My Baby Doesn’t Like Me

Dear Mr. Dad: My two-month-old baby doesn’t like me. He’s perfectly content with my wife, but when I try to hold him, he gets upset and cries. I’ve backed off a little, thinking that he just needs a little time to get used to me, but that doesn’t seem to be working. I’m starting to think I’m just not a very good dad. Is it too late for me to build a relationship with my baby?

A: There’s not much in this world that can make a grown up man feel more incompetent than a baby can. The good news is that there are a lot of things you can do to get past those feelings—and no, it’s not too late. Not even close.

Before we get into the what-to-do part, we need to do something about the way you’re thinking. First, get the idea that your baby doesn’t like you or that he thinks you’re a bad father out of your head. Do you really believe that someone who’s a few months old is qualified to make a judgment about your parenting skills? What other dads could he possibly be comparing you to?
[Read more…]

Hollow Threats: Do You Really Mean That? Are You Sure?

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have a 4-year-old daughter who always seems to be in motion, and she’s not terribly good at following directions. A few weeks ago we were out shopping at the mall and she was running around all over the place. She wasn’t really causing too much trouble, but it was pretty crowded and my wife was getting frustrated. Finally, she grabbed her, and said, “If you don’t stop that running around, we’re going to go home and leave you right here.” I think it’s a bad idea to make threats that you have no intention of carrying out. She says that she was just trying to get her attention. I hate to put you in the middle, but which of us is right?

A: You are. You’d be amazed at how often I get this question and how important it is.

One of the major jobs of childhood is to test boundaries. Think of your child as a research scientist who turns every rule into a hypothesis. “Hmm,” she says. “The laws of physics (AKA mom and dad) say that I’m not allowed to do that, but I wonder what would happen if I did?” The only way for any self-respecting scientist can test the hypothesis is to break the rule and see what happens.

If, like the laws of physics, the threatened consequences actually materialize, the boundaries you set will make her feel safe. Plus, she’ll feel secure knowing that when you give her a warning or any kind of “if… then…,” she’d better listen up. Of course, she’ll still test your limits, as any good researcher would do; that’s her job. (But be careful: too many boundaries may make her feel so trapped that the only way out is to test as many as possible.)

However, if you’re not consistent in enforcing the rules, your threats may be successful in the short run (e.g. she’ll stop running around at the store for a few minutes). But long term, she’ll learn that it’s okay to ignore you. How many times have you given a “last warning” and then followed it up with another “last warning” and maybe one or two more?

Eventually, your child may come to see your warnings as suggestions or invitations. Just think of all the completely crazy things we tell our kids. Stop shooting Nerf guns in the house because you’ll put someone’s eye out; eating too many carrots will turn your skin orange; swallowing cherry pits will make a tree grow in your stomach; if you do A, B, or C, you’ll fall down and break your neck; if you do D, E, or F, I’ll take away your dessert for the rest of your life; and so on.

Your daughter knows perfectly well that you’re not going to abandon her in the store, that a tree won’t really grow in her stomach, that you really won’t take away her dessert for any more than a day or two, and that pretty much nothing you say turns out to be true. The lack of consequences just makes whatever it is you’re trying to keep her from doing sound that much more attractive.

If you and your wife really want your child to start paying more attention to you, you need to give clear, concise, consistent messages followed up—immediately—by logical consequences. For example, if she’s drawing on the walls with crayons, you take away the crayons for a week. In other words, the consequence should have something to do with the behavior you’re trying to stop.

Temperament — Hey, We Were Born That Way

Dear Mr. Dad: We have a two boys, ages 6 and 4. We’ve tried hard to raise them the same way, but they’re completely different. The older one is generally pretty calm and cheerful, but the younger one is wild, noisy, and impossible to discipline. How could two kids raised in the same house by the same parents be such polar opposites?

A: You may think you’ve raised your kids the same way in the same house, but you really haven’t. First of all, you and your spouse have changed—a lot. When your first child was born, the whole parenting thing was totally new. Like most new parents, you probably had no idea what you were doing and you were afraid of making mistakes. By the time baby number two arrived, you’d gained a lot of confidence and discovered that most of the things you’d worried about were trivial at best.

