Talk To a Dad™ Campaign

By Patrick Mitchell

I interview dads every month in connection with The National Dads Matter!™ Project that I founded many years ago and facilitate today, giving fathers and grandfathers a voice and visible presence in their local communities.

Just about every day I see a father and his kids—sometimes a dad and his very young children—and I make sure to talk to him, asking at least one question and making at least one positive comment about fatherhood and his participation in the fatherhood experience.

I think it’s vital that experienced parents, grandparents, and other  members of communities take time to approach fathers and engage them  in conversation.  That’s why I launched The Down To Earth Dad® Talk To a Dad™ campaign.

There are many ways to participate in the Talk to a Dad™ campaign, but you can jump right in today at the most basic level by doing these things:

STEP 1:          Find a dad in public.  This will be easy; he’s the guy pushing, carrying, walking with, or talking to a child!

STEP 2:          Talk to this dad!  Ask at least one question, and make at least one positive, affirming statement about fatherhood in general, and another positive statement about this dad in particular based on something you’ve observed as he interacts with his child.  Now, watch how uplifted he appears to feel.  Voila, you just talked to a dad!

Talk to a Dad™ Sample Scenarios:

Talk To a Dad Scenario # 1…

You’re at the coffee shop, and in the corner is a dad standing holding his infant son who’s wearing pajamas.  The mom is arranging sandwiches they just purchased from a nearby grocery store. The parents are attempting to manage all their stuff in a stroller that’s packed to the gills with diapers, food, and bottled water.  The dad is pouring bottled water into powdered formula in a baby bottle.  You say “Hello,” and you ask the dad, “What’s it like having to carry your son and manage all those things at the same time?”  Then wait for his answer.  You learn the family walks a lot because they have no car.   You mention how lucky the child is to have a dad carrying him everywhere — giving the child a unique vantage point on the world.   “Keep on being a great dad,” you might say.  Perhaps the dad brings the child over to you (as happened to me recently in just such an encounter), and you shake the little fellow’s pajama-clad hand.  That’s it.  You just talked to a dad and affirmed his sense of fatherhood!

Talk To a Dad Scenario # 2…

You talk to a dad the way another father talked to me recently:  You simply say, “Looks like you’ve got your hands full.  Keep on keepin’ on!”  And that’s it.   This guy, who appeared to have had kids my age at an earlier point in his life, saw me trying to pay attention to my kids while at the same time navigating a full load of merchandise through the aisles at the hardware store as one of the kids was attempting to climb me to be carried.  By talking to me, this father reminded me of the valuable role I play in my children’s lives, and he did so with a small handful of words.

For More Information…

To learn how your program, school, organization, or community can effectively reach out to fathers and engage them in dialogue, and to receive TALK TO A DAD!™ buttons and other items —  including additional information about the Talk To a Dad™ campaign — email or call 1-877-282-DADS.  You can also visit and click the “contact us” link.  Talk to a dad, and do it today!

Dads at School!

I’ve spent many a lunch hour standing on the school playground watching fourth and fifth graders play soccer.  From my vantage point on the sidelines I see children jumping rope, playing foursquare, and tossing a football in the distance.  Occasionally two kids will get into an almost-fight on the soccer field—you know, the kind of playground scuffle that almost occurs but doesn’t quite materialize because an adult is present.  I’m the adult.  More specifically, I’m a dad, and I’m on the playground by invitation from the principal because I’m a member of the school’s Dad’s Club.

Dads On The Playground

“The dads are certainly invited to help model conflict resolution,” says Joel Palmer, principal of Borah Elementary School in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  “But if there’s real trouble, the paid reinforcements are brought in,” he says in the tongue-in-cheek manner that helps explain why students smile when they address him by the affectionate moniker, Mr. Palmer.

“This frees the dads up to help the kids concentrate on the love of the game, responsibility, and playing fair in soccer, four square, and football…for the love of the activity, which is a lifelong skill that doesn’t always get taught at home,” he explains.  “For me, it’s important to have as many positive adults on the playground as possible.  It prevents problems and it’s a learning opportunity.”

Playground problems virtually vanished since the dads got involved.  “I’ve cut down on my football and soccer related problems ten-fold,” says Palmer.

