Repeat after me…

Over the past few weeks I’ve been intrigued by both the NFL and Lean In attempting to persuade people to not use certain words. According to reports, the NFL is considering making it a penalty for a player to use the N-word on the field. Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and others have started a campaign to #banbossy. I know of other campaigns to ban words from our daily usage as well. While in high school, my oldest daughter alerted me to the campaign Spread the Word to Stop the Word in relation to the term retarded. I know there are other words that people or groups have tried to ban, also with perfectly legitimate reasons. However, I don’t want to debate the merit of any of these campaigns. I’d rather look at childhood language development since I’m viewing this through the lens of a dad with young children.

As a parent, and specifically as a SAHD (but this applies to any At Home parent) because I’m around my kids so much, I have a huge influence on the development of my children. I am fully aware of this critical role I play in their lives and that’s one of the many reasons I chose to become a SAHD over 13 years ago. One of the biggest areas of influence is in the words I choose to use with my kids. And in front of my kids. They learn how to talk and what words to use from how I speak around them. Back in 1998, when my oldest was only three years old, my younger brother brought his girlfriend to meet us all for the first time. At some point during their visit his girlfriend said “stupid” in a playful manner about something. My daughter heard it and told her very seriously, “We don’t say that word in our family.” To this day they still joke with my daughter about that incident (my little brother married her despite her potty mouth). I wish that I could report that the term “stupid” is never uttered in our house. The point of that cute story is to illustrate that language is learned and can be guided. I go back to my own childhood for a not-so-cute memory about the word nigger.

I remember being in the back seat of my grandpa’s large Buick sedan as we drove from Lake Michigan back to his house across town in Racine, Wisconsin. To get back to his house we had to go through a part of town that wasn’t middle-class white. Being born in 1902, my grandpa used the term nigger like it was no big deal when talking about black people. Although, in this particular instance he was using it in a rather derogatory manner because he probably felt threatened by the black people “taking over” his beloved city. Was he racist? Most likely. He died in 1990 when I was only 17 so I can’t really speak to his thoughts about black people. But, I can say that his use of that term was very jarring for me. It wasn’t a word we used in my house. Looking back at that memory makes me appreciate the fact that I never heard my own father use that term even though he grew up with a father who used it. My father chose to break away from the pattern of his childhood in how he raised his family. I’ll be forever grateful to him for that choice. I know plenty of people today who still use that term to try to express their hate and vitriol for black people. It’s probably one of the most loaded and vile words in the English language. Even typing the word nigger for this post makes me very uncomfortable. (My guess is that it makes you equally uncomfortable to read it and that’s the point!) It is a word that I don’t use and have never even typed before because it is so terribly offensive and hurtful. My nine year old son had never heard of the term when I asked him about it before writing this post. So, I explained a little bit about it and made him promise to never use that word and to speak up if he ever hears someone else use it. While a small piece of his childhood innocence was lost in that conversation I hope that I’ve begun to instill in him a sense of moral and civic responsibility to speak up when people use words like nigger (or retarded, faggot, homo, etc.) which are meant to hurt and demean others. I asked my 14 and 12 year old daughters if they knew what the term meant and they both told me that they learned about it in school from teachers. My 14 year old said, “I know it’s bad. Besides, it’s not like you and mom ever use that word.” So, since I don’t use the N-word at all, much less around my kids. I must be a great dad, right?

Not so fast! I’ve been fortunate enough to be a SAHD for many years. One of the things I get to do is drive my kids to/from school and all over the place as we do stuff together. While I don’t swear at all or beep my horn much, I do enjoy venting a little bit at the stupid (we don’t say that word, either!) drivers who are constantly surrounding me. It’s not even on the scale of road rage or anything like that. Just some good sarcastic humor to help me cope with their stupidity (sorry again). Only problem is that I’ve got ears in the back seat with a mouth that repeats. This point was illustrated not too long ago when my adorable three year old noticed the Prius ahead of us not moving when the light turned green. Naturally, she admonished the driver to go, saying “Come on old lady, find the gas pedal!”. While I was proud that she was contextually correct in the application of her language, I was appalled at what I’d just heard. When my daughter opened her mouth, I heard myself. Pretty sobering. It was at that moment that I decided that I needed to curb my comments, although once in a while a “Learn how to drive!” or “Roundabouts just aren’t that hard!” flies out of my pie-hole before I realize it.