Second, as you well know, taking care of two kids is very different than taking care of one, so there’s no way in the world (barring cloning yourself) that your youngest could have gotten anywhere near as much of your undivided attention as his big brother did. Given all that, how could your children not be different?

But even if you had raised both children in identical circumstances, there’s a good chance that they’d still be very different.

About fifty years ago, researchers Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas found that every child has a unique collection of emotional and behavioral traits that make up his or her “temperament.” That temperament is noticeable almost from birth and continues throughout life. Here’s a brief overview.

  • Approach/Withdrawal: This is your child’s initial reaction to meeting new people, tasting new foods, or being in unfamiliar situations. Approaching children are extroverts and enjoy the new and different. Withdrawing children are shyer and take time to get used to new things.
  • Adaptability: This is how your child reacts to changes in routines. Fast-adapting children adapt easily, slow-adapting kids get upset if anything changes.
  • Intensity: This is essentially your child’s volume knob. Low-intensity children (like your oldest) are relaxed and even-tempered. High-intensity kids do everything—whether it’s shrieking with delight or having a tantrum—incredibly loudly.
  • Mood: Positive mood kids laugh and smile all the time. Negative mood kids tend to be pouty, even for no reason.
  • Activity level: Low-activity children can sit quietly for long periods of time and prefer low-energy games and activities. High-activity kids can’t sit still and prefer higher-energy activities.
  • Regularity: Predictable children get hungry, tired, wake up, and even use the bathroom at about the same time every day. Unpredictable babies are, well, unpredictable.
  • Sensitivity: Low-sensory-aware children often seem oblivious to bright lights, strong odors or flavors, textures, and even pain. High-sensory-aware children are easily overstimulated and have a tough time dealing with everything from temperature to noise.
  • Distractibility: Low-distractibility kids can focus intently and may not notice interruptions (or attempts to get them to stop what they’re doing). High-distractibility kids have shorter attention spans and an easier time moving from one activity to another.
  • Persistence: Persistent children can entertain themselves for hours and will spend lots of time working of projects or learning new things. Low-persistence children lose interest quickly, often claim to be bored, and take a little longer to finish anything, whether it’s homework or a Rubik’s Cube.

 

Bottom line: Temperament is what it is—there’s no “right” or “wrong.” Your children are the way they are mostly because they were born that way, and there’s very little you or your spouse could have done to change things.

The Story of Your Life Is Your Legacy

Dear Mr. Dad: My father died when he was 48. He was a great dad, affectionate, playful, and a fine role model. And he had life insurance so the family was provided for. But when my brother and sister and I were going through his stuff after the funeral, we realized that we barely knew him. He was always interested in our lives, but almost never told us anything about his own—the things he did as a kid, what he liked, or anything. I’m 47 now—just a year younger than my dad’s age when he died—and I’m very involved in my children’s life. But I don’t want to make the same mistake my father did. How can I be sure my kids will know me after I’m gone?

A: Although both of my parents are, thankfully, still alive, I’ve been thinking about this exact thing for quite some time, and I know we’re not the only ones. As parents (and especially as dads), when we talk about providing for our children, the discussions tend to focus on the financial—insurance, college savings, and so on—and we overlook the kind of intangibles you mentioned. But giving our children the knowledge of who we are, our life experiences, our triumphs, our failures, our family history, and our personal philosophy is a gift that’s just as important as money. Maybe even more so.

Just think of all the knowledge we have about our kids: We know how much they weighed when they were born, when they rolled over, when they took their first steps, the name of their favorite stuffie, who their friends are, what size shoes they wear, whether they wet the bed or not, who their favorite—and least favorite—teachers are, what they like to read, the trouble they got into, and the story behind every scar—real or imagined.

But how much do our kids know about us? Probably not a whole lot. And that’s a mistake. By not telling them about ourselves—where we came from and how we became who we are—we’re doing them a tremendous disservice. At the very least, our stories can bring us closer together. Stories let them know that we’re not just lecturing them about life, that we’ve actually lived it, that we’ve had experiences that are similar to theirs, and that we really understand them.