Rolling Up Their Sleeves 

Twenty-four fathers showed up to serve ice cream and toppings at the Ice Cream Social last fall, many of them wearing chef’s hats emblazoned with statements of father involvement such as Super Dad, Ice Cream Dad, and Dad’s Club.  Jon Fisher was among them.  “My daughter feels kind of proud to show off her dad I guess, and I’m willing to embarrass her,” he jokes.  He works five 12-hour shifts a week but finds time to help at school.  “There’s no reason why every dad can’t do it.  They’re missing out on the smile on their kids’ face and their kid saying, ‘That’s my dad serving ice cream.’ You gotta make the effort,” he said.  Jon Fisher also attended Mr. Palmer’s work party last year when several dads shoveled pee gravel on the playground on a rainy Saturday morning.  Dads are ready to be involved, says Palmer.  You just have to ask them.

Dad’s Club grew quickly from two dads initially to almost 30 today.  “The dads would say, ‘Wow, this sounds exciting, this sounds like fun.  What would my job be?’” Palmer recalls of early recruitment efforts.

Moms have always helped out, but dads needed a nudge.  “Prior to Dad’s Club there were just a few brave, bold dads who would show up at events.  Before, it was a feeling of ‘Are we supposed to be involved, should we be involved?  Now it’s an equal partnership balance.  Dads walk in the door thinking, ‘There’s something that they want me for, a specific job that allows me to feel that I’m a part of the school,’” Palmer said.

“It’s a valuable resource that we never thought of tapping before,” he said.  “I’m more amazed each time we do something because more and more dads want to be involved.”

The Academics of Fatherhood 

Mr. Palmer expects increased academic performance and a reduced drop out rate by involving dads now.  “Some of the dads who have been involved are non high school graduates themselves.  They’ve said they’re trying to break that cycle.  They’ve told me, ‘I don’t want my child to turn out like I did and not finish high school,’” he said.  

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), kids get better grades, enjoy school more, and stay in school longer when their fathers are involved at school.  According to a 1998 NCES study, nearly one-third of students got mostly A’s when their fathers were highly involved in their schools compared to 17-percent when their fathers had low levels of school involvement.

 Model for Other Schools

“It hits on two positive venues,” Palmer said.  “One, academic excellence, and two, character.  The dads are modeling responsibility, they’re modeling follow-through and honesty and all those positive character traits we like our kids to see.  It’s something that can be replicated and something everyone should be jumping on and doing.  It doesn’t cost any money and it’s just a good deal,” he says.

The words of Henry David Thoreau ring true at Borah Elementary School:  The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it….  It seems that 95% of the time when Mr. Palmer asks dads to exchange some of their time for their children at school the answer he receives is a resounding ‘Yes!’

Praise ‘Effort,’ Not Accomplisments

I’ve been praising my kids’ “effort” and I’ve avoided saying “Good job!” lately, having read good research showing that children do better and achieve more when they concentrate on putting forth great effort in the things they do—in school, sports, and other endeavors—and that over-praising kids when they put forth lackluster effort can actually hinder their future accomplishments.

The idea is, for example, if your child exerts great effort when swinging a baseball bat—but doesn’t connect with the ball—you might praise their effort and they’ll come out swinging again next time.  But if they put forth little effort at all, and yet still manage to hit the ball, then praising them for that does little long-term good; in fact, it can backfire and cause kids to under-perform.

I recently watched a YouTube video of Ben Revere, outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, making an amazing dive-for-it catch up against the far fence.  The ball seemed out of reach, but he leaped with tremendous effort and snagged the ball in his mitt.  He then sprung to his feet and hurled the ball for a successful double play.  (See; type in, “Ben Revere Catch of the Year.”)

I replayed it for my son who’s on a baseball team for little guys.  “This is what great effort looks like,” I told him.  “If something really matters to you, you’ll give it your best effort—like Ben Revere did when he caught this ball.”

Teach your child the concept of exerting ‘great effort’ and how effort is more valuable than temporary successes that’s earned with little or no effort.  By exerting effort, you explain, people do just about everything better.  Next, find a real-life example and share it with them.  And keep up the great effort yourself, dad!

Here, Here, Head Start!

