How to Help Your Children Handle Their Emotions

If every moment has the potential to lead to an emotional breakdown, emotion coaching could offer a solution.

Before we tried emotion coaching, my son used his feelings as a weapon. Every moment was an emotional breakdown. If he was a little bit hungry, he would erupt into tears. If he was tired, he would throw himself onto the ground. It was like living with a Shakespearean actor who never quite caught the concept of overselling it.

Everyone in the family had a theory on what we needed to do. “Just ignore him,” was the grandparents’ suggestion. “He’s just trying to get out of things. If you ignore him, he’ll stop.”

“It’s biological,” was my wife’s view. “My brother did the same thing when he was child. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“He needs to learn that big boys don’t cry,” was mine. “Let’s just let him bottle things up.  He’s not going to have aneurysm just because he didn’t let having a brown spot on his banana reduce him to tears.”

We tried everything, and everything just made it worse. The more we ignored him and the more we encouraged him to be tough, the more he cried and the worse the problem became. By trying to shut down his emotions, we weren’t letting him learn how to deal with them – and so they just become more and more explosive.

Then we tried something different. Desperate for a solution, we scoured the web for answers. We learned about emotion coaching and tried it for ourselves – and it really worked.

Emotion coaching is a way to encourage children to acknowledge their emotions and deal with them. Instead of teaching kids to hide them or to explode them everywhere, the kids learn to understand the root of their emotions and deal with them in a constructive way – and it really works. In fact, one study had 244 families try it out, and almost every one ended up with less emotional outbursts.

Here’s how it works:

Acknowledge the emotion first.

Your child has just thrown a toy across the room. Or maybe they’ve done something worse – maybe they’ve thrown it right at you. If you’re like most parents, common sense is going to tell you to discipline your child immediately – but research shows that might not actually be the best thing to do.

Instead, your first step should be to acknowledge your child’s emotions. Children don’t understand what’s going on instead of their bodies. They don’t know why they’re reacting like this either. There’s a good chance your child is watching his bad behavior with the same mystified confusion you are and, just like you, has no idea what provoked him to do this.

Your child is going to have to learn how to deal with this, and you’re going to have to the teacher. You’ll discipline him – but you have to acknowledge that emotions are the root of the problem, first.

Label and validate the emotion.

Giving the emotion a name can help a child handle it. Since they have no idea what’s making them act out, they don’t know how to stop themselves from doing it. Labelling the emotion is the first step in learning how to do that.

If your child seems to be angry, let them know. If your child is sad or frustrated or disappointed or jealous, tell them. Saying, “I can see that you’re angry” or asking, “Are you feeling jealous?” lets them know that there’s a real emotional reaction happening that they can learn to handle.

This will have a major effect on their lives. Children who learn to handle their emotions endure negative feelings for shorter times, relate to people better and have stronger friendships – so as difficult as this is now, it’s going to pay off in the future.

Discipline your child.

Your child isn’t getting out of this unscathed. You’re going to validate their emotions – but you’re not going to let them get away with being bad.

Tell your child it’s okay to have emotions – but that bad behavior is not. You might say, “It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to throw things.”

Then, discipline your child.

Berkeley University recommends sending your child to a time-out, which makes a lot of sense. This way your child’s not only getting punished, but they’re getting time to calm down and reflect on what they did. They’re going to look at what they felt, and there’s a good chance they’ll work through most of the problem on their own.

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More About Time-outs

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When time’s up, let them come out and make them apologize for what they did. Then it’s time to tackle the emotion.

Identify the source.

Try to help your child understand why they’re feeling this emotion. A great way to start this is just by asking. Let your child tell you why they’re feeling this way, and try to help them understand what might be making them feel angry.

Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes a child is angry because someone stole his toy, and that can be easy to point out and validate. Of course, as every parent knows, sometimes your child is angry because of something completely insane. No matter how ridiculous it is, though, it’s a big deal to your child – and you have to let them feel like that’s okay.

Talk about how to deal with it next time.

Just like children have to learn to read, they have to learn how to be good. It’s not something that comes natural. You’re going to need to teach them.

Once your child understands why they had the emotional reaction they did, you’re going to have to talk to them about how to deal with it. Share ideas about what to do next time – and let your child share a few of their own.

You might suggest talking about your feelings. You might suggest taking a walk, or stepping from the problem and coming back to it, or asking mom or dad for a hug. The key is to find a solution that makes sense to your child – because if it makes sense to your child, they’ll actually use it.

Emotion coaching takes a little bit more time than regular discipline – but not much. When you sit down and talk to your child about what they’re feeling, you’re giving them the skills to handle these problems when you’re not around. When you just discipline your child, they’ll only be good when you’re around.

More importantly, emotion coaching actually works. Our son is getting better at handling his emotions every day, and now when we see anger or sadness creep onto his face they’re aren’t followed by tears. Instead, our child is starting to suggest the solution that makes the most sense to him:

“Can I have a hug?”

My Teenage Son Let Me Win a Basketball Game the Other Day…

I’m going to end up like an old lion playing out his final years at the edge of the pack. This Oedipal nightmare needs to be shut down immediately, but how?

My son is bigger than me. This is troubling.

At 15 he’s three inches taller and way more athletic than I ever was. He’s the only freshman on varsity soccer (I played JV hockey as a senior, which I think is illegal).

I knew this was going to happen. Delivered via C-section because of his head size and always one of the tallest in his class, I heard the footsteps even when they were a child’s size 12: He’s coming for me.

Before this recent growth spurt we enjoyed a blissful 18 months where we shared clothes and shoes like college roommates. Emerging from my closet sporting one of my vintage shirts he’d wordlessly relay to me that, in my sons eyes, I am at least semi-cool. I, in turn, showed up to The Laugh Factory in his slip-on Vans and soft flannel shirts.

I didn’t care that he came home wearing my dress shoes covered in mud from kicking a soccer ball after school. I can wash that off. But the feeling of communing with my son in this give-and-take will stay with me.

