Saturday, April 24, 2010


One of the things I fondly remember about my own childhood is the freedom and opportunity I had to take adventures.  Not safaris or exotic trips with my parents, but adventures in our yard as a young child, then later in parks and woods that surrounded the communities we lived in.  In fact, literally my earliest enduring memories come from when I was three years old: memories tied to those adventures in the yard right outside our house.
Looking back on those memories today, and realizing that my son is the same age now as I was then, I’m in wonder over just how young we are when our immature imaginations are fully-functioning.  I’m also compelled to try my best to foster and protect an environment for my son that allows the same imagination opportunities.  And so, the emphasis for quite a bit of our “dad and lad” times has changed as he’s grown these first three years.  Now the emphasis more and more often is for adventures, and they’re taking two forms:  on the playground and in the woods.
The Playground
Not too long ago a new playground went up just a block from our house.  It’s fantastic.  Paul calls it “the Great Towers” because the playground is dominated by one particularly tall tower that hosts two large twisty slides.  That structure is accompanied by other relatively tall towers that support rope and wood bridges, climbing ropes, webs and walls, and ramps and steps.  There are also swings, see-saws and a two-level ship.
Paul is at a great age to enjoy the playground.  Parts of the grounds are specifically designed for toddlers, and the variety of structures advance from there to accommodate children of increasing age.  Short of being run over by larger kids, if the playground continues to hold Paul’s interest, he can continue to play on and enjoy it for the months and years ahead.  New challenges and opportunities are always there for him as he grows.

For now, Paul often asks me to go to the Great Towers, where I get to watch and participate in his adventures hiding and climbing through “smokey caves,” climbing the big wall or stairs, or playing as a pirate driving the ship.
The other venue for adventure is nature itself.  One of the greatest things (and there are a lot of them!) we’ve enjoyed about living in Germany is the cultural fondness for green areas.  Our community and the others we’ve visited and traveled through have wonderful parks within, and are often surrounded by significant and deep woods.  The parks are always grassy and generously complemented by benches, fountains and flowerbeds for everyone to enjoy.  Even in the towns and cities, there are great parks full of flowers, smaller grassy areas and benches, perfect to sit and enjoy a few moments (or hours) of rest.

The Woods
And then there are the woods...  The woods outside of town are very well-managed natural wooded areas; not planned or man-made green zones.  Within these woods run an amazing network of well-maintained gravel and dirt trails.  (I’m pretty sure you can hike or bike to just about anywhere in Germany from any other point in Germany and never leave the trail!)  We’re fortunate to have trailheads into two of these wooded areas within a short walk of our house.  And so, we also go on adventures in the woods.

Depending on what’s fresh in Paul’s mind the woods are just woods, but they might also be the Hundred Acre Woods (of Winny the Pooh fame), or a primeval forest.  The woods are a fantastic world for a three-year old to enter:  a world almost entirely lacking man-made things.

The woods are full of sights and sounds not impeded or overwhelmed by the urban world.  What this means is in the woods there is nothing hindering or competing for Paul’s imagination.  The only limitation is his own mind and where it can wonder.  At times the trees are just trees.  At other times they’re giants.  I’ve seen sticks become guns, trucks and binoculars.  Similar freedom of the mind causes rocks, flowers, birds and bugs to be what they are, or to transform into other things.  In the woods we’ve seen Winny the Pooh and Tigger, dragons, and an assortment of monsters.  Last year the pollen was rain from the trees and magic dust, and most recently a small, springtime swarm of damselflys became faeries in flight.