Everyone knows great teachers don’t always get our full support in their quest to educate our children, and this is doubly true for educators of children under age six.

Maybe it’s easier to allocate limited funds to the education of older children because they’re capable of telling a more compelling narrative about what they’re learning in school when somebody asks.  Preschool children, after all, can’t add and subtract large numbers, understand fraction and decimal concepts, and aren’t demonstrably proficient in data collection and analysis like, say, fifth graders are.  Perhaps this leaves us relatively unimpressed by finger painting, alphabet recitation, singing, dancing, fine motor skills development, creative art projects, and the learning age-appropriate logic and reasoning skills—some things that happen at Head Start, for instance.

This thinking can lead some to the perilous conclusion that public preschool programs are expendable.   But Head Start, in particular, is far too valuable to throw under the tot-sized school bus for lack of a more thoughtful assessment of its benefits.  And those benefits aren’t just for Head Start children; they’re for the adults who were once children who got quality early education—and for all of us who interact with those adults.   Certainly, the positive outcomes associated with quality early learning bring undeniable lifelong benefits to society.

I’m reminded of the landmark High Scope Perry Preschool Study that persuasively suggested everybody wins when children receive good early education and care.  The difference between being an adult who got good early care and education and being an adult who didn’t, the study results suggest, can be can be stark indeed:  Adults who got good early care education had more life success by age 40 than those who didn’t, the study spanning four decades reveals.  The adults who experienced quality preschool and early care as children had higher incomes, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to have graduated from high school, compared with adults who didn’t have quality early care and education.

Overall, the study documented a “cash return” to society of more than $16.00 for every one tax dollar invested in the person’s early care and education program.  That’s a 1600-percent return on investment!  Pretty good economic bang for buck for a country trying to carve its priorities against a backdrop of budget cuts.

More children who received high quality early education graduated from high school than children who didn’t receive high quality early education—especially girls, according to the study.  Fewer girls who received high-quality early education had to repeat a grade during the school years than girls who hadn’t gotten a good early education. Children who received high-quality early education on average outperformed those who didn’t on various intellectual and language tests during their early childhood years, on school achievement tests between ages 9 and 14, and on literacy tests at ages 19 and 27.

And try this benefit on for size:  Children who had high quality early childhood education experiences had far fewer arrests than those children who didn’t get quality preschool, and fewer children who got high-quality early education were ever arrested for violent crimes, compared to children who didn’t get good early care.

Those few short years of early care and education have a huge impact on the many years that follow.  So why would be ever want to downplay, de-fund, or fail to adequately fund or re-fund our public preschool programs?  The aphorism, “Not to decide is to decide,” seems apt for those who are content to sit on the fence and let others argue it out or table the discussion in a climate where funds are being allocated, un-allocated, and re-allocated to this  program and that one in the name of paring down national debt.  But varied research is solid that high quality early education adds much to the shaping of cognitive, social, and emotional development in the early years and beyond.

Look at the faces of Head Start children engaged in learning in the classroom or at a parent-and-family engagement school-readiness event, and apply a “common sense test” to what you see.  You’ll have no trouble confirming what early childhood educators and child-and-family advocates have taken as immutable truth since 1965:  public preschool and early education in general really does matter—to all of us.

How To Get Dads (and Grandpas) More Involved This School Year…

If you want more dads and grandpas involved this February, get them “locked and loaded” in the fall!  Do these four things as soon as possible to involve more dads and grandpas:

TIP # 1:  Raise the Bar at “Intake”

Tell your new dads that you “expect” their active participation this year.  Make it seem normal that they *will* be involved.  Ask them to SIGN UP for specific volunteer days/times.

TIP # 2:  Give Them a “Problem to Solve”

This is vital:  You MUST give the men something to do; more specifically, a “problem to solve,” in order to motivate them to participate!  Think about this BEFORE you invite them to your program to volunteer.  Sample “problems” to solve follow:

 1)      “Our program needs men to read to the children on Tuesday mornings from 9:30 – 10:00 a.m.  Ca n you do it?  Good.  See you next Tuesday at 9:25.  Thank you!”

2)      “We need help setting up tables on Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. for the Ice Cream Social.  Can you help us out?  Great!  See you at 5:55p.m. Wednesday then?  Thanks!”

