Teaching Children to Value Kindness

Note:  This is my response to The Today Parenting Team challenge. The current challenge invites writers to answer the following question:  How do you teach your children to value kindness?

If my son does not get accepted into Harvard or win a Pulitzer, I will not be bothered, but if he fails to become a kind person, I will be dissatisfied. I consider it my responsibility as a parent to keep food in his stomach, shelter over his head, and clothes on his back; however, my highest calling is to teach him to be a compassionate person.

So, how does a parent teach a child to look beyond themselves and behave kindly? First, an adequate definition of kindness is needed. Kindness is NOT the same as politeness. Kindness is NOT a matter of manners. Kindness is NOT a matter of being “a nice boy” or “nice girl.”  Many people are perfectly polite and well-mannered on the surface, yet behave manipulatively and viciously behind the scenes. Their behavior does not qualify as kind.

No, kindness does not equal a polite facade; rather, it emanates from the core of a person. It is a choice followed by behavior. It is a way of life. Sometimes kindness is the exact opposite of politeness. Performing a kind act can be hard because it involves lowering your facade and speaking truth, painful as it may be, to another person or group. Kindness requires saying no and often ending relationships that promote cruelty. Kindness is complicated.

So, let’s teach our children not to put on a polite show, but to genuinely consider what it means to care for others. Children learn kindness in multiples ways and here are a few I have observed from watching parents I admire:

  1. Children need their feelings validated. In order to learn to respond to the feelings of others, they need their emotions and thoughts respected. They need mirrors, their parents, who reflect back to them the validity of their anger, sadness, joy, and frustration, so they know their feelings are acceptable. It’s common sense, but we often forget to give this attention. Its called empathy and it builds healthy relationships.
  2. Children need models to learn kind behavior. Children surrounded by kind people learn to emulate kind behavior and those surrounded by disrespectful people learn to disrespect others. I understand this is not a mind-blowing observation, but we tend to forget this too. Little eyes are watching every move we make, even when it seems like they are not. How are you modeling kindness to your children? What do they see?
  3. Children need to be removed from their bubble. From an early age, they need to cross paths with other children and adults from different backgrounds. They need to see a larger picture of the world and its inhabitants, especially people from different socio-economic backgrounds. It’s so easy to settle into a community of like-minded people who share our same status and never leave. Children need to be given the opportunity to understand the experience of someone different than them.
  4. Children need moral codes to aim at in their lives. Whether if it is a religious or secular code, children need healthy, ethical standards to use as a measuring stick. Stories, containing kind characters, are a powerful way to teach kindness and reveal moral codes in which to aspire. There are plenty of characters known for their fierce fighting, cool costumes, and interesting weapons, but what about a hero saves the day by caring for others?
  5. Children need opportunies to demonstrate kindness. Just like a kid needs a bike, helmet, and smooth surface to learn how to ride on two wheels, children need situations to learn how to behave kindly. Where can they live out kind behavior? Where they can serve?

Here is the unexpected part:  Teaching your child kindness will change you.  Like children, parents are on the learning curve. We always need to relearn the art of kindness. Teaching our children opens us to the areas in our lives where we are withholding or resisting kindness. This is challenging, yet necessary work, to build not only a kind child, but also kind relationships, communities, nations, and a kinder world. Kindness is the path leading us forward to a healthier society.

Unexpected Teachers: Toddlers and Spiritual Lessons

I triple check stove knobs before leaving the house, recount pages in stapled assignments, and proofread text messages long after hitting the send button. At my worst, in the middle of the night, I lie awake debating whether or not I closed the garage door. My desire for control pervades my daily life; it ranges from stove knobs to completing tax forms to remaining hydrated. I desire control so much I decided my best way to cope was to father a child.

“Parenting is like wearing your heart outside your body for the rest of your life,” a friend warned. My son’s birth created an unprecedented test for my inner control freak. While he rested in my palms, I experienced a new level of vulnerability. I felt a complete loss of control.

As my son developed from sleepy infant to wide-eyed toddler, my need for control was further challenged. My son hurls himself off furniture, launches into walls, and bangs his head against hard surfaces. He does these daring activities with a smile on his face.

Children are like little mirrors. My son’s wild exploration of the world reflects back to me my control seeking behavior. He reveals to me my own issues, weaknesses, and unresolved problems. I do not raise him to provide myself with accountability, but it comes with the package.