It occurred to me the other day that I have never hit him. It also occurred to me that that ship has sailed. If I hit him now he might punch me back. And if he kicks my ass I’ve got to move. I can’t live in a house with an asshole like that.

I’ll end up like the old lion that’s beaten down and plays out his final years on the edge of the pack waiting for the jackals to circle him and tear his flesh apart. This Oedipal nightmare needs to be shut down immediately, but how?

old lion

He’s upsetting the paradigm of paternal dominance going back to my own childhood. Unlike me, my father was not a pacifist. He was 6’2” with a bad temper and being much smaller than him was overwhelming.

Towering over my son in his younger years put me on confident and familiar footing. But it was a complicated footing because I didn’t want our relationship to be based on the dynamic I’d had with my own father.

When I grew older and shed my fear of my dad, I also lost some of my respect for him.

In my insecure moments I comfort myself with the knowledge that no matter how big my son gets, I will be able to take him down. I’ve been in a lot of fights and even though I haven’t always won, I’ve never lost. I am a nasty Irish prick and will break a bottle if necessary. (I may have written that last part in case my son ever reads this and gets any ideas.)

We play one-on-one basketball and over time the game has progressed from my indulging him in an occasional win to me having to give it everything I’ve got – and then some. I trash talk, box out, and occasionally pull down his shorts when he goes for a layup.

I went to hug him last week and mistakenly went high over the top not realizing that I’m now the guy who goes low. I stretched my arms around his torso while he hugged me around the neck like I was his prom date. It felt awkward at first as I adjusted to the new arrangement.

He doesn’t act any different than he did in simpler times when I was bigger than him. It was a long hug during which I realized that I’ve overcome this Oedipal hurdle and my ancient fear of being small. Thanks to my bigger-than-life son, that is just not the way we relate to each other.

We played one-on-one the other day. It was tied at 13-all when I got an open lane twice in a row and won the game. We looked at each other and silently acknowledged the obvious; the kid let Dad win this one.

Instead of the sense of powerlessness I had always feared, I felt respected. I felt loved. Then I mocked him for losing, and went inside for a smoothie.

My Daughter Was Emotionally Scarred by a Goat – and Other Tales From Disney World

There’s a point in there somewhere about American culture, or global politics, or human nature. But I’ll let you figure that out on your own.

In the spring of 2011, my youngest daughter taught me a lesson about perception. Technically, I suppose, the message was a group project delivered by my daughter, Piglet (from Winnie-the-Pooh), and a seemingly rabid adolescent goat – all with the assistance of Mickey Mouse.

But let’s not muddy the water with details just yet.

Step One: The Journey

0330. Alarm explodes. Swear words are uttered. Snooze button is depressed.

0337. Alarm re-detonates. More vigorous swearing. Feet hit floor. Toothbrush hits teeth.

0350. Kids are dragged from angelic slumber, except for Macy The Oldest, who has been awake and twitching with anticipation since 0200. JackMan stumbles drunkenly to the car, and immediately slips back into his coma. Ellie Kate, the Princess Baby, is just looking around at everything, wide-eyed and flustered, mumbling the baby words for “what the hell is this 4 a.m. crap about?”

0400. Drive drive drive drive drive doze off jerk wheel scare family drink coffee drive drive drive.

0830. Chik-Fil-A. Creepy bathroom guy tells me, as he steps away from the urinal, “I warmed it up for you.” At this point, a tiny piece of my soul dies and drifts to the dirty tile floor. My son JackMan is very confused by this exchange. “What did he mean, daddy?”

I pretend to be absorbed by restroom signage to avoid explaining that some people in life are just destined to say creepy, nonsensical things in public restrooms.

More driving. Sweet Moses, the driving. To understand driving in Florida, you have to understand two things about Florida drivers:

  1. They hate you. All of them hate all of you. They want you dead, right now, in a flaming ball of wreckage rolling conveniently into the emergency lane and out of their way.
  2. Brake lights are meaningless. Turn signals are meaningless. Hand gestures are meaningless. Screaming at your windshield is meaningless. The only things that matter are position, relative velocity, and leverage. In this respect, driving in Florida is exactly equivalent to playing on the offensive line.

Well, O-line is what I coached back when I still coached football, and so we survived. And, like the Israelites of old, we found our way to the Promised Land (assuming the Old Testament Promised Land featured Captain Jack Sparrow doppelgangers). DISNEY WORLD! The magical land of costumed characters, cash transfusions, and $11 popsicles.

Murderous Piglet and a buffet full of bacon

The first day we were at Disney World was magical in the truest sense of the word. Somehow, we had landed in some sort of non-crowded fantasy vortex. We rode everything immediately: Dumbo, Small World, Space Mountain (whoo!), The Whirling Teacups of Vomitous Death, Snow White’s Slightly Creepy Forest, Buzz Lightyear’s Glorified Lazer Tag, and – of course – Pirates of the Caribbean. It was amazing. I hate Disney so much, it hurts my teeth to let those words out. But it was a blast.

Then, lunch.

We get very excited for lunch in my house. And this one was in that crystal restaurant where all the Pooh characters dance around and pat your kids on the head while dad gets to eat every item on the buffet. The prospect of this lunch had been the only glimmer of hope keeping my black soul from slipping into the abyss for the last few days.

Which is why it was a huge kink in my plans to learn that Ellie was convinced Piglet wanted to murder her. Please wait: I know that “kid who cries at characters” is an overused and trite cliche. You are not understanding me. I do not mean “Ellie cried when she saw Piglet.” This was not discomfort.

What I mean is: Ellie was 100% convinced that Piglet was going to shove a Mickey-themed butter knife into her chest. She screamed like that girl at the bottom of the well in “Silence of the Lambs.” She bucked her high chair like a tiny, apoplectic cowgirl astride an angry bull. It was the kind of cry that forces you to leave the restaurant for the good of the other patrons…if you’re good parents or decent people.

