I’m not sure how or when it happened, but at some point our then young sons started asking for either Sarah or I to be their “bath listener.” At the time I thought it was the cutest thing I’d ever heard but as I sat listening to Penny describe in detail how mommy horsey and baby horsey were eating all the bubbles and baby horsey was getting sleepy, I thought about how few of these moments are left in my life and how to be present for my kids.
I’ve read a lot about the importance of Fathers in the life and development of a child, and the impact is staggering. In King Me: What Every Son Wants and Needs from His Father by Steve Farrar, the author argues that what made the difference in a good kings or bad kings in the biblical narrative is the presence and time made by a mentoring father. I wholeheartedly agree. I have witnessed too often the damage done by absent or practically absent fathers, and I want none of this for my children.
If all goes according to plan, Penny will be our last child and thinking back on how quickly Jack went from a raging 2 year old to the strapping almost 10 year old he is, is a frightening reality check on how little time I have left with a toddler in both the most positive ways (“Daddy let’s snuggle”) and the most negative (“JUST EAT ONE BITE OF THE SANDWICH YOU JUST DEMANDED I MAKE FOR YOU!”). While at Jack’s lacrosse tryout the other day, one of the parents pointed out that we are past the halfway point of shipping them off to college… proud to say I didn’t break down sobbing in that exact moment.
I’ve been trying to concentrate on the moments we have left together, to be present, to give them my attention. Here are 3 ways that I’ve found to help me in this quest.
We have had more meaningful and even occasionally difficult conversations in the car lately than anywhere ever before. I usually have the responsibility of bringing the boys to school in the mornings, which gives us a solid 10-15 uninterrupted minutes together. I’ve begun to use this time intentionally, with the planning of a question or discussion. I’ve found that with difficult or embarrassing questions, (girls mostly at this point) it is a safe place for them, they don’t have the added pressure of me staring them down waiting for an answer and they feel protected with a seatback barrier between us. We’ve also been working on memorization together and some deeper theological terms (i.e. Transubstantiation, Atonement, Old vs. New Covenant) I mention this not to say car rides are the answer but that there are small blocks of unbroken time that we may be blind to or fill with the noise of everyday life.
We have recently implemented a chore and cleaning plan in our home, that for the time being is working extremely well. This has allowed us time together in the evening that I previously spent shouting at my children to clean things, cleaning myself, and/or causing a general pissed off attitude. With the Lent season just past, we’ve cut out TV on weekdays, which has driven us to books, specifically, we have been able to read together. Last night was like a modern Currier and Ives painting; three kids, dad and auntie Jaclyn all wrapped up in blankets, fire in the fireplace, The Crystal Method gently pouring out of Alexa.
Now far be it from me to present an inaccurate vision of what was truly happening, I should also let you know that we discovered that Penny has inherited my lack of fear and overly keen interest in fire. But my point is this: there is something about the act of reading together that sets a higher price tag on it.
It becomes special; it raises the act to something that no one likes to miss out on. It also drives conversation afterward blessedly away from the endless Minecraft discussion to what they are reading. I for one would pay healthy amounts of money to anything that lessens the likelihood of having another freaking Minecraft discussion.
As a family we have decided to seek out adventure instead of comfort Experiences rather than safety. This has led both Sarah and I to intentionally spend time with the boys and our little lady. Here are 3 practical ways I have found to adventure with the boys and 3 for my daughter.
For the Boys
There is something intensely manly about a proper barbershop. I’m not talking about a Supercuts or even the atrocities holding sheers they call Sport Clips, I mean a proper Barbershop. The ones with walls of randomly placed knickknacks each with its individual story. With generations of loyal patrons lined up in well-worn chairs to wait their turn. The kind of barbershop that still uses a straight edge and warmed shaving cream to clean up your neck at the very end of your cut. I think it is important to spend time together with my sons in the company of other men. Not in the safety of a church group or family gathering, those are important too, but they also need to experience the company of other men with you to guide them. So that one of them tells an off color joke or swears or yells we can discuss it. We can talk about what our values are and how we will respond when people don’t share those same values. It’s the same reason I watch movies with them that have a few bad words and that I want them to read books that are sad (i.e. Wonder by Raquel Jaramillo) or scary. So that they aren’t shocked when they leave our house and they know where their values reside.
2.) Child Navigator
Sometimes just on the way home from the grocery store I will insist that one of my children direct us home. It may be a few blocks or multiple miles but it teaches 2 important lessons. a.) they need to learn how to get home. And b.) how to give clear and concise directions. It also is a lot of fun. Conversely I have started letting them direct our random adventures.
Say we have a few hours to kill, instead of playing some more Zelda, I let them get us lost. They are able to direct us to any destination they choose or more often they just get us lost and we end up in a cool area of the suburbs we’ve never been to before. To date we have ended up at multiple ice-cream shops, a skateboard shop, the Frank Lloyd Wright museum in Oak Park, coffee shops, forest preserves, and many parks.
3.) Boy Trip
To celebrate the end of the school year the boys and I have been taking a trip. Last year we went to The Great Wolf Lodge in the Wisconsin Dells. This year I am open to suggestions. Literally any suggestion. Please give me an alternative drivable destination so I don’t have to go back to the Dells. Please. I am begging you.
Rant aside, I really love the extended quality time that happens with the trip. They are able to cut loose with dad and jump on the beds and swim and slide and burp and fart without etiquette repercussions. I’m just not too fond of the Dells.
For the Daughter
Penny is turning 3 so our options are a bit limited at this stage but here are a few:
1.) Tell me a story
Again taking advantage of car rides we have a mad-lib version of storytelling. It usually starts like this.
Me: Penny, tell me a story.
Me: OK I’ll start. Once upon a time there was a….?
P: A PUPPY!
Me:…A puppy. And his name was…?
Me: Ok, Once upon a time there was a Puppy named T-Rex who was…? What color was he…?
And so on, and so on. This teaches her several things. a.) To be creative. b.) That I am listening to her and she can direct the narrative. And c.) Dad is silly too. That last one I am realizing is more important than we tend to realize. We need to teach our kids that it is ok to be silly and to know when the time to be silly is, and when it is not.
The girl loves a Target run or any store run, really. We run out for milk or bread or nails or whatever. The important thing is the time spent. Sometimes it’s a purpose driven mission to get some glue at Home Depot and sometimes we stop and smell every single candle in the home aisle at Target. It’s just one on one time and taking advantage of the chore we have to complete.
Our town has an amazing public library. There are comfy chairs and games and books and puzzles and we take full advantage of it. Sometimes we play on their iPads and sometimes we just read some Amelia Bedelia or she puts on a puppet show. But the library is a Godsend especially in the long-long-bleak-never-ending-sad-time we call Chicagoland winters.
My challenge to you is to seek out and use the moments and resources you have. Maybe you don’t have an amazing library or the resources to plan a trip. But you probably do have a car ride or two, you have some time to be silly, you can tell a story or let your child navigate. Because all too soon we are going to be dropping them off at a college dorm and those sweet moments, the snuggling on the couch moments, the T-Rex puppy moments, the “will you be my bath listener” moments… they’ll be gone.