Night Buddies - Adventures After Lights Out

What Traveling With My Son Taught Me About Being a Parent

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[This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project]

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As a children’s author, I’ve been asked many times, by friends, colleagues, and readers, what is the best piece of of advice I have for parents raising their children today. To tell you the truth, I don’t always know if I have an answer for them. What we pass down to our children—morals, values, passions—is a monumental thing. So here is what I say instead:

I don’t know if this is the best piece of parenting advice out there, but if you don’t travel with your children, you’re missing out on what made up the best memories I have of my son’s childhood.

My son John is a traveler. It all took place from the time he was three, ’til he was six and his mother moved to Cleveland, ’til he went to Germany for his junior year in high school, ’til he left for the University of Edinburgh and never really came back. Has since lived in London, Germany, Russia, Spain, Belgium, and Vietnam, and has traveled to many, many other places.

What we did together as father and son was collect waterfalls. I’m sure we saw every worthwhile one in North Carolina where we lived and saw most of the warhorses in the contiguous U.S. I took him to the Canadian Rockies and the bottom half of Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. We drove about 500,000 miles, rode planes and buses, and wore out three cars. Our red Mazda RX-7 Turbo was a real hot rod for its day and was central to our peregrinations.

Looking back, I think we missed Hawaii, Florida, Delaware, and Rhode Island. That was it. We carried baseball gloves to play catch with at the ends of days. We went through a huge number of books on tape in the cars.

This isn’t to say that our travels were all idyllic.

Once we blew a tire in Kansas in the middle of nowhere; blew it all to pieces. We put on the donut spare and limped into the nearest town right after the tire store closed, and we had to spend the night. I can tell you that Kansas is a very dull prospect (Dorothy was right.)

Another time I picked 6-year-old John up from his mother’s Cleveland house for a three-day adventure to Canada to see Niagara Falls—but it didn’t occur to me to take passports, other ID for John, or court orders. We got stopped at the border, taken into an interrogation room, and I was immediately under suspicion of being a non-custodial father trying to kidnap his son by crossing the border. The fact that I talked my way out of that one, and we still got to see the falls, is a miracle I can’t understand.

There is memory after memory; the times we got sick of each other and the times we clung closer together. Traveling with your children certainly helps them to discover the world, but it also helps you as a parent to see the world again from their perspective—exciting, big, beautiful, and just downright cool.

So what’s my advice to any of you fathers out there? Hop in the car. Don’t forget maps and a GPS. Let your son or daughter hop into the passenger seat next to you.

Go! Go somewhere, anywhere, and make the kind of memories you’ll fall asleep dreaming about when you’re a much older man.

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The Benefits of Growing Up with a Dog

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My son John with dog, Henry.

My son John with dog, Henry.

It happens the second you pass by the window of that pet shop, you’re holding your kid’s hand, rushing them ahead before they can look into the eyes of the puppy barking at you to stop, but before you can do anything they’re looking up at you with bright, sad eyes.

“Dad, can we get a puppy?”

Before you say no, thinking about the vet visits, dog food prices, holes being dug in your backyard, I want you to take some time to consider the benefits to you and your child if you say yes, and let that puppy steal your family’s hearts. As someone who has bred St. Bernard’s, and someone who raised my son with a puppy sibling, I truly believe that these benefits could be worth your while.

Dogs can teach your children responsibility. I know, I know. Your child offers to take care of the dog, but you know the majority of the responsibility is going to be on you. But this doesn’t have to be the case. While you will have to be responsible for taking the dog to the vet, and double-checking that it is fed, groomed, and walked regularly, these tasks can be assigned as chores to your child as an agreement upon getting the dog. Your child will learn responsibility in taking care of another life, and will teach them the importance of keeping their word. Whenever they want to skip out on a walk or are going to be late to their friends house if they have to pick up after the dog, you can remind them of the agreement they made.

Dogs can be loyal companions to only children, children with disabilities, or any child struggling with loneliness or fitting in. Petting and interacting with dogs has been proven as a stress-reliever, and will provide comfort to children no matter their circumstances.