Fortunately, I am neither. I had driven 10 hours and paid eleventy jillion dollars, and this buffet was the one thing in my day I was looking forward to. So I declared “We’re not leaving. She’ll get over it.”

Here’s the thing, though. She did not get over it.

When it dawned on her that I had no plans to save her from the lunatic porcine assassin, my tiny Princess Baby looked at me with eyes that clearly communicated the simple phrase “When you are old and helpless, I will unplug your machines for this. Is it worth it?”

And I decided that yes, six plates of bacon was absolutely worth it.

So she screamed. And wailed. And when she was done wailing, she circled right back around to try a bit more of the screaming. It was an absurd variation on the ghost scene in MacBeth. You know the scene? MacBeth can see Banquo’s ghost, but no one else can. So in the middle of the dinner, the ghost keeps popping up at just the worst time, and MacBeth jumps up and flips his chair over and generally looks like a crazy person. You know that scene?

Imagine that, but with Piglet and a toddler. Everyone eats quietly, then Ellie sees Piglet / Pooh / Tigger / Eeyore, at which point she becomes a 12-pound bass right after hitting the ice in the cooler. That is, if that bass were strapped into a chair and screaming infantile obscenities.

On it went. Inside the park. In every restaurant. Wherever she saw a character. From a football field away, she would begin welling up, and as we approached the smiling character, surrounded by a line of happy children, she would become Sean Penn in “Mystic River” when he finds his dead daughter in that park. Just sobbing and wailing at the sky, calling on God to bring down lightning on everyone in sight.

Finally, Animal Kingdom

This went on for three days. Seventy-two hours of mortal carnage. So it was a relief, on the fourth day, when we got to the Animal Kingdom.

First of all, there aren’t nearly as many characters in the Animal Kingdom to dodge, and I was tired of spending my vacation feeling like a downed chopper pilot in Vietnam dodging Charlie. “Quick. There’s Stitch. When he turns to pretend-fart on that family, you step toward him and I’ll cross the alley to the gift shop.”

Second of all, do you know what there is in the Animal Kingdom? There is a safari ride, full of actual animals. And she loved it. Piglet in costume? Murderer. Actual lion that would maul her tiny beautiful head in a remorseless second? Best friend of all time.

Do you know what else there is in the Animal Kingdom? A petting zoo, full of cuddly, safe animals, none of whom represent animated characters. So OF COURSE we are going to visit the petting zoo.

And there we are, petting baby deer and cute little sheep and tiny goats. And she’s loving it. Finally, Ellie, my Princess Baby, is loving Disney World, safe from the organized crime syndicate of Mickey and Company.

So imagine her surprise when the three baby goats she’s petting decide this is the moment for a lively round of mortal combat. My daughter’s innocent childlike joy turned to horror, her universe twisting terribly awry in the most absurdly goat-oriented of fashions. The goats are circling, churning, head butting, making that horrid goat sound, and Ellie is slowly dawning to the realization – THE DISNEY ANIMALS REALLY ARE TRYING TO KILL HER.

And this time: they’re organized. They set her up. They lulled her to sleep for three days; Piglet and Mickey and Pluto were all red herrings, and they’ve actually planned all along to use the one animal she wasn’t scared of to execute their nefarious plot. This required both intent and forethought. (That’s attempted Murder One, for you “Law and Order” aficionados.)

I tend to be a reasonably helpful chap, so here’s a suggestion f0r the Disney suits – you’re gonna need to train those petting zoo employees a little more if you plan to avoid lawsuits from people who are less laid-back and forgiving than me.

Imagine, if you will, the half-addled college kid they’re paying to work in the goat pen, nervously chuckling and saying, “They’re just playing” while the maelstrom of goat anger builds and my daughter is trapped inside. She can’t even cry – she’s just doing that wide-eyed fish-gulp thing kids do when something too bad to even cry about has happened. And imagine the college kid’s realization that no manual explained what, exactly, one is to do when a cyclonic goat-fight breaks out literally wrapped around a toddler.

Now imagine me, striding into the fray, punching a goat.

Yes. Punching. A goat. I will say that again, because it can be difficult to comprehend. I punched a goat. In the neck. Right in his tiny goat neck.

Punching the goat was necessary, because the Disney Official Magical Goat Tender was standing there, telling people, “Let’s stay away while they calm down,” completely oblivious to the Wailing Human Infant trapped in the Maelstrom of Disney Goat Anger.

(Ellie now carries a plastic Playskool knife, which she brandishes at the mere sight of a costumed character while muttering, “Bring it.”)

We survived, though. Goats were punched, sarcastic utterances were uttered, off was stormed, at which point I realized what a GREAT story my toddler’s barnyard trauma would make. And if you can’t traumatize your children for the sake of a good story, what is parenting even for?

Of course, if I wanted to press the issue, I could point out the obvious lesson, right? Here Ellie was, surrounded by costumed characters who wanted nothing more than to make her happy, but she was terrified. And then, when she encountered actual animals that could and would do actual harm to her, she let her guard down.

There’s a point in there somewhere about American culture, or global politics, or human nature. But I’ll let you figure that out on your own. You definitely shouldn’t take any advice from me. I punched a goat.

How to Relax and Enjoy Playing With Your Kids

When we play pretend with our kids, most of us are just going through the motions. But there’s a way to tap into the way we used to play.

Looking back, I feel ashamed. What type of monster am I that I felt so much enjoyment and excitement out of such violence? They were innocent poor peasant farmers who had done nothing wrong. But, at the time, I didn’t care.

I was a dragon, and I brought the fury. 

Everyone knows that imagination-based play is a crucial element of childhood. It improves our children’s language development and their ability to process the outside world. Children can experiment with various approaches to problem-solving through play, and it’s a crucial element of growth and development

Because of this, there are a lot of good articles out there right now about how to foster imagination-based play for kids, but not as many about how to increase parents’ interest in it. 

