Ben Stein’s 10 Commandments of Fatherhood

In his 1998 book Tommy and Me, Ben Stein chronicles his feelings of frustration and joy of being a father. It’s a short book, at 152 pages, and contains many insights into parenting that made me stop and think. I especially enjoyed his concluding chapter. Here it is (in abridged form):

Ben Stein’s Ten Commandments of Fatherhood:

1. Time is of the essence. Spend large amounts of time with your child. Kids don’t want “quality time”… They want you to be there all the time.

2. Share your strength with your child. Be an ally, not an adversary. Share with him stories of your own fears, failings, and anxieties and how you overcame them.

3. Do not expect your child to make up for your own losses when you were a child. Let your kids pursue their own hopes and dreams.

4. Look for the good in your child and praise it. Children are nurtured by praise as plants are nurtured by water. Deny it to them at their peril and yours. Children who are told that they can succeed in fact usually do succeed.

5. Do not allow your children to be rude. Being polite is a basic foundation of human interaction, and kids will not succeed in life if they’re surly and disrespectful.

6. Patience is indispensable. Children’s behavioral flaws cannot be corrected by flipping a switch. It takes a long time and a lot of patience to teach positive behaviors. If you are an impatient, demanding, short-fused dad, you will get that irritable, demanding kind of kid.

7. Teach your child and let him teach you. Children will tell you what they want and need. Dads get into trouble when they do not listen to their kids and dismiss their feelings as not important. Also, your child should get the benefit of your wisdom and experience about life, so tell him what you know about the world around you. Learn from your children and let them learn from you.

8. Value your child for what he is, not for what you think he should be. I want my son to know that whatever he becomes in the future, he is prized just for being my son, right now.

9. Raising a child is a job for Mom and Dad. Children with absent fathers are wounded for the balance of their lives. Dad should and must be in there pitching along with Mom, helping out as an equal partner in the tough job of raising children. The true heroes of our generation are at home with their kids.

10. Being a Daddy is priority number one. When you decide that your kids come before your sales quota or your poker-playing schedule or your overtime to make partner, then you will find that all of the other pieces of Daddyhood fall into place – teaching and learning, patience, looking for the good and praising it. When you put your kids first, you are far less alone in this world. What’s more vital, so are they.

Making History

They did it.

Troop 3, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, became the first Boy Scout troop in the history of the Inland Northwest Council and the State of Idaho to travel to Great Britain and to walk the entire length of the Hadrian’s Wall Path.

They came, they saw, they blistered.

And they conquered the 84-mile trail from the North Sea to the Irish Sea.

They made history while seeing history.

It was a long journey, but worth every step. I’ll write more about it in the weeks to come.

I’m A Stay-At-Home Dad

I’m revisiting an article I wrote for the San Diego Reader in 2005. Because I’m still a stay-at-home dad, and I still mean every word I wrote.

Hi, I’m a stay-at-home dad.

Now, before your eyes glaze over and you slowly back away, let me just tell you why I am one. Most boys don’t spend their childhood dreaming of one day changing diapers, emptying dishwashers, washing pee-soaked bed sheets, kissing boo-boos, and learning to make chicken broccoli casserole. They want to be firemen, baseball stars, soldiers.

As they get older, most men strive for career, status, and a lower golf handicap. Me, I had early dreams of a Hollywood career, collaborating with the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola. Later, after grad school, there were visions of corporate ladders and hostile takeovers.

But once my first child was born, everything changed, and my focus was placed squarely on the infant in my arms. Soon, my wife and I realized that one of us had to be home with him permanently. By financial default (my wife made more money than me), I was the lucky winner.

At first I had no idea how to be a father. Not having one around as a kid, I had no male role models to look to other than the ones I’d seen on TV. So I thought, “What would Charles Ingalls do? Or John Walton? Mike Brady? How about Darren Stevens?!”

Actually, I discovered a really good role model on TV in Fred Rogers. I listen to him most carefully still. He’s not just talking to pre-schoolers when he smiles into the camera and doles out sage advice… He’s talking to us grown-ups too when he says things like “You don’t have to look like everybody else to be acceptable and to feel acceptable.”

I learn a little wisdom from The Neighborhood most every single day. Plus, it’s fun to see how graham crackers and crayons are made.

