From my perspective of being a Dad for a quarter century, there are two types of parents today.
The first is the Dad (or Mom) who is truly hurting; they’ve lost a job and finances are strained and both lead to general despair. I empathize because I’ve been there. I work in politics and several times my candidates have been on the south side of an election. When that happens, you’re abruptly fired, you become thin in the wallet, and job rejections seem never-ending. There’s only one way out: Grind on. Keeping reaching out, keep calling, keep looking, and keep driving. As my old Army drill sergeant used to yell at my platoon: “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do!”
The second is the Dad (or Mom) working at home but now beginning to go nuts because they’re balancing work and having their kids around the house all the time. The fall school year promises more of the same and every person in the house is on edge and every day is a slow march to dinner and beyond.
Either type of parent can become the third type of parent: The one that understands that this is the best time ever to be a Dad or Mom. Why? Because your kids are around and you have time - time with them that you never had before and may never have again.
Yes, hard to believe, but these unusual times can be a gift. Use these moments now to get to know your kid in ways that will last way beyond this temporary setback - for years and years to come.
1. All Time With a Kid is Quality Time: The Field Report
Most Dads know it takes effort to spend unrushed and undistracted time with a son; some Dads, like me, have three. You’re grinding at work all week, your kid is at school, there are after-school activities, he’s got homework, it’s now 8 p.m. and you’re already thinking about tomorrow. Since March, the iron grip of the Schedule has been broken. It was sure broken for me when I was unemployed and I used that time at home to get a grip on the perpetual motion machine that is fatherhood.
How? I sat my three sons down and laid it out the only way I know how: With the unflinching truth. “Ok gents, we all know it is bad right now with the old man not working. It won’t last forever but one thing will: Beginning today, we are making a schedule for when we spend time together.” From the web, I had downloaded copies of a blank office calendar for the rest of the year.
“We’re going into a hard routine,” I continued, passing out the calendars. “We’ll mark specific days and times until the end of the year when each of you individually spend time with me, no other brothers and no distractions. There’s only one rule: Each of you will be required to talk.”
Over time, this became unofficially known as the Bleacher Report. That’s because I and the designated son would grab snacks from home and go to the fields at the local high school, which on any given Saturday morning is one of the most peaceful places on the planet. If you can’t do that now, improvise. We’d throw around a football or lacrosse ball or a baseball for an hour, run sprints goal line to goal line and afterwards, we’d sprawl across several rows of bleacher benches and just talk.
It was simple – I’d think up some topics to draw him out and then we’d slide into the rundown: How’d the week go? Name one big success, one big fail. Ok, here’s what happened in the old man’s week; ask me two questions about it. What’s coming up that makes you nervous, confident? Or we’d play the Fave Game: What’s your fave movie, car, cheeseburger, and teacher and why? There were zero distractions; the phones were left in car, there were no brothers to interrupt - just the fields stretching before us (hence the name) as our conversation graduated from everyday stuff to serious stuff.
This routine never varied. As the years went on, the conversations became more important inasmuch as the boys were wrestling with academics and sports and friends and college matters.
The Bleacher report never ever ended. My middle kid was home from a deployment to the Persian Gulf this last Christmas and I’ll let you guess where Saturday found us. We talked as long and casually about his ship’s exploits with Iranian patrol boats as a decade earlier we had talked about his 8th grade football team.
2. The Year in Review
When I was a stay-at-home Dad – that is, staying at home because I had no job to go to - in between hunting for work, I took part in the All-American Pastime: Cleaning out the house.
In fact, that’s what a lot of people are doing right now. I bet like me, they are going through every room, prowling the basement and attic and garage, opening boxes and closets and discovering treasures on once-unknown shelves.
I guarantee that a lot of the stuff they are finding is kid-related. I did. That’s because every kid produces a record. And by that I mean: schoolwork, art drawings (yes, from when they were four-years old), photos from the last soccer season and winter swim meets and the family vacation; a program from the college football game that he insists on keeping; the Earth Day report with glued leaves and twigs; test papers and report cards and the certificate from the Science Fair and the community newspaper article with his name in it. I could go on but you get it. Like many parents, I’ve held onto it all.
Now is the time for you to rummage through it all. Go through all this kid flotsam and then carefully sorted it, making a stack for each kid. Photos and other docs that have been on your computer for years? I printed them all out.
Then, when I was surrounded by stacks for each kid, I selected the best stuff and placed the items in plastic sheet protectors, adding to each a date and a whimsical note. All was inserted in a three-ring binder for each kid, on which the front was written, “The Year in Review.”
Yeah, a scrapbook. You think that’s nuts? Keep reading.
The binders were a hit with my three sons; they will be with your kids. This was an entire year of page-by-page good memories.
Indeed, the Year binders are ongoing. I continue to save photos and emails they’ve sent and news clippings about the regions of the world they are in and put it together every year. It’s a constant and colorful reminder of what they had achieved.
When the eldest kid, out of college, was at home carefully packing his gear for a Naval deployment in the Far East, I offhandedly asked him what he was taking. “One of the Year binders.” he said simply. “When I get homesick, I’ll pull it out.”
3. Get outside!
And let me clarify: Away from screens!! Yes, this is hardly original. But you can never do it enough. And here are some ways to change it up.
No electronics permitted beyond the front and back doors! Set routines in which you walk through the neighborhoods and parts of your community you’ve never seen. Use this as an opportunity to tell them about your neighborhood and your life growing up as a kid. I guarantee this will spark the kid’s curiosity. Hey, you’ve got a captive audience and for now, you have all the time in the world.
In the backyard or the park, throw balls - baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse – but just not back and forth. Challenge the kid by making it a competition. Ten times without a drop, five times opposite hand. 20 times in 30 seconds. And if want to jazz it up, put some minor money on it – 50 cents, a dollar. Have push up and sit up contests and other unusual events. How far you can walk with a book balanced on your head? How many times can you hop on one foot? Yeah, all sounds crazy. Well, I did it all and it provided some of the most fun moments I ever spent with my sons.
Sure these are odd times. Whatever your situation right now – employed, unemployed, suffering from cabin fever, try to become that third type of parent, the one taking advantage of this time with your kids. Few of us will ever again have this singular opportunity again.
Don’t fall into the trap of going through the motions and wishing for it all to end and “normal” to ensue. Because my drill sergeant had another saying when he sensed my platoon was just going through the motions and focused on the end of basic training: “Don’t count the days. Make the days count!”
Jeff Nelligan is the father of three sons; the two eldest are graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy and Williams College; the third is at West Point. Nelligan is the author of Four Lessons From My Three Sons: How You Can Raise A Resilient Kid . He serves as a public affairs executive in Washington, D.C. and has worked on Capitol Hill, in the Executive Branch, and as an advance man on Congressional and Presidential campaigns. He writes at www.ResilientSons.com