Imaginary play is also a nice way to escape your troubles. I felt relaxed when I was pretending to be a dragon with my children. I no longer felt the weight of a million worries about bills, my job, or taxes on my mind. My only job was to destroy a village with my fiery dragon breath.

As an adult, it’s easy to play pretend but rarely does a parent actually believe that the carpet is flowing lava as you jump across couch cushions. Now we just walk through the motions of play rather than re-experience childhood wonder created by play.

Years of pretending to be an adult have drastically reduced my ability to pretend like a child.  

But once you are in the land of make-believe, it is impossible to forget — the feeling is intoxicating. I’m not sure how it happened (possibly we binged on too many episodes of “Game of Thrones”), but one day I was playing with my four-year-old son when a switch flipped.

No longer was I play pretending that the plastic see-saw was my dragon body. No. Instead, I was flying over the countryside gently flapping my strong leathery wings. I could smell the mountain air and could see the villagers running in fear as I descended upon them. I could feel the fire as it left my elongated throat. (I was a jerk dragon, and loved it!)

I’m not sure how long it lasted, but I was there — totally engrossed in play. It was the closest I can remember to reaching a “moment of Zen.” I was wholly inside of my mind without a thought about the real world. 

Then all of a sudden, as quickly and surprisingly as it started, my imagination bubble popped. I don’t know what caused me to snap out of it, but it was like being woken out of a dream. 

For a brief moment, I had reentered my children’s sacred imaginary play space. I resurfaced disoriented, confused, and also a little amazed. I had completely forgotten how awesome imagination is, and the fun it unlocked. For the rest of the day, I was energized, and I completely understood why kids don’t want to stop playing to take a bath or go to bed—play time is a ton of fun!

Since then, like an addict trying to get one more high, I’ve been trying to get back to that liberating place. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to unlock my imaginary world again. However, I have identified a few key things that help me get closer to my kids’ imaginary worlds. 

1| Make play active.

If I’m just playing with action figures, I’ll have fun, but I’m not fully invested. If, on the other hand, we are having a pretend sword fight in the backyard, with running, jumping, and wild swings, it’s easier to believe I’m actually the evil pirate my son is battling on our warship.

2 | Familiarize yourself with the characters your children love and become during imaginary play.

If they want to play dinosaurs — cool, I’m basically a T-Rex expert. If they want to play as one of their new-fangled cartoon characters, I need a two-minute explanation of what I look like and what weapons I have at my disposal. Requiring an explanation or description only frustrates my kids, so I either watch more cartoons with them or gently suggest that I’m going to be the Leonardo Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (a character I already know and love) instead.

3 | Give it 100% no matter what.

Having experienced the euphoria that my kids are feeling during pretend play time, I’m going to do my best to make sure they have fun with it. When my daughter wants to pretend I’m a pony, I know that she believes we’re galloping in a field of flowers when in reality, we’re moving slowly on aching knees in the kitchen. When my son needs me to save him from slipping down the slide, I know that in his mind, he is Sylvester Stallone in “Cliffhanger,” and I am his last hope.

This imagination play stage is temporary, and we only have a short window of time to coexist in that world with our kids. At some point, my kids won’t need me to sit with the dolls at their tea party or look for trolls under every bridge. But until then, I’ll do my best to make sure it’s as much fun as possible. Because who knows? Maybe our next imaginary game reignites my creativity, and I can dive back into their world again.

Although, for the villagers’ sake, hopefully, I’m not a dragon.

When Marriage Fails, Parenting Can Save You

While divorce is the end of a marriage, it is also the beginning of a new relationship with our kids. One father reflects on how that bond grew stronger.

The worst day of my life was the day my wife and I decided our marriage was beyond repair. 

We had a precious three year old son. He didn’t deserve the life about to be thrust upon him. Little did I know then, but the worst day of my life was also the best day of my life.

My wife and I quickly realized the most important thing to do was put our son’s interests above our own. We weren’t going to hang on to our old wounds. We weren’t going to try to tear one another down. We weren’t going to try to hurt each other. We were going to co-parent our son in the nurturing and functional way he deserved. He would have two loving and complete households.   

We proceeded with the amicable divorce, ever cautious of opening new wounds. I felt fortunate to share fifty percent legal and physical custody. Yet, I mourned the loss of time with my son more than I had mourned anything in my life to that point. I also knew, however, that it could have been much worse. I decided that our time and life together would be just as good and full as any other household’s, if not better.

I decided that I would be cautious about dating, and likely remain single in order to maintain stability for my son. I didn’t want mother-figures coming in and out of his life. So, when he was with me, I’d take on the roles of both mother and father. I worried about creating and maintaining a complete household for my son.    

In today’s age, the traditional roles of mothers and fathers have been blurred, given the evolution and maturation of our society. But when one parent is absent, the remaining parent takes on both roles, regardless of tradition. I was not the traditional father to begin with, but at least there were two individuals in the home to share all of the duties that go with raising children. I was concerned nonetheless about my effectiveness of taking on such a responsibility.

The adjustments were difficult at first – for both of us. It was difficult for my son to understand why he was going back and forth between households. It was emotionally difficult for me when he wasn’t with me. It was difficult for me physically and logistically when he was with me.

I wasn’t used to taking care of a child by myself. I wasn’t used to doing everything for him. I was tired. I had a demanding job. I had to take care of a household. I had to take care care of my son. I had to take care of myself. And each one was interconnected with the other. If I faltered in one area, the others were affected. Life seemed precariously balanced. I worried, and I worried a lot.

At first, I was resentful of the situation, and angered by the difficult path for the both of us. I wanted the traditional family, for me and for him. How can I do everything that needs to be done? Can I meet all of his needs? But, as I became accustomed to the new norm, I found myself relishing in the fact that I was succeeding in being a single parent, and that my son was succeeding in this circumstance.