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Owning a dog can lead to a more active, healthier lifestyle for your child. Dogs require getting out of the house for walks every day, running around playing ball, and overall getting up and outside rather than sitting and playing video games all afternoon. The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne even claims that owning a pet leads to lower levels of obesity, lower risks for cardiovascular diseases, and fewer minor illnesses and complaints than those without pets.

Overall, owning a dog will lead to general happiness in your child’s life. They’ll always have a happy animal to cheer them up when they’re in a bad mood, give them the feeling of being needed and wanted, and for the rest of their lives they will have memories of the furriest member of their family. I know my son will forever cherish his memories with our St. Bernard, and I will always cherish my memories of the two of them together.

So my recommendation, take a moment to look into the shop window. Go visit your local animal shelter. Maybe just do a trial run with taking care of a friend’s dog for the day. However you go about it, don’t say no to the idea of owning a dog just yet.

Did you grow up with a dog when you were a child? Is it something you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments!

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How Much is Too Much When it Comes to Encouraging Your Children?

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I never thought that title was something I would have to write—nevermind something I would actually have to question. But with different articles coming out against what one author refers to as “shake it off” parenting (read here) in which parents dismiss their children’s losses, pain, and embarrassments, I think we have entered a time where the balance between teaching our children to be independent and coddling them is becoming more difficult to find.

The main complaint people have about millennials is that they are entitled from too many years of their parents coddling them. Whether or not this is true, I can see how that would happen. Children do need to learn to work, to pick themselves up when they’ve been taken down, and to eventually be independent from their parents.

In the article linked above, the writer uses the example of dangerous “shake it off” parenting as when a child gets hurt on the soccer field, and instead of being allowed to come be reassured by his mother, he’s yelled at to get back out there—to “shake it off.” While I agree that a hurt six-year-old shouldn’t have to endure the embarrassment of believing his pain doesn’t matter, what if the child was repeatedly allowed to step off the field for reassurance each time he got a scrape on the knee? This could eventually lead to a destructive pattern that stops him from learning how to care and reassure himself as he grows older.

The problem with all of this is, as far as I can see it, that to be the most effective parents we can be we need to employ pieces of both empathetic and “shake it off” parenting styles.

Where I think the writer hits her best point is when she states, “‘Shake it off’ parenting seems to be gaining steam as parents try every trick in the book to avoid being labeled the dreaded ‘helicopter parent.’ No one wants to be depicted as the neurotic hovering parent who refuses to let the child fail, so they pull a razor sharp U-turn and throw empathy to the wind, even when their kids need it.”

The trick we parents need to learn is the difference between our kids needing our reassurance and encouragement, versus giving it every single time something less than rosy happens to them.

So how much is too much encouragement? I don’t think there needs to be a limit. What we can do instead of coldly yelling at them to “shake it off,” is gently remind our kids how capable they are of picking themselves back up.

What are your thoughts on “shake it off” parenting? Let me know in the comments below!

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When Your Dad Goes Viral

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Our children are growing up in a world where just about anyone can achieve their “fifteen minutes of fame”—we call it going viral. Just this week I posted a viral story to my Facebook, a father writing his son a statement of rejection for his plead to borrow $20 for a toy. And this one post was my biggest social media hit yet. On top of random viral news stories like this, we also have parents who post videos of their children online that reach millions of views, parents whose entire occupation is filming “vlogs” of their children’s lives in hopes of getting to two, three, four million subscribers on YouTube.

Achieving viral fame with our children seems relatively easy, and common. But what will our children have to say about it?

Sure, kids are cute. Of course, nobody is going to hold something they did against them when they were in an age they likely won’t even remember. But where stage mom and dads used to be looked down on, getting their children into show business for money before they could decide for themselves if it’s something they wanted, now it seems like parents everywhere have no problem with putting their children in front of an Internet audience before they are old enough to realize what’s going on.

An article published on The Guardian (which you can read here) goes into more depth about the issue of consent with children’s lives being posted on the Internet (specifically, Facebook). It recognizes that while pretty much everyone will post something about their children, we might need to be more selective about what we put out there, and what kind of privacy settings we use when posting. Images of our precious babies without clothes, throwing tantrums, or in any other way shedding a negative light on them could follow them for the entirety of their lives. Or it might not—but do you want to take the risk?

The article also mentions other purely safety reasons to be cautious about what we post of our children. Giving away identity information, location, or likewise could put them as well as ourselves at risk.

