Archived Story

Being a father means being super honest

Published 10:00am Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

I have this crazy belief: Kids are smarter than we think they are.

Give them the chance to learn something, even if they don’t understand it right away. I coach a tee-ball team, along with two other guys, and we started off teaching them all to throw to first base no matter what, but as the weeks progressed, we began to teach them that they could A. throw it to the closest base if a runner was headed there, or B. just run the ball to the closest base.

Now these are kindergartners. We knew not all the players would grasp the concepts. But some will. And then when the ones who didn’t grasp the lesson see what the ones who did are doing, they put the pieces of the puzzle together.

That’s what I mean when kids are smarter than we think they are. Learning isn’t instant, especially growing up in a world where everything is new. It comes in bits and chunks, and the parent/teacher/coach may or may not even be present at the time when the kids figure out the thing you were saying.

I actually was thinking about this topic in my pickup one day last week when there came a segment on National Public Radio about broadcaster Linda Ellerbee. Here is an excerpt:

“Parents steer their kids to media for all kinds of things: as a distraction so they can make dinner, to teach letters and numbers and for pure entertainment. There are also times when parents rely on books, TV, museums and other media when they aren’t quite sure how to approach a difficult topic by themselves.

“Linda Ellerbee is the queen of hard subjects. Domestic abuse, Sept. 11, alcoholism and living with HIV are among the many tough issues she’s covered in the 22 years since she’s hosted NickNews on Nickelodeon. The show is written for 9- to 13-year-olds, and Ellerbee says her one rule of thumb is don’t dumb it down.

“‘Our viewers are smart people,’ she says. ‘They are merely younger, less experienced and shorter.’ They also possess a more limited vocabulary, but Ellerbee says she still uses words they might not know, like ‘intervention’ or ‘hijacking.’

“‘If I’m going to use a word that I think a 10-year-old might not understand,’ she says, ‘I either explain what the word means or use it in such a way that it’s absolutely clear what the word means. I don’t change the word.’

“NickNews is also known for letting kids do the talking: Children who’ve experienced all kinds of difficulties go on air to explain what their lives are like and how they’re coping.”

Don’t dumb it down is right.

And tell the truth, about everything. Everything. My 6-year-old son, Forrest, knows his father is a place to get straight answers about the world. I do not lie to him or think it’s funny to fool him with false answers. You won’t catch me saying swallowed watermelon seeds cause a watermelon to grow in his tummy. Ha ha. It’s funny when kids think mustard causes hair to grow on your chest and things like that, but those pranks are for uncles and aunts to say. Not dads. I am the one guy who is in his corner every single time always about anything.

If Forrest wants to know what makes a car go, I do my best to explain, almost like I would explain it to a grown-up. If I can tell he needs some information to do something well, I am quick to let him know. “When you get the soccer ball close to the goal, then be sure to kick it extra hard at the goal so it gets past the goalie.”

It goes for humor, too. Forrest and I joke around — we like to say “Boogalogachoo” as pure nonsense — and Lisa and I kid him sometimes, but there are times I explain what is and is not funny.

Whether it is cooking, sports, reading, math or any subject or issue, it matters so much to me to be the cornerstone for Forrest. I am sure as 9-month-old Jasper ages, the same relationship will form.

You know how kids holler “Look!” before they do something cool or fast or dangerous or even kind of lame? Sometimes, parents mumble, “OK,” and keep their eyes on their book or the grill or whatever.

Not Lisa and me. We look. We enjoy nothing more than watching our children be kids.

Being there. Being reliable. That’s what being a father means to me. Truth and honesty actually are what so many kids out there desire.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.