Not only were we succeeding, but we began to thrive. I discovered I was bonding with my son in ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. He looked to me for everything when he was with me. I began to feel empowered.

What I thought were going to be struggles at first, actually became privileges. I had the privilege of being both mother and father to him in our home. I found myself enjoying things like picking him up from school, packing his lunch, and taking him to the doctor’s office. I felt closer to him through all of those activities.

Worrying about things like putting a nutritious dinner on the table allowed me to feel connected to his health. Holding him when he got hurt allowed me to empathize with his pain. Brushing his hair allowed me see his beauty and tenderness. Washing his muddy jeans allowed me to visualize him on the playground. Helping him with his homework allowed me to feel connected with his cognitive development. Snuggling with him at night allowed me to feel all of his love and goodness. I’d like to think I would have done all of these things regardless of the makeup of our household, but this situation absolutely demanded it, and that was a blessing.

When I lost fifty percent of my time with him, I though I’d be losing out on experiences, joys, and time – and I did, to a degree. I discovered, however, that I gained so much more. We’ve had the opportunity to form an undeniably close relationship. The time we had was just our own. The rules we had were uniquely ours. The customs and norms we established were sacred.

I was involved in so much more of his life than I ever thought possible. And when he wasn’t with me, I found ways to still be a part of his life. I had lunch with him at school. I was an assistant coach on his various sports teams. I attended parent/teacher conferences, birthday parties, and family functions. Our close relationship transcended the time gaps. We were connected before the divorce, but our relationship blossomed after it.

At times, as I was going about various tasks, I wondered if my son would ever fully appreciate the efforts gone in to raising him, and why I joyfully took them on. He certainly didn’t owe me anything. I brought him in to this world, and it was my responsibility to take care of him, to give him the best childhood. But I wondered if he would ever fully comprehend the level of dedication, caring, concern, worry and love I had for him. Maybe he would, but probably only after having children of his own.

As he grew older, we continued with our happy norms and customs, taking life’s ups and downs as they came. The one constant we always had was each other. No matter how tough a day I had, when I saw my son, everything else was put in perspective.

It was bittersweet watching him go off to college. But as with everything, we adjusted. We kept in constant contact. I took joy from afar in seeing him make new friends, find new interests, go on new adventures, and have new successes. I missed him horribly, but that was okay. He had his own life to lead, and I would be doing him a disservice in not allowing him to lead it.

He called frequently, but the one call I never expected to was the one I received on Mother’s Day. I’d considered texting him that morning, to remind him to call his mother. He was 19 years old and sometimes, like most 19 year olds, he was distracted by his day-to-day activities. I resisted the urge to remind him. I felt confident he would remember, and I wanted to give him that autonomy.

Later that night, when my phone rang and I saw it was him calling, it crossed my mind: Is he calling me on Mother’s Day? Has he made the connection?  No, I thought, he just wants to touch base.

When I picked up the phone he jubilantly said, “Happy Mother’s Day!”

I was taken aback. “Are you calling me why I think you’re calling me?” I asked, rather cryptically. He understood my question, and answered in his own light hearted manner, “Yeah, you’re like a second mother to me.”

I laughed, and welcomed the sentiment, loving my son that much more. As men, we tend not to dwell on the sentiment, and we didn’t talk in-depth about the past. What we had to say was already understood. We laughed, we connected, and we embraced the moment.

After we hung up the phone, I thought about the days when I used to wonder whether my son would ever fully understand the passion and dedication that went in to his upbringing.

I reflected on that fateful day we decided to divorce, the worst day of my life. And I thought about all of the special times my son and I have shared since then, and the enduring relationship we’ve formed.

I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to parent him to the fullest extent possible. Second to my son himself, it’s the greatest gift I’ve ever received. And with one phone call on Mother’s Day, I knew my son was deeply grateful for the of the gifts he’d received as well. 

I Need You to Know Something Before You Go to College…

Letting our kids go may be the intent of raising them well, but it doesn’t make it any easier. One dad offers his son words of wisdom.

Our oldest son goes off to college in less than two weeks. Like so many of his friends, he is eager to go. He’s ready to escape the bonds and bounds of home.

He’ll be transitioning from a small southern urban setting of fewer than 100,000 people to our nation’s largest city. He has fervent dreams of excitement, glory, fame, and success.

I wish him all those and more. Mostly, I wish him an abiding sense of peace with who he is, healthy anticipation of who he will become, and an honest respect for who he has been.

I’ve seen him perform with some amazingly talented friends in musicals and dance recitals. I will miss those performances with an aching joy only the parent of a performer can appreciate.

I would offer him some great words of advice and wisdom as he sets off for New York, though I doubt he will take them seriously, provided I could come up with some. After all, like most dads it seems, I’m just the stuffy old guy who drives and cooks on occasion.

But if I could offer any hint of suggestion to my son’s generation as they wade into their lives after high school, I would say this:

1 | You are setting sail into uncharted waters.

Remember that your friends and family are the greatest life supporters you will find. Stay in touch. If you ever want to look over your shoulder to check your bearings, we’re here. That tiny point of light beaming from the shrinking horizon is the love we have for you. It will always be here, shining through the darkest night and most threatening weather.

2 | There will be times when you wish you’d never left home…

…regardless of how badly you want to pack your things and leave TODAY. Whether you’re having a bad day, have the flu, flunk a test, or have an argument with a friend, there will come a time when you catch yourself thinking you should never have made the trip to wherever you are. That’s okay. When that moment comes, call home. Send a text, tweet, or email. It’s just a sign that perhaps home means more to you than you ever imagined. You will have just learned something about yourself and that’s what college is all about.

College is really designed so that you learn as much, or more, about yourself than whatever subject you’re studying.

3 | Study new things.