I like to think my compulsive need to control his environment is a noble act—a sign of a good father—but I know there is more going on inside me. The twenty-five pound mirror in front of me reveals a larger picture.  He shatters my illusion of control.

The truth is I want to prevent my son from experiencing pain because I don’t want to be reminded of my own vulnerability. I don’t want to face the reality of my own fragile nature. I don’t want to face the reality of living in a harsh world, a world where I am not in control and at risk of pain and suffering. This is an unpleasant reality that my furniture-climbing toddler forces into my awareness.

Children are often unexpected teachers; miniature prophets speaking truths we can no longer see. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” Jesus announces. He spoke these words to his disciples who questioned the presence of children. The disciples, like us, often need to be reminded to remove the barriers between ourselves and the innocent, clear eyes of children.

What do the children in your presence reveal? If you listen closely and observe their actions, they might reflect back to you the places within your heart where spiritual growth is needed. Children have a knack for exposing our blind sides–the ways we deny, manipulate, and seek control. They disclose our attempts to force life into our own hands.

Recently, at nap time, I noticed my son’s small stomach rising and falling in a beautiful rhythm. Of course, he was unconscious and relying on his body’s autonomous systems to perform the essential act of breathing. In that moment, it dawned on me how little control I have over his life. I can pour endless energy into carrying out his best interests, but ultimately his existence is in the hands of the God who created his beautiful stomach. My son is given to me not to control, but to receive as a divine gift. And the best way to respond to a gift is appreciation, not control.

Loosening a tight grip on life can feel like a step into darkness, but the good news is when we embrace our lack of control, we make room for God to work in our lives. A new space is formed within our hearts. A space where we can relinquish our petty control attempts, and place our lives (and our loved ones) in God’s hands, where they belong.

Gourds, Gourds, Gourds: A Motely Patch

“OOOOOOOOOHHH!” Henry yells.

He beats on a smooth, brown-stemmed pumpkin like a bongo drum. Following his drum solo, he shuffles his toddler self to the next pile; his eyes widen and fists shake. Pumpkins!

Pumpkins pepper the front lawn of J.T. Moore Middle School. Adults and children meander in the patch, while traffic hums from the nearby intersection. One knee after another, Henry ascends a pile of the round, ribbed members of the squash family. I grab him before him tumbles down the orange mountain. On a scale from one to ten, Henry is operating at a 13.7 in the patch. I fear he will burst a blood vessel, but who has time to worry about blood vessels when surrounded by palates of interesting fruits? (Yep, pumpkins are technically fruits.)

Did I mention gourds? Gourds, gourds, gourds! There are more gourd varieties this year than flavors of Oreos. I WANT a goose-necked gourd. I love their curvy necks and fading green skin. If given the funds, I would purchase hundreds and design gourd sculptures in my front lawn. I would build a gourd replica of Egypt’s pyramids, a replica of the Alamo, and a gourd replica of Graceland. Since I live in Nashville, I feel obligated to create a gourd replica of our replica of the Parthenon. Question: Do you know if Nashville enforces a gourd limit per front lawn? If so, please page my beeper at 4789297.

Alright, let’s get down to business. We need a pumpkin. Actually, my wife and I desire a pumpkin, but Henry does not see things the same way. He came to the patch to play with a metal wagon; the cart reserved for customers to haul their loads. Henry eyes and circles the wagon like a sports car on a dealership lot. First things first, he squats to inspect the rubber wheels. Next, he lifts the long, black handle and leans backwards (all twenty-five pounds) to set the wagon in motion. He travels at a rate of six inches per hour across the patch.

I am confident my wife will locate an attractive pumpkin. While she searches, I feel a tractor beam pulling me towards the hybrid pumpkins (another popular patch item this year). The hybrids are so darn pretty!  Their shades of grey, blue, and red are amplified by the endless orange. Although, I can’t imagine carving a fierce face into a pastel pumpkin. Truth be told, they are a better fit for a autumn scene at Pottery Barn than your front doorstep.  Just sayin’.

Alert:  Pinterest is crashing right now because too many soccer moms are pinning pictures of hybrid pumpkins attached with craft instructions. Stop the pastel insanity!

