The Importance of Being a Blockhead

dad kids and tower

dad kids and towerDear Mr. Dad: My husband and I are new parents and our baby is going to have his first birthday in a few weeks. We both work in tech and we’re really excited about getting a tablet for him. There seem to be so many options out there and we’re a little overwhelmed. Should we get an iPad or is there a better choice for toddlers?

 A: Yes, the Internet is full of videos of very young children happily swiping away on their tablets. But the best tablet for your baby is no tablet at all, at least not for a while. In fact, if I had to recommend one toy that’s an absolute must-have for every nursery, it would be a nice set of blocks.

But before I tell you why blocks are so great, let’s talk about why tablets are such a poor choice for babies.

  • The more time a baby spends interacting with a screen, the less time he’ll spend interacting with real, live humans—which is a lot more important. Tablets are great for a lot of things, but they can’t teach verbal- or social skills.
  • Although research on babies and tablets is in its infancy, early results aren’t very pretty. Researchers (and day care providers) are finding that toddlers who spend a lot of time playing with tablets are developmentally lagging in terms of muscle tone and hand-eye coordination (swiping takes a lot less dexterity and coordination than stacking blocks or picking up tiny objects). One app company, Tiggly, has taken some excellent steps to bridge the gap between swiping and developing actual fine motor skills. But the rest of the industry has a long, long way to go.
  • As kids get older, screen time is associated with weight gain, behavior problems, repetitive stress injuries, sleep problems, and low cognitive performance.

Okay, so what’s so great about blocks?

  • They help your baby develop hand-eye coordination as well as grasping and releasing skills.
  • They teach your baby all about patterns, sizes, categories (big ones with the big ones, little ones with the little ones), gravity, balance, and structure. These mini lessons in math and physics lay the foundation for your baby’s later understanding of how the world works.
  • They teach good thinking skills. “Taken from a psychological view-point,” wrote Albert Einstein, a guy who knew a thing or two about thinking, “this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought—before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.”
  • They can help your baby grasp the difference between things he has control over (such as which blocks he wants to use and how high he wants to go), and things he doesn’t (such as the law of gravity, which keeps pulling down his towers).
  • They teach perseverance. Building a tower—or anything else—out of blocks can be an excruciatingly frustrating experience for a baby. But along the way, he’ll learn that if he keeps working on something long enough, he’ll eventually succeed.
  • Research by Dimitri Christakis and his colleagues at the University of Washington has found that kids who play with blocks have better language skills and watch less TV than those who don’t.
  • The best thing about blocks is that they encourage parents to get down on their hands and knees and spend time with their children, playing, laughing, and learning.

Finding the right blocks can be just as overwhelming as finding the right tablet. For reviews and recommendations, do a search at http://parentsatplay.com/

Water Safety:

water safety

water safetyDear Mr. Dad: My 4-year old twins are crazy about swimming or floating or doing pretty much anything in and around water. On one hand, I’m thrilled. I swam in high-school and college and I’m looking forward to having them follow in my footsteps. On the other, I’m scared. I’m a stay-at-home mom and there is no way I can keep an eye on them every second. How do we make our house water safe?

A: You’re absolutely right to be scared. Keeping an eye on one child is hard enough. The fact that they outnumber you and can head off in different directions makes your situation especially challenging.

Being in the water, whether we’re swimming, wading, or just splashing around can be wonderful fun, especially for little kids. But those same activities—and anything else you could possibly do around water—can be extremely dangerous. Every year, about 375 children under 15 drown each year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). About 280 are under five, and 95 percent of those deaths happen in swimming pools. Another 4,100 children under five end up in hospital emergency rooms every year after what the CPSC euphemistically calls “non-fatal submersion incidents.”  Sometimes the result is permanent brain damage.

The only way to keep children from drowing or being injured around water is to keep them far, far away from it. But that’s just not practical. Nevertheless, there are a few things you can do to reduce the risks. Here are some general guidelines. We’ll get to specific pool-related steps after that.

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Beyond DadBod: Why Men’s Health is a Women’s Issue

men's health
men's health

photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband doesn’t exercise, he eats tons of fried foods and sugary drinks, and hasn’t been to see a doctor in years. Worse than that, our two sons, ages 8 and 10 are following in their dad’s footsteps. I’m really worried. Why won’t my husband take better care of himself?

A: I really wish I had an answer to that question, but the closest I can come is, “It’s complicated.” Part of the problem is the messages we send to boys and men: “Big boys don’t cry,” “Take it like a man,” “Man up and stop complaining,” “Real men play through it,” and my favorite, “Pain is just weakness leaving your body.”

Once those messages get into our head, they’re nearly impossible to get out. So it’s no wonder that like your husband, we don’t get regular checkups, don’t do much preventive care, we ignore our symptoms, and generally stay as far away from healthcare providers as we can unless the pain is unbearable—and even then, we often hold off, hoping it’ll go away. On average, we’re half as likely as women to have seen a healthcare provider in the previous year—and that’s after taking out women’s prenatal visits.

Instead of “Why won’t he take care of himself,” the real question you should be asking is, “What can I do to help?” I know that doesn’t seem very fair. You’ve got enough to worry about already and you’re probably tempted to tell him to “Man up” (and you’d be right). But the bottom line is that his health affects you in a pretty significant way.