Just to be clear, this is not about teachable moments or being a good role model. There’s definitely a place for both, but this isn’t it. This is simply about introducing our inner selves to our children. The first step towards that goal is to remind ourselves of our stories. What was life like when you were growing up? What were your earliest memories? What were your favorite subjects in school? How did it feel when your first romantic relationship ended?

Kids absolutely love these stories—especially the ones where you’re less than perfect. Mine, for example, still enjoy hearing about when I got caught shoplifting in 3rd grade, the many times I got my butt paddled in the principal’s office as punishment for a variety of misdeeds, or when I tried to force-feed a pet sand dollar ground beef because someone had told me it needed protein.

Write down as many of your stories as you can think of. You might even want to start a blog. And remember, it’s not always about the past. The experiences you have right now—things as mundane as what you did at work today—are all part of your living legacy.

Mozart Shmozart

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve got two children, ages 1 and 3 and I’ve heard that it’s possible to boost their IQ by exposing them to certain kinds of music. My wife says I’m crazy. Is there any possibility that she’s right?

A: What you’re talking about is the “Mozart Effect”—the popular idea that listening to music by Mozart would make children smarter. I don’t have enough information to say for sure whether you’re actually crazy, but I can tell you that while exposing your children to music is a great thing, it’s not going to make them any smarter. Unfortunately, that inconvenient fact hasn’t stopped all sorts of companies from claiming otherwise—and from separating a lot of parents from a lot of their hard-earned money.

[Read more…]

Economic Recovery? Not Around Here

Dear Mr. Dad: I lost my job more than a year ago and have been unable to find another. My wife works part time, but doesn’t bring in nearly enough to cover our expenses. We have no health insurance, burned through the little savings we had trying to stay current on our mortgage and other bills. Now we’re faced with having to take money out of our retirement accounts to make ends meet. I’m so embarrassed by this whole thing that I can barely face my children. What can we do?

A: I’ve been (and still am) in almost the same situation and I definitely feel your pain. The good news is that you already took the first step: acknowledging that there’s problem. The bad news is that you’re in for a bumpy ride. Here are some steps that should help.

  • Buy some throat lozenges and get rid of any weapons you have around the house. I’m only half kidding. This may be the most frustrating and infuriating experience of your life; you’re going to do a lot of screaming (hence the lozenges), and you don’t want to do anything to hurt yourself or someone else. Believe me, it’s tempting, though.
  • Ask for help. Start by talking with your mortgage company about refinancing your home or modifying your loan. But be prepared for an exercise in twisted logic. My lender told me that I made too much money to do a loan modification but not enough to refinance. There were other options available, but I didn’t qualify because I was current on my mortgage. Apparently, being a responsible adult and paying my bills meant that I couldn’t get help. Defaulting, however, would have made it a lot easier (try to avoid this).
  • Look into the Making Home Affordable Program. This actually encompasses two separate programs, HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) and HAMP (Home Affordable Modification Program). The rules can be complex and seem designed to exclude as many people as possible. In my case, conveniently placed loopholes made me ineligible for any program. Check your eligibility here: makinghomeaffordable.gov/
  • Apply for insurance through healthcare.gov. But hurry: If you don’t make the February 15 deadline, you may have to wait until October to enroll. Ready for more twisted logic? My income was so low that I wasn’t eligible for Obamacare and had to enroll in Medicare. But then Medicare denied coverage because I have money in IRAs. If I take it out now, I have to pay penalties.
  • Apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). Check your eligibility here: snap-step1.usda.gov/. Also look into local food banks.
  • Ignore the media. Every day there’s a new story about the booming economy and dropping unemployment numbers. I’ve seen precious little evidence of that. Plus, those statistics are carefully manipulated to exclude all the people who have given up looking for work, who are working part time for economic reasons, or who are under-employed. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics—the agency that calculates the “official” data—the true unemployment rate is roughly double the official one.
  • Use your situation as a lesson—if you can talk about it without scaring your children. Being in horrible financial straits (which, hopefully, won’t go on too much longer), made me a lot more sympathetic to homeless people and others who access government benefits.
  • Get past embarrassment. You and your wife worked for many years, and a lot of the taxes you paid has gone to help people in need. Now it’s your turn, and there’s no shame in getting the help you deserve.