Pumpkins, more than anything else, give Halloween its character. Purchasing, carving, and lighting them infuses the autumn with magic. The trip to the local patch with hyped-up kids to acquire a humble member of the squash family acts as a ritual. It marks time, provides meaning, and draws us closer together as families and communities. Removing their innards, squishing the slimy seeds, and designing goofy faces IS Halloween.

Note:  I can’t get this song out of my head. Pumpkin in the morning, pumpkin in the evening, pumpkin at supper time. Seriously, its lodged in my brain. I’m embarrassed to admit it. I think it was inspired by this evil Bagel Bites commercial (circa 1996).

We found a pumpkin. A beautiful, orange squash to carve and call our own. I named it Bocephus in honor of Hank Williams Jr., the legendary country music singer and mega redneck. Why? I don’t know. It felt right. Not only did we purchase a well-shaped pumpkin, but we splurged and took home a couple of hybrids, gourds, and mini-pumpkins.  They offer payment plans at our patch, so we signed up.

I want to wrap this post up with a picture of Bocephus. In the words of Cousin Eddie, its “REAL NICE.”

Exciting News: My blog featured on Scary Mommy and MPMK

Hey Y’all,

I’m excited to share two parenting websites that published my blog posts.  Scary Mommy, a humor site, and Modern Parent Messy Kids, a creative resource site, featured my writing.  I enjoy reading their articles and encourage you to do the same.  Click on the links below.   Hopefully, I will post new material over the weekend.  I’m running behind because momma’s been traveling for work.  I need to catch my breath and regain my sanity.  I hope you are able to regain your sanity this weekend too.  I’ll write soon!

Scary Mommy

P.S.  If you are looking for a good read over the weekend, check out Momastery’s latest post.  It’s full of beautiful, honest words for your soul.

A Grown Man and An Animated Tiger: Lessons Learned from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

I glance at my iPhone.  The display reads:  8:00 A.M.  It’s time for Daniel Tiger. I push the power button on the television and set the channel to our local PBS station.  A small, round-face tiger, wearing a red sweater, appears on the screen and sings,  “It’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a land of make-believe, won’t you ride along with me? Ride along! Won’t you ride along with me?” Henry, my toddler son, smiles and directs his attention to the singing tiger. “Da-na,” he says.

I sip my coffee and read the news headlines on my iPad.  In the middle of an article, I hear Daniel announce: “Dad is taking me and my friends to the clock factory.  And YOU’RE coming too!”  I wanna go. Daniel, along with his father and friends, walk into the clock factory. The walls are covered with fancy clocks displaying moving arms. “Hey, do you want to make-believe with me?” Daniel asks.  Of course, I do. I follow the animated tiger through a sparkly, clock fantasy examining up-close cogs and wheels.

After the exciting exploration, Daniel’s father calms us with the episode’s mantra:  “give a squeeze, nice and slow, take a deep breath, and let it go.”  I take a deep breath.  And let it go.  “Da-na,” Henry says. Fast forward. Daniel’s father teaches us how to count on a clock face, which leads to chime time, a magical time involving synchronized chiming.  The clocks sound while lights flash. I want a job at the clock factory. I wonder if they offer benefits.

My wife and I refer to Daniel Tiger as “DT.”  It’s our go-to show in the mornings. DT is practically a family member. If you are not up to date on children’s television, (neither was I until the last year) Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is based on the classic children’s show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  DT is the son of the original Daniel Striped Tiger from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe; the other characters who play with DT, such as Prince Wednesday and Katerina Kittycat, are also children of original characters. The show aims at preschool-aged children, and focuses on teaching them emotional intelligence and respect for others through basic lessons like sharing and speaking kind words.  You know–neighborly behavior.

So, here’s the thing:  I love DT not only because he offers creative, virtuous lessons for my child, but also because he reminds me of the values I need to be a kind, generous, and moral person. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood intends to speak to small children, but at it’s core are universal values and behaviors appropriate for people at every stage of life. And let’s be honest, we all need an occasional reminder regarding neighborly behavior.

In some episodes, I feel like the playful, computer-generated tiger speaks directly to me.  What does this say about me? I don’t know.  I think it says I am an imperfect human being that often forgets the behaviors necessary for a well-lived life. You know how when you go to church (maybe you go to synagogue, mosque, or temple) and find yourself spiritually fed by the children’s lesson more than the sermon?  This is how I experience DT.  There are days when I need a deep, thoughtful, and reflective teacher, but there are also days when I need DT’s simple, yet wholehearted, message to feed my soul. There are days when I need someone to speak not in parables, but in direct, concrete words.