3)      “Our Ice Cream Social starts at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.  The director wants to take a picture of all the dads—wearing chef hats that we give them when they arrive.  The picture will hang in our lobby. Also, we need dads to serve the ice cream, toppings, and water.  Can you do it?”

TIP # 3:  Kill Two Birds with One Stone  

Attach a father-involvement goal to some other goal, and kill two birds with one stone.  Example:  Early Literacy Enhancement + Father Involvement = an evening event focusing on Father Involvement and Early Literacy Enhancement.  (This “dual focus” tends to bring other staff members on-board with you, since they’ll get to focus on their own pet topic, too.)

TIP # 4:  Gather Your Team for a Training   

Feed your staff, entertain them, and talk about strategies to get men more involved!  Get their buy-in and commitment by asking for small-group “visions” for male involvement.  And remind everyone:  You can always start again!

Visit The Down To Earth Dad website for more tips, techniques, and advice.

Food For Thought

By Patrick Mitchell

If some is good, more must be better.  That’s the reasoning some parents employ when giving their kids snacks to keep them quiet, stop them from running around, or to distract them from just about anything.Food_For_Thought_Dad_GRAZING CANISTER_Child (Feature)

Trouble is, too many snacks keep some kids underweight (because they’re not hungry for dinner), and piles on extra calories for children already eating plenty at the dinner table.   I asked Bryan S. Vartabedian M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist and pediatrician about it.  He specializes in helping young children gain weight if they’re light or slim down if they’re heavy.

 ‘The Grazing Canister’

Dr. Vartabedian, attending physician at Texas Children’s Health Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, described a typical day at the office:   “A toddler is brought in for evaluation.  During the course of our visit, any type of whining, fussing, or protest triggers the appearance of the grazing canister from mom’s bag.  Grazing canisters are those small, colorful plastic snack containers that are suited for the fast, easy delivery of refined carbohydrates anytime, anywhere.  And then, hand-to-mouth, the fish-shaped crackers or bear-shaped graham crackers disappear as fast as they appeared…. In pediatrics we call it grazing when kids are continually eating.  It kind of wreaks havoc with their blood sugar.  And when it comes time to eat, they really don’t have the metabolic drive to eat at mealtime,” he said.  “It’s like putting the mule bag on the mule.”

Some kids who over-snack aren’t hungry for dinner, and that can cause problems.  “One of my most common referrals is the child who is not eating or not gaining weight, say, a two year old who’s below the fifth-percentile and the pediatrician has referred them to me to help determine what’s going on.  He said parent education plays a big role.  “The vast majority are preventable by parent education.”

Parents who mean well mistakenly “haul out the grazing bag” almost unconsciously because they’ve learned that giving their child food preoccupies the child quite well, Dr. Vartebedian told me.  After all, he explained, you can’t scream too loudly with food in your mouth, and most kids will stop running around when offered a snack.  He says most parents perceive the ‘grazing bag’ as innocent, but it’s not.  “Allowing children to graze represents a breakdown in feeding discipline.  As a general rule, we tend to placate our kids with food.  And we see it all around us—at airports, supermarkets, wherever.  Parents are going for ‘peace at any price.’  They’re opening that grazing canister in exchange for peace and quiet,” he said.

Handing out the feed bag he said “rewards marginal behavior,” he said.  “It reinforces that we deal with boredom and other emotions with food.  Unless it is a designated snack time, it isn’t consistent with good feeding structure.”

 ‘Twinkies Can’t Fly’

Dr. Vartabedian said parents need to set the stage for proper eating.  “We have to create the proper environment for eating for our kids.  That kind of goes back to that issue of modeling for our children.  What we do is oftentimes what our children will do.  What we feed ourselves is oftentimes what our children will learn to feed themselves.  So, when we create an environment where we, as parents, are really eating better on our own, we’re modeling for our kids,” he said.  Food choices that parents make in the grocery store, while their kids are watching, are important, he said.  “I often say that ‘Twinkies can’t fly.’  They can’t jump into the shopping cart alone.  The point is this:  if we bring chips and junk food into the house and all this stuff is available, then that becomes our eating pattern.  I think it’s very hard.  I’ll tell you, for me it’s very, very hard to discipline myself to eating right.  Your kids are watching.  They look up to you,” he said.