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Biting and Hitting the Hand that Feeds

biting teeth
biting teeth

Photo credit: gigabiting.com

Dear Mr. Dad: Our son just turned one and, almost like flipping a switch, he went from the sweetest, happiest little guy to smacking and biting. It’s bad enough when it happens at home, but my husband and I are beyond embarrassed when he attacks friends or strangers. Is it normal for babies to turn mean like this? Normal or not, how can we get it to stop?

A: No one knows exactly why, but right around their first birthday, most babies go through a stage that involves hitting and/or biting everything and everyone in sight. So, yes, biting and hitting are normal, and it’s unlikely that he’s “turning mean.” However, as you said, whether it’s normal or not, this behavior needs to stop. Before you can do anything about the behavior, though, you need to figure out what’s behind it.

According to child development experts, there are lots of possible explanations. Your baby may be hitting or biting because: [Read more…]

Ready to Roll(er Coaster)?

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I are going to Orlando to visit some theme parks with our kids, ages 4 and 8. We’re all super excited, but I’m worried about how to make sure the kids have a good time and the adults still feel that we’ve had a vacation. Any suggestions?

A: I am so jealous. My 12-year old daughter and I love roller coasters and for years we’ve been talking about doing an extended coaster tour. It’ll happen one of these days. But let’s get back to you. Going to amusement parks with kids as young as yours and still having fun yourself will be challenging. But it’s definitely possible. Here are some ideas that will help.

  • Go online before you get in line. Make an adults-only visit to each park’s website. Find out their hours, age- and height restrictions, ride closures, whether you can bring in outside food, whether they have lockers, and so on. Most sites have recommendations for families with young children. Once you’ve mastered all that, go back and visit the sites with the kids—but show them only the things that they’ll actually be able to do. There’s no sense getting them excited about rides they can’t go on. Then, have them put together a list of their favorites.
  • While you’re online, follow the parks on social media (so you can get money-saving discounts and followers-only access) and download the apps for each park you’re planning to visit. Besides including maps of the park—complete with where all the bathrooms are—the apps usually include schedules for shows and photo ops with characters, restaurant menus, and more.
  • Plan your meals. To get your money’s worth, you’re going to want to stay at the park all day, and you’ll need to eat. Of course, it’s more convenient to buy all your meals and snacks in the park. These days your food options go way beyond burgers, fries, and fried donuts. Most now offer all sorts of ethnic options, and you’ll almost always be able to find fruit, veggies, and other healthy foods. If money is an issue, bring as much food as you’re allowed to (details will be on the park’s website).
  • Plan your day. The kids (and maybe you) will probably need some breaks during the day. If you’re staying at a nearby hotel, consider going back for a nap and a dip in the pool. Then hit the park again. If not, all the parks have air-conditioned theaters that are great rest spots.
  • Stay cool. Everyone needs a hat, plenty of sunscreen, and a water bottle. No exceptions. According to ThemeParkInsider.com, “more visitors suffer from sunburn, rashes, heat exhaustion and heatstroke than all other injuries put together.”
  • Start really, really early. If you get to the park before it opens, you can dash to the most popular rides before the lines start getting crazy.
  • Think safety. If your child has a tendency to disappear into crowds, consider a wrist bungee or harness. A lot of kids (and adults) find them horribly embarrassing, so the mere threat of using one might be enough to keep the kids nearby. You might also consider one of the many GPS trackers; some can be worn on the wrist, others attached to the kids’ clothing.
  • Split up. If you and your husband want to go on adult rides, think about having one of you stay with the kids while the other goes in the single-rider lines, which are almost always shorter. Then switch.
  • Remember, you’re on vacation. Relax and try to see the parks—and the world—through your children’s eyes.

Volunteering: It’s Not Just About You Anymore

via flickr
via flickr

via flickr

Dear Mr. Dad: I have to admit that my wife and I have been a bit self-centered in our adult lives, focusing on our work, earning money, and supporting the family. We’ve done quite well financially and we’ve both decided that we should start giving something back to our community. We want to get our kids involved too, but they’re pretty young—only 5 and 7. Honestly, I don’t even know where to start. Are the kids too young? And what’s the best way get going?

A: Your kids are definitely not too young to volunteer in their community. In fact, there’s no such thing as too young. Plenty of people bring babies to visit nursing-home residents or shut-ins, and preschoolers and early elementary school kids often go on field trips to the same places to sing holiday songs , put on a play, or just draw pictures. Bringing a smile to the face of people who don’t have a lot of joy in their lives is a wonderful gift. Middle schoolers can volunteer to read to a blind person or tutor kids their own age in reading and math. Teens can coach inner-city sports teams or build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Ideally, volunteering is a selfless act—you do it to help someone else, not because you’ll profit from it. But thinking way into the future, volunteer work looks very good on college and job applications.

Doing things as simple as serving meals at a local homeless shelter (or, when the kids are older, delivering meals on wheels) shows your children that you’re walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. Of course volunteering often gives kids some insight into just how lucky they are. It can also provide opportunities for them to learn about problem solving and cooperation, hone new skills, and discover talents, interests, and skills they never know they had. Perhaps most importantly, it teaches them to be more tolerant of people they might never come in contact otherwise—people from different cultures, ethnicities, education levels, and socio-economic status. At the end of a day (or even just a few hours) of volunteering, you’ll discover that your family has benefitted as much as your community has—though in very different ways.

As you consider which of the millions of opportunities to get your family involved in, here are a few ideas to keep in mind:

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