I believe the world would be a better place if everyone watched an episode of DT in the morning. Below, I want to share with you a few of my favorite lessons.

All feelings are okay.  It’s important to embrace the range of feelings we experience–from sadness to joy to anger to disappointment.  Expressing our emotions allows us to be fully human.  Sometimes emotions are frightening and get pushed down inside us.  We need supportive friends to help us feel safe and comfortable with our feelings.  All emotions are not only okay, but an essential part of our humanity. Check out DT’s soothing song about feelings from episode “Someone Else’s Feelings.”

Empathy is necessary. In the episode, “Empathy at School,” DT teaches the importance of intentionally placing yourself in someone else’s shoes, and how it can go a long way in preventing damaged relationships. It’s a simple, preventative act that moves us outside ourselves and connects us to the humanity of others. Refusing to honor the feelings of others contributes to the never ending cycle of emotional, physical, and spiritual hurt in the world. We empathize not only to avoid creating pain, but also because it’s the right thing to do.

You gotta find a way to play together. Living in a neighborhood requires compromise.  For the best interest of the neighborhood, we need to recognize our way of doing things may not always be the most helpful approach.  Perhaps the way we are familiar with worked in the past, but it no longer works.  We need to listen to others and consider their approach.  Finding a way to play together is necessary to promote a joyful and playful neighborhood. (DT demonstrates comprise in the episode “Daniel Plays At The Castle.”)  Easier said than done, but it’s the only way to live in a real neighborhood.

Feelings, empathy, and playing together are a few of the topics explored. If you tune into the show, you will find endless wisdom.  DT and friends constantly remind children and parents about the importance of neighborly behavior. In fact, when I wake in a foul mood and act like a toddler, my wife straightens me out.  “Go watch DT and calm down,” she says.

A Prayer for Coffee: How to Avoid Tossing your Child Out the Window

Four years ago, during Lent, I quit carbonated beverages and searched for a healthy alternative, so I ordered McDonald’s coffee on the way to work and loaded it with cream and sugar. I purchased the largest cup available and forced it down my throat. The cheap coffee jolted me through the front door of my workplace. Eventually, I upgraded to sophisticated coffee, but more on that later.

I need you to know:  coffee has become my friend, addiction, and hobby, but mostly it keeps me from tossing my toddler out the window.  I need it.  I cling to it.  Without it, I am a mess.  If you are the parent of a small child, YOU need coffee too.

Following the birth of my son, coffee became a way of life.

“Dada,” he yells. My eyes struggle to focus in the dark room.  Henry sits erect in the bed like a meerkat on watch.  He jerks his finger through the air and repeats my name. I need to file a sleep extension, but that ain’t gonna happen. He’s awake, so I’m awake.  It’s 5:30a.m. I need coffee.

Before rising, I offer my daily prayer. God, grant me the coffee I need to keep my toddler son alive, courage to make it through this day, and wisdom to order more coffee. Amen.

I need prayer.  And I need coffee.  I need both before and after the day unravels.  If you are the parent of a small child, YOU need the Almighty and coffee in your corner.  I repeat:  you need high-octane java to propel you through the day, especially when your toddler bites you on the inner thigh like a rapid dog.

In case you are struggling with your need for coffee, allow me to provide YOU, a sleep-deprived parent of a small-child, a few examples of when you need a cup of joe:

1.  You repeatedly get on the subway going the wrong direction.  Been there, done that.

2.  You pour breast milk in your cereal.

3.  You decide to take your dog to the ground floor of your building for a pee break, and find yourself in the elevator holding your baby and a leash with no canine attached.

4.  In mid-sentence, you find yourself struggling to remember a basic word like fork.

5.  When you find yourself dazed on aisle 4 of the grocery store, and you snap awake on your feet but have no clue what you were trying to find.

When you decide to quit life, coffee is your best option.  It’s a necessity for toddler supervisors.  Let me break down our morning ritual for you (yes, I said our ritual because my toddler participates).

