Editor's note: This article was first published in Parents magazine.
There were bumps and bruises. There was trial and (much) error. There were growing pains, dizzying highs, and far too much Top 40 music. But I recently reached a benchmark when my daughter, following my son, hit double digits. I used the occasion to reset some parenting goals and take stock. I view these life skills as my body of work as a dad (though moms can obviously teach them as well). Feel free to adopt them as your own.
Tell a good (clean) joke
Childhood has its share of potentially awkward moments. Help your kid lay them to rest by having an age-appropriate riddle at the ready. “What did zero say to eight? Nice Belt.” “What starts with and ‘e,’ ends in and ‘e,’ and has a letter in it? Envelope.” “What’s the difference between mashed potatoes and pea soup? Anybody can mash potatoes.” Find more at prongo.com/jokes. Once your child picks out a few favorites, have her practice her delivery until she knows each one cold.
We spend lots of time helping little kids speak but tend to shortchange the idea of paying attention to others. Explain that listening is easy because you can do it without moving a muscle. Establish this rule: When he’s in conversation, have him ask himself, “Has the other person learned more about me than I’ve learned about him?” If the answer is “yes,” he should use his mouth less and his ears more.
Ride a bike
Sure, it’s a cliché, but it’s true: Teach your child to do it once and he’ll never forget how. Some experts suggest removing the pedals first to work on balance. But here’s the method that’s worked for me twice: Position your child on the two-wheeler on a flat surface (not grass), and run behind him while gripping the back of the seat. He’ll feel your support and see nothing but open road ahead, enabling him to focus on stability and steering. With each successive attempt, reduce the amount of pressure you apply. Soon you can let go, and he’ll be off on his own.
Locate the North Star
Finding Polaris (aka the North Star) helped civilizations from the Egyptians to the Vikings orient themselves. For kids, it opens the door to discovering other constellations-and maybe even astrophysics.
1) First, point out the Big Dipper, which is pretty easy to spot on a clear night.
2) Now find the two stars that form the front edge of the Big Dipper. Draw and imaginary line through them and follow it until you reach the bright star Polaris.
3) Go further! Polaris is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper.
Once you spark little astronomer’s interest, download Starmap ($5; iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch) or Sky Atlas ($6; Android). These apps help identify stars, planets, and constellations so you can explore the galaxy together.
Stand up to a bully
You can sign your child up for tae kwon do lessons, but the key to warding off most tormentors is depriving them of what they’re truly looking for: a reaction. Show your kid how to portray positive, forceful, yet quiet body language. To a bully, lack of attention is akin to lack of oxygen. Also coach your child to call him out if necessary. Simply saying “You’re being a bully” may be enough to stop and intimidator in his tracks.
Pay it forward
We’ve all heard the quote, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Since these words are lost on a 5-year-old, look for ways to convey the idea. Have your child volunteer at an animal shelter, give away used toys, or donate lemonade-stand proceeds to the cause of his choice. Let him accept nothing in return beyond a “Thank you.” Instead, he can suggest that the beneficiary do a good deed for someone else.
Throw a baseball
You should despise the phrase “throw like a girl,” not only because it’s sexist and unkind, but also because tossing a ball the right way is a matter of technique. While some kids-regardless of sex-are naturals and others aren’t, it’s crucial to teach the motion early either way so that it becomes second nature to your daughter (or son).
1. Have her form “bunny ears” across the seams of the ball with her index and middles fingers, using the others for support.
2. Turn her body sideways to the target, feet parallel to each other and hip distance apart.
3. Bring your child’s throwing arm straight back behind her head as she transfers her weight to her back foot.
4. Shift the weight to her front foot as she brings her shoulder and arm forward, straight over the top.
5. Tell her to snap her hand as she releases the ball and then follow through across her body.
Say “I’m sorry”
These two words, totaling seven measly letters, are often difficult for anyone — especially a child — to utter. With practice and much reinforcement, this apology blueprint worked for our family.
- Have her look the subject in the eye.
- Ban qualifying words like “but” and “if.”
- Supplement the remorseful sentiment with a conciliatory hug or handshake.
- Emphasize the importance of not repeating the action that upset the other person. You don’t just want her to recite, “I’m sorry.” You want her to mean it.
Start little kids off with War, which is easy to play (flip the top card from each of your piles, and the higher number wins). But by second grade they’re ready to learn the basics of blackjack. Explain that the object is for your cards to add up to as close to 21 as possible without going over. Face cards count for 10 and aces can either be 1 or 11. (If you’ve ever been in a casino, though, you know there’s plenty of nuance.) The fun disguises this game’s other virtues. Your child can play it with Grandpa as readily as with her buddies. It’s also a surprising means of improving her math skills, teaching her the laws of probability, and instilling this ever-true lesson: The deck is always stacked in favor of the dealer.
The one thing only you can teach your son
Your little man will learn how to treat the women in his life by watching how you act toward his mother. But these extra steps are well worth it. Encourage friendships with girls. Expose your son to female peers at an early age so he starts to see through stereotypes. Point out sexism. Note obvious examples (“It was not cool of those guys to whistle when that woman walked by”) as well as subtler ones (“Why would you automatically assume the doctor is a ‘he?’ “). Do away with gender roles. Teach your son how to cook dinner and do the laundry (and your daughter to inflate a bike tire).
Make a paper airplane
Technology can evolve as fast as it wants. No matter. Paper airplanes remain pure magic. They’re a great way to introduce kids to geometry, symmetry, and spatial relations. Beyond this, transforming a sheet of paper into a soaring object with a few strategic folds shows it’s possible to creatively reimagine out world.
1. Start with and 8½” x 11” piece of paper.
2. Fold it in half the long way. Then unfold it.
3. Fold the two top corners in to a form a triangle.
4. Fold the sides of the triangle in again, forming a narrower triangle.
5. Turn the triangle on its side and fold it in half.
6. Now fold the top edges on each of the sides down halfway to form the wings. Then take off!
There are far too many poor sports out there. Make sure your child doesn’t become one of them. Coach him to shake hands, praise the victor, avoid excuses, and never, ever blame his teammates. Losing with dignity means that, ultimately, he wins as well.