By sharing these different stories I’m trying to raise awareness about the importance of the words we each choose to use. And yes, it’s a choice. How we talk to and in front of our children can, does and will influence what words they choose to use. It also tells a lot about the kind of person we each are on the inside. If we, as parents, would choose to use our words to build up and encourage one another instead of to tear down, then we wouldn’t need to have campaigns to ban certain words. And that starts at home with us, setting expectations for our children while being mindful of the influence that we have on their development. They’re always watching us and absorbing like big sponges. The bottom line is that our words have power.; the power to build up or the power to tear down. I’ll leave you with one last anecdote that just happened today. As we were driving, one of my older kids said the word “stupid” and my three year old said, “Oooh. You’re going to get in trouble. My daddy doesn’t allow his kids use that word!” Message received and delivered.

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Bad Dad: Seeking Forgiveness

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Saturday started out on the right foot. I woke up and went to the YMCA to hit the elliptical machine for a 45 minute workout while my wife fed breakfast to our youngest children. Upon my return home I was back in charge of them so she could shower. Without going into the details, some of my older children got into a conflict while I was “in charge”. In a few moments of poor parenting I made some choices that I wish I could take back. But, since there’s no “EASY” button like in those Staples ads, I had to endure the consequences of my poor parenting choices. The peaceful Saturday morning had been shattered, replaced with a tension and uneasiness because I didn’t handle the conflict between two of my children appropriately. I actually caused it to escalate by my actions. With one of my kids crying in a bedroom and another with me in the kitchen while I fed my baby breakfast I began to realize the depth of my parenting failure that morning.

I started to replay the events in my mind, trying to justify my behavior so that I wouldn’t feel so bad about how I’d (mis)handled the conflict. Before I could get too far into that line of thinking my wife came into the kitchen to let me know that I’d royally screwed up that morning. She didn’t say it exactly that way, but that’s the version I’m sticking with. And I knew she was right. Even in my defensive state of mind I was still able to recognize truth. I knew that I needed to apologize to both of my kids for the way I had acted in response to their conflict. As a parent, I’m usually able to keep my cool and respond appropriately. In this instance, I had failed to do that and had failed them. I knew better. And they deserved better. So, there it was. I owed them each an apology.

The good news is that when I was very young my parents taught me how to apologize and seek forgiveness whenever I wronged someone else. The bad news is that I’ve had way too much practice doing that over the years. In all seriousness, though, I’ve learned that most people will accept an apology if they can see and understand that I’m truly sorry. Many are almost caught off-guard when asked to forgive me. There’s a look that they give me that’s a mix of wonder, shock and gratitude. Unfortunately, as a parent I make mistakes. However, each time that I do I try to use it as an opportunity to grow as a parent and to model for my children how to apologize. This time was no different. I went to each child and explained how I had messed up and how I would handle the conflict in the future if it were to arise. Then I apologized and asked forgiveness. It’s especially hard for me to do that when I can see the hurt that I’ve caused in the eyes of my child. Thankfully, each of them forgave me and we’re moving on from it.

I guess that’s the other part of the “forgiveness” lesson I’ve learned over the years. While seeking forgiveness is important, being willing to grant forgiveness is truly the key. I could go on and on about the importance of forgiveness but I’ll try to leave it with this: Forgiving the mistakes of others is the key to happy and healthy relationships. Life is too precious to live in the land of UN-forgiveness.

PS-That’s supposed to be a “bad” or “scary” face. Don’t laugh. It’s the best I could come up with. It’s not like I was planning on blogging about a parenting fail. 🙂

Lego time

“Dad, will you please help me build my Lego airplane?”. It was a very simple request by my nine year old son as I walked by his room last night. I paused before responding, thinking of the kitchen that needed tidying and laundry that needed folding before I went to bed. But, instead of using those excuses, I decided that it was a perfect time for some father-son Lego building. The chores would have to wait. As I entered his room his face lit with a smile and I knew that I had chosen wisely.

