Supporting Mr. New Guy

Dear Mr. Dad: I just heard that my ex-wife is moving in with her boyfriend. We’ve been divorced for nearly two years and she wasn’t cheating on me, but I’m furious. Plus, I’m worried about how this is going to affect my kids and my relationship with them. Why am I so upset, and what do you suggest that I do?

 A: Discovering that your former wife is having sex with someone else brings up a whole flurry of strong and sometimes-unexpected emotions, regardless of how long ago your marriage ended. Here’s what’s going on:

You’re confronting reality. When your ex moves in with someone else (or even starts actively dating), it’s hard to deny that your relationship with her has ended. It also ends any fantasies you may have had that the two of you will reconcile.

You’re curious. I think it’s basic human nature in these situations to wonder about the new guy. Love your ex or hate her, you’ll probably be curious about where the two of them go and what they do.

She may be moving in with the world’s biggest moron, and she may dump him and start dating moron number two next week, but none of that is any of your business and you can’t do anything about it anyway. (If she does start dating and the two of you are able to communicate civilly, gently encourage her not to introduce the kids and the boyfriend for a long while.)

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Is My Baby Antisocial?

baby back - google - okay to modify and reuse

baby back - google - okay to modify and reuseDear Mr. Dad: My 7-month old baby is happy and playful when he’s at home. But when I take him to my new dads’ group (yes, that’s a real thing), he seems to have zero interest in interacting with the other kids. The same thing happens at the park or anywhere else where there are other babies. I’m worried that there’s something wrong with him or that I’m doing something wrong. Is there?

Sounds to me like the only thing that’s wrong is your expectations. Until babies are about 10 months old, they’re generally not very interested in interacting with other humans except the ones they see every day and who feed them. It has to do with something called “object permanence.” Let’s say your baby is playing with a toy. If you gently take it away and replace it with another one, he won’t protest. And if you cover it with a blanket, he won’t look for it. As far as he’s concerned, it no longer exists.

But in the not-too-distant future—usually at about 10 months—you’ll notice a dramatic shift. His out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality will gradually fade as he discovers that, gasp, objects continue to exist even when he can’t see them. Now, he’ll protest if you take away something he’s playing with, he’ll get excited when he sees a favorite toy, and he’ll look around for it if it’s not right in front of him. He’ll also start paying attention to other babies.

Paying attention to other babies doesn’t mean interacting with them, though. Babies typically do what’s called “parallel play,” meaning that they’re perfectly happy to play with a toy while sitting next to another baby, but they might as well be in separate rooms.

To adults, babies engaging in parallel play look like they’re ignoring each other. And if that’s all they’re going to do, what’s the point of getting them together? The point is that it’s a stage they have to go through. Although you may not notice it, those babies are occasionally glancing at each other and they’re taking mental notes on how to steal each other’s play techniques. Today’s fleeting interactions are laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s lifelong friendships.

It’s a slow process, so don’t expect too much too soon. Over the next year or two, it’ll look more and more like little kids are playing with each other, and you may even notice some behavior that will seem very much like cooperation and sharing. It won’t be. What you’re watching is actually a live-action play called, “Toddler Property Rules in Action.” It goes like this: “If I see it, it’s mine. If I’m holding it, it’s mine. If you’re holding it and I want it, it’s mine. If you were holding it and you put it down, tough luck—it’s mine. Once something is mine, it’s mine forever so don’t even think about trying to take it from me.” Like parallel play, these rules are a normal part of child development. It’ll be a while before they can imagine that other people might have feelings.

Despite all this, there are a few things you can do to help your baby develop friendships.

  • Keep putting him in situations where he’ll be near other babies.
  • Don’t expect them to play together: Plop them down next to each other, give them toys, and step back.
  • If your baby is shy, withdrawn, or gets fussy, don’t force the issue.
  • Limit these “play dates” to a few minutes.
  • Praise anything that looks like sharing or pro-social behavior, but don’t expect to see too much of it.

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Long Commute Makes Parenting Tough

long commute

long commuteDear Mr. Dad: I work pretty far away from my home and typically spend nearly two hours in the car each way. I also travel a lot for business. I know it’s not a perfect situation, but I’m not in a position to make a change right now. The biggest problem is that I feel like I don’t have a role in my children’s life anymore. They’re 7 and 10. When I head out for work in the morning, they’re still sleeping, when I come home they’re usually getting ready for bed or are already asleep. And on the weekends, it seems like all I do is run errands and take care of household repairs. What can I do to stay connected with my kids?