When it comes down to it, I challenge us all to not strive to be parents that “go viral,” but to be parents who think of our children’s futures before we hit that “post” button. You don’t want your kids to grow up one day and think, “I wish my dad hadn’t gone viral.”

What are your thoughts on posting pictures/videos of your children to the Internet? Are there any precautions you take? Let me know in the comments!

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The Role Empathy Plays in Parenting (And How You Can Gain More of It)

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A recent article from steamboattoday.com claimed that one of the most important, vital characteristics of a good parent is empathy.

The article makes a good case; a parent who can know and understand what their children are feeling are better prepared to help them when they are hurting, find joy with them in their highs, and bond with them on a deeper level. An empathetic parent won’t have their children grow up to say, “My parents just never understood me.”

Many parents have the tendency to be annoyed by their children’s many observations of the world around them. After all, what is new to a child has been seen and understood a thousand times by his parent. But rather than rolling our eyes or sweeping past the tears of a heartbroken ten-year-old, or fallen and hurt toddler, an empathetic parent will take these moments to acknowledge, understand, and heal their child so they are better prepared to handle themselves in the future.

I found this article and this idea particularly interesting, because as many studies have revealed, one of the best ways to learn empathy is through reading literature.

Books and stories help to put in the shoes of someone entirely different than ourselves, see the world from a new perspective, learn things and feel things we hadn’t ever come face-to-face with in our own lives. So what better way to incorporate more empathy into your parenting than to read children’s books? These books can help those of us who may feel long-past our youthful days to see the world from a child’s perspective again, and therefore better understand and empathize with our children. We might not remember what it’s like to be abandoned by our friends at the lunch table, or be bullied by a group of popular kids, or to have a crush write us a note during recess. But children’s books can help us to understand those feelings again.

Better yet, why don’t we read these books with our children. That way, if your child finds something in the book particularly relatable, it will open up a discussion between the two of you. You will come to better understand your child, and you’ll still be learning more and more empathy along the way.

Do you feel that empathy is a valuable component of parenting? How do you demonstrate this to your children? Let me know in the comments!

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“For Parents, Happiness is a Very High Bar”

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This week I came across a TED Talk that I would recommend to any parent, whether your child is just learning to walk, is just starting school, or is old enough to have a family of their own. It was a talk by a woman named Jennifer Senior called “For Parents, Happiness is a Very High Bar,” in which she discusses how the aim of the modern day parent is to provide their children with happiness, and how that aim is one that causes stress more than anything else.

(If you’re having trouble watching the video above, you can watch the TED talk here)

This talk struck me particularly because I have never heard anyone who could blame the hardships of parenting on wanting children to be happy. You hear it time and time again, from every parent you meet, even from your own parents: “I just want my kids to be happy.” But Senior questions, what does happiness look like? We can hardly control our own happiness, and yet this elusive state of being is something we take full responsibility of in our children?

And this goal not only puts in parents hands something that is practically impossible, it also means that everyone forms their own judgment about what creating happiness looks like. Our society is full of parents putting down other parents for parenting differently than they do. Married homes look down on single parent homes. Gluten-free homes look down on homes that order pizza on Friday nights. Some homes stress academics over extracurriculars, others the reverse. Everyone achieves happiness in different ways, and so everyone parents differently to pass happiness down to their children.

In Senior’s talk, she comes to the conclusion that rather than pass down happiness in our children, maybe we should pass on decency. Morals. Work ethic. Things that will allow children to find happiness in this world for themselves. I agree with her. I raised my son without consulting thousands of parenting books, and without concern for the judgment of homes that might be raising their children differently than I was.

When we take “happiness” out of the picture and fill that role with something concrete, maybe we can take the judgment out of parenting, take the stress off of parents who feel they aren’t doing their jobs if their children aren’t always 100% happy, and maybe we can even raise children that will be be good, productive, and dare I say it, happy members of our society.

What did you think of Senior’s TED talk? Do you agree or disagree with her stance on parenting? Let me know in the comments!