The Lego plane he was building had a booklet of 51 steps for it to be fully assembled. Yeah, fifty one! To complicate matters slightly was the fact that he had taken apart all of his (previously-assembled) Lego kits and separated all of the bricks by color in their own plastic bins. So, for each step we had to open the plastic box (he’s very organized!) that corresponded to that brick’s color and find it. Think “needle in a haystack” for every single brick.

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But, I had checked my attitude at the door and, instead of feeling frustrated at how long this was taking, I cheerfully worked with him on this project. What was interesting was how he started talking while we were working together, sharing his thoughts about school, friends and other stuff that was important to him. It reminded me again of why I choose to be a StayAt Home Dad: for a moment like this where I can simply leave everything else for a while and devote my entire attention to my child. No distractions.

After well over an hour of this easy-going time together I gave him a warning that it would be time to clean up and go to sleep in 15 minutes. Instead of the usual complaining and delaying, he nodded. When the time came, we worked together to quickly put the hundreds of Lego bricks away in their proper boxes. He didn’t complain even one time that the airplane wasn’t finished. Instead, he thanked me for spending so much time with him and requested more “Lego time” with me for the next day (today). After he crawled under his covers and we prayed together, I leaned over to give him a hug and kiss. He surprised me by not letting go of me as quickly as he normally does and told me, “I love you, Dad. Good night.”

I gently closed his door and stood there silently in the hall, wondering why I had even paused at his initial request. The chores were going to have to get used to waiting. This kind of quality time was far more important.

Free Parking

On Tuesday morning one of my kids had a doctor appointment at 8:30, with check-in time 15 minutes prior. Despite the inevitable “poop-the-diaper-moments-before-it’s-time-to-leave” efforts of my baby (yes, I changed it before we left), we were approaching the clinic right on time. Except for one thing. Parking. Since we have six kids we ditched our minivan and roll with a white 12-passenger (former airport shuttle) van. Or the “creeper van” as my kids call it. Whatever you call it, it’s a beast to park since it’s taller than most underground parking structures, this clinic included. That leaves street parking as the only viable option. And most of those spots are snatched much earlier by the clinic staff.

When we were about 5 minutes into the 15 minute drive to the clinic I said a quick and informal prayer asking God to provide us a close parking space so that we could be on time. It’s a habit I formed several years ago after a pastor challenged us to do so in a sermon about inviting God into our everyday, mundane part of life. Over the years my kids have heard me pray it aloud and have seen it work effectively, to their amazement. It’s also provided an opportunity to discuss the importance and role of faith and prayer in my life. I suppose it’s another perk of being a stay-at-home-dad; living out my faith in the nuts and bolts of life with my kids.

When we were about to turn the corner by the clinic I uttered a slightly more urgent version of my parking request, finishing it with a slight challenge. “Ok, God. Do your thing.” I meant no disrespect by it. But I probably should’ve worded it differently. After all, I’ve lived long enough to see that God has a sense of humor.

Thankfully, God also has a sense of compassion. My challenge to God had barely left my lips when I saw the red brake lights and white reverse lights illuminate on a car parked in one of the three spots closest to the clinic entrance. In our family we call that “rockstar parking”. As I waited for the car to pull out I humbly thanked Him for such a swift and obvious answer to my request. My three year old told me that our van wouldn’t fit between the parked cars. She had no need to worry as I parallel parked the beast like a rockstar…no prayer needed!

I hope that sharing this incident encourages and challenges you to invite God to help you in the boring things of life to help build not only your faith but also that of your children. Please don’t think of me as a saint or anything like that. I mess up many times each day. Sadly, it’s more than enough to live out the concepts of mercy, grace and forgiveness before my family. Let me know if you take up the parking challenge. I’d love to read about your experience.

