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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Is He Gay? Boys Will Be Boys—or Will They?

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m worried about my eight-year-old son. He loves sports and does a lot of “boy” things, but sometimes I find him playing with dolls. Does this mean he’s gay? Is there a way to tell this early on? And if he is gay, what should we do?

A: Whew, that’s a lot of questions, so let’s dive right in. Boys play with dolls all the time—they’re just named Batman, the Hulk, and Captain America. But since you’re worried about it, I’m assuming you mean that your son is playing with Barbies. Does that mean he’s gay? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Plenty of heterosexual men occasionally played with dolls (girly ones) when they were kids. At the same time, studies of women conducted by Kelley Drummond and of men conducted by J. Michael Bailey and Kenneth J. Zucker have found that those who engaged in “gender nonconforming” play as children were more likely as adults to identify as gay or lesbian.

There are two important things to keep in mind. First, we’re not talking about occasional cross-gender play, which is incredibly common—and perfectly normal. The gay and lesbian adults in these studies were almost always bucking the stereotypes as kids. Second, the operative phrase here is “more likely.” In other words, while cross-gender play may be an indicator of homosexuality, it is by no means 100% accurate. Plenty of boys who play with dolls and girls who play hockey are heterosexual—and plenty of boys who play with trucks and girls who wear frilly dresses and have tea parties grow up to be gay.

With Bruce Jenner publicly (and bravely) announcing that he’s really a woman, I’ve heard from a lot of parents who are worried about “gender dysphoria”—that their son might actually become their daughter or vice versa. Again, while play may be an indicator, what’s more predictive is a child who refuses to acknowledge his or her biological sex, refuses to wear clothes associated with their sex or to play with opposite-sex children, and wants to go to the bathroom the way opposite sex people do, according to Britain’s National Health Service. But it’s nowhere near 100% accurate. Bailey and Zucker found that the majority of children who seem to have gender dysphoria grow out of it by adulthood. As a preschooler, my oldest daughter (now 25 and heterosexual) spent 18 months wearing pants and a cute hat and insisting that she was Oliver Twist—and refusing to answer to any other name. (She also insisted on calling me Mr. Bumble.)

Bottom line, it’s pretty unlikely that your son is gay. But either way, does it really matter? There’s nothing you can do about it anyway—if he’s gay, you’ll find out about it sooner or later, if not, you’ll find out about that too. If he is, you have two options: You could give him your unconditional support, understanding, and love. Or you could make him feel rejected and unloved. Choose option A. Please.

In an article in the journal Pediatrics, Caitlin Ryan and her colleagues found that “lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence,” were more likely to be bullied in school. Worse yet, they were 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide, 6 times more likely to suffer from depression, 3 times more likely to use illegal drugs or have unprotected sex.

In the end, your child’s sexuality is his business. Watch and learn. In the meantime, love him. He’s your son and always will be.

Morning Sickness: On the Job All Day Long

Mr. Dad: My girlfriend is about a month pregnant—her second baby but my first. I’m concerned because she’s nauseated and vomiting all day long. She calls it “morning sickness” and says she had the same thing with her first baby and that it’s normal. But doesn’t the name imply that the problems should be limited to the morning? Either way, what can I do to help?

A: Given that your girlfriend has been through this before and says it’s normal, take her word for it. As the pregnancy develops you’ll have plenty of other things to worry about, so let this one go.

The name “morning sickness” is a little catchier—but less accurate—than “all day long sickness,. As you’ve noticed, the heartburn, queasiness and throwing up are by no means limited to the actual morning. Between half and 85% of pregnant women get morning sickness but no one’s quite sure what causes it. Some researchers believe that it’s the pregnant woman’s reaction to changing hormone levels, in particular human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which is produced by the placenta and is the same stuff that’s picked up by home pregnancy kits. Many women with morning sickness also have food aversions, especially to eggs, fish, meat, and poultry—all of which can go bad quickly and may carry disease. That has led a number of researchers, including Samuel Flaxman, Margie Profet, and Paul Sherman to speculate that morning sickness is the body’s way of protecting the baby-to-be from food-borne substances that could cause a miscarriage or birth defects.

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Long-Distance Parenting

Dear Mr. Dad: My ex and I share custody of our son (age 6) but she recently moved a few hundred miles away so I sometimes don’t get to see him for a few weeks. In between, I really miss him and I worry that he’ll forget who I am or won’t want to see me when we finally get together. I sometimes feel like giving up. How can I stay connected when we’re apart for so long?

A:  Great question, one that also applies to single moms and anyone else who has to spend extended periods of time away from their children (military servicemembers, for example). As hard as those separations are, the good news is that not being together physically doesn’t mean that you can’t be together emotionally. The even better news is that while it’s not easy to keep those bonds strong while you’re away from your son, you can—and do—play an important role in his life. And it’s vital to both of you that you not give up. Here are some steps you can take to stay involved.
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Why You Should Wrestle with Your Daughter

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve got twins—one girl, one boy—and we love to wrestle together. I always thought I was treating them the same, but a few days ago, my wife told me that she thinks I play very differently with them—very physically with my son and much more gentle with my daughter. I started paying attention and I have to admit that she’s right. So now I’m wondering: is there any actual reason to be more gentle with my daughter? And should I be more gentle with my son?

A: No and no. Assuming you’re playing in a safe way and the kids are having fun (you should always take your cues from them), there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t be just as rough and tumble with your daughter as you are with her brother. As the father of three daughters, I can assure you that little girls are just as sturdy as boys. In fact, based on science, one might argue that girls are actually sturdier. Although more males are conceived, more die in utero. And while more boys than girls are born, boys are more likely to be arrive prematurely and they’re more susceptible to disease and death. Boys are more likely than girls to die from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and less likely to survive the first year than girls. As they get older, boys are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with autism, learning disabilities, mental retardation, and many other conditions.
Despite all that, we still have this idea that girls are delicate and need to be physically coddled. That’s an idea that starts from the very beginning. What’s the first question people ask when someone has had a baby? Boy or girl? We ask because we want to know how to treat the child in question. Parents (both dads and moms) encourage independence and exploration more in boys than girls. They typically (and unconsciously) allow boys to cross the street by themselves at younger ages and wait a few seconds longer before picking up a boy who’s fallen than a girl. And, of course, they wrestle more with sons than daughters.
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Babies Can Sometimes Bring out the Worst in Us

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a new dad and I sometimes get incredibly angry when my son cries. Of course I haven’t acted on my anger, but I’m feeling really guilty that I get so mad in the first place. I’ve always been a pretty patient guy, but I don’t think I’ve ever had such intense feelings before. Am I a bad parent?

A: Babies have an amazing capacity to bring out feelings in us that are powerful, unfamiliar, and sometimes scary. On the positive side, we get to experience being on the receiving end and the giving end of unconditional love—something I don’t believe exists between adults. On the negative side, there are the feelings you described. We’d all like to believe that we’d throw ourselves in front of a moving train to save our children, but every once in a while they make us so furious that we think (very briefly) of throwing them in front of the train. I know that sounds horrible, but here’s a reality check: Everyone has feelings like that. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying to you or doesn’t have children. So, no, you’re not a bad parent at all.

That said, while there’s nothing wrong with feeling intense anger, it’s what you do with it that can be a problem. Here are some suggestions that can help you get your anger under control.

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