Dad Next Door Volunteers in His Daughter’s Classroom
This issue, we're launching a new monthly column by Dr. Jeff Lee called "The Dad Next Door." Our goal is to carve out some space for a man's perspective on parenting.
When it comes to fathers and fathering, Lee has a lot of experience to share. He's raised two daughters here in Seattle, and he's worked as a family physician for 25 years.
"In our culture," Lee says, "fathers feel like the back-up quarterbacks of parenting. They're supposed to jump in and play when the star takes a hit, but everyone treats them like they're second-string. I want to help change that. Dads bring something special to the table, and we all need to realize that."
In the coming months, watch our Web site, www.seattleschild.com, for excerpts from Lee's book Catch a Fish, Throw a Ball, Fly a Kite. In it, he shows parents how to teach their kids the classic skills of childhood – everything from riding a bike to making music with a blade of grass.
– Ruth Schubert, Managing Editor
The first time I volunteered at my daughter's school, a strange anxiety crept over me asI entered the building. I walked down the hallway, past bulletin boards covered with autumn poems and paper mache masks, and
I felt myself slipping backwards through time. When I got to the kindergarten room, I tucked my shirt in and looked around sheepishly for a place to spit out my gum.
Mrs. Kato greeted me warmly and put me to work cutting out paper vegetables, so the kids could assemble them into turkey-shaped cornucopias. To squeeze into the tiny chair, I had to stretch out my legs so my knees wouldn't bang against the table. The tips of my fingers barely fit into the kid-sized scissors. I felt like Gulliver.
A little boy walked up to me, digging his hand into the back of his pants and shifting his weight from side to side.
"What's your name?" he asked me.
"I'm Jeff. I'm Madeline's daddy. What's your name?"
"I have a poopy."
Despite that introduction, the day was a great success. I got to hang out in my daughter's world and meet her new friends. I learned the sights and sounds of her classroom so I could picture her there when she told me about her day.
And I forged a comfort with her teacher that served me well through all the conferences, report cards and class performances that would connect us for the rest of that year.
At the end of the day, Nina thanked me (we were on a first name basis now) and invited me to come back any time. "We don't get many dads," she said. "I'm not sure why."
Our culture seems imprinted with a memory of men striding off to work while womenfolk stayed home to tend the children. If there ever was such a time, it's long gone. These days, just as many women work outside the home as men. But if you go to any classroom, or field trip, or PTA meeting, the volunteers will mostly be moms. What's keeping the dads away?
Maybe it's the chairs.
Whatever it is, we need to get past it, because fathers are missing out, and so are their kids.
For most of the year, children spend nearly half their waking hours at school. And a lot more goes on there than reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. School is where they learn about friendship. It's where they learn about conflict. It's where they learn about the big, wide world outside their family's cocoon. It's pretty exciting stuff. You should go see it.
That'd be fine, you say, if you didn't have a job. What are you supposed to do? Use a vacation day to cut out paper veggies? Call in sick for a field trip to a cheese factory?
Well, actually … yeah. Why not? This is your kid's life. It's what they think about, worry about, and get excited about every day. I guarantee you'll learn more about them in one day at school than you will in a week at Disneyland. And you won't have to shake hands with a giant cartoon mouse.
Maybe you're wondering if the school really wants you there. Believe me, they do. Most schools are under-funded, understaffed, and under-appreciated. When a parent shows up with energy and enthusiasm, what do you think they do? They roll out the red carpet and treat you like a freakin' rockstar – that's what.
Maybe you're afraid you don't have anything to offer. Don't worry – you've got more game than you think.
Tell them about your work. Show them your hobby. Read them a book that you loved as a kid. Coach them in a sport you played in high school.
In the end, it doesn't matter what you do – just do something. Kids go to school to learn how to learn. You've got a lifetime full of stuff you can share with them. Bring them a piece of your world.
And don't wait too long – the door won't be open forever. Before you know it, you'll have a teenager on your hands, and she'll want you to drop her off half a block from school so none of her friends actually see you.
But that day isn't here yet. Right now, you can still go on that field trip. You can climb onto that big yellow bus and walk into that cheese factory holding your kid's hand. And when that little face looks up at you, beaming with pride, you're going to ask yourself:
Man, why didn't I do this a long time ago?
Jeff Lee lives, works, and embarrasses his teenage daughters in Seattle, Wash. His book, Catch a Fish, Throw a Ball, Fly a Kite, shows parents how to teach classic childhood skills they never learned themselves.
Jeff's Great Books for New Dads
Here's a brief, eclectic list that includes something for every new father.
Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads, by Gary Greenberg and Jeannie Hayden. Offers funny and surprisingly practical advice in a guy-to-guy style.
Heading Home with Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality, by Laura A. Jana, M.D. and Jennifer Shu, M.D. Gives solid, reliable advice in a practical, easy-to-digest format.
Babyhood, by Paul Reisner. Features funny and wise musings from the Mad About You actor and comedian.
Hatched!: The Big Push From Pregnancy to Motherhood, by Sloane Tanen and Stefan Hagen. Though the title implies it's about motherhood, this little gem is good, wicked fun for any new or expecting parent.
Touchpoints – Birth to Three, by T. Berry Brazelton, and Joshua D. Sparrow. In T. Berry we trust. He's the kinder, gentler Dr. Spock for this generation of parents.
Fatherhood, by Bill Cosby. Here's a classic from one of the great TV dads of all time.