The Opportunities of Dinner Together–Without Screens

While we were out to dinner recently, we saw a couple sit with their two kids, maybe 10 and 12 years old and each child pulled out a device and headphones and put them on. What kind of message does that send about family time and talking together?

I can talk a good game about how much screen time kids should have, but I know our kids play with iTouches, computers and watch TV–more than they should (whatever that means). Screens are a part of our lives and I’m not trying to rid our life of them. But it got me thinking about when they are appropriate.

While talking with Gem about it in the car, I realized what worries me. In the last week, Gem and the kids and I had some fascinating discussions at the breakfast/dinner table. We had a great talk about making sure they let us know about any pain they feel (our daughter had an appendectomy last month). We talked about what to do when someone is sitting Shiva (the wife of someone in my office recently died). In fact, late last Spring, we had a great discussion about school which led us to send them to a different school this year because they were so unhappy at the last one.

The way I think about it is that screens aren’t bad. But screens keep us from interacting with each other. Anytime we watch dinner in front of the TV, we lose the chance at a conversation. Anytime, someone uses their phone or device at the table, they aren’t present with the family. Certainly once in awhile, having dinner in front of a good movie, cuddled on the couch, is lovely.

But I think about what eating together means to our family and what it would mean if we didn’t share that time together. When we sit down at the table we don’t plan the discussion, but we know it is a chance for anyone in our family to share what has been going on with them–good or bad. I can talk about a big project at work. Gem can tell us about a workshop she did that day. The kids can tell us something that happened during their day. But the best part always is the reactions and the questions that come out up and seeing where the conversation goes. Some nights it is just an interesting conversation. And some nights, we find ourselves with the chance to remind our children of something very important based on the new direction of our conversation. Sometimes it is sex or drugs or drinking. Sometimes it is what is a good friend or how to deal with problems. Sometimes it is about my past and how different things are for me now. It is never what we expected, but always of value.

A screen prevents all of this from happening. I like to think that as our kids get older, things might happen to them during the day and they might think, Oh, I can talk about this at dinner. If it works out like that, both Gem and I would be tremendously excited.

But even right now, what happens at dinner is always better than what happens on any screen.

New School, New Schedule, New Feelings

The chaos of the first full week of school is behind us and the chaos of the second week has begun, though maybe slightly less chaotic. Our kids are in a new school, and for the first time in their lives, are taking a school bus. This, of course, also means that they are getting up much earlier in the morning and we are all adjusting to a new morning routine.

After a couple of days, Gem was driving me to the train station and was sad that it feels so anticlimactic to let the bus take them to school, after five years of taking them to school herself.

“There isn’t a sense of closure, of dropping them off at school and being sure they got there safely,” she explained.

I could understand that.

Sadly, in five years I probably took my kids to school at most ten times a year, because it usually meant getting to work about an hour late. My wife bore the weight of the responsibility of taking them, but also the privilege of seeing them off everyday, making sure they got to school safely and on time. She thoroughly enjoyed it.

She also gets to pick them up from school, which I’ve done even less than I’ve taken them to school. I’ve tried to work out schedules with my office to take them to school more regularly, but it never works out.

I know I’m a good father and I love my children and spend as much time with them as a I can, but there is something so fundamental about taking them to school and picking them up that I’ve missed out on for so many years and it is an ache in my heart that no amount Motrin can relieve.

For years I took them to bed every night, or most nights. For years I was the Night Watchman, looking over my children when they woke up in the middle of night needing Daddy. But they no longer need me like that anymore. Very rarely do we hear the pitter-patter of feet into our bedroom in the dark.

What my kids need from me now is very different. Their needs are more emotional and intellectual. Can I help them with homework? Can I help them ease their worries? They can meet most of their core needs, like eating and sleeping, on their own.

One of the few core physical things they still need from us parents is getting them to school, where they learn new things, make friends, and begin to deal with the world as their own people. Besides us, nothing impacts them more than what happens at school. Going to school is a big event and a very important and dramatic time in their life.

And for years I was missing out on taking them.

Now, even though my morning is all discombobulated, I get to help with lunch and make sure their waters are ready and that they have everything in their backpacks. The best part, however, is walking out with them, saying hello to Lisa, their bus driver, and giving them one more hug and kiss before they get on the bus to school. Instead of leaving for work feeling as if I’ve left one of my most important roles undone, I feel like I’ve completed my job as Daddy for the morning.

It’s a nice feeling.

The next day, when Gem took me to the train station, I tried to explain to her that even though it was sad for her, I loved being able to see them off to school since I’ve never been able to do that consistently before.