Reconnecting with your children after a long day at the office is tough enough. Your brutal commute just makes it tougher. As you said, your situation isn’t ideal. But fortunately, there are ways to stay actively involved.

  • Start with the weekends. I’m betting that the kids miss you as much as you miss them. And I’m sure they’d be thrilled to go with you on your errands or give you a hand while you’re fixing things. If you need to go to the bank, take them along. Same with the grocery store, the car wash, or anything else. Always make a point of asking their advice and including them in any decisions or choices you have to make. What you do isn’t important; the point is that you’re spending time together. Plus, with a little planning, you can turn almost any errand into an adventure or a learning experience.
  • Try to set aside at least one evening per week for a family dinner. No fancy restaurants, no elaborate five-course meals. Pizza is just fine. Again, the goal is to spend time together. That’s great for keeping relationships strong and may help your kids in other ways. Several studies have found that there’s an inverse correlation between family meals and children’s risk of abusing drugs (meaning that as the number of dinners goes up, the risk goes down). If possible, play a game together or even Netflix a couple of movies.
  • You can also make better use of all that time in the car. If you’re not going to make it home in time to read the kids a book and put them to bed, call them (using hands-free, of course). Ask them about their day and tell them about yours, help them with their homework, make up a story, or sing a song.
  • Even if you’re not able to see your children as much as you’d like to face to face, you can still let them know that you love them and care about them. One of the nicest ways to do this is by making their lunch for them and including a special note (I used to write notes to my daughters on the shells of their hardboiled eggs).
  • Finally, although you didn’t mention her, don’t forget about your wife. First, make sure you tell her that you appreciate all the extra labor she puts into managing the household and taking care of the kids while you’re at work or on the road. Second, while family time is important, it’s just as important to carve out some special adult time. If possible, get a sitter to keep an eye on the kids while you and your wife go out and enjoy a romantic evening.

All of these things may seem small, but believe me, they’ll make a huge difference to your kids and your wife. .

Dads and Pregnancy–Fatherhood Starts before Your Baby is Born

expectant dad listening to belly

expectant dad listening to bellyDear Mr. Dad: My girlfriend and I just found out that she’s pregnant. She wants me to go to all the doctor visits with her but I don’t see the point. I know that it’s important for me to be involved after the baby is born, and I intend to be. But aside from supporting my girlfriend, I don’t get how I can actually be involved during the pregnancy or what difference it could make to the baby. Am I missing something here?

A: Yep, you’re missing something, and it’s a biggie. Your involvement during and after the pregnancy affects not only your baby, but also your girlfriend and yourself—and this is especially true because you’re not married. Before we get into the during-the-pregnancy part, let’s talk about what happens after the baby is born.

For your girlfriend: A number of studies have shown that first-time single mothers are far more likely than married mothers to experience stress and suffer from depression. Your being there for her, emotionally supporting her, and taking on some of the childcare responsibilities reduces her stress levels and gives her a greater sense of well-being. It also improves mother-baby attachment and generally makes her a better parent.

For the baby: When mothers are depressed, babies get depressed too. They may become fussy, withdrawn, and sluggish. As they get older, they’re more likely to develop emotional and psychological problems. So when you help the mother, you’re also indirectly helping your baby. Your direct involvement with your baby has some major effects too. Children with actively involved dads have better problem-solving skills, are more social, do better on IQ tests and in school, and are less likely when they get older to abuse drugs or alcohol, do stupid things that could land them in jail, or become teen parents.

For you: Dads who are actively involved with their children are generally happier than absent of uninvolved dads. They take better physical care of themselves (quitting smoking, reducing risky behavior, etc.), and they do better in their careers.

Now, on to the pregnancy part. My research—and that of a number of academics and clinicians—has found that the earlier dads get involved, the more they’ll be involved. And there’s no time earlier than pregnancy. Let’s take a look at what that means.

For your girlfriend: If you’re not involved—for example, by not going to medical appointments with her—she’ll be less likely to go herself. Inadequate prenatal care is associated with premature birth and low birthweight. When you’re involved and supportive, you’re demonstrating your commitment to her and the baby. That reduces her stress levels along with her risk of developing pregnancy complications that could threaten her or the baby’s health or life. Your involvement also reduces the chance that she’ll smoke during the pregnancy and increases the chance that she’ll breastfeed the baby.