So it’s all about imagination, fueled by adventure.  To some selfish extent it’s also about taking time to adventure with Paul because it’s fun and is great time to bond with my son.  Because of my career and the associated (usually traditional) time at the office and away from home, I jealously guard time I  have with Paul in a way that is similar that I’ve always sought to protect time with Stephanie over other competing demands.  It seems though that our dad and lad time is unique and as important as the time the three of us spend together, or that Paul and Steph get to spend together.  Paul ends up with the full benefit of what Steph and I bring to him together as husband and wife, but also the unique benefits of special time with each of us alone.  For those dad and lad times, we have been and will continue to spend lots of it taking adventures.
It’s great to be a dad!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Tupperware Drawer

Tupperware: it’s like Legos for kids who aren’t old enough to play with Legos.  I remember playing with my mom’s Tupperware; I watched my sisters do the same thing as they grew up, and now my son is enjoying the childhood same rite of passage.  The activity is evolving as he grows.  It began with the simple game of open the cabinet and pulling all the Tupperware out.  That was it.  Eventually it became a game of nesting shapes, and today the various containers are the building blocks for all sorts of things from castles to machines.
To be best of my recollection, when I was a little guy my mom kept our stockpile of Tupperware in a large drawer.  It was a constant source of plastic shapes to build cool things with based on an idea; at other times it was the chaotic resource pool that fueled the imagination.

Today I watch my son enjoy the same right of passage, the only difference being that we keep our Tupperware on the lower shelf of a cabinet.  The plastic goodies are a constant source of entertainment, and the cabinet is an added benefit.  Unlike the drawer I remember, the cabinet is an adventure all by itself.  With a door on both ends, it serves as a tunnel, a cave, a castle, and probably a handful of other things my son hasn’t expressed to me.
The day will come soon when Paul will graduate from Tupperware to something better--probably Legos since they were one of the few toys I grew up with that contributed the most to my active (overactive?) imagination.  In fact, I think Legos were probably the most important toy for me in this regard.  I still think back to some of the incredibly amazing things I remember building with what today are the most basic of Lego blocks.  I’m pretty sure if I had those same Legos in hand today, I wouldn’t be able to duplicate my childhood work.  What’s honestly not clear to me though is if what I built was all that amazing, or if my young, fresh imagination made the fruit of my labor somehow better than it actually was.
Tupperware, and later Legos, helped me make my ideas real.  Whether I was inventing something new or trying to recreate something I had seen that captured my imagination, these most basic of toys helped ensure my young life was truly only limited by my own imagination.  I look forward to the not-too-distant future when I have the chance to present my son with the next set of imagination tools as he graduates from the Tupperware shelf.  The challenge for me as I’ll probably relive some of my own childhood, is to stay out of his imagination’s way and let it soar.
It’s great to be a dad!

Saturday, April 10, 2010


I have a short list of things I consider the simple pleasures in life, and most (if not all) of them are usually thought of as “guy things.”  A good haircut is one of those simple pleasures.  By today’s standards it may be the least obvious, but it’s on the list:  my hair is very short, and most barber shops are anything but a pleasant experience, from the barbers’ ability to the shop itself.  But to find a good barber at a good barbershop is well worth the time and expense.  Related, two thoughts come to mind for me as a man, and as a dad.