“I hadn’t thought of that. Somehow, that makes me feel better,” she replied sweetly.

After five years of missing out on this experience, helping my kids off get onto the school bus every day has eased the little ache in my heart.

It’s Possible My Kids Are Addictive

Relationships are tricky. I have spent more than half of my life with my wife and yet we still have things to learn from each other. It comes down to the fact that even though we experience very similar things in our shared lives, we come at them from a different perspective, making each shared experience also a unique one. I recently realized the best example of that while she was away in London.

Gem went on a trip with her best friend to London for a wedding. Not surprisingly, she had a great time (frankly, she could have a great time at anytime and anywhere). But what was wonderful, was the kids and I also had a great time. In fact, the night before she came home, three of us were feeling sad–not because she was coming home, of course, but because we were going to miss this time together. Gem is usually the one who takes them to school and picks them up. I almost never get to do that and I really enjoyed it…and already miss it.

One of the amazing things about Gem is her ability to feel and express her emotions so genuinely. When the kids sleep over somewhere, she misses them. Sometimes if she doesn’t see them after school, she misses them. In fact, she has this way of saying “I miss them” that I can’t do justice in the written form, but trust me, is quite adorable. She places enormous emphasis on “MISS” and it really sounds like she is longing for them.

“I MISS them!”

But to be honest I never understood how she could miss them. She spends more time with them than I do. I have to leave them every day and I didn’t MISS them like that. Yes, I love my children and I miss them when I go to work, but I don’t “MISS them” I don’t think. Maybe I do and I have to put that away or I would never get through the day…that is certainly possible. But I don’t really remember feeling the way she seems to when she is MISSing them.

She had left on a Thursday night and we had an event that night and then I took them to school on Friday morning and picked them up in the afternoon. We spent all day Saturday and most of Sunday just the three of us. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights we cuddled on the couch and watched movies together. I took them to school on Monday and picked them up again as well.

On Tuesday, my work had our Annual Meeting and I had to be there. I took them to school, but then went to work and their grandfather picked them up and then took them out to Friendly’s as he does every week. Since I had been out of the office for a couple of days, had come in late and needed to get to the meeting site early in the afternoon, my day was packed and it moved very quickly. By the time the meeting ended, I couldn’t believe how fast the day went.

Then it hit me.

I really missed my kids.

Excuse me, I mean, I MISSed my kids!

I rushed to catch the earliest train I could. Now, normally I am very respectful of my father-in-law’s special time with his grandchildren and almost never intrude on his special trip to Friendly’s. But on that afternoon, MISSing my kids the way I did, I texted and asked him if I could meet them for dinner.

It was on the train when I realized this is how Gem feels when she says “I MISS them.” I had just spent four days with my kids as the only parent and instead of thankful for the chance to get away, I MISSed them.

When Gem came back home this was one of the first things I told her and I think she really appreciated being understood. We have been parents for an equal amount of time, parenting in the same house with the same kids, but this experience had been different for us and now after ten years, we truly understood each other on this issue. I think it helped us be just a little bit closer.

It also made me wonder if our kids have some substance inherent to them that makes them addictive, because the more we spend time with them, the more we want to spend time with them.

What’s that line from the Supremes song? “If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.”

I’m happy just the way we are.

The Standardized Tests Challenged Us As Parents

Today is the day! A day we’ve worked so hard to get to, a day that appeared in the distance for real around January. We’ve been working with our kids on this for a few months, talking to them, helping them, talking with others about better ways to support them. It has been an exhausting and trying process, but it is finally here.

The New York State standardized tests.

The most stupid, obnoxious and utterly useless tests I could possibly imagine. The kind of tests that makes me question what kind of people actually oversee the education departments in this state and country. Do they even care about kids?

Oh for a second there you thought I was talking about tutoring my kids for this test? Heck, no! I’ve been talking about helping my children deal with the stress of these tests on them (and their classmates and teachers). Starting around January our children started getting stressed and worried and anxious about these damn tests. In January! The test is here and it is the middle of April.

Why would our kids worry so much? Because they are extremely attuned to the feelings of the people around them and they can feel how important this test is to the principal and the teachers. They can feel and absorb the stress of their friends and classmates, some of whose parents believe these tests are difference makers and their kids must do well, must achieve.

Whatever happened to being a child? Whatever happened to teaching so our kids will learn, not teaching so they can take a test that doesn’t affect their grade?

Therein lies the really interesting part for us. My wife and I argued about this, but not the kind where the gloves came off. The kind of argument where you believe what you believe is right, but you can totally see where the other one is coming from.

