into two groups, divided as equally as possible across academic, cultural and socio-economic lines. Each group was given a test. As you would expect, the averages panned out to be more or less the same. Then, for two weeks, one group was told, “Wow, you guys are so smart” with the emphasis being on intelligence. The other group was told, “Wow, you kids must have worked so hard for that test.” For them, the emphasis was on effort. After a few weeks of this pattern, the kids were given the same test again. The group that had been praised for effort saw their average mark go up. In the group where intelligence was lauded, the marks went down.

The researchers came up with two hypotheses. The first was that the praise for smarts made the first group complacent. The second was that, while children could not control how smart they are, they can control how much effort they put out. Praising effort, in other words, was an act of empowering these children.

We all want our kids to succeed. As I’ve mentioned in the last couple of posts, we dads sometimes push our kids hard to achieve, particularly in the hyper competitive world of sports. If you are one of these dads, try to adopt terms like, “great work,” “good job” and “super effort.”

Calling your child a “good boy” when he hits a baseball, by default, means he is a “bad boy” 70% of the time.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Connor vs. the Zamboni

My three year old has been taking skating lessons since just before Christmas. He loves it and he seems very proud of his progress, from learning how to get up from a fall on his own, to gently stepping across the rink, to now taking three or four giant strides before getting scared by his own speed and hurling himself down on the ice. Although my wife and I joke about kissing our future Saturdays goodbye, we have taken such pleasure in his pleasure.

And then something happened.

The other day, at his lesson, his instructor suddenly plucked him from the ice, and skated him over to the boards. He had tears streaming down his face and he kept crying that he didn’t want to skate anymore.

“What is it, sweetheart?” I asked. Did he hurt himself? Were his skates too tight? Did he suddenly have visions of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

I got nothing from him other than, “I don’t want to skate anymore.”

I gave him a minute or two to regain his composure before I tried to send him back onto the ice. He went into ‘limp’ mode, and recommenced with the sobbing. He started screaming that he wanted to go home.

I began with a speech about commitment—about finishing what you’ve started. I reminded him that, after we finished his first set of six lessons, we asked him if he wanted to take another six lessons. He had wanted to take more lessons, so we were going to finish them. If, I went on, he wanted to stop taking lessons after we finished those to which he’s committed, that was fine by me. But, by golly, we weren’t going to quit before then.

Nothing doing! He was having none of it, and I was powerless.

Over the next few days, as I looked back at his behavior, it bothered me. Not that he was crying—I’ve never laid the “boys don’t cry” bullshit on him—but that he just quit. I don’t care if I raise a son who isn’t good at anything; I just want to teach him about trying your hardest and having fun in the process. On the other hand, I told myself, my son is only three, and maybe I need to just let it go.

Shortly after, we discovered that my son was terrified of the zamboni. I had forgotten that the last time he was on the ice prior to the meltdown, he freaked out when the loud buzzer sounded. He thought the zamboni was coming, not only to flood the ice, but to swallow us whole.

There is often more to our children’s emotions and subsequent actions than we know. My son wasn’t even able to really vocalize his own fears though, in his eyes, they were very real. He still won’t step out on the ice, so we’ve decided to hang up the skates until next fall. If he’s going to become an Olympian, a few missed lessons at this age aren’t going to make a difference.

My son’s three year old reasoning and intuition were telling him it wasn’t safe to go out onto the ice, even if he was incapable of articulating that. If you have young children, try to keep in mind that the emotions behind their actions are very real and logical to them -- even if they seem silly or irrational to you. It is really important, especially for us dads who tend to push our children more, to let them come to trust their own instincts. My son was visibly shaken at the prospect of going back onto the ice, though I was hell bent on “teaching him a lesson.” The only thing he would have learned had I thrown him back out there is not to trust his intuition when it comes to his own personal safety.