Henry and I take the grinder apart and empty the stale, trapped grounds.  I brush it clean.  The scale turns on, so I push the tare button.  I measure twenty-six grams of beans and let Henry dump them into the top of the grinder.  They grind to sand-like powder, while Henry, my Jedi apprentice, hangs on my hip and motions towards the kettle.  We fill the silver kettle with filtered water and set the stovetop to high heat.  My favorite part comes next. I remove the plastic tray containing the fresh grounds and place it under my nose.  I inhale.  Henry pulls the tray towards his nose, breathes deeply, and yells.  “The Force is with you young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet,” I say.  I don’t want him getting cocky.

The steam pushes the lid off the silver kettle.  I grab it from the stove and pour water into a red funnel resting on a glass coffee pot.  I pour enough to saturate the grounds, which leads to a magical dance between the grounds and water, until a mushroom-shaped bubble forms and collapses.  It’s time to pour 400 grams of water in a slow, circular motion.  This is what my wife means by obsession.  The steaming coffee moves through the paper filter and drips into the pot.  My work is done. We observe the coffee collect in the pot.  Henry grows restless.  “Patience you must have my young padawan,” I remind him.

I drink coffee at 5:30a.m.  Mid-morning, I drink it during Sesame Street.  In the afternoon, I drink it when I lose momentum.  On the worst days, I wish I could hook myself to a coffee IV.

An Open Letter to the Nashville Zoo

Note: I think open letters are dumb, but, lately, everyone writes them, so I’m going to write one too. Enjoy my fury. Just kidding, everyone knows I suck at expressing anger.

An Open Letter to the Nashville Zoo:

I tried not to like you. The only reason I visited you was for my toddler son, Henry. He needs to learn about the animal kingdom, and you are the only place nearby offering this service. What’s my problem with you? Truth be told, you depress me. Large animals held captive in confined spaces sadden me. Call me a “bleeding heart,” if you like. Free the beasts, I say. Give them the wilderness they deserve to roam. Okay, I’ll step off my soap box.

You probably think I have too much time on my hands if I am writing you an open letter. I know there are bigger problems in the world. Listen: I understand you provide an educational tool. I get it. How else do we to teach children about saddle-billed storks and alpacas? I appreciate you introducing my child to meerkats, but that doesn’t mean I have to like you, and don’t expect me to purchase your merchandise. Although, I admit your sleek, yellow logo with the giraffe silhouettes looks snazzy and its hard to resist your ALL DAY ICEE for $7.45.

I “bit the bullet” and brought Henry to your gates this past summer. We arrived at 9am because we roll on a toddler schedule (if you opened at 6:30a.m. it would fit our schedule better). My intitial fear was the possibility you might put my son in a cage because his behavior often resembles a wild animal. Just in case, I strapped him tightly to the stroller to limit his movement. Thank you for not caging him.

Okay, let’s get down to business. Let me frog-march you through our day:

9:15a.m. The goats start the party. Henry releases a high-pitch squeal, rapidly waves his finger, and struggles to escape my arms. His feet kick before hitting the ground. Grabbing my finger he directs me to the Nigerian dwarf goat. Preferring an eye-to-eye encounter, he squats and stares at the sun-bathing goat. Squeals and finger-waving abound. His eyes risk popping out of his head. To match his enthusiasm, I squat, examine the tan and black face, and run my fingers over the goat’s coarse hair. Henry giggles. We visit each goat in the Critter Encounter Area, observing older children groom the goats with plastic brushes. We learn the hooved creatures contain a four-chamber stomach allowing them to regurgitate food and rechew to prevent waste. Who knew goats are a model of efficiency? Why didn’t you tell me sooner they have been domesticated for 10,000 years? Holey moley! Before exiting, Henry runs circles and screams in the pen. Poor animals. They deserve overtime pay.

9:45a.m. The Caribbean flamingoes huddle in the lagoon. I hold Henry, arms wrapped around his waist, above the railing. He closes one eye and squints the other to avoid the sun. A large group (maybe 20-30) of the pink birds gather in the corner of the lagoon nearest us, while the rest plod, individually, through the water, heads down, searching the lagoon floor. Their rod-like legs and s-shaped necks set them apart from the average bird. It blows my mind that flamingoes, during mating season in the wild, gather in colonies ranging from 5,000 to 100,000. Whoah.