First:  a good haircut is one of the few simple pleasures of old that has endured for we men.  It’s also a sort of ritual: a rite of passage in a way.  Barber shops used to be bastions of manhood and a temporary refuge within his community.  It was a place to escape the busy day, cross paths with a few friends, enjoy a leisurely and manly conversation, and perhaps even a fine cigar and even a drink!  Afterwards, he could walk out feeling a little more prepared to meet the world head-on.  The barber shops of my grandfather’s day and the micro-cultures of manhood they contained are essentially gone, but if you look hard enough a few good ones remain.  A good haircut from a good barber (especially in a good barber shop) remains something special for a man.  Admittedly I might hold this view because I have short hair and get my hair cut very regularly, which has driven me to strive to find good barbers wherever I go.  But then again, maybe not.  After all, there’s nothing special or fancy about the haircuts I get, but the kind attention a good barber pays to the craft always ends up relaxing me.  I’ve been lucky to consistently find good barbers everywhere I’ve lived, and once I’ve established myself as a regular customer, the extra attention and care is pure gold:  a slower and more careful haircut, and best of all a scalp massage.  I often joke with my current barber that the haircut she gives me is better than beer, and afterwards I have to get a coffee to bring myself back to operating speed.
Second: I’ve always wanted my son to grow up enjoying getting his haircut and practically speaking, not to be one of those kids that fears them or throws a tantrum in the barber shop.  I know the day will come when we’ll disagree about his hair--length, style, etc.--but from the start I wanted him to grow up enjoying the experience of getting a haircut, so I started preparing the battlefield early and at home.
When he was about 10 months old, not long after he started walking, I would lead him into the bathroom while I shaved.  For years I’ve been using an electric razor and my plan was to expose him to the sound it made as well as what it felt to touch while it was running.  He would look at the razor and see me running it over my face.  It didn’t take long before  he wanted to touch it.  Since his own curiosity set the pace and he asked, I began gently putting the side of the razor against his head, the back of his neck and his back.  The results were great:  he smiled, giggled and would touch it with his hands.
I would also try to schedule haircuts so that I could take him to the barber shop with me, or so Steph could bring him by while I was getting my haircut.  Even before he ever needed his first time in the chair, he was routinely exposed to the barbershop environment and could see me enjoying the experience.  The barbers in the shop would always take the time to talk to him when we came in and left.
Then the day came that Paul needed a trim.  Instead of doing it at home I took him to the barbershop.  I called in advance to let my barber know I was bringing Paul and wanted to schedule time for two haircuts.  I was optimistic that Paul would just take the experience in, but also knew that the best planning might not survive contact with reality.  There was time in my schedule, and in my barber’s, for Paul to decide he didn’t want to cooperate.  I stayed in the chair after my haircut, took Paul in my lap, and we began the experience of his first haircut.
It went as well as I hoped it would.  Paul sat still and completely enjoyed the entire experience.  Since then we’ve moved and he’s gone with me to different barber shops; his attitude hasn’t changed.  In fact, when he doesn’t need a haircut but knows I’m going to get one, he asks to go with me.  To this day, every barber he’s been to comments to me about how well-behaved he is in the chair.  If we ever have another son, I would do it the same way.  I know I might not have the same results, but have no reason to think I wouldn’t.  At least for now though, I’ve met the two goals contained in my second thought above:  short term I have a toddler who doesn’t throw a tantrum at the barber shop when it's time for him to get a haircut, for fear of the sights and sounds of the experience; and I’ve set the stage for my son to enjoy the barbershop experience for the rest of his life.  And I enjoy the side benefit of just one more thing we get to do together during “dad and lad time.”
As an interesting side note:  when I was in college, I had the privilege for a few years of going to a barber shop and getting a quality haircut from the owner--the same man who cut my grandfather’s and father’s hair.  Good barbershops endure, and they’re worth seeking out.
It’s great to be a dad!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I Wanna Hold You, Daddy

“I wanna hold you, Daddy.”  My son says these words with some frequency, but it’s a guarantee that he’ll say this often whenever he’s sick.  It warms my heart, makes me a tired dad, and often results in ensuring I catch whatever is ailing him.  That’s OK though.
All this tracks back to May 2008.  Paul was just over a year old and came down with his first real stomach virus.  I happened to be holding him when he detonated.  He was crying and groaning in a way I’d never heard before from him, was holding him out, facing me, and trying to get a good look at him to see if I could tell what was hurting him so badly.  Then “it” happened--the boy erupted and hit me square in the chest.  Lovely.  I looked at Stephanie and calmly declared, “I think we’ll be in the bathtub for a bit.”  I took Paul to the bathroom, stripped us both down and climbed into the tub to clean us off and soak a while in hopes the warm, steamy water would quiet him.  Steph took care of what hit the floor and then came in to see how we were doing.