If you’re an English major, take an accounting course. Majoring in Architecture? Audit a dance class. Spread your wings, your mind, your soul. You will NEVER again have the opportunities for growth, development, exploration, and introspection that you will experience in the next four years. Do the world, and yourself, a big favor: make the most of them.

4 | Learn from all of the people you encounter.

You will meet some of the most amazing people on the planet this fall. They will be your classmates and roommates. You will meet some startlingly strange folks and people you would have to trip over to know they were in the room. ALL of them can, and will, teach you something. Roommates do not have to be friends. It helps. But it’s not mandatory.

5 | Take advantage of every club and association you can.

I was lucky enough to be active in theatre, the school newspaper, the radio station, and fulfilling work-study duties in the college public relations department within the first month of classes. I had a great childhood growing up as a country boy far from everything. I had an even greater college experience because I tried almost everything available to me.

6 | Be true to yourself.

There will be great opportunities you should seize with both hands so you can squeeze out every advantage you can. There will also be opportunities you should shun with every fiber of your being. Free your mind and your soul, but don’t lose your head or your good sense just to fit in with what someone else says you should become.

7 | Remember that you’re stepping up to a new league.

When you were in high school, you were probably just about the best in school at what you’re good at. In college, EVERYONE in your field will be good at what you’re good at. Whether you’re moving up to a major university or a small private school, you will have levels of competition you have never experienced. Be ready. Be strong. Learn from it. This is the time to learn how to handle rejection and defeat. Success doesn’t come from never losing. It comes from never stopping. As our good friend Winston said, “Never, never, never, never give up.”

8 | Go out and make yourself proud.

Don’t worry about making your mom and dad proud. We were proud enough to pop when you came home from preschool with your first smiley-face sticker. I’m sure we still have some of your gold stars from kindergarten, too. Every time you walked out on stage, or stepped on the playing field, or tuned your instrument, or aced a test, or helped a friend or stranger when they needed it, we were prouder of you than we believed possible.

We always will be.

Now is the time to begin the process of making yourself proud. Step out in faith and with courage and do things that 10, 25, even 50 years from now, you can look back and say, “I’m glad I did that.” You don’t have to invent the better mousetrap or a longer-lasting lightbulb or cure a disease no one can pronounce. Just put a smile in someone’s heart, a warm feeling in their soul, and make their world, and yours, a calmer, safer, more wonderful place to live. Believe it or not, most days, you can do that with a kind word and a hug.

Attack life with all your heart, mind, soul, and spirit. The story is told by a former major league baseball player that his first at-bat was against Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, the all-time leader in strikeouts. The rookie stepped to his manager and asked, “You have any advice for me?” The manager replied, “Yeah. Swing hard in case you hit it.”

Go hit a home run. Mom and I will be cheering from the stands.

Dear Son, Now That You Have a Girlfriend…

You now have a girlfriend. You’ve talked, tweeted, and texted with other girls over the past couple of years, but this one is different. You spend time together; a LOT of time together. You share many of the same interests and likes. Obviously, this girl is something different. She’s something special.

But she’s not the only one who’s special. You have a great family and some other wonderful friends. Please do yourself a favor and don’t forget about them.

It’s easy to get swept away by the powerful current of a new love. Especially when that love is as young as yours. You want to spend every waking moment with this new person who means so much to you and other interests, other people, other relationships, can be left behind to flounder in the wake of your current fascination.

As much as you may love the new person in your life, cling to those whom have been with you all along. Go fishing with your buddies. Go shopping with your mom. Hang out with your dad. Call up a friend and toss a ball around. Take advantage of the opportunities you have now while you are still young and relatively responsibility-free to strengthen these other relationships that will also be important to you in the years to come.

You may think that you will always have time later on to hang out with your friends or visit with your parents, but time is a liar and a thief. Time will wave a calendar with thousands of blank pages in your face and boldly tell you how many opportunities you have coming to do those other things “someday.” Yet the hand not holding that calendar will be greedily stealing all those opportunities so quickly you never even see them disappear.

Until they’re all gone.

Do not misunderstand me. Enjoy your new love. Relish the concept that another human being is so hungry for your presence that they don’t want to share you with anyone else. But keep in mind that she isn’t the only one. Many more of us are standing in line, waiting our turn.

If this girl is as special as you believe, and your parents hope, then she won’t mind sharing you with your other friends. That shows she trusts you and is mature enough not to monopolize your time and attention. She will help you figure out how to be a gentleman and how to conduct yourself in an array of social settings you haven’t considered yet. That’s good.

What’s better is if she becomes part of your life, and you of hers, but neither of you becomes the entirety of the other’s existence. There are others in your world who love and need you, and whom you love and need in return. Sometimes you just need a little reminder of that.

In a Culture of Low Expectations, What Makes a Great Dad Great?

Fathers are held to a far lower standard than moms. That doesn’t mean that dads shouldn’t aim higher.

“I love you, daddy! You’re the best daddy in the world.”

Life doesn’t get much better than hearing those words. Whatever we could wish for in our lives, nothing means more than that.

As a single parent there is another side of the coin: “I miss you I Daddy.” It’s always hard to hear, and I have yet to find any suitable words of consolation beyond reassurance that, “You’ll see daddy again soon.”

As far as being a single parent goes I’m one of the lucky ones – lucky being a very relative term here – in that I have joint custody of my children and share in the everyday minutiae that are among the rewards of being a parent. I guess it is to the credit of each of us as parents that this arrangement was agreed upon between my ex-wife and me with no debate or argument. It was a given from the get-go (or rather, the get-gone).  

While traversing the terrain of single life and single parenthood, I’ve heard from people other than my children that I’m a “great dad.” However, the impact of their words landing is a little rougher. I have to be honest, at times it can rankle. Not in a personal way – it’s intended as a compliment and is accepted as such and I wouldn’t be so graceless as to throw a compliment back in somebody’s face – but it kind of niggles nonetheless.