A pair of flamingoes, in the center of the group, dance around one another, snapping their heads back-and-forth. They squabble like an old married couple. Henry’s wandering eyes focus on the dispute. Back and forth they snap their beaks trading insults. The flamingoes immediately surrounding them squawk causing the next layer in the group to sound off creating a chorus of squawking rippling through the colony. Henry extends his tiny finger to point at the dramatic birds and glances back at me for an explanation. “They are mad because they were forced to move from South Florida to Tennessee,” I say. He stares at me as if I am speaking nonsense. The squabble continues for a few minutes eventually dying down, so we move on to the bamboo trail.

10:00a.m. Henry toddles down the sidewalk inspecting the bamboo that creates a canopy blocking the blazing sun. The koi swimming in the fake stream, winding around the walkway, draw him down the path. He sticks his head between the rails to watch the fish circle in the water. On the trail, we see a red-ruffed lemur, clouded leopard, and yellow-back duiker. Actually, I watch the lemur, while Henry admires the floodlights hidden in the shrubbery; the artificial lights are more interesting to him than an exotic animal from another continent. I could have taken him to the lighting section of the hardware store. Whatever. It’s time to visit the African porcupine.

Let’s get something straight: African porcupines are cooler than North American porcupines. There is a big difference between the two, like the difference between a sedan and a monster truck. Okay, I exaggerate, but the African porcupine is my new favorite mammal. I’m not sure what that says about me. I don’t care, mostly because the quills on the African porcupine are rad. The lengthy, black-and-white striped quills attach to the African porcupine’s rear like a fierce war bonnet. If a African porcupine receives a threat, the quills raise and it walks backwards towards the aggressor giving off the appearance of a larger creature. Awesome! By the way, I just thought of a genius idea: I plan to dress Henry as a African porcupine for Halloween. Don’t tell my wife.

10:30a.m. The Shell Station, an “interactive tortoise exhibit,” buzzes with kiddos. Two dozen tortoises calmly crawl on wood chips ignoring the sugar-crazed kids stomping in their home. Tweet this: #Prayforthetortoises. Henry scans the station with a stunned face. He struggles to makes sense of the moving shells, so he pats a tortoise on the back to make sure he is not hallucinating.

“How old are these turtles,” I ask? The young man supervising the exhibit sighs. “These are tortoises,” he says. His tone suggests he is not impressed with me. Yet, he gladly provides me the detailed story of the Sulcata tortoise. “One minute,” he says. In mid-conversation, he speed walks to the far side of the station to flip over an upside down tortoise. The children clap. He is the hero of Shell Station.

Henry explores the station and greets each turtle-oops, I mean tortoise- with a pat on the shell. All is well with the plant eating reptiles, until he attempts to ride a large tortoise like a horse. Yikes! It’s time to leave when toddlers hitch rides from reptiles.

11:00a.m. We exit the zoo. Daddy needs more coffee. We hit the Hardee’s drive-thru and head home for the sacred hour called nap time.

While Henry dreams of goats, I develop a persuasive argument to convince my wife an African porcupine costume is an awesome idea. Okay, enough about African porcupines. So, this is the part where I own up to the fact you completely won me over this summer. I admit it. The Nashville Zoo rocks! You had me at African porcupine. Sorry, I had to slide that comment in before I finish writing. Because you are amazing, Henry and I now dedicate one day a week to visiting you. Zoo Fridays! After I get coffee flowing through my system, we load up our Subaru to explore your amphibians, fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Today, we look forward to visiting your new baby giraffe, Enzi. Thanks Nashville Zoo!

Sincerely,

Billy Doidge Kilgore

P.S. I included a picture of the African Porcupine.

8 Things NOT to Say to a Stay-at-Home Dad

Stay-at-home dads receive peculiar comments. Why? In the minds of many people, we remain a new concept. Despite a significant increase in men choosing to provide full-time care for their children, we are at odds with mainstream gender role expectations.  The comments and questions we encounter range from innocent to insulting. It never fails at the playground, grocery store, or doctor’s office someone will offer their opinion. To be fair, there are many people, especially women, who praise our efforts, but there are more who question our status.

I want to help my fellow dudes by sharing eight things not to say to a stay-at-home dad. This is not an exhaustive list. Actually, it’s only the beginning.

8. Does your wife wear the pants in your family? Choosing to stay at home does not mean I surrender power in my marriage. My wife and I understand marriage as a partnership, which means both of us wear the pants. If truth be told, as a stay-at-home dad, I rarely wear pants, unless I am leaving my home. My son and I spend the morning in our underwear. My son probably thinks his father only wears pants after noon. If this means others believe my wife wears the pants in the family, I’m comfortable with that because she literally does.