So I found myself in this new role, and it didn’t take long to discover that it’s one of the most difficult, exhausting, emotionally-draining jobs in the world. It’s also the most rewarding. I get paid with hugs, smiles, and the occasional funny quote from my kids, like when my son learned that some animals are herbivores and some are carnivores, so he figured, “Hey, Daddy, I’m a Candyvore!”

I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing than to be my kids’ dad. It’s how I introduce myself to people when they ask what I do for a living. And it sure feels good to say that. I must be pretty good at my job, since just the other day my son said “When I grow up I want to be a daddy too!”

Taking on the role of Daddy meant giving up a few other things that once defined me, including a few friends who didn’t understand why I was no longer sitting at a desk and earning an income.

But I don’t really miss the old life. This new one brings new adventures and challenges every single day. And I go out and solve the problems and figure out the challenges, every now and then seeking advice from the memory of some old TV show, like Little House on the Prairie when my daughter tells a fib, or The Brady Bunch when my son teases his sister.

I’ve long given up attempting to explain to people I meet what I do and why I do it. Most folks just don’t understand. They’re either confused, condescending, or highly critical. Surprisingly, stay-at-home moms are the worst, almost like I’m attempting to gain membership into their exclusive club. The moms don’t accept me, the dads don’t understand me.

Luckily I meet enough welcoming parents, including other stay-at-home dads, who also realize that having one parent at home with the kids is the best way to raise them. Daycares are fine for single moms and dads who have no other support, but when a child has two parents in their lives it should have at least one of them as the daily caregiver.

So, I’m a stay-at-home dad. You don’t have to be afraid. You don’t have to feel sorry. I love what I’m doing (except for folding laundry) and, more importantly, I love my kids. Doing right by them is just about the only thing that’s really important to me. Why would I want to do anything else?

Bad Things Happen

Parents play so many roles, but one of the most important is that of protector.

I still remember the feeling that came over me when we brought our first child home. Driving away from the hospital, I was on full alert, ready to defend my newborn son with every ounce of my being. I had our car surrounded with a psychic force field the seven miles it took to reach the safety of our house.

Those early years were easy. My job as protector was mostly physical — making sure the house was baby proofed, or that my son didn’t get carried away by eagles. The perceived dangers were clear.

But as he got older and started learning about the world around him, suddenly things got complicated.

When he was three years old an airplane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. My wife and I couldn’t help but watch TV coverage for days, but we didn’t encourage my son to absorb any of it. “Go play,” we’d tell him. I felt he just wasn’t old enough to think about this kind of evil.

You don’t sit a 3-year-old down and teach him about things like terrorism, rape, torture, and disease.

Eventually, though, they have to start understanding the harsh realities of life.

One of the saddest things about your children growing up is when they start to figure out that the world isn’t a blissful paradise with smiling people living on candy mountains.

I just want these feelings to come slowly. Step by gradual step.

One day last month, my son took a big leap in his grasp of how cruel this world can be sometimes.

We were learning about Anne Frank, and how her family hid from the Nazis during the German occupation of the Netherlands. We read about the years of isolation, and then the betrayal and arrest of everyone in the hiding place.

At first, my son was mad that somebody had ratted them out. But then he asked me, “So what happened to Anne?”

I answered, “She was sent to a concentration camp.”

“And?”

“And, she died there.”

He looked up at me suddenly, and I could see it in his eyes, this sort of angry bewilderment. It was like he was thinking, “What the hell is wrong with us that we do these things to each other?!”

He thought about it for a minute, and then the understanding dawned. Yes, this is, was, and always will be a cruel world. Bad things happen sometimes.

I think he really truly gets that now.

As his protector through the years, I’ve slowly guided him toward these moments of wisdom. Because of that, I think he’ll be better able to process the information and make good choices for himself.

But at the same time, I’ve given both my kids the chance to grow up with a foundation of hope and love, to know that the world is, first and foremost, a beautiful place with countless reasons to be happy and optimistic.

Even in our worst moments, I trust they will never forget that.

I wrote this six years ago, in 2008. It’s still something I think about as my kids move into their teen years.

A Bad Dad

It’s been awhile since I saw a bad dad in public.

I mean, it’s hard to tell just by looking at them. You have to wait until they actually start parenting to see their lack of skills, and there are way too many dads who don’t even bother.