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Why You Should Give Your Child a Journal

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As parents, so often we want to find gifts for our children that will mean the world to them. Whether it’s the new game they’ve been dying to play, a Lego set they’ve had their eye on for months, or a football to throw around the neighborhood with friends, when birthdays and Christmas roll around it is our job as parents to give them something they’ll always remember. But I think that sometimes it is also instrumental to gift them with something that they’ll not only enjoy, but that will boost their confidence and expand their knowledge. That’s why I gave my son so many books when he was a kid—I wanted him to know the enjoyment of losing himself in a world that wasn’t his own and teach him that reading isn’t an activity restricted to school hours. But then I got another idea—I was going to give him a journal of his own. Here’s why that was the best decision I could have made.

A journal allows children to spend time with their thoughts. Kids are usually much less introspective than adults, and that is often a good thing. It allows them to live in the world and follow their instincts. But I think it is also important that kids try to understand why they feel certain ways, and writing in a journal gives them that power. My son could write down what happened on one of his bad days, and realize that it was bad because he felt disappointment, or anger, or sadness. He had a personal space all his own to explore his thoughts, and in doing so, to explore the world and his position in it.

A journal allows children to explore their creativity. I asked John to write down stories in his journal, to live in his imagination for a few pages each day, and to not second-guess what he was writing down. Having the opportunity to make up stories any way that he wanted, knowing he wouldn’t be judged for whatever he wrote, was instrumental in growing his creative side and making him dream bigger than a lot of other kids his age.

A journal improves children’s literacy skills. Sitting down to write a few days a week, every week, gradually helped my son become a better reader and writer. He was using skills learned in the classroom in his own way at home in the journal, and his Language Arts grades in school improved astronomically as a result. Kids don’t realize how much they’re learning by writing, to them it should become as much a part of their home life as watching TV, but every word they put down helps them become better students.

A journal will preserve memories most children lose as they grow up. It’s fun to go back and read journal entries you wrote from years past, but it’s even better to read back through childhood memories. I hardly remember what it was like to be in elementary school, but if I had kept a journal I could travel back into my head at that time and see what I thought about the girl who sat next to me in class, and about my parents, and about sitting with the nerds at lunch. These are priceless memories that your child has the opportunity to remember forever.

Did you keep a journal as a child? Would you pass that tradition down to your children? Let me know in the comments below!

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Why You Need Rituals in Your Parenting Life

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Last week, I wrote about how necessary forming rituals as a writer can be in order to produce the best work you can as regularly as you can. But then, after I wrote that post, I started thinking about that same principle in terms of parenting. Could forming rituals in your parenting life lead to a more organized, productive form of parenting?

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I believe the answer to that question is a firm, “Yes.” Here’s why:

Children depend on routine. There are many studies out there that prove children are more likely to succeed in homes where a routine has been established for them, including this one published by the Washington Post. Wake up at this set time. Eat lunch at this set time. Read with Dad at this set time. Bed at this set time. All of these seemingly insignificant routines provide a child with a sort of security blanket, and lead to fewer fights and tantrums.

Parenting rituals keep you, as a parent, more organized. When you know what times need to be devoted to your child’s needs, and you have them on a set schedule, you can work your schedule around them. This leads to fewer time conflicts, fewer instances of work not getting done on time, and hopefully no instances of forgetting your time for carpool (yes, that has happened to me before).

Rituals in your parenting routines establish a tone for your home. Let’s say that one of your rituals is saying a prayer with your children before dinner—once you do it enough, a quiet, peaceful, and thankful mood will be established in those minutes together. Maybe one of your rituals is having a dance party in the evening, an hour or two before bedtime. This creates a fun, vibrant, energetic tone to your home in the hours you want, and will hopefully lead to a tired, quiet tone again just in time for bed. And hopefully, through all of the routines and rituals you set as a parent, the tone you set for your home will be one of love.

If you haven’t already, see what happens to your home when you start building and incorporating firm rituals into your children’s lives. Hopefully a happy and more manageable future awaits you!

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Surviving and Thriving During Your Child’s Summer Vacation

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As we come to the end of July, you’re probably thinking one thing:

“Only one more month until school starts again.”