7.  Did you lose your job? So, it’s hard for you to imagine a man choosing to stay at home. You assume I was forced into this situation because I got fired, laid off, or proved generally incompetent in the workplace. Allow me to offer you a thought:  if you can’t fathom a man choosing to stay at home to care for his children, perhaps, you hold a narrow understanding of fatherhood. Bear in mind, masculinity is not determined by employment. Stay-at-home dads are dudes whether they are employed or not. Please don’t assume we are inadequate employees.

6. Are you trying to be unconventional? No, I’m not attempting to make a statement on gender roles. I am doing, at the moment, what makes sense for my family. While my wife is a great mother, my temperament is better suited to stay at home. I am content with the intense, yet unstructured, life of a stay-at-home parent. From early morning until late afternoon, I patiently endure blocks thrown at my head, yogurt spit on my face, tiny fingers in my belly button, and naptime battles, while resisting the urge to thrown my son out the window. I don’t need a medal, but it would be nice if you gave me a badge to wear on my sleeve.

5.  “When are you getting a real job?” Seriously? Have you spent more than ten minutes with a toddler? Since you asked this question, I’m guessing you haven’t because monitoring a toddler all day long equals pure exhaustion. Parenting small children is the toughest job and it comes with no salary or benefits. If they choose to skip their nap, prepare for hell.

4.  “Do you feel weird allowing your wife to be the breadwinner?” Listen here:  the 1950’s called and they want their gender roles back. If you are threatened by a woman earning more income than you, that is your problem, not mine. Real dudes do what is in the best interest of their family, not their ego.

3.  “Are you babysitting ?” This question makes me want to thump you on the forehead. Please stop asking it. You would never ask a woman my age that question. I’m parenting my child, a responsibility required of every father, whether stay-at-home or not. Babysitting is what sixteen-year-olds do for gas money. Just no.

2.  “Are you Mr. Mom?” No, I am not Mr. Mom. That title was funny twenty years ago, but now it’s dumb. I am a dude, not a woman. As a stay-at-home dad, I don’t need to alter my gender in order to want to care for my children. Stop asking that question.

1.  “You must have a lot of free time. Do you watch TV all day?” I watch an hour of TV most days with my toddler son. At the moment, we are watching season two of True Detective, season four of Game of Thrones, and season one of House of Cards. Actually, my television consists of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Curious George, and Sesame Street. I can tell you the letter of the day, but that is about it regarding television. During the first year of my child’s life, the only free time I had during the day was nap time, which meant I crashed on the couch to regain my sanity.

Next time someone asks why I am a stay-at-home dad, I’m going give them my friend and fellow stay-at-home dad’s standard answer: “I retired at thirty-five after winning the lottery.”

The Gaze, Picasso, and Fatherhood

I adore the first picture taken in the hospital of me and my newborn son.  My eyes gaze on the small face resting against my chest. The dark rings below my eyes, formed from my wife’s two and a half days of labor, extend to the top of my cheekbone. I tilt my head to study the tiny features of the face cradled in my hands, only a few hours old. My soul intertwines with the nine pounds of soft flesh sleeping in my arms.  A sacred beginning unfolds.

In Pablo Picasso’s painting Mother and Child, I recognize a similar gaze.  At six months old, at the Art Institute of Chicago, Henry and I viewed Picasso’s famous painting.  A mother, draped in a white robe, her infant sitting in lap, tilts her head downward to look in the child’s eyes. She resembles a classical sculpture more than a living person; her large, round features provide the child a harbor.  They are tethered by the mother’s body language.

I hold the picture of myself and Picasso’s painting side-by-side.  My gaze in the photograph sets the tone for my relationship with my son. The bald, blue-eyed creature becomes the center of my world. Early in the morning, I wake with him and stare into his eyes, while I sip my steaming coffee and feed him a bottle. Upon finishing, breast milk runs out of the corners of his mouth as they raise into a smile.  His face reminds me of my holy responsibility as a father.

The mother’s gaze offers protection from hostility; the child anchors down in her crossed legs.  The emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of the infant is underpinned by the mother’s eyes.  I imagine only the child in the picture, lying on the floor, mother absent, and emptiness overcomes me.  A connection lost.  A foundation of support vanished.