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Reach out and touch someone

I like to hug. There. I said it. I’m a giant and I like to hug. And that weirds a lot of people out. Even my own kids at times. I wasn’t always a huggy kind of a guy. I used to be more of a hearty handshake and maybe a man-hug. Make sure to lean at the waist and don’t linger. That could be uncomfortable. Personal bubble invasion issues. The only people I gave “real” hugs were my parents and my wife. That worked for me reasonably well until I became a father at age 22. After my baby was born I showered her with all kinds of affectionate hugs and kisses and life was good. My wife and I were blessed with two more daughters over the next seven years. During that time I quit my job teaching and became a full time stay at home dad. Our daughters were affectionately loved and cared for by us. We held hands while walking together to the park. My girls climbed into my lap to read stories. They started giving me “fall-over” hugs where they would get a running start and leap into my arms and we’d fall over and laugh and hug. By the time my son was born in 2004 my oldest daughter was nine and had already started to pull back ever so slightly from the hugs and hand holding. She was growing up. Determined to still be affectionate with her (and my other kids as they grew up) I made an effort to give them each a hug at bed time. They didn’t really like it. Unfortunately, I didn’t persist. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized I wasn’t really having as much physical contact with my kids once they became 8-10 years old as I had when they were younger. As I thought about it some more I realized that was kind of the way it was with my own dad when I was a kid. My mom tended to be more affectionate and my dad would be more of the disciplinarian. I knew he loved me but he certainly wasn’t super huggy or physically affectionate. I didn’t really know what to do with my own kids, how to change our attitudes and perceptions about hugs and other physical affection without it being “awkward”.

Then my dad got sick. In early 2007, at age 66, my health-conscious and fit father, was diagnosed with pancreatitis and was hospitalized several times over the course of a couple of months. Turns out that first diagnosis was a little off, because at the end of March, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Weeks to live. Maybe a few months. We were all in shock. But what happened to me as a result of that awful experience was that I rediscovered my inner teddy bear.

As I said before, I’m kind of a giant. I’m 6’8″ tall. I have to duck to avoid hitting my head when I go through most doors. I’m a nice guy but (apparently) a little intimidating when others see me. But cancer didn’t care. My dad’s cancer and six week journey through hospice leading to his death that May six years ago transformed me in many ways. Perhaps the most significant was the power of human touch. As my friends learned of my father’s condition they often expressed their concern and support and asked what they could do to help. That was all very thoughtful and much appreciated. One friend, a neighborhood mom that I’ve known since our oldest daughters started school together, saw me at the grocery store and asked about my dad. Upon hearing my grim report, she simply walked over and gave me a hug. No words needed. Not sexual. Just one human comforting another. Beautiful. After my dad passed away there were many people who offered their condolences at his service. While the memories people shared were nice to hear, it was the physical touch – holding hands and hugging – that were the most comforting.

Recently I came across an article on http://www.goodmenproject.com that talked about how we, as men, are missing out on the benefits of gentle, platonic touch with other people. That struck such a chord with me and stirred up my memories that I just shared. And it caused me to examine my own life and how I parent my kids. Why is it that my 3 year old daughter excitedly holds my hand when we’re walking but her older sisters and brother wouldn’t be caught dead doing that? Is there something that I could do to change that? Why does one of my older kids ask me to give her a hug many nights before going to bed when another one literally almost punches me if I try to hug or kiss her? I don’t have the answers. Interestingly, though, my only son is nine. And he and I have a pretty close relationship. While he doesn’t hold my hand, he wants me to put him to bed every night and allows me to hug and kiss him (cheek only!) before sleep. But he won’t let my wife hug or kiss him.

