Improvising Fatherhood

A blog about the comedy of being a dad.

This is a reminder to myself that I need to read every day. You can read it too, but I’m the one who really needs it.

Nate, don’t forget to make everything a game with your kids. It can be so easy to feel like you need to “put your foot down” and be “firm” with them. But let’s remember how things went this morning.

You went to wake up your 6-year-old at the normal time so he can get ready for school. He’s doing this new thing where, even though he loves school, the first thing he does in the morning is rear his grumpy head and scream “I’M NOT GOING TO SCHOOL!” Last time this happened, you got mad at him for yelling at you and very firmly told him he WAS going to school. And even though you explained to him all the very logical reasons why he needed to get up and get dressed this very instant, none of that seemed to resonate with him. Weird, right?

So this time, instead of “putting your foot down”, you just said, “OK. Well, I’m going to be roaming this hallway like a security guard. DO NOT let me catch you sneaking down to breakfast.” Then you walked to your room and about 10 seconds later you heard the pitter-patter of 6-year-old feet paired with a mischievous giggle as your kid ran down to breakfast.

After breakfast your kiddo didn’t feel like going back upstairs to get dressed and brush his teeth. He just wanted to lounge on floor swaddled in blankets. To be fair, you felt the same way. Even though your first instinct was to once again “put your foot down” (why is your foot up so much?) and tell your kid to do what you and his mother have told him to do, you didn’t do that. Instead you said, “Well I’m gonna turn my back for 10 seconds and then turn back around and I better not catch you sneaking upstairs to get dressed.” And before you could count to 5 he was upstairs with a giggle.

Then he came downstairs. It was crunch time. You really needed to get out the door to get the kids to the bus on time. The 6-year-old was distracted as usual. Instead of demanding that he focus and move faster, you simply asked, “Parker, how fast do you think you can get your socks and shoes on? I bet you can’t do it in 30 seconds.” And boom, his socks and shoes were on in 29 seconds flat.

And Nate, remember the other day in the car when your boys were starting to argue? It wasn’t a full blown fight yet and instead of stopping them and lecturing them about being patient and kind and unselfish, you chose a different tactic. “Boys, keep having this argument, but you have to do it in your best British Robot accent. And GO!” Suddenly they were having a heated but hilarious debate that eventually ended in giggles.

Nate, I want you to remember that while the idea of making everything a game can seem tiring or inefficient, in reality it’s much more exhausting to be constantly nagging your kids all the time. Your kids are much more resistant to being commanded than they are to being asked to play a game. And maybe you are worried that this approach is too soft and that your kids need to be more disciplined and just do what you tell them to do without playing a silly game. But I assure you there will still be plenty of time to teach them discipline. They’re still young and their brains will develop and be more capable of discipline as they grow up. But in the meantime, there’s no need to be constantly butting heads with them when the alternative is so much more fun for everyone involved.

Also remember, they’re not always going to be in the mood to play your games. But if you can be alert and catch them before they get in that bad mood, you’ll be much more effective at getting them to do what’s needed. And everyone in the house will be happier.

So remember Nate…whenever possible…make it a game.

Years ago my kids and I started a thing where we’d take questions from the readers of Improvising Fatherhood and the boys would answer them. It was a lot of fun and we thought we’d do it every week. But we missed a few weeks. Here’s the first one we did. My heart melts watching this.

The boys were 5 and 2 years old when we filmed this. They are now 9 and 6 years old. A lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same. They’d love to answer more of your questions. They can be about life, relationship advice, what the boys like, or just about anything at all. Leave a comment with a question and we’ll film another “Improvising Answers” real soon!

From the vault: This article was originally posted in February of 2015.

I had a talk yesterday with my 5yo about the difference between Play and Competition. I grew up in a very sports-oriented competitive family. I’m pretty sure besmirching the good name of Competition is going to upset some of my family (my sister), but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Now some of this is going to be semantics, so let’s not get overly concerned about our precious words. By Play I simply mean engaging in a game or activity for fun. By Competition I mean engaging in a game for the sole purpose of winning. You can Play to win. And you can have fun in competing. But for the sake of this article, Competition will designate when the playfulness has been removed from the game. 

I’ve been watching my boys play a lot lately and I’ve been seeing the contrast between Play and Competition. My 2yo just plays. There’s very little competition in his play. The 5yo competes. Sometimes he is more playful, but often if he is not winning, he doesn’t see value in the game.

For example, if we are all playing Ninja Turtles (which is always), the boys are often play fighting against me and the boys get to win. And if the 5yo goes up against the 2yo, the 2yo will allow the 5yo to win because the 2yo is playing. But if for some reason we try to make it so that the 5yo loses, he gets angry because, while we were playing, he was competing.

The same thing will happen if we are playing soccer. There are times when I let my 5yo win and he really enjoys the game. But then there are times when I decide he needs to be challenged and I win. This can often result in anger and tears. This is because he wasn’t playing. He was competing.*

The way I see it, Play doesn’t mean you aren’t competitive. I grew up playing sports and had a poster on my wall (shown above) of a kid in Baseball gear and the poster said, “I play to win.” I stared at those words every night as I fell asleep. And I still have that attitude. In fact, I still have that poster. But it’s “I PLAY to win.” Not “I COMPETE.” I think this is something I truly learned when I became an improviser and learned to be more playful. 

So now when I play a game, whether it’s a sport, or a board game, or anything at all, I play my hardest. Nobody wants an opponent who isn’t trying. I play to win. But I do so with the understanding that playing the game is more important than winning the game. Because as soon as the joy of game is lost, you’re no longer playing. You’re just competing.

*I should note that my 5yo isn’t as bad of a sport as this article makes him seem. These are the extreme cases, but often he does a very good job of being a good sport.

UPDATE: My kids are 9 and 6 now. The 9yo is still UBER competitive but is learning how to handle the frustrations of losing. There are times when he will play with his little brother in a way where little brother gets to “win”. Other times, his competitive streak kicks in and there’s no stopping him. The 6yo is gaining an interest in competitive sports but still sort of backs away from direct competition. Every day I try to make “play” the focus in our activities.