So, I was in an outdoors store, browsing through the fleece vests (to replace the one that melted on me in the bonfire), when I saw this dad come into the store with his two boys, who looked to be around 4 and 6.

The dad started looking at snowshoes, or kayaks, or something. The two boys apparently got restless and wandered about 30 feet away to look at some funny t-shirts. Out of dad’s eyesight, but not out of earshot.

After a few minutes, he finally noticed they weren’t standing next to him. He said, “Boys, where are you?”

They answered immediately, with a quiet, “Here.”

The dad walked over to the rack of funny t-shirts, looked down at the boys, put his hands on his hips, and said, very loudly, “You know you’re not supposed to just wander off, right?”

Here comes the bad dad part.

Then he said, again very loudly, “Okay, square up so I can kick you in the nuts for being idiots.”

And then he actually pretended to kick them both in the crotch.

On the list of Bad Dad offenses, this one’s certainly not horrible. But still, I’m reasonably sure that a threat to “kick you in the nuts” is not the best way to teach a lesson to young children.

Ten Great Biographies for Kids

There are valuable lessons to be learned from studying the great men and women of history. You get to read about courage, determination, creativity, leadership, and so many other positive virtues. Plus, nothing livens up history like getting to know the stories of the real people who lived it.

Here are ten biographies that are great for elementary-age kids. They can be found in the children’s section of your local library, or at Amazon.

And you know, you don’t have to be a homeschooler to encourage your kids to read books like these.

Charles Lindbergh: A Human Hero
by James Cross Giblin

A comprehensive study of the aviator hero, this book pulls no punches in examining Lindbergh’s flawed and sometimes controversial life. It made my son think about how we can put too much faith in our heroes.
More info

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The New Deal President
by Brenda Haugen

An informative introduction to one of our greatest presidents. It’s packed with facts about Roosevelt’s life, and how he guided our country through the depression and World War II.
More info

Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein
by Marfe Ferguson Delano

An eye-opening book for all ages that is beautifully put together by National Geographic. It has stunning photos of Einstein from throughout his life, but also serves up explanations of his accomplishments and theories that anyone can understand. Even me.
More info

Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster: The Discovery of the Smallpox Vaccine
by Albert Marrin

This book tells two stories. One is the horrible history of the smallpox virus. The second is the biography of Edward Jenner, an 18th-century English surgeon who developed the smallpox vaccine. Amazing history AND science, all in one!
More info

Marie Curie: A Brilliant Life
by Elizabeth MacLeod

The story of the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie was certainly one of the most important women of the 20th century. Another easy-to-understand blend of biography with science, this book helped my son to see how important scientific research is, and how Curie’s discoveries are still being used today.
More info

Who Were the Beatles?
by Geoff Edgers

My kids have been listening to the music of The Beatles since the day they were born, so it was only natural that my son would want to learn a little bit about the lives of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. This book tells about their childhoods in Liverpool, how they met and formed the band, and how the four of them changed the world.
More info

Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson
by Dolores Johnson

Another stunning biography from National Geographic, this one covers the life of African-American explorer Matthew Henson, who was denied the honors and recognition that he deserved in 1909 simply because of the color of his skin. As with the Einstein biography, this book is beautifully published with amazing photos of Henson at the North Pole.
More info

To Fly: The Story of the Wright Brothers
by Wendie C. Old

Orville and Wilbur Wright overcame many problems in their quest to fly, but they never gave up. They never stopped thinking and creating. That’s a lesson I teach my own kids every single day.
More info

The Boy on Fairfield Street
by Kathleen Krull

This book focuses on the childhood of Theodore Geisel, a “doodler and dreamer” who grew up to become Dr. Seuss. It talks about not only his love for animals and his wild imagination, but also about the difficult times he had in his young life and how he overcame them. A great story for any kid who might view the world in a slightly different way.
More info

Gertrude Chandler Warner and the Boxcar Children
by Mary Ellen Ellsworth

The first chapter books my son picked up back in first grade were The Boxcar Children books by Gertrude Chandler Warner. I think he’s read at least fifty of them over the years. He was quite pleased to find a biography that revealed how she created and published her famous series. I’m a big fan of anything that reinforces the importance of reading and writing in childhood.
More info

Have fun at the library! And if you know of any good biographies for children, let me know.