One of the many things I love about the church my family attends is the real sense of community there. I noticed it from the first moment of the first day we walked in. In the ensuing 20 months since that first visit I’ve gotten to know a lot of the men who also call that their church home. While I’m not particularly close to a lot of the guys what’s really struck me is the level of the brotherly love at my church. And the hugs. Not the awkward hugs like I described in the first paragraph. Real hugs where you actually embrace the other person and hug. It’s amazing. Once in a while I’ll forget where I am and extend my hand to a guy only to have my arm practically yanked off as he pulls me into an embrace. And that was my buddy Rob who is maybe 5’6″ but with a huge heart. Going to church each week and getting hugged has really helped my emotional and spiritual well being. I’m forced to be real. About a month ago my buddy Kyle greeted me and I half-heartedly gave him a hug and pulled back. He looked at me and admonished me to “Do it like you mean it, bro!”. And gave me one of the biggest bear hugs imaginable. I guess I should mention that Kyle is a former offensive lineman and stands about 6’4″. He’s almost as big as the senior pastor (another former O-lineman) who also gives great hugs. Until becoming a part of this particular church community I had rarely experienced the brotherly love and support from others that comes from physical touch.

As a SAHD I have the unique opportunity to literally touch the lives of my children in both a figurative and literal sense. I want them to know the power of human touch in a positive way. I need to challenge myself to empower my kids to express their feelings and emotions through positive platonic touch. Follow AT&T’s advice from the 80s and “reach out and touch someone”.

No go find someone to hug.

Who’s the Boss?

The following questions were raised by a fellow Stay At Home Dad (SAHD) online Tuesday and there was a lot of feedback/discussion among the rest of us SAHDs. He asked us these two questions: “Do you think that a marriage with a SAHD situation somehow makes the working wife/mother feel empowered over her SAHD husband? Do you guys feel you have lost some of your status as head of the household?”. I didn’t have the time earlier in the day to compose my thoughts, but now that my wife and kids are all asleep and the kitchen is clean (for a few hours, at least) I’m going to try to put my thoughts into words.

I’m going to address the questions in reverse order. I’m not entirely sure what it means, in 2013, to have the status of “Head of Household” (HoH). That seems to be an antiquated term from more traditional times when the “breadwinner” was the husband and the wife stayed at home with their children. I’m thinking of stereotypical times like those portrayed in “Leave it to Beaver” that were played out across this country for a long time. For me, and I’m sure many others my age (I’m 41) and younger, those times are long gone. My wife and I try to partner together to run our family. Sure, it’s a non-traditional setup compared to the Cleavers but it works for us. When my wife and I were married at age 20 neither of us really knew a lot about what it would take to run our house. But we learned, together, and with the love and support and advice of our families and friends, we’ve been doing this for almost 21 years now. What I personally learned was that being the HoH was less important than being a supportive husband and father. Even before I quit my teaching career to become a SAHD my wife and I shared the role of HoH. We shared. We worked together. I learned that I got great fulfillment in serving my wife and kids, so much that I was willing to give up my career to stay home with our kids so my wife could pursue her advanced degree and career. So, I guess the answer to that question is no. I don’t feel like I lost my status as HoH because I never really grabbed at it in the first place.

Backing up a little bit, what exactly does the term “Head of Household mean? Is it the person who earns the most money? The person in charge of finances? The person who works at a job and earns money (instead of hugs and kisses!)? The person who runs the finances and pays the bills? The person who takes care of the kids? I think that term is somewhat outdated now because so many couples tend to share many of the aforementioned tasks (and there are many more). In our marriage we’ve each assumed all of those roles at different points. It hasn’t always been easy. In fact, having such a non-traditional gender role-reversal has been very difficult at times. In 2000, when I first started my now 13 year career as a SAHD, my grandfather expressed his deep concern over this choice. You see, he came from the “old school” way of specific gender roles and rules that you just don’t mess with. I wish he were still alive because I like to think he’d be pretty pleased with how it’s worked out for us. Not always smooth sailing, but we’re still journeying together.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that I feel like I’m more of the “Head” of our household because I’m a SAHD. Because of the demands of my wife’s education and career choice (she’s a doctor) I’m the one who is able to really pour myself into the daily lives of our kids. I’m the one bringing them to/from school, feeding them a snack and listening about their day once they get home, going to the park, and so on. I really know them because I’m home with them all the time. Since I’m around them so much I have the opportunity to really set the tone for their emotional, physical, mental and spiritual well-being. It’s a responsibility that I cherish and it motivates me daily to be the best father possible.