Picasso painted Mother and Child following the birth of his first offspring.  I discovered at the museum he included a father early in the creative process, but painted over him for the final version.  Why did he remove the father?  Did he believe only a mother can nurture a child?  I envision the father standing next to the mother and child.  He gazes into the child’s eyes.  The gaze knows no gender.  Its roots are in the soul of both men and women.  It sprouts from a divine place.  A child arrives and a light switches on; suddenly, we witness the most gorgeous creature.  Mother Nature has performed her finest work.

I don’t know the reason Picasso removed the father.  I do know when I look at the picture of myself and my son a few hours after his birth, a warm sensation fills my chest.  It reminds me how naive we are to categoricaly divide motherhood and fatherhood, as if they have been cleanly severed.  The relationship is complex.  “Fatherhood and motherhood aren’t separate conversations, despite the unique parenting experiences you find at any single point on the gender spectrum,” writes Jason Tucker.  I wholeheartedly agree, they are entangled.

How do we define fatherhood?  We discuss it alongside motherhood, because parenting a child is more complicated than the portrayal offered by Picasso’s painting or society’s narrow gender roles.  Both are fluid, not static.

Stinky Fingers: Tips to Keep Curious Hands Clean on the Changing Table

Few things defeat parents more than poop on tiny fingers.  Poop on your child’s fingers makes you want to give up.  It makes you want to cry.  It represents the utmost violation of basic hygiene.  All day long, you work hard to keep your child reasonably clean (out of the dog bowl and Target urinal) but your efforts prove futile when they stick their hands in their own poop.  Defeat.  Pure defeat.

The risk of poop on fingers increases dramatically on the changing table.  Attention divides between changing dirty diapers and guarding against curious fingers.  At any moment, they strike.  I wipe furiously to clear poop.  I push his hands above his waist.  I grab another wipe.  The sneaky fingers crawl like spider legs to make another pass.  I swat them away.  Yet, inevitably, in a sleep-deprived moment–prior to coffee consumption–my defense fails.  Little fingers wave in the air covered in poop.  Defeat.  Pure defeat.

Despite Henry’s success maneuvering past my guard, I have learned a few techniques
to distract mischieveious hands.  These are not solutions, but ideas to buy you enough time to clean your child’s rear.  Below, I offer my most effective methods to prevent stinky fingers.

  1.  Call for Back-Up:  This is the easiest approach.  If someone else is available (spouse, grandma, friend, neighbor) ask them to hold your child’s arms.  Of course, your child will not like this and probably scream, but if you move quickly to change their diaper, it’s not so bad.  Plus, someone else should have to witness the black bean and carrot collage in your child’s diaper.
  2. Shiny Objects:  I’m not above handing my child a shiny, foreign object to hold on the changing table for a couple of minutes.  Henry gets to play with my iPhone on the changing table, which never fails to amuse him.  What special item can your child play with on the table?  Remember, the risk is your precious belonging could be thrown or end up in poop.  Move quickly to avoid disaster.
  3. Singing Combined with Silly Facial Expressions:  When no one else is around and shiny objects are unavailable, I resort to singing the silliest song that comes to mind and making goofy facial expressions.  Singing Sir-Mix-A-Lot or Sesame Street songs often does the trick.  Sometimes I combine beatboxing with shiny objects to buy myself enough time.  Again, move quickly.
  4. Large Books:  I borrowed this method from my wife.  She has mastered the art of using a large book to construct a tent-like structure over Henry’s head, which typically attracts his hands and moves his focus to the pictures.  In my mind, this is the toddler equivalent of magazines you read on the toilet.  Henry prefers to read about farm life on the changing table.
  5. Install Restraints: When all else fails I recommend installing metal restraints on the table.  One visit to the hardware store can make your life easier.  The restraints allow you to move at a comfortable pace and step aside to refill your coffee cup.  I’m kidding.  Please don’t take this idea seriously.  If you attempt this method, you will probably receive a knock on the door from a social worker.  Although, I admit, it is tempting to try sometimes.

I hope my techniques help you prevent stinky fingers.  They are not fail-safe, but combined with quick movement can lead to a positive changing table experience.  If these methods do not work and curious fingers run wild, I suggest watching the following video.  Earlier in the week, my wife introduced me to this Kickstarter campaign to end stinky fingers.  Pure genius!  Check it out.