 Kids Need (Food) Structure

“Structure is very important.  It’s funny, when you talk to parents about bedtime or bath time there’s a lot of rituals and routines around bathing kids and putting them to bed, because parents, for some reason, seem to understand that when it comes to sleep habits, rituals and patterns are very, very important.  Now, when it comes to eating, the structure seems to fall apart.  A lot of my patients (children) don’t recognize that structure has to be an important part of healthy eating,” he said.  “Allowing a kid to go two or three hours or even more without having a snack or without having food from mid-afternoon to dinner is perfectly fine.  Yeah, the kid may complain that they’re hungry, but that’s not a problem.  That structure is going to lead them to a really solid dinner when dinnertime comes.  So, I think that structure (with mealtime) is really important.”

 The Doctor’s Recommendations

Asked for general feeding guidelines for the average preschool child, Dr. Vartabedian said this:  “For a typical three year old, that would involve three solid meals a day—breakfast, lunch and dinner.  That three-meal-a-day pattern typically begins around late in the first year of life, close to the first year of age.  Three solid meals a day and two, perhaps three, snacks per day.  A late morning, mid-afternoon, and perhaps an evening snack,” he said.  As for the content of snacks, Dr. Vartabedian said this:  “A snack should be seen as an opportunity to broaden the child’s horizons.  Typically, with my own kids and my own patients, we recommend fruits and vegetables as snacks—sometimes offering a couple of options, such as cut grapes along with some crackers, giving the child a chance to try some new things.  The way these foods are presented is very important as well.  Fresh fruit is good, and things of that nature…. Offering cut grapes and cut celery, from a very early age, so the children only know how to do that.”

He Continued:  “Now, for the child who has started on this at a late age, when you give them no other option, and you give them cut fruit or nothing….they’re going to take it.  They may block it first, but they will take it.  I’ve seen this with my own kids.  They’ll protest for cookies and crackers.  You cut the apple, you put it on the plate and walk away, and about ten minutes later they’re back for the apple.  You can give them goldfish, but just introduce healthy options for the kids including fruits and vegetables,” he said.

 Give Picky Preschool Eaters Space

“Very oftentimes, parents are preoccupied with what their children are doing, or not doing, with their food.  The average eight-month old, given three meals a day, is going to consume about one-and-a-half of those meals.  And that is a very normal feeding behavior.  They’ll play with the rest, they’ll eat it, or they’re not interested in it.  At that age, or certainly before the preschool years, a child’s drive to eat is purely driven by their metabolic need, and not by social forces.  For example, around age five, children will start to eat because it’s dinnertime (or) they’ll eat to make mom or dad happy, they’ll eat because they’re going to get a reward, they’ll eat because of a social circumstance,” he said.  “Prior to age four or so, kids are purely going to eat based upon what they need.  That’s what drives us crazy as parents because we want them to meet our little agenda of eating big and eating healthy and all of that, but kids are driven by their own internal metabolism prior to the preschool years.  The worst thing we can do is to fight or struggle with a child.  The best thing is to pull back and give them space and realize that the child is not going to starve.  And, when we recognize that a child has the capacity to take what they need on their own, we oftentimes have a lot more success than when we try to play a lot of games and try to do subtle force-feeding that we like to do,” he said.

“Make solid food choices for the whole family, because you cannot isolate a child in that household from the rest of the family.  The child will eat the way the rest of the family is eating.  There’s nothing wrong with goldfish (crackers).  There are no bad foods, only bad diets and bad food choices.  We don’t have to throw away the goldfish— we just want to put them into a balanced diet.”

A Special Role for Dads

Dads may play a special role in helping kids learn to eat well, says Dr. Vartabedian. Are all parents susceptible to this?  “It depends on the dad, but some dads are quicker to open up the grazing canister because they don’t have the mechanisms in place to keep the kids in line.  I’m a dad.  My son is eight and my daughter is three.  When you talk about discipline and modeling for kids, it’s so interesting that when I’m at home in the evening or anytime for that matter, and I grab a cracker before dinner, my kids, who were occupied with something else, see me eating and then immediately want to have something to eat themselves.  In terms of the grazing behavior, we parents model that for our kids.  Dads have to model for our children for the sake of their future health,” he said.

