Do You Read Me, Baby?

reading to newborn

reading to newbornDear Mr. Dad: I have a two-month old baby and I love to read to him. My wife thinks I’m wasting my time and that there’s no sense reading before he starts learning words. Is it too soon to be reading to my son? If not, what should I read?

You’re definitely not wasting your time. In fact, reading to your child is one of the most important things you can do. Admittedly, for the first few months, your reading won’t seem to be having any effect. And it doesn’t really matter what you read: a Wall Street Journal article, the menu from that Chinese takeout place down the road, or your high school calculus textbook. It’s not about education. Besides being a wonderful opportunity for the two of you to snuggle together, the goal is simply to get him used to the sound of the language and to have him associate reading with comfort and fun.

“When children have been read to, they enter school with larger vocabularies, longer attention spans, greater understanding of books and print, and consequently have the fewest difficulties in learning to read,” writes Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook. If that doesn’t convince your wife, try this: 60 percent of prison inmates are illiterate and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have reading problems. I can’t guarantee that reading to your baby will keep him from getting arrested 13 years from now, but there’s no question that reading is an important habit to develop, and there’s no such thing as “too early” to start.
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Good Touch Bad Touch

LIttle Girl in a Blue Armchair, Mary Cassatt

LIttle Girl in a Blue Armchair, Mary Cassatt

LIttle Girl in a Blue Armchair, Mary Cassatt

Dear Mr. Dad. I have a five-year old daughter who is obsessed with sex. Every day, she’s got a new question that I don’t know how to answer, like “How do babies get in there?” and “What’s sex?” She’s fascinated by other kids’ private parts and spends a lot of time touching her own. How can I answer her questions and how can I keep her from embarrassing herself (and me!) in front of other people?

At least some of your daughter’s behavior is a normal part of discovering who she is and what the various parts of her body—including her genitals—do (we’ll get back to that below). It’s also normal for her to ask a lot of questions. As adults, we have a pretty good grasp of the role genitals play in sex, whether it’s for pleasure or reproduction. Kids your daughter’s age don’t. Yet.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where sex seems to be everywhere and children are exposed to sexual images and ideas at much younger ages than we were. That means having “the talk” a lot earlier than we’d planned to. It’s important that you answer your daughter’s questions in a relaxed way, giving her answers that address her concerns but aren’t so detailed that they overwhelm her.
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Small Steps Make a Blended Family

potted plant-sm

potted plant-smDear Mr. Dad: I’m engaged to an amazing man with a 9-year old son who’s with him every other weekend. When I first started going out with his father, the boy and I got along great. But the closer we get to the marriage, the worse things get between us. I’ve tried to talk with him about it, but he just screams at me that, “you’re not my mother!” and runs to his dad, whose usual response us to take his son’s side and spend more time with him. That leaves me feeling completely left out and unheard. I’m not trying to replace my fiancé’s son’s mother or interfere with his relationship with his dad. At the same time, I need more attention and understanding from my fiancé. How do I have these conversations?

A: The dynamic you’re describing is incredibly common, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant for anyone involved. Think about this from your boyfriend’s point of view: He’s trying to balance being there for you and being a good dad. Because he sees his son only every other weekend, he wants those precious days to be as conflict-free as possible, which may explain why he seems to be taking his son’s side over yours (although there really are no “sides” here). He may also be feeling guilty about not being able to be more involved, which may explain why his response to conflict is to spend more time with his son. Unfortunately, that leaves you out in the cold.
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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

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:

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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