It seems to me that when it comes to parenting, the expectations that society carries are laden overwhelmingly on mothers. At every step, from pregnancy to birth and beyond, a mother’s choices are questioned and scrutinized far more than a father’s. Natural birth or C-section? To breastfeed or not to breastfeed? To work full-time, part-time or to be a full-time mom? To buy prepared baby food or to make your own?

The list goes on, and with the answer to each question comes the inevitable weight of judgement. Judgement that seems to evade fathers.  

This becomes very apparent as a single father where the very fact that you actually want to spend as much time as you can with your children and share in their upbringing (you know, fulfilling your responsibilities) marks you out as a “great dad.” This prevailing social attitude of giving credit to fathers for something so basic is unfair both to men and to women.

Within such a culture, women are laden with unfair, “Superwoman” levels of expectation, while men are expected to be well-meaning, bumbling incompetents who deserve a round of applause for managing to wipe the right end (presuming of course that they would actually dare to attempt to change a diaper in the first place).

As a single dad who shares custody of his children I don’t feel I’m doing anything special. On the contrary, I can’t conceive of any reason why I would accept any less than that. But maybe I’m in a minority; if my conversations with single mothers are anything to go by then I definitely am, as I am staggered by the amount of men who choose to spend as little as two evenings per week with their children. Some see their children even less than that.

Surely, surely the least that our children can expect of us is that we are there for them, a constant physical presence in their lives. I don’t doubt that the majority of parents love their children but love isn’t enough. Loving our kids is easy, it’s hardwired into us; but love is more than a feeling, it’s an action repeated in the small things we do each and every day.

Love is a good feeling, but many of the actions that love requires of us don’t feel good, at least not while we’re doing them. Love requires sacrifice; it can be unpleasant, tedious, repetitive, and, frankly, a pain. There’s a name for this: parental responsibility. And this applies to fathers every bit as much as it does to mothers. Our social expectations ought to reflect that.

I said that we owe our children our physical presence but that isn’t enough. In today’s technologically connected world there is a danger that children are at increasing risk of losing out on the one thing they want more than anything else from their parents: their attention.

Young children in particular are attention junkies with a need for an audience that could humble a Kardashian. There are few scenes as indicative of increasingly normalized contemporary parental neglect as the one that played itself out next to me while eating a pub meal this week: a two- or three-year-old boy’s futile attempts to pry his daddy’s attention from the screen of a mobile phone. For an hour this child climbed, kicked, and craved recognition; he succeeded in getting the attention of everybody but the one person that mattered to him.

I’m not perfect and my parenting routine (routine, ha!) is far from a well-oiled machine. I can be snappy, and I overuse questions such as, “How many pairs of hands does Daddy have?” and, “How many things can Daddy do at once?” I’ve been asked on more than one occasion why there is no clean underwear in the drawers.  

But still, I’m a great dad, you know.

Actually (my daughter’s current word of choice), it doesn’t matter if you know. What matters is that my kids know. They don’t think I’m great because I see them once a week and tell the world how much I love them on Facebook, but because I am a stable, constant, and loving presence in their lives.

They can, and should, expect nothing less. Neither should we.  

10 Things Every Awesome Dad Does

Awesome dads make the world a better place and we need more of them.

When my wife takes our two kids to the grocery store, people look at her and think: “There’s a mom doing her job.”

When I take our kids to the grocery store, people hand me gifts and erupt in songs of praise around me: “What kind of angelic man is this who takes care of his own children??” 

It’s not fair to moms, plain and simple. But what I’m talking about here is not this backwards way of thinking – that a dad who does anything is basically a hero. No, I’m talking about the dad who goes out of his way to put his family first, who does everything he can to make his wife feel loved and supported, and who sees himself as an equal parent when it comes to raising and loving his kids. 

Awesome dads make the world a better place and we need more of them. If your husband, dad, or friend is really nailing being a dad, tell him so. Us dads not only need help figuring out specifically what we’re doing that works, we also need to hear that we’re doing it well.

Here are 10 things every awesome dad does:

1 | He tells his wife and daughters that they’re beautiful.

I don’t fully understand it, but there is something special, almost holy, about a husband telling his wife, and a dad telling his daughter, that she is beautiful. Awesome dads understand this and are intentional about constantly sending this message. 

2 | He sets up time for his wife to be “off duty.” 

The first half of Saturday is my wife’s time. She’s had to deal with a three-year-old and an 18-month-old for five days straight while I got to do things like go to the bathroom by myself and sit in a chair for a while. Awesome dads understand how tiring kids can be and intentionally set up “off duty” times for mom.

3 | He doesn’t “help with” chores – he does them.

My 18-month-old daughter ate a PB&J sandwich yesterday and by that, I mean she ground it into about 6,000 pieces and smashed the crumbs into her hair, clothes, and on the floor all around her. My wife didn’t ask me to clean it up. I saw the mess and simply cleaned it up. Awesome dads understand they are members of the household and, as such, are equally responsible for keeping things clean(ish).

4 | He is emotionally in-tune with himself.

A dad who can express love, talk deeply, genuinely apologize, empathize, and know when and why he’s feeling a certain way is a huge, huge advantage to his family. Emotionally in-tune dads are awesome dads, period.

5 | He disciplines his kids without being told to.

The other day, my son stole a toy car right out of the hands of my daughter and I was standing right there to watch it. What did I do? I did absolutely nothing. My wife had to come over and enforce a consequence. You see, this is one of those times where I screwed up. Every other time this happens (well, a lot of the time), I’m right in the thick of it enforcing consequences. Awesome dads understand that if they don’t discipline now, their kids will turn into hellions later.

6 | He romances his wife.

Date nights, pointed compliments, affectionate touches… An awesome dad understands that one of the best things he can do for his kids is to make his wife the priority.

7 | He plays hard with his kids. 

