Here's the biggest lesson I've learned as a stay-at-home dad: You're never afraid of the right stuff.
Ages ago, my then-4-year old daughter, Fern, once climbed to the lofty heights of a "big kid" play structure. I panicked (of course) and she was fine (of course). When she came down, I figured she was safe and turned to play with her baby sister, Claudia. Inevitably, in that instant, Fern tripped over an invisible stump and skinned her knee.
Now that my girls are elementary-schoolers, I'm still afraid of the wrong things. Soon, I will return to work after 11 years at home full-time. What scared me during this transition wasn't my new schedule or the impossible gap in my resume. No, what frightened me was putting my kids into an after-school program.
I wasn't afraid of aftercare being unsafe, but boring. Six hours of school without much choice seems like plenty to me. Was after-school care just four more hours of kids parked in unused classrooms, joylessly filling in mandatory coloring pages?
I've always picked up Fern and Claudia right after school. It seemed like we should fill whatever hours we could squeeze out before dinnertime with jumping in puddles, baking treats and building epic forts from cardboard boxes.
Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that at the after-school program, my kids do exactly that: jump in puddles, bake treats, and build epic forts from cardboard boxes!
This reality settled in on me when I went to retrieve the girls after the year’s first rainstorm. Fern and Claudia, barefoot on the swings, were kicking up geysers from the massive puddles underneath. They sent me away, ordering me not to return until the last possible minute.
Looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised. Park staffers understand better than anyone how to empower kids to create their own adventures. They organize wacky group games and paint crazy pictures on the windows. But there's always a dollop of freedom in the mix. The kids who prefer to skateboard or read for hours straight – well, they’re mostly allowed to do that.
But at the park, even the skateboarders and the readers join into the sand castle competitions. Aftercare is a mixing bowl for the little cultures that kids establish. My daughters don't like team sports much, but at aftercare they'll try them. They have sleepovers with friends they hardly knew before – even some from different grades! Perhaps the biggest miracle is that I often arrive to find Fern and Claudia playing together, when at home they seldom do.
The magic element to aftercare is obvious: I'm not there. The sad fact is that if I go along on my kids' adventures, they automatically become less, well, less adventurous.
Recently, I arrived at the park and saw Claudia up a tree before she spotted me. She loves to climb but if she knows I'm nearby she'll only go up a couple of branches before asking for a rescue lift. That day, free from my meddling parental presence, she reached the top and then shimmied back down to prepare for the final leap.
I almost shouted over to her, but stopped myself. If I lift her down now, how will she learn to navigate her future challenges?
So I watched as Claudia judged the distance, jumped, tumbled over in the sandbox, and ran off to join one of her dozen new friends.
Graham Charles blogs at Doodaddy.net