Some of you may be thinking of that as a negative; of course, it’s wonderful to have more time to spend with your children, and can be difficult to establish new school routines once the years begins again, but I have a feeling the majority of us parents are counting down the last days of summer with a thrill. Finding time to work (write), finding ways to keep your children entertained, and keeping them content and cool in the hot, humid months is quite possibly a parent’s most difficult time of year. But it doesn’t have to be that way! I’ve been a working, single parent for quite some time now, and have these tips to share with you that will not only make this last month of summer survivable, but one of the best months in your year!

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Make a plan, and make it with your child. Planning is the ultimate key to maintaining balance and order to your fun times with children; it helps you avoid pits of boredom, spontaneously doing something your kid will hate or be too young/old for, and it allows everyone to be on the same timeline. Making the plan with your son/daughter helps them feel involved and important in the process, and it allows you to better understand what they find enjoyable. Whether the plan is for an ordinary day or a weekend getaway, making plans ensures that everyone’s thoughts as to how something will go are on the same page.

Find a balance in setting. It’s easy as a working parent to decide to send your kids off to summer camps during the weekdays, but sometimes all they will want to do is hang out at home. Try finding a few days to work from home, see if a friend or family member you trust can come spend the day with them, or see if they can stay at a friend’s house. Constant activity is what your kids should be getting a break from during the summer; make sure that as many days you fill their time with fun, you also allow them to have relaxing days at home. It’ll save you from burned out, grumpy kid syndrome!

Give a variety options. Make two lists, one of activities, books, and movies you and your child can enjoy together, and one of activities, books, and movies they can enjoy alone. Make sure you cross of one thing on each list every day, so you know you are spending the quality time with your kid both of you desire, and you also know that they aren’t getting into trouble or being bored out of their mind when they are on their own. It’s also good to divide the list into inside and outside activities, so whether a day is sweltering hot or a great day to be outside, there is an activity to choose from!

Sometimes, just give in. The reality is, your son or daughter is going back to school soon, where they’ll be busy with school, homework, and extracurriculars every day of the week. If they really want to watch television for a few hours or play video games when you think they should be reading or playing outside, sometimes it’s better to let them indulge themselves. You’ll have to make sure not to let them spend their entire summers lazing around looking at screens, but that doesn’t mean they should never get a lazy day. Just like you, your kids should be allowed to spend part of their vacations re-charging.

These are the tips that helped me to look forward to summer vacations while my son John was growing up, and I hope they help you too! What is your favorite summer vacation activity? Let me know in the comments!

 

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From Father to Master Storyteller: Tips for Telling the Best Bedtime Stories!

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So you’ve decided you want to tell a story to your child every night before they go to bed, but you’ve read every book in your house over and over, and the only thing you can think of on your own is, “Once upon a time . . .” But as someone who created a series of books out of my simple bedtime stories, I can tell you that becoming a master storyteller isn’t so complicated. Here are my top tips for telling bedtime stories your child will adore!

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Cater to your child’s interests. Think about which books your kid loves to read. Are they about horses, sports, magic, pirates? Draw your subject from there, or even combine some of them! You could tell a story about a magic pirate and his horse companion competing to become World Champions in a horse race. The more creative you get with your child’s interests, the more interesting your story will be to them.

Keep it short. Kids don’t have very long attention spans, and by bedtime they should already be pretty wiped out. Just keep the storyline simple—you have a character, there is a problem, the problem gets bigger, and then the character resolves the problem. You should be able to keep it under ten minutes. If you have more to tell, continue on the next night.

Make your child the star! You’re always telling your child that they can be anything they want to be, right? Well here’s your chance to tell them a story about becoming president, discovering cures for diseases, getting a record deal, or whatever it is their biggest dreams are. Even if you put them in stories that are unrealistic, like how I put my son John in the Night Buddies stories, hearing about themselves as protagonists in the stories you tell will boost their confidence and help them realize that you truly believe in them to do and be anything they want.

Tell the story together. I’ve said before that my son John is the one who came up with our red, talking crocodile friend Crosley, and I think it truly goes to show that the best stories are ones that you and your child come up with together. Ask them to create a character, a storyline, or a setting. Tell the story back and forth to each other a sentence at a time. They will feel proud for having created something fun, and it will bond you two closer together.

What are some bedtime stories you’ve told your child? Any tips for the new storytellers out there? Let me know in the comments below!

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Children's Museum of Alamance County
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