“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly advice column in which Fatherly’s Parenting Editor Patrick Coleman provides frank answers to reader questions. Want evidence-based answers and some common sense morality? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. We got you. Want a justification for some parenting decision you already made? Ask someone else. Patrick is busy.
My two-year-old broke his arm the other day when he took a nasty fall on an outing. It happened super fast. It was bad enough feeling like a bad parent because he was injured, but it’s almost worse watching how much discomfort he’s in because he has a little cast on and isn’t great with his ability to control his body yet. Sometimes he kind of bangs the cast on a coffee table and screams. I comfort him all I can but every time he does it, I can like feel that pain and it is so awful. I’m trying not to take all of it on, but between the guilt of not keeping him safe and the intense sympathy pains, I’m going a little crazy. Is there anything I can do to feel better about any of this, or is it just something parents have to deal with.
Let me tell you a story something: A couple years ago, I took my kids on a hike to an interesting geological formation here in Ohio. It’s a series of incredible gulches and gorges and ledges worn into rock. It’s an incredible place, and I knew it was imperative to keep my head on a swivel while exploring with my kids who were 3- and 5-years-old at the time. I was doing a pretty good job of it until we came to one particularly high overlook. I was distracted by a wandering 5-year-old when I suddenly heard a lady call out: “No no sweetie! Come back!”. I wheeled around only to find my three-year-old on the other side of the railing a mere foot from the edge of a gaping chasm. I calmly rushed to him, pulled him to safety and then thanked and apologized to the panicked woman. On the outside I was cool. Inside, I was a wreck. My adrenaline was flowing full force. I had cold sweats. I wanted to both cry and scream. It could have been a fatal disaster.
That was two years ago. And I can tell you that even now, I can feel that terror as sharply as the day my 3-year-old nearly took a plunge. Nothing happened, but I have struggled with the guilt that something could have happened in the mere moment that my head was turned.
What you’re going through now is rough. And it will probably continue to be rough. I broke my leg as a baby when I rolled off a high table where my mother had placed me temporarily. Roughly 43 years later, she still feels shitty about it. This sort of stuff just gets lodged in parents’ brains. I’d like to think it makes us better parents — all the accountability — but maybe it just makes us unhappy people. I don’t know. I just know I’m less distractable then I used to be.
My point here is that you don’t want to internalize the idea that you’re not a good dad because your kid got hurt. Short of raising them in a bubble, there is no possible way you can protect your kid from every dangerous contingency. You just have to do your best. And it sounds like you are doing your best. Do you know how I know? Because you’re asking this question. My opinion would be very different if your kid had broken his arm and you just moved on.
Sympathy pains are a good sign that you feel a deep sense of empathy and connection to your child. Yes, it’s wildly uncomfortable but it’s a good sign. To love is to suffer is to feel alive. Or something like that.
That said, you and I ultimately have to let go of our guilt and forgive ourselves. We are doing the best we can. And holding the thought that we are not good (or good enough) is not good for the kid either. Your kid does not need a dad who is stressed about the past. He needs a dad who is planning a fun Saturday activity — preferably something the kid can do with one arm.
I am an aunt to a three-year-old little boy. He is affectionate, sweet, and adorable — but his father lets him play video games at this incredibly young age. I have read into the issue and everything I have read says the same thing: He is too young for video games and it’s giving him a need for constant stimulation. I sometimes watch my nephew while my sister and her boyfriend are working, but my mother watches him almost daily. She doesn’t allow him to play games during the day, but his dad brings the games out as soon as he is home. I am in my twenties and my three-year-old nephew can navigate the system better than me. But, he throws the controller when he gets angry and throws a tantrum if you take the game away. Once, he has almost hit his six-month-old brother with the controller! This kid is out of control and my sister is doing nothing to get him off the games. Is there anything I can do? Please help!
To be very blunt, there’s only so much you can do to get your nephew off of video games. You’re not his mom and that’s not your call. You can lobby on behalf of playing outside, but that’s likely to get awkward because you’re second guessing parenting decisions (and I think we all know how well that goes outside of the context of an advice column). So I’m not going to make you feel a lot better, but I might be able to make you feel a bit better by pointing out that the games might not be quite as damaging as you think.
There’s a lot of angst about kids and video games. Ever since Atari established a foothold in the American home, adults have been moaning about video games rotting a child’s brain. But the research on whether video games are bad for kids is inconclusive at best and borderline science fictional at worst. In fact, there is a great deal of research suggesting that video games can be beneficial for children — not only teaching them basic skills like rule-following, problem-solving and goal-setting, but traits like creativity and empathy.
And frankly, if your nephew’s father is playing video games with his kid, he’s engaging in a worthwhile bonding activity. They are sharing an experience. They are sharing competition and chasing goals. This is a good thing. Of course, that good could be mitigated by content. Playing Mortal Kombat with a 3-year-old, for instance, is probably not the best idea considering the hasty amateur surgeries depicted.
That said, most of the “bad stuff” associated with video games is linked to poor boundary-setting by parents. The fact that a kid might sit in front of a video game and ignore homework or other responsibilities has less to do with the video game than it has to do with the parent. Give a kid unlimited candy, they’d make themselves sick. So, parents give candy in moderation. Given your question, it’s possible that your nephew’s father is struggling with moderation. It’s possible they just may need some alternative ways to play with their kid. Rather than talking about video games, the solution here is to talk about other options and encourage moderation.
Here’s a tip: Big-up horseplay. Lots of dads enjoy roughhousing, but some feel like they need permission to really get in there. It can also be playfully competitive, which sounds in line with the environment in which your nephew is being raised. If you can get them to adopt personas and wrestle, all the better — imaginative play is always the best option — but it’s fine if you don’t quite get there. The important thing is to propose an alternative to video games that isn’t just not playing video games. Little kids abhor a vaccuum with an intensity that even nature can’t muster.