We both felt that this was one of those moments in parenting where we were certain this is one of the big decisions we make. What would happen if we screw this up? How would it affect them down the road? We both could see if we didn’t do something, it could turn out badly for them, but we could also see if we did do something, it could also turn out badly. Both options left us worrying about dire and/or unintended consequences. We can’t look forward into the future to see how it plays out one way or the other, but we have to make the decision now.

Do we opt our kids out of these stupid tests or do we let them take them?

One side argued; What if we let them opt out and they believe they are quitters, not believing they can handle these types of situations in the future?

The other side responded; What if we let them take the test and the stress makes them sick, hurting them?

In response; What if taking the test gives them a sense of accomplishment, that even though this was challenging they still did it?

In return; What about the fact that they are 10 years old and shouldn’t have to deal with this level of stress yet?

Is there really a right argument here? Was one of us really wrong? I don’t think either of us believed the other was wrong, just that we were right. Fortunately, our discussions never got too heated and in the end we compromised: we told them they could decide whether to take the test or not.

Maybe we punted, on reflection. Maybe we didn’t make the tough decision, but left them to deal with the weight of all of this. I don’t know. But what I do know is that after some serious deliberation, they both decided to take the test. Maybe they took the test in part because despite telling them for the past couple of years we don’t care about this test, by giving them the option to opt out we finally proved to them we really don’t. Maybe that lifted enough weight off. I’m not sure we will ever know.

I leave for work today feeling so proud of my children, that they were doing something that was hard and challenging. I hope they walk out of this having faced their fears and realized that their fears are much scarier than school, life.

In the end, the only thing of value my kids can learn from these stupid tests is who they are and what they can do will never be evaluated by a standardized test.

Building A Better Balance

Can I tell you a little secret? I’ve always wanted to be a stay at home Dad (I know, that’s not the secret). But I didn’t really believe I could do it. Yes, I believe men can be stay at home dads and I’m jealous of all of them. I just didn’t think I could hack it, getting our kids up in the morning, getting them ready, making lunch, dropping them off and then picking them up, helping with homework, taking them to activities, getting dinner ready, getting them ready for bed…I always worried that I wouldn’t have the patience for it, like my wife does. I was afraid I would get frustrated when they were too slow or weren’t doing something right, get frustrated and not be able to recover, spending my time with them frustrated and angry.

My wife was recently away on business for a couple of days and it was another chance to really find out what I could actually do, whether or not I could really do it or not, face my own fear.

Fortunately, it went really well and I truly loved the extra time with them.

Unfortunately, it went really well and I truly loved the extra time with them.

I was putting my son to bed last night and he asked if I liked my time being home with them.

“I loved it, Sweetie Boy.”

“Why don’t you quit your job and stay home with us?” he asked with his beautiful face looking up at me.

There’s the dream, right there. My kids are getting older so fast and I know the time they would want to be with me is quickly evaporating and I’ve worked away from home the entire time, missing the opportunity to drop them off and pick them up from school, help with homework, hear what the music teacher has to say, etc.

The fact is I’m not one of those guys whose identity is wrapped up in his job. My identity is actually wrapped up in my family, the best part of my life is my wife and children, and the best me is often when I am with them. I know what I do at work doesn’t really matter in the long run (and maybe even in the short run), but my relationship and involvement with my children hopefully is making a big difference in their present and future, building self esteem and a strong foundation that I didn’t have growing up, that will last them a lifetime.

I think what this really raises for me is creating an even better balance between work and family. I already take every day off from work that they have from school and usually take off when they are sick and have snow days. And I certainly need this job in order to be able to pay our bills, etc. But maybe I need to take more unscheduled time off. Maybe I need to call in sick more so I can take my kids to school once a month and pick them up and help with homework.

The challenge is I feel such pressure to keep my job and be a “good employee.” But the reality is I have never regretted taking time off to be with my family and I need to try and do that more often, before they are too old to be happy I am around.

Maybe Our Weekends Are Too Good?

As I was getting ready for woke this morning, my son, now 10, came to me and was upset about not wanting to go to school. Normally, Lucas loves school so it caught me off guard a bit.

“Why don’t you want to go to school?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” was his reply.

“Is it your teacher?”

“No.”

“Are kids at school giving you a hard time?” Always my biggest fear when it comes to why he wouldn’t want to go to school.

“No.”

“Is it the Jewish Exponent?” I got a little smile from that one. He is starting to learn exponents in Math and I keep thinking about the Jewish Exponent, which was a weekly Jewish newspaper we received when I was a kid.

“No.”

Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with school?

“I just want to stay home with you guys.”

And that’s when it hit me.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to go to school; it’s that he doesn’t want our special weekends to end.