I have a good friend who repaired an old busted kite he found at the beach using rubber bands and an crab leg or something. I helped him “launch” it and as he ran down the beach with the kite bouncing off the sand, it struck me that this dude was dadding right. Yes, the kite was a total bust, but he nailed his true goal which was to make his whole family (and mine) laugh. Awesome dads understand how meaningful playtime with dad is and, because of this, put forward the extra energy required to make it happen. 

8 | He provides stability when life is uncertain.

Sometimes things get hard: money, health issues, etc. Awesome dads understand the value in having a “we’re going to get through this” mentality for their family.

9 | He wakes up at night to help with the baby. 

Awesome dads share the burden of having to wake up in the middle of the night. 

10 | He prioritizes family over work.

Work is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for dads. We traditionally have seen ourselves as the provider and, sometimes, we use this role to justify spending too much time at the office. Awesome dads can be hard workers, excel at what they do, and even work a lot of hours for periods of time; however, they are intentional about putting their families first both in mindset and in time prioritization.  

How Involved Dads Boost Their Baby’s Brain Development

We all know that a baby needs a loving mother to maximize the chances of growing up to be a happy and successful adult. But how important is a dad?

We all know that a baby needs a loving mother to maximize its chances to grow up as a happy and successful child. But how important is a dad?

When my son was born I quickly had the impression that he didn’t need me at all. He was constantly seeking contact with my wife, and barely noticing me. I was already telling myself that I would get more involved once he could speak and walk, and that in the meantime I could focus on doing well in my career. At least I was contributing as the main provider for the family.

However, it wasn’t long before my wife was ready to chop off my head for not lifting a finger to help her with our son. I quickly realized that my days as a passive dad were numbered, and that I had a choice between accepting some father duties, or becoming a headless horseman. You can guess which option I picked.

But I do have to admit that despite good intentions, becoming more involved was a bit scary, initially. After all, our son looked so small and vulnerable. I had no idea what to do with Rafael and thought I would never be able manage him the way his mother does.

So I started helping with some basic chores – after receiving exact instructions from my wife – like feeding him and changing his diapers. To my surprise, Rafael and I quickly developed our own special bond, and were soon spending more and more quality time together. Ever since, our moments together have become a daily highlight.

This is when I started realizing what an important role I could have in his upbringing.  In fact, more and more studies are confirming the benefits of involved dads. For example, one study found that babies with absent fathers suffer from poorer peer relationships and school results later on in life. Another study suggests that babies with involved dads enjoy better language skills.

Involved dads = successful children

So why are dads so important for the development of our little ones?

Well, first of all, a baby needs full time attention. A mother can probably handle all the baby’s basic needs, often at the expense of feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. By having two parents involved, we can instantly improve both the quality and quantity of care and guidance a child receives.

Secondly, the first two to three years of a baby’s life are so crucial for brain development (and hence for a positive childhood) that any productive stimulation is extremely valuable. A baby’s intelligence and character are not genetically hardwired. Experiences and influences from significant people shape the architecture of a child’s brain. This leads to the simple equation: the more positive stimulation a child enjoys, the more opportunities she or he will have to develop.

Let me share two facts that really got me thinking about how crucial it is for a baby to have both parents involved:

1 | A baby’s brain develops at a tremendous speed.

A child is born with almost the same number of neurons as adults, but stored in a brain that is about 75% smaller, and with almost no neural connections. During its first six months, this brain will double in size, and by the age of three it will have reached around 80% of the size of an adult brain.

During this time, the simple structure of a baby’s brain quickly transforms itself into a true network of neural connections, forming more synapses than it ever will again during adult years – up to 700 connections a second. In other words, this is the time a baby uses every experience to learn and evolve its cognitive functions.

For example, the first year is crucial for learning languages as a baby will be extremely sensitive to various sounds. At the same time, this window of accelerated learning is not available for too long, as this surplus of neural connections will eventually be eliminated in what is often referred to as ‘’blooming and pruning.”

Around one year, the connections for a child’s native language will have been reinforced at the expense of other sounds.  This is why I speak German to our son, my wife speaks Russian, and together we speak English. While this may sound a bit bizarre, it also means we are stimulating his brain, and hopefully facilitating his ability to be fluent in several languages.

 

dad holding baby

 

 

2 | Dads have a unique way of interacting with their children.

Studies have shown that although mothers usually spend more time with their little ones, fathers have a greater influence with regards to a baby’s later success or failure at school or with friends. This is probably because the relationship between fathers and children evokes such powerful emotions.

For instance, fathers often engage in more physical, exciting types of games than mothers, allowing a baby to experience a whole range of feelings. By doing so, dads not only encourage an infant to take the occasional risk, but also help him or her to regulate emotions, one of the key characteristics of happy and successful people. This is especially so if a dad uses a positive and encouraging tone while communicating with his child.

A baby also watches for cues from its father to distinguish behaviors related to play time from those that signal that it’s time to wind down and relax. Over time, your child learns the invaluable skill of self-soothing, something that even many adults don’t master properly. By learning to manage their own inner world, it becomes much easier for children to relate to other people, which is why they become so much more social.

The bottom line is that involved dads make a huge difference for the development of babies, and help them prosper with social relationships and academics later on in life. 

At this stage you may be concerned that by investing more time into your family, you will be losing valuable time working on your career. I can tell you that initially I was wondering how I would manage scheduling quality time with my son, while remaining efficient at work.

I quickly realized, though, that planning some family time gave me an opportunity to structure my day with more discipline, become more productive, and use the joyful moments together to boost my energy and motivation at work. In fact, my son was becoming the best possible high performance coach, but an angel-like and pooping one, which made his support even more awesome.

Remember that the earlier you become involved with your baby, the better. Sharing core duties like diapering, feeding, bathing, or otherwise caring for your baby from an early age creates a bond from the start, and will increase the likelihood of spending regular quality time together later on.

The best news is that you don’t need to be amazing in your fathering skills: According to W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, even ‘’good enough dads’’ appear to make a real difference in their children’s lives.