For the baby: Maternal smoking is associated with premature birth and low birthweight. Babies born that way are more likely to develop physical and cognitive problems that can last a lifetime. Worse yet, infant mortality rates are higher among women who don’t get adequate prenatal care. Breastfed babies have fewer allergies, better immune systems, and are less likely to develop ear infections or pneumonia. Some studies even show that breastfed babies have higher IQs.

For you: Getting involved during the pregnancy makes it more likely that you’ll stay involved after the birth. In the thousands of interviews I’ve done with dads, I’ve come across many who started off less-than-excited about becoming a dad but none who regretted it.

Starting Middle School: Time for the Kids to Be Responsible

middle school desks

middle school desksDear Mr. Dad: I enjoy reading your columns every week. You recently wrote about kids making the transition from elementary to middle school. Your suggestion of keeping the communication lines open with teens is excellent.  More listening than talking is very good indeed. But I think you focused too much on the parents and how they should stay in touch with the teachers. What about the kids themselves? Don’t you think they should be taking more responsibility for their own education?

A: You’re absolutely right (and so are the other readers who wrote in with similar comments). Middle school isn’t just about the parents; kids should definitely be learning how to be more responsible and self-sufficient. However, early on, they may need a little help. Here’s are a few suggestions (including some from readers)

  • Be Interested: Ask what she’s learning or doing in the classroom, with friends, or on the sports field. Insist on answers that are longer than one word. When I pick my 7th grader up after school, she’s not allowed to fire up her phone until she’s talked to me for five minutes about her day. Knowing you’re interested in her education will help your child stay (or get) motivated to stay on top of things on her own. Other ways to do this include volunteering at the school and attending as many school events (including teacher conferences) as you can.
  • Organization: Many—but not all—schools require kids to have a calendar or planner for keeping track of their homework, projects, and due dates. But having a planner doesn’t mean your child will actually use it, or that completed assignment will make the arduous trip from his desk, into his backpack, and into the classroom. Keeping a checklist by your front door can help eliminate a lot of problems. (Lunch? Check. Soccer cleats? Check. Homework? Check. Are you sure? Yes. Really? Oh, wait, it’s on my desk….) Help your child find a system that works for him, whether it’s lists, separate binders, directories on the computer, or whatever.
  • Prioritizing: Talk with your child about how to identify tasks that need to be done right now vs. those that are due tomorrow or next week. If your middle-schooler tends to get frustrated or overwhelmed, help her break larger projects down into smaller, less-daunting chunks. Instead of doing 100 math problems in one sitting, divide them up and intersperse them with other assignments. Help her come up with a system that works for her and her individual learning style.
  • Routines: Having a set schedule for homework can keep your child on track. A short decompression period before diving in is good, as are regular breaks. If possible, stay nearby. That’s so you can help your child stay focused and be there in case she needs help with an assignment.
  • Praise: Grades offer pretty good feedback on how a child is doing in school, but not everyone gets good ones. It’s especially important that you acknowledge the time and effort your child put into a particular project or homework assignment even if the grades were less than ideal.
  • Trust but Verify: For the first part of the year, it’s okay to make frequent reminders and require your child to show you her progress every day. But don’t turn into a crutch—or a helicopter. Over time, make fewer and fewer reminders.
  • Consequences: As your active involvement and reminders decrease, your child’s freedom to make decisions will increase. Gradually, he’ll also learn to deal with consequences, which could range from winning an award to failing a class. It’s up to him.

Transitioning to Middle School: From Big Fish to Small

back to school

back to school


Dear Mr. Dad: My son is starting middle school next week. His previous school was K-5 so this is a new one for him. He’s nervous and, honestly so am I. He’s a smart kid but has always had trouble finishing assignments and turning work in on time. I’m worried that if he does the same in middle school, he’ll be setting himself up for even more trouble in high school and beyond. What can I do to help him (and myself) get ready for this big transition?

The transition from elementary- to middle school is kind of like the transition from half-day preschool or kindergarten to full-day first grade: it’s going to be a huge change in your son’s—and your—life. Until now, he’s probably spent each school year in a single classroom with a single teacher and the schedule was largely the same every day. But now, that comfort and security is being replaced by different teachers in different classrooms—each with different rules, binders, homework policies, and learning environments. Middle school is also a lot more tech-heavy than elementary school. My daughter’s school, for example, has the kids use Google docs, which are accessible from anywhere, for all assignments. The old “the-dog-ate-my-homework” or “Oops-I-left-it­-at-home” excuses won’t fly anymore.
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