I know exactly how he feels.

This past Friday we had an absolutely lovely Shabbat dinner at our Rabbi’s house. On Saturday we had a nice day and we went out to dinner at California Pizza Kitchen and then had fun shopping at Five Below (which is not, contrary to what I had always thought, a cold weather clothing store, but actually a store where everything costs five dollars or less). On Sunday we delivered water and cleaning supplies to homes and families most affected by Hurricane Sandy on Long Island.

I explained to Lucas that when I was a little younger, before we had kids, I knew it was important for our family to spend time together, but I didn’t understand how wonderful it would feel, being surrounded by love, being with the people I most want to be with. There is no one else I’d rather be with than my wife, Lucas and his twin sister, Dorit.

Growing up, it was not like this in my family. I never particularly felt they liked me all that much and I certainly wouldn’t choose to spend time with them.

But our family feels so different.

“I think you still really like school, Lucas. I think what we need to do is have crappier weekends and that will make it easier to go back to school or work on Monday. And it starts with no Thanksgiving for you!” And we both laughed.

“But seriously, maybe what we need to do is figure out how to carry the joy of our weekends with us through the rest of the week.”

We talked a little bit more and he seemed to feel better.

As I sit here and write this, I think back to myself as a little boy, more miserable than words can accurately depict. It is not possible to imagine a “problem” like this, where my life with my family is so amazing, so fulfilling, so infusing with love and good energy that everything else would pale in comparison.

How lucky are we?

More Time for Dads to Get Involved

According to a recent poll, Moms report that they are still doing more parenting than Dads. In fact, Moms report they spend 3 more hours a day parenting than Dads do.

That’s a lot of time.

And a great opportunity for Dads to be more involved.

No matter the reason, this is a chance for Dads to get more involved in the lives of their children and a chance for Moms to get much needed down time so they can take care of themselves.

Two quick tips to help Dads be more involved:

  1. Can you take your kids to school one day a week? Yes, schedules are challenging, but if you can get them ready in the morning and take them to school once a week, you will find yourself sharing some very special moments with your kids. Special moments are golden.
  2. Can you put them to bed several times a week? Particularly if you have to be at work earlier in the morning, putting your kids to bed is a great way to spend time with your kids. You can help them get ready, read to them and then tuck them in. Not only is this another opportunity for special time together, it will give your partner time for herself to relax and unwind.

There are certainly other ways to be more involved, but starting with taking them to school and putting them to bed will make a huge difference for your entire family.

The Assumptions We Make As Parents Can Cause Their Own Issues


Recently I read an article about the messages we send our kids. In it Jim Taylor, Ph.D, author of Your Children Are Listening, talked about the conflicting messages we give our children and also where they come from. Coincidentally, I recently had an experience that made me aware (once again) of the assumptions we make and these two issues collided in my brain.

Sometimes we send our children explicit messages on purpose, things like manners, behavior, etc. Sometimes we send messages by example. I had a great professor in grad school, Stephen Treat, who said they never hassled their kids about their homework. He and his wife both had graduate degrees and they both taught at schools.

“Education was in the air we breathed in our home.”

But there are all those times as parents when we send messages to our kids without realizing it and may not even mean to.

For the last several summers, my wife and I have sent our kids to crappy camps. We didn’t know they were going to be crappy camps, but that’s how they turned out, unfortunately. But this summer was going to be different, dammit! This summer we were going to splurge on a special camp for two weeks and give our kids a great camp experience.

Except that at least one of them every day has been utterly and completely miserable, crying as if we were dropping them off at Guantanamo Bay instead of a cool camp. Yet they still had a good time. How do I know? I asked them.

“What was the best camp you’ve been to?”

“This one,” they both told me.

“Is that because the others were so bad?”

“Yeah,” they replied in chorus.

Okay, not a ringing endorsement, but an improvement over the years past certainly.

Except for the misery and torture they seemed to experience.

And it made me wonder why we were trying to give them such a great camp experience? They weren’t begging us for a better camp experience. In fact, I’m not sure they cared about camp all that much. It is just the time between when school ends and when it begins again for them.

Then it hit me.

My kids love school–excuse me. My kids LOVE school. They love learning. They love their teachers. They love their friends. They love the whole experience. Camp is an interruption for them.

I was the opposite. I hated school growing up. I looked forward to camp during the whole school year. Camp was the only place I felt special, felt confident, felt I was close to the real me. Nine months of feeling pretty terrible and two great months. I never wanted camp to end.