“Moms are definitely more preoccupied with all the bad things that can happen if their child doesn’t eat well.  Fathers are less apt to be worried about a missed meal.  In many respects, they’re more laid back, and more apt to leave kids alone, and more apt to do a better job at that space issue,” he said.  “Dads are funny, because they are sometimes a little bit more laid back in their parenting style, and mothers are sometimes the ones that are a little bit more uptight.  Interestingly, sometimes, when kids are left alone with their dads, who can sometimes be a little bit more playful, kids will sometimes do better.  At dinnertime and other mealtimes, fathers interact with their children quite a bit differently than mothers do. Sometimes they’re often more playful and less serious, and sometimes when it comes to feeding, those are attributes that really work.  So, dads may have something special to offer as far as feeding,” Dr. Vartabedian said.

Dads and Doctors

I talked recently with Terrence Neff, MD, an Idaho pediatrician and father of three who says that modern dads would probably be criticized if they parented like their own dads did. Dr. Neff told me that his father used to drop him off alone in the woods to hunt rabbits all day in sub-zero temperatures when he was 12 years old–a practically implausible parenting scenario in today’s world.

Patrick and Youngest Son, Alex, when the Lad was a Tad Younger
Patrick Mitchell and Youngest Son.

“My father was a rancher, and his experiences led to his parenting style which was basically that I could go out and I could explore the world on my own, and he trusted that I would be safe doing that,” he said. “He would drop me off at the bottom of the Yellowstone River Valley in the morning as soon as the sun came up so I could hunt cottontail rabbits all day long. It may be 40 degrees below zero–that was my limit–40 below zero,” he said with a chuckle. “And as long as it was above that temperature, he’d let me hunt rabbits; otherwise, he said it was just too cold out there. And when I got too cold, I would walk to a ranch house somewhere along the river bottom, call him on the phone, and he’d come pick me up.”

“The way my father parented– letting me go hunting all day and explore–might be called ‘child abuse’ in this day and age. But again, it was different back then. Our role as fathers (back then) was to let kids experience things in safe ways, and we have to keep doing that. We can’t keep our kids in the house all the time assuming they’re going to be safe there, because I don’t think they will be (safe) because they don’t learn about themselves and about the world and about things that go on in the world,” he said.

Asked for his opinion–as a doctor and a dad–about how men can be successful fathers, Dr. Neff said this: “First of all, trust yourself; if you do things that seem reasonable, then you know what? That’s probably okay. The second thing is, don’t try to second-guess yourself all the time. Never go back and say, ‘Geez, I should’ve done something different.’ As parents we do the best we can at the time. You cannot do better than the best you can. If you had to do it again, might you have done something differently? Yes, but at the time you were doing your best, and you should never beat yourself up for doing the best you possibly can,” he said.

“I think we, as parents, are too much into having our kids experience what we think they need to experience–to be successful, whatever success is in this world. We force our kids to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities when truly what they need the most is to just be kids,” he said. “Your kids grow up too darned fast. Enjoy every single minute you get.”

Dr. Neff graduated from medical school more than 30 years ago, so he’s seen many children and parents in his doctor’s office. “The interaction we’ve had with fathers has changed a lot since I started practicing medicine. Years ago, it was mostly moms bringing their children to the doctor. Nowadays, fathers play a bigger role at home. It’s been a big switch,” he said.

Asked what practitioners, educators, and child-and-family advocates can do to help parents keep kids healthy, the Idaho pediatrician said there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned in-person visits to the doctor. Some parents, he says, want to rely upon what they read online and try to self-diagnose their child based on apparent symptoms.

“Today’s modern technology–the Internet–is an absolutely wonderful thing, but it’s also awful for parents. There’s so much [medical] information out there, and it’s very difficult for parents to sort through what that information is. I would recommend that if you do have questions, please talk to your [medical] providers. If you have questions about what they’re doing, or why they’re doing something, or why they’ve recommended one thing over another, it’s okay to talk about it. We’re big people; you’re not going to bum us out or make us feel bad if you ask us questions about what is going on.”

By Patrick Mitchell, The Down To Earth Dad