5 Fundamentals of Fatherhood (from children’s point of view)
All of these fundamentals work in conjunction with each other. As the title implies, there is nothing new here. They are fundamentals of fatherhood. Here they are:
Movement. I list physical movement first since this has the most obvious observable effect on eating and sleeping. What happens when your child stays in all day? Do they start getting a little stir crazy? I remember when our First was a baby and started crawling. We went out three times a day. If we were inside too long in the morning, he would crawl over to the front door wanting to go outside. The moment we stepped outside, his mood would change. His legs pumped in the Baby Bjorn (ergo baby). He’d let out an excited giggle. He would smile. When it was just the two of us, going outside was crucial since we didn’t have others to interact with at home. When he wasn’t walking, the fresh air would usually knock him out. Later, when he started walking, we’d walk in our neighborhood a total of two hours a day for one year. By the way, if you’re not living in a walkable neighborhood and you’ve got really young children, consider moving (link to story about when we lived in a northern suburb). Thankfully, we were in a walkable neighborhood when the First was walking. This is my number one advice for parents with boys: get them outside several times a day, and make sure they run, jog, walk, jump, and climb. This is my number one advice for parents with girls: get them outside several times a day, and make sure they run, jog, walk, jump, and climb. My daughter can do all the physical activities my son can and more. When they’re older, make sure they ride bikes, skateboards, scooters, play sports etc.
I recently read a paper published in 1997. It compared the amount of hours a child sits in a car in 1960 vs. 1995. In 1960 it was 100 hours a year. In 1995 it was 500 hours a year. The amount of time children spend in cars today I could not delineate. I’m guessing it’s as much as it was in 1995, if not higher. No one would advocate for more time in the car. It’s sedentary and has deleterious effects on the brain. In the first few years, dendrites and synapses are are forming in their brains. Movement is an integral part of brain development, especially in the cerebellum. Make use of the useful walk or bike ride.. Walk or bike to their friend’s house; walk or bike to get groceries; walk or bike to the library. Eventually, enough movement makes them hungry and tired. (see this paper: http://www.tsbvi.edu/seehear/fall97/brain.htm )
Meals. Eat meals, not snacks. I don’t feel like anyone is asking the question they should be asking: why are children eating so many snacks? A few more questions: why do parents take their kids to the park only to have them sit down and eat snacks? Did they not eat breakfast or lunch? They must have because I just heard them call it a snack. Are they not eating enough at mealtime? Are they moving enough (see #1). Perhaps they don’t eat enough because they know they’ll get a snack anytime they want. I’m not averse to giving snacks on a road trip or on a plane. Those are exceptions.
So what does a meal look like? The children sit at a table. They do not leave until they are finished. My rule is that if they leave before they finish their food, their food leaves. If they get up once, I might say, “Did you forget? Food leaves.” They might say, “Oh I forgot” and come right back. I have taken food away before. They then will eat at the next meal. They will not forget again. Dinner is the most “formal” of meals for me. Everyone does not have to be present at breakfast and lunch. But we all sit down together at the same time for dinner. Because of my children’s relatively early bedtime (see #3), we often eat before Wife gets home from work. This is the choice we make for our early to bed early to rise lifestyle. Once everyone is finished, we clear the table together. We don’t do this every night since the Third might need to be picked up, or Wife gets home right as we’re finishing, and I just do it so they may have special time with her. As they get older, I will get stricter with this.
What else happens at meals? Often, the First and Second participate in the cooking of our meal. They cut, chop, and slice. They put what they prepared into the pot. They are then more excited to eat it. I do not help them eat. They feed themselves. I do not force them to eat; I do not praise them when they finish. A simple thank you suffices. The amount of food my children eat varies. Some weeks they eat the same amount each day. Some days they’ll eat double what they normally do and the next day they’ll eat half. It all balances out in the end. We say a simple prayer before dinner, such as the “thank you prayer” or we sing the Doxology. We don’t talk too much at this point. They focus on what they’re eating. We talk about the food, or what we did or are going to do. They’ll ask some questions. I’ll tell some stories from my childhood. But overall, we’re pretty quiet. I anticipate more talking at mealtimes as they get older (at the time of writing, First son is 5, Second daughter is 3, Third son is 7 months).
Sleep. I’ve always been a morning person. My mom can confirm this. I’ve never really had any trouble getting up early; although one summer job I had had a 6:00 a.m. start time. That was pushing it. Otherwise, getting up between 6:00 and 6:30 feels right to me. My children are also early risers. Nowadays they wake up between 6:30 and 6:45. We love the routine of getting up, making our beds, eating breakfast, and tackling the day. There are no fights to get them out the door on time for school, or to drop off Mom at work. They are ready to go.
Getting them ready for bed requires a little wisdom. You’ve already eaten your early dinner together, and they’ve helped clean up a bit while you’re doing the dishes. Before they brush and put on their pajamas, have them play quietly to calm themselves down. Make this a routine. My First likes painting before bed. It’s a peaceful solo occupation, just like falling asleep is. I’m sure painting wouldn’t be something Jackson Pollock would do to relax. It was an intense workout for him. My First, however, likes making elegant brush strokes while filling an entire page in his sketchbook. My Second usually plays with her “stuffy animals.” They’ll have a tea party or a picnic. Oftentimes, they will reenact something that we’ve seen during the day, which is healthy play. One day we saw an old man feeding pigeons at the park. So, later that evening before bed, my Second had her doll B.B. feeding the birds. She would say something like, “Don’t fly away pigeons, I have more seeds for you. Bring your friends.”
