Transitioning to Middle School: From Big Fish to Small

back to school

back to school

Credit: publicdomainpictures.net

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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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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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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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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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.