Every year around this time, I like to dip into my pool of fatherly knowledge and offer up some tips on being a good dad. Unfortunately, it’s sort of like a little plastic pool, about a foot deep with cartoon whales on it.
Still, with kids ages 11 and 8, I figure I can come up with some half-decent advice — and maybe even some signs of hope for those of you with younger children who are concerned it’s only a matter of time before you screw them up. You know who you are.
1) Be prepared to do research. For years you were able to appear informed about your kids’ interests through your vast general knowledge, which you could mostly make up, since they had no access to Wikipedia. But eventually they gravitate toward activities you know nothing about, and if you don’t make a concerted effort to learn about them you risk being labeled an idiot, even before that typically happens.
Take my son, who this year decided to take up lacrosse; this is not a very well known sport, mainly because there has never been an inspirational Hollywood movie about it, possibly starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. To the untrained eye, it resembles guys running around whacking each other with sticks. But I did a little research into it and discovered it’s actually a highly nuanced, very strategic sport, in which guys run around whacking each other with sticks.
2) You have to work on the basics. When I first started teaching my son how to play baseball, I could do no wrong; I was like Mark Fidrych, Reggie Jackson and Garry Maddox all rolled into one, primarily because he had never heard of any of those people. But now that he’s an accomplished ballplayer in his own right, there are certain things he expects from me, like the ability to pitch him a ball in his strike zone, and not the strike zone of an imaginary 8-foot-tall person swinging a 5-foot bat.
This means the kids aren’t the only ones who need to practice. With that in mind, I plan to go out and, even if it takes me hour upon hour of intense personal effort, buy him a pitching machine.
3) Hide the remote. When your kids are little and they’re watching “Caillou” — the cartoon about the eerily bald, fit-prone 4-year-old whom even Mr. Rogers would trip if nobody was looking — you think children’s television can’t possibly get any worse. Then they start watching “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” starring twin actors apparently grown in a Disney laboratory using DNA from the band Nelson and a squirrel.
The comedy (“comedy”) on these shows usually involves bodily functions, hilarious personal injury and characters being nasty to each other. We’ve actually had to ban several Disney and Nickelodeon programs because the characters are so mean — I’m concerned that the sidekick girl from “iCarly” may actually be a sociopath. I’m just waiting for the episode where they find Gibby’s head in a box.
4) Beware the math. You might have thought your college degree, or perhaps your master’s, or the fact that you’ve spent years running a multinational corporation, would have prepared you for your daughter’s fifth-grade math homework. This is not true, however, because the way students learn math has been reworked by a committee of people who hate you.
It’s not just that they’ve taught our children completely alien procedures to use when solving math problems, leading to daily battles as parents insist on dividing and subtracting while their kids are trying to “regroup,” whatever that means. They also end every assignment with an essay question in which students have to explain why the problem works out the way it does, a development which seriously undermines the time-honored mathematical tradition of just guessing.
5) Give yourself a little credit. Although fathering is tough, you can sometimes spot signs that you’re making progress. For instance, when my son asked me what I was doing today, I said I was writing about how to be a good dad — and he replied, “Well, you’re a good dad, so that should be pretty easy.” Hey … That must mean I’m doing something right!
It’s just a good thing I didn’t say I was writing about how to be a good pitcher.
This column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/pchianca. To receive At Large by e-mail, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”