After quiet play comes brushing teeth and putting on pajamas. I like them brushing their teeth first. When they are finished, they then can go to their room and put on their pajamas, and stay in their room until they sleep. It’s up to you. You may find it’s easier to put on pajamas first. One friend of mine gets his kids in their pajamas early, right after dinner.
Once they are in their beds, I pray for them out loud in their rooms. In addition to that, we recite some Bible verses from memory, and sometimes memorize new ones. When we’re finished, we may talk a little. Then I kiss them goodnight and I leave. They sleep by themselves in their own beds. I’m not totally against co-sleeping, which is a discussion for another article, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Be aware of what you and your spouse can handle. It depends on the child as well.
A no screen/minimal screen-time home will also help children sleep more deeply. Looking at bright, backlit LED screens before sleeping has a negative effect on sleep. The light from screens tells our brains to be awake as if it were daytime. The result is lighter sleep instead of deep REM sleep. This is why I read regular books or the old school Kindle, which both need an external light source, i.e., not backlit. It doesn’t take long before I’m nodding off and fall asleep. We are a no screen home for now. This will evolve, I’m sure, as our children get older.
A final note on sleep. It doesn’t surprise me that a late bedtime for preschoolers and kindergartners may lead to obesity later in life. My hypothesis is that the late bedtime obesity connection may have something to do with not enough movement during the day, and not having a logical routine for the day. If there’s an irregular late bedtime, then there’s probably irregular mealtimes and lots of convenient sugary processed snacks.
Rhythm. Your family’s rhythm is the foundation upon which Movement, Meals, and Sleep are constructed. A natural rhythm should develop tautologically. Depending on your children and your environment, scheduling may work for you. Until I figured out our Third’s 2 nap times, I didn’t feel like I had settled into a healthy routine with everyone. Now he sleeps 11:00-12:00 and 3:00-4:00. These naps allow me to feed the First and the Second, and get any other chores done like getting dinner prepared, emptying the dishwasher, tidying, vacuuming, etc. The naps also allow the First and Second to play with each other, to clean up their art supplies or books left out from the morning, or to take their sweet time eating their meals. So, you guessed it, our routine revolves around meals and the Third’s naps. His naps do not interfere with our school schedule. One may say that I designed it that way. I didn’t, but it works out nicely.
A predictable rhythm brings comfort to children. They know what to expect. There are no surprises. There is no anxiety about meals or sleep or what’s going to happen next. There are those special days when they have a dentist or doctor’s appointment, but the structure of the rhythm is still there. You may want to make the appointment during your children’s downtime so that big things like meals, naps, homework time, or cooking time is not interrupted. I’ve found that scheduling dental and medical appointments mid afternoon works best during the school year or during summer. If they aren’t feeling well or need some quiet time to recover, they’ll have a little space before dinner.
A regular rhythm allows you to get things done. We have a rhythm of play and a rhythm of work. Throughout the day, I play with them and read to them. We play at the park, we walk, we swim in the lake, we build forts, we paint. Because I’ve played with them, I then have no compunction about doing what needs to be done during the day: folding laundry, dishes, cooking etc. The rhythm allows me to play and work because my children expect both at regular times during the day. Work around the house does not include computer work. From a child’s perspective, it doesn’t look like you’re doing anything when you’re sitting at your desk typing away or reading. I opt to do things that provide a physical result: sweeping the floor, wiping the table, cleaning the toilet, taking out the recycling etc. I reserve my computer work and phone calls for the evenings when they are asleep, or at least falling asleep. They are happy. I am happy. I get almost everything I need to get done, and I am ready to be present with them in the morning.
Loving engagement. This last fundamental is like the Dude’s rug–it ties everything together. In an ideal world we would love to be completely present all them time with our children, but the fact is that it’s a more distracting world than it has ever been. We need to be honest about how much time we’re spending on our devices, and thus not really being there for our kids. Often, the things that we hide are the things that we should pay attention to. I used to hide my phone at the breakfast table from my wife and kids behind the napkin holder so no one would see that I have something I should not have at the table. Our rule is “no toys at the table.” Well, I violated that everyday. One day I had a lightning bolt hit me when our Second was asking me if I saw her in her dress this morning. She repeated herself several times. My wife finally snapped me out of it from the kitchen. “Ben, she’s asking you something.” I looked up at our Second and felt awful. I wanted to chuck my phone into the garbage disposal. Now it’s no more devices at the table. It’s conversation and questions.
Loving engagement pays dividends for the entire day, and beyond that, a lifetime. When I am engaged with my children in what they’re doing, I can tell them with confidence and without guilt when I need to complete a task around the house. They may play by themselves now. They are OK with it since I’ve been there paying attention to them. For my First this might mean throwing the frisbee in the backyard. For my Second, it might mean playing with her little doll figures, and asking specific questions about them. “When does Norah like to wake up in the morning? Does she put milk on her cereal, or does she like it dry?” etc. The dividends come from you being an intentional role model for your children. You’re role modeling presence, diligence around the house, love for your family, and creating a loving environment. Your love molds the children into loving, caring, compassionate, present people.
You role model speech with good manners. You role model speech without ultimatums, threats, or promise of reward. You role model diligence around the house by tidying up when your children are engaged in an activity. You role model friendship as you converse with your wife.
Your presence throughout the day allows the other four fundamentals to flow smoothly. If your children feel ignored all day, they are going to push back when it’s time to eat or sleep. They want you really there. When you’ve put in the quality time with them, all of the fundamentals will fall into place making you and everyone in your home happier.