After a quiet and long bath, with new clothes on us both, we settled down and Paul slept in my arms.  It was one of those 24-hour viruses and quickly passed.  Thankfully I never caught it, and life for the family moved on quickly.  What I didn’t know is that first real illness for Paul was a bonding moment for the two of us--father and son.  Because I was holding him when he got sick, and then was the one who comforted him afterwards, I became the parent he wants to go to when he doesn’t feel well.  Not that he doesn’t seek out Steph, or shy away from her, but it seems when we’re both around and Paul is sick, he prefers comfort from me.  Steph tells me that when I’m not home, he asks where I am and tells her “I want daddy to hold me.”
Looking back to the time prior to having Paul, it’s clear I’ve changed.  Kids change us and I’m convinced that people’s understanding of and appreciation for kids changes dramatically when they have their own.  I tolerated them before having one.  I had a moderate fondness for a very few of them, usually the children of close friends or relatives.  Then we had a son.  Paul changed my entire view of kids:  my own and others.  The same is true for Stephanie.  And he changed the character of the relationship between Steph and I.  Always strong in the past, somehow it became stronger as we found ourselves each anchored to two other people within the household.  Like most people, I would never seek to be around someone else who’s sick.  Past exceptions for me over the years include my wife, and my parents.   I never gave it a thought when I was young and my parents were sick, and I’ll always wade right into it with my wife when she’s under the weather.  And now I have a son.  I’ve always said, and meant it, that I’d give my life for my wife.  The same is true for my son, but somehow it’s different with him.  I’m not sure why or how to put it into words exactly, but it’s probably the natural bond between a man and his son.
One of the great things about this is Paul draws different comfort from Steph and I.  There are things he goes to her first for; Mom is the answer to my problem or need.  Steph and I have never found cause to wonder or wish Paul would act differently.  We’re not jealous of each other’s place in our son’s heart.  He gets, and seems to want all the fullness of what we both have to offer him.  We’re different people and he already knows we each bring something different into the family.  For better or worse, when he’s sick he seeks me out.  It warms my heart that my son already sees me in a variety of ways as his dad; one of them is as his comforter when he’s sick.  And when he’s hurt or sick, all I want to do is hold him.
It’s great to be a dad!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Tech Toddling

Too young for tech?  I’m not sure I know what that means, but I hear the discussion all around me at work and on the web.  I know this:  I routinely lose control of my iPod Touch to my three year old.  What does he do with it?  If you ask him, he’ll tell you one of two things:  he needs to kill bad guys, or he wants to play “hoopa-loops”.  In both cases he’s referring to a couple of games I have on the Pod.

When I have the chance, I’ve joined the discussion and asked what people mean when they make statements about our little ones being “too young” for access or exposure to a variety of technology.  What the discussion eventually turns to is either content or cost.
The matter of content is pretty straight forward.  Allowing kids access to age-appropriate content while working to keep them away from inappropriate content is nothing new.  It was true with radio prior to television (even though I get the distinct impression the problem was simpler at that time), then with the proliferation of television and the broadening of its associated content, and now today with the web.  But nothing’s really changed; as parents we want to foster and fuel the development of our kids’ minds, but also want to protect them from things that’ll cause harm whether in print, through audio or video.
Darn it, this is complicated.  While it’s appropriate to lump kids of certain ages together for all the right reasons, every kid is still unique.  And so are parents, home environments, neighborhoods, etc.  Macro “rules” for exposing kids to a variety of things only apply on a macro level.  Dads, or at least for this dad, the real work for is the complexity of making these generally wise rules apply very specifically to each of our kids, to do it in concert with our spouses if there is one, and to juggle how this plays out when we have multiple kids in the household.  Ah, the historic friction between older and younger siblings--does access to technology complicate it?  (I can hear it now, “Dad, how come he gets an iPod and I don’t?”)  Content matters and each child is clearly different whether we’re talking about our own kids, or our kids relative to their friends.   And the access to the breadth of content out there through today’s computers is faster and fuller.
As for cost, it often comes down to this:  will I hand an expensive piece of tech to my child knowing he may very well break it?  Nothing special there: kids break things, even expensive things.  I can’t afford for my son to destroy something expensive.  Sorry son, you can’t play with this.
I guess I’m generally comfortable with how my son currently interacts with a variety of media through the TV or web.  My wife and I control it well (so far).  The question I still wrestle with though:  is today’s tech simply this generation’s version of the TV babysitter, or is it more complicated than that?  Does anyone remember the HBO series “Dream On”?  Hilarious, but an interesting commentary about a child raised by the television.  If we’re tempted to use tech, and specifically the web as a babysitter without real oversight, I wonder if we’re at risk of building the next generation of Martin Tuppers?  I’m reminded every day as my wife and I raise our son that parenting is complicated, a full-time job, and it’s just plain hard.  But we enjoy it; it’s also incredible fun for both of us, for Steph as a mom, and for me as a dad.
It’s great to be a dad!