I think the first question is the trickier one to answer, which is part of why I saved it for last. To be 100% honest, I don’t think it’s the SAHD setup that makes a wife feel “empowered” over her SAHD husband. At least it doesn’t have to be that way. If your relationship is based on mutual serving or submission (I know, that’s a hot word for some people) then neither spouse would feel “empowered” if one worked outside of the home and one stayed at home to care for their family. That said, I think that the type of guy who would be willing to give up his career to be a full time SAHD is generally one who is more willing to serve. He probably values relationships with other more than being right or in control. On the flip side, the wife of the SAHD is often a highly-driven and intelligent Type-A person. Such a person would naturally be (or at least perceived to be) “empowered over” her SAHD husband because of their different personalities. Probably one of the biggest challenges for me over the years I’ve been a SAHD had been to maintain that balance in the relationship with my wife. She comes home from a job where she is in charge. There are people who are paid to listen to her and to anticipate her needs so that she can do her job better. And when she gets home, well, she’s not “doctor” here; she’s “mommy” and “sweetie”. And we don’t respond to her like her co-workers. I’m pretty certain that a similar challenge faces the working dad when he comes home to an at home mom. Only we’ve been conditioned to believe that’s okay because it’s traditional gender roles.

So to answer the first question directly, I’m going to really ride the fence. Being a SAHD could certainly lead the wife to feel a sense of “power” over her husband IF power and control are more valuable to her than a healthy relationship. In our society money is often equated with power. So, for all parents (dad or mom) who choose to serve their families at home instead of out in the work place they’re at a disadvantage right off the bat IF the working parent tries to make that power grab. But such a power grab is truly a slap in the face to the parent who is at home. It’s basically telling him or her that the only thing that matters is the size of your paycheck. And that’s total B.S. If you both agreed to the at home parent arrangement in the first place such a tactic is a really low blow. Besides, the sacrifices of the at home parent are what enable the working parent to freely go off to work each day, knowing that the rest of the family is going to be taken care of all day long. And that knowledge is PRICELESS.

That said, I believe both parents have to recognize the challenges they’re facing so that neither one feels like they’re giving or taking too much in the relationship. It’s such a delicate balancing act that constantly needs fine tuning. It’s often easier to ignore a slight shift in behavior to try to keep the peace. But the problem doing that means one person is going to feel hurt while the other doesn’t even know it. I think the keys to making the SAHD (or mom) option work for a couple are communication, forgiveness and love.

Appreciation

One of the great things about being a stay at home dad is getting to know the friends of my children. My son has a good friend I’ll call X. They often get to hang out at our house after school and are even on the same soccer team. A few weeks ago X’s dad started a new job and was working longer hours as he became acclimated there. As a result, he asked me if it would be okay for his son to come over to our house after school on days they had soccer games. That way X would be able to get to his game on time. I was glad to help out my friend and his son. As a bonus, my son got to have his buddy over a little bit more often than usual. Following the third game that I’d helped with X, his dad sent me a simple text. “Hey Carl! Thanks for your help with X. I appreciate you.”

That’s all it was. Simple. Yet music to my ears. As I’ve thought about that text more I began to realize the importance of telling others that I appreciate them. Thank them for their help, yes. But, APPRECIATE THEM! Hmmm. And really mean it. I try to use my manners by saying please, thank you and excuse me and stuff like that. But how often do I take the opportunity to tell my kids and wife that I appreciate them? Not often enough. It’s fitting that my appreciation epiphany comes during November, when we observe a holiday about giving thanks. We need to remember to look for the good in other people and tell them that we appreciate them. It’s a little idea that could be a big deal. As a dad I sometimes find myself being critical of my kids for not doing something that was asked of them, irritating a sibling, leaving their stuff around the house and so on. What if I focused on what they’re doing well and showed them genuine appreciation for who they are instead of the negative alternative? Seems simple enough. I’m going to make it a point to tell each of my kids (and my wife) that I appreciate them during the next 48 hours. I’ll let you know what happens.

In the mean time, try it out on your family and friends. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.