When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
Recently, much to my chagrin, my daughter has gotten into Barney. “Barney’s still a thing?” you ask? Well, no, he’s not, but in my daughter’s daycare they have a whole library of Barney VHS tapes that they seem to be watching just about every day, and my little girl can’t get enough. Being a ’90s kid whose little brother watched that singing purple sack of shit for hours on end, this new favorite show of hers couldn’t be more aggravating to me.
Fortunately, with her being three years old, I’m still able to shape much of what my daughter is into, so she loves Ninja Turtles and (non-Barney) dinosaurs (also, one of the first words she uttered was “Wookiee”). But as she’s starting to become her own person, I realize that my proudly geeky influence over her interests is already beginning to wane.
So what should I do about her new favorite show? Do I buy her dusty Barney toys in a local flea market and learn the words to the mind-numbing “Clean-Up” song? Or do I show her Death to Smoochy and scar her for life?
Okay, I’m not really going to do that. But seriously, what do I do if my kid has terrible taste?
The Expert Advice
Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: It’s important for a parent to support and show interest in their child’s interests. Many times, a parent’s own interests trump the kid’s, and while it makes sense that you want your kid to be interested in what you’re interested in, you still want to listen to what they want to do and get involved in their own interests.
There’s a lot of research into parental engagement that says that even with a six-month-old, for just 15 minutes a day a parent should allow the child to direct the play. If they shake a rattle, then you shake the rattle. If they hand you something, you take it and hand it back. Just let them take the lead.
This continues as they age, so if you’re a dad and your daughter likes to have tea parties, let her direct the tea party and tell you where to sit and how to hold your cup — basically, let them tell you what they want you to do. This will make them feel valued and allows them to control their environment, which will help them with developing assertiveness and independence.
Eventually, as they age, you’re talking with them about their interests to send the message that you value what they think and that you want to hear what they’re interested in. This also will help them with developing cognitive and critical thinking skills. Even if you have no interest at all in whatever it is, it’s still something they’re interested in and you want to give the message that you value it. So if your kid loves dance, but you wanted them to be a basketball player and you don’t go to their performances, that’s not supporting them, and as the adult, you’re going to have to get over that.
Matt, father of four: All of my kids are opposite from me in one way or another, but I always try to find ways to support who they are.
My youngest daughter, who is three, she’s the exact opposite of me when it comes to socialization. She’s your typical social butterfly while I’m much more of a hang back and chill kind of guy. So for her, any kid on the playground is like her best friend, and she’ll go right up to them and play with them — sometimes I wish I could be like her in that way. Of course, we also let her know the dangers of being overly social with strangers, but we’re always around, so when we go to the park, we just let her be her friendly self.
With the middle guy, who’s six, he’s very much about his art, or his “works” as he calls them. Whether it’s coloring or building a pillow-fort, he has a deep passion for whatever creative work he’s doing. And that’s not me — I was never artistic in, like, a deep way. So with him, we just let him do what he wants: We get supplies he needs, like I buy reams and reams and reams of printer paper because he may run through 50 sheets of paper in a given day — he staples them together and makes these little novellas. And when he makes them, we always praise it. In fact, we have a little library of just his stuff upstairs.
With my 10-year-old son, he’s just super, super smart. Now, I’m not intellectually bereft or anything, but he’s in a different world than me. He loves math and his IQ is like, 40 points higher than mine, so we try hard to nurture that desire to learn by getting him a math tutor who can teach him things five years ahead of him. In kindergarten he got cello lessons and Mandarin Chinese lessons, things that we couldn’t do on our own, so we found someone who could teach him.
We also have another kid who was born a week ago. Obviously, it’s too soon to know his personality yet, but there are little things that tell me that this one may end up being my clone. So, we’ll see.
Ray, father of two: Eventually, as kids get older and become teenagers, they start to lose interest in you — they get a group of friends and they want to do things with their friends and not their dad. My example may be a little different than some, because after their mom and I got divorced, my son, daughter and I became super tight, so we got involved in everything together, but even then, everyone has their own interests.
With my daughter, for example, I was never a soccer fan — I always liked football, baseball and hockey. Anyway, I’d go and watch her practices, and I’d learn the roles in the game so I’d know what I was talking about. Once you learn about it, then you learn to enjoy it. So I’d always cheer her on and hope she did well.
My son got into working on cars, and I was never a car guy. But in that case, I started watching stuff on YouTube and I learned how to do stuff with him and even started to show him how to do stuff with the engine. So you adapt.
For stuff I didn’t get involved in, like when my daughter became a ski instructor, I was never much of a skier, but I’d still support her and let her do her thing. Honestly, the way I looked at it was, if you don’t learn about it, then you’re not interested in your kid, and I always wanted to spend time with them.
Joe Wiegand, a conservative with a hippie dad: My dad was a professional comedian named Jim Wiggins, who was friends with George Carlin and others. Comedy in the early 1970s was a very liberal, counterculture scene — growing up in that environment, I like to say that the only way to be a rebellious teenager was to volunteer for Ronald Reagan.
When I became more political, I’d already had an interest in American history and government, so whereas most father/son differences may have been kept to the kitchen table, we ended up in the newspaper. See, in 1986, my dad ended up being the Chicago spokesman for the Great Peace March, which was a big rally all about denuclearization that looked like a sort of marching Grateful Dead concert. I, on the other hand, was working as an intern on Capitol Hill for the conservative Congressman Phil Crane. So, without telling him, I ran a counter demonstration across the street from his rally.
Because of the fact that the dad was the hippie and the son was the Christian conservative in the opposing demonstrations, we ended up on the cover of the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune — I don’t know if my dad’s pro-peace march would have been on the front page of those two papers without the press thinking that it was a pretty cool dynamic between us.
In a way, we both came from that tradition of self-promotion, with him as a comedian who was dubbed “The Last Hippie in America,” and as I would become a Theodore Roosevelt reprisor, we certainly had that much in common.
My dad and I loved each other, and I think that you can have these different world views and still love one another. In his later years, my dad actually rented a little apartment from us, and every night when I got home late from doing my political work, I knew that my wife and daughter were asleep, but my old man would be up. So instead of going right home, I’d go to his apartment, and we’d have a libation and download the day. We’d argue, but always in a jovial, friendly way. Argument not for the sake of argument but for the sake of enlightenment. I still hold that with me, as our relationship taught me to hold my viewpoints and back them up, but to also be willing to listen.
I remember fondly that whenever people complimented my dad on his sons, my old man used to reply, “I didn’t raise ’em. I just let the little fuckers grow.” And it all related to this sort of hippie attitude toward parenting. It was all about, “Do your thing and do it well,” so if you were going to be a dishwasher, be a great dishwasher. He was a great guy who allowed us and encouraged us to be who we were.