Friday, April 2, 2010

No, You're Too Tired

One of the difficulties of parenting a toddler when you’re a middle-aged dad: your own level of energy and endurance relative to the three-year old powerhouse.  In my case, my mind is often willing, but the body is weak.  There are other times though when my mind is not willing.  I come home from work mentally and emotionally drained and tired even though I’m not physically tired.  Paul wants to play, my body is willing, but my mind is weak.  It’s at times like these, when I’m mentally tired, that I’m reminded of my own childhood, and I see my parents in myself.
I don’t know how often the following happened, but it was often enough that this particular memory is strong.  I would come home from school, or on a weekend would be home for lunch or dinner, and then ask to head out to play.  The dreaded answer would come:  “no, you’re too tired.”  

I remember thinking to myself, and at times saying, “I’m not tired!”  Why would Mom or Dad say that?  Sometimes I would persist and things would go in my favor--look out neighborhood, here I come!  Other times I’d keep asking and things would end badly; I’d spend the rest of the day or evening at home avoiding an angry parent.  It didn’t take too many years for me to figure out why I was told I was tired: parent speak.  Oftehn when Mom or Dad would say, “no, you’re too tired” they actually meant, “no, I’m too tired to keep up with you.”  Not that they’d go out and play with me at that point in my childhood, but they still had to expend mental energy to keep track of me.  It was easier just to keep me in the house.
Thankfully this wasn’t the norm.  I have fond memories of lots of time spent outside during my childhood years, and I certainly can’t blame them for being tired.  Adult life is tough and tiring and parenting seems to add to that exponentially.  But it never sat well with me that they didn’t just say, “no.  I don’t want you to go out right now.”  I’m sure I’d have still asked them why, or just complained for a while, but I have to believe it wouldn’t have been much different for them than the continued asking or complaining that came from me after a false reason I was given.  To be fair to my parents, I know now as a parent that there are times my son is tired and he doesn’t know it.  Or he doesn’t understand why it’s significant that he’s tired even though he wants to press on with his playing.  No doubt this was true of me.  I can’t contest those times, and I’m not sure I even remember them--probably because I was truly tired!  But there were still many times that I was told “no” because I was tired, and I actually wasn’t.
So what’s the point?  Well, for one I understand my parents better.  I already find myself tempted to tell Paul “no” and catch myself thinking it’s because he’s tired.  He may be, but there are definitely times that what actually motivates my reflexive answer is that I’m tired.  Second, and perhaps a more important point though is I also remember as I grew older, it colored my view of the sincerity of my parents’ words in certain circumstances.  Did it change my overall trust for my parents?  No.  Did I grow up questioning their integrity?  Absolutely not.  But there were moments that I know I wasn’t being answered honestly and it influenced how I learned to make requests based on whether or not I thought my parents were actually tired.
I suspect there’s no way to avoid this kind of thing--it’ll happen in some way as any parent interacts over time with their child.  It may not be the specific issue I’ve discussed, but it’ll be something.  Child wants to do something; parents are tired and say “no.”  Honestly, in the end there’s nothing about this memory for me that has tainted my view of or my relationship with them in any way.  But it challenged me then, and continues to challenge me now because I’m the tired parent.  I don’t want to project my own state of mind on my son and deliberately try not to now.  If I’m tired, I need to tell him that.  Or tell him whatever the right answer is rather than telling him something in haste of out of convenience that I know isn’t true.  He’s smart, even at three.  He’ll hit the age very soon when he’ll know with certainty that no matter what my reason is, I can’t tell him it’s because he’s tired when he’s not.  He’s ready to conquer the world in spite of me: his tired, old dad.  And you know what?  As tired as I often am, I love the fact that my son is young and is enjoying the benefits of good health and his youth!
It’s great to be a dad!