I wanted them to have the same kind of camp experience I did and I think they felt pressure to be happy there when in reality, they didn’t want to be at camp; they wanted school. I inadvertently imposed my own issues on them and maybe made things a bit harder for them. I think there were a lot of things about this camp that was tough for them to deal with (would’ve been tough for me to deal with, frankly), but maybe my assumption about how important camp is made things more difficult for them.

We’re always sending messages to our kids. Some are very obvious. Some are good. Some are not on both counts. I didn’t want to send a message that having fun at camp was important. It was supposed to be fun! (Ironically, I intentionally decided not to send them to a sports camp because that’s what I went to and knew that wasn’t for them.)

The truth is, I would much rather them LOVE school and be happy for 9 months out of the year than what I went through. It would be nice if we could help them enjoy summer a little better, but in the meantime, I’ll be a bit more aware of what message I send them about camp.

What inadvertent messages have you sent your kids?

The Kids Are Away and Conflicting Emotions Are in Play


My Okapis are away (at their grandparents) and it is time for the parents to play.

If only it were that easy.

For my wife, it is very hard for her to be away from our kids. The same kids she gave birth to at the same time. The same kids she spent all day with for the first 4.5 years of their lives. The same kids she has taken to school (or camp) and picked up almost every single day since. She loves our children with every fiber of her being and the downside is when they are not around she feels an ache of missing them.

For me, the guy that has had to work away from home ever since they were born, it is not as hard. I am used to putting my family in a special place and locking it up so it doesn’t make me as sad when I am not with them. I wouldn’t be able to function if I felt the ache of missing them every day. In fact, I get excited, not that they aren’t around, but that I get to have more time with my wife. She was my first real love and everything good in my life started with her. It is so easy to have our husband and wife roles consumed by father and mother roles and it is nice we can get back to us.

Obviously, I love my Okapis, but I really enjoy the time when they are away (and even feel a little guilt writing that down for people to read). The truth is coming home at night is easier and less stressful (no worries over dinner and showers and getting them to bed on time). Getting ready in the morning is ummm…easier and less stressful. Basically, without our kids life is easier and less stressful.

Last night we went out with a good friend and had dinner and drinks at one (kind of crappy) place and then had more drinks and dessert somewhere else (that was much better). Wonderful conversation, good friends, tasty margaritas (at least at the second place) and delicious desserts (fried Oreos!). Then Gem and I came home and we watched another couple of episodes of Battlestar Galactica (we just started it over the weekend and are really getting into it). The whole evening was relaxed and lovely.

Then we went to bed and walked past their empty room and even I felt the ache of missing them. They’ve only been gone less than 36 hours, but I’m a jumble of emotions. A sense of freedom. We can do anything we want without worry. Go out to dinner, have drinks, stay out late, go into New York City. ANYTHING! But they’re doing stuff and experiencing things I don’t know about. I am missing more of their lives and that is sad for me. Are they okay? Are they going to sleep without us? How are they feeling?

My Okapis are gone and conflict is in the house. My wife is torn between her ache and her wanting to enjoy the time with me. I am excited about the time with her, the freedom, but feel a guilt about enjoying time without them, as if parents don’t need their own time. As if, when we pick them up this weekend, I won’t be one of the happiest men alive to see them again.

In the meantime, however, I plan to have a lot of fun with my wife and our friends, coming home whenever we want and making as much noise as we want.

Loving Him At School

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

I had the privilege of taking my kids, eight-year old boy-girl twins, to school the other day. It’s funny because I do it enough that I know what to do, but not enough that I have gotten good at it. It takes me 15 minutes to get their lunch ready though I know my wife can do it in less than five. I worry so much about getting to school on time because I don’t remember how long each “step” takes for my kids to do. Getting dressed is how long? Eating breakfast? Brushing teeth and hair? I never remember so it ends up being a bit stressful.

But the walk there is usually quite nice because I already know how long that takes and it always feels like special time, the three of us (Los Tres Amigos), being together. Often one or both of them will hold my hand. When it is cold we do this thing we started at the zoo a couple of years ago. A perfect example of how something so little and seemingly meaningless, can have such weight in their lives.

The zoo was very cold the day we went and my kids’ hands were cold. I am a short guy, always have been, and the sleeves of my jackets are always a bit too long. I offered to let my kids put their hands in my sleeves so we could hold hands without them getting too cold. Now, every time it is cold out and we’re walking together, they ask if they can do it again.

We got to school and we stopped and they each gave me a hug and a kiss and I told them I love them and I watched them run into the school with their friends.

But then my son, Lucas, turned around and said, “I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too,” I replied and immediately wondered how much longer he’ll be okay with me telling him I love him outside school with his friends around him.

For however long he lets me do it, I am happy to do so.