FATHERS: making the moments count

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHETHER you're a divorced dad with weekend or seasonal child-care duties or an overworked father trying to grab a little one-on-one time with your children, chances are you can sympathize with the man who came to Dorothy Rich, founder of the Home and School Institute, and said, ``I'm so tired of taking the kids to the zoo. Is there anything else to do?'' Many who are fathers today don't have a lot of memories to draw on of lengthy days spent with their own fathers. Raised in an era which saw a father's input as largely limited to money, discipline, and sports, today's fathers are often caught in the bind, says Dr. Rich, of wanting to do more and not knowing how.

Combine this situation with the growing number of divorced fathers who, since they see their children infrequently, want to cram those precious moments with exciting, kid-approved activities.

Morris Shepard and Gerald Goldman, authors of ``Divorced Dads'' (Chilton Book Company, 1979), refer to this approach as the ``Disneyland Dad syndrome,'' and warn that such activities soon pale.

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``When you combine your highly anticipated arrival with some exciting events and junk food, you surely have a winner,'' they write of the thinking behind this syndrome.

``However, when you do it every weekend it becomes as stale as fast food three minutes out of the ultraviolet warmer.''

They advise that fathers stay away from passive observance activities -- like movies, TV, or the circus -- that put them in the same place as their children but allow little or no interaction.

Dr. Rich agrees, though she credits the motives of these fathers: ``At least sitting with their children in the movie shows that they care.''

She suggests instead that fathers ask, ``What have I got within my own daily life experience that I can share?'' Time sharing needn't be dramatic, she points out.

``Try paying the bills with the child, telling him, `This bill is for the heat, how much do you think it is?' Children are invariably off by a long shot.''

She likes the idea of fathers who are interested in sports sitting down with the newspaper and telling their kids which teams hail from which cities, and where they're playing. ``This is geography, you see,'' she says. ``Or you can work out batting averages, or yards taken -- this is math.''

Others, like author-educator Nancy Larrick, suggest that children enjoy tours of their own home, looking for plumbing, fuse boxes, heat ducts, insulation, and different building materials.

Another way to see these things is to wander with your child around a construction site -- with permission, of course.

Other ideas for outings:

Best buys. Dr. Rich suggests giving a child a certain amount of money and strolling through the supermarket, ``building lunch from the ground up. Look for the best price on soup cans, lunch meat, whatever, and let the youngster keep track of how much is being spent. Then take him home, and the two of you cook it and eat it together.''

Gift buying. Shopping for family gifts takes some thinking, too. It demands that a child focus his thoughts on the wants and wishes of others. This isn't always easy. How many times has Grandpa received a toy car or bubble gum? Dad can show his offspring how to come up with appropriate presents -- within a budget.

Street smarts. This is a 1980s variant on the walk around the block. Help your child identify safe places to go in an emergency -- such as the library, neighbors you know, the school. Dr. Rich suggests that you follow this up by having the child draw them on a map.

Bus/subway ride. This doesn't have to be to any place in particular, though it might be fun to go somewhere you rarely take children. ``The point to using the bus is that you can talk,'' Dr. Rich says.

Greenhouse. This is pleasant on a rainy day. You could pick out a small plant for the child's room or garden, ``which, if you're sharing custody, acts as an anchor for the child in your new home,'' says Dr. Rich.

Chicken or fish hatchery, or a beekeeper's. A zoo with a twist. You'll probably need to call ahead.

Cold storage. Butchers sometimes have these places and, with a phone call in advance, may be willing to let your child in for a vivid lesson in temperature.

Highway or railroad cuts, to see ``the layers of rock and tilting of these layers,'' says Dr. Larrick. A good time to talk about geology, fossils, erosion, transportation, and whatever's on your mind.

Nearly any store. ``Just stand there watching the people work,'' Dr. Rich suggests. Whether it's paint mixing in the hardware store, dough kneading at the bakery, meat cutting at the butcher, or flower arranging at the florists, work performed is intrinsically fascinating to watch.

A windmill or water mill. To talk about energy resources.

Food markets. Especially small ethnic ones with foods normally foreign to your tongue. Try to figure out what foods you're looking at, where they come from, how they're fixed, and how they might taste.

Airport, bus terminal, railway station, shipyard. Fun places to watch the hustle and bustle of people on the go.

Civil or criminal court. These usually meet during the week. Call ahead and ask what's on the docket for the day you plan to come. This is a great place to get into those value issues you want to teach your children -- justice, human rights, equality.

Picnics. A blanket, paper plates, cold drinks, and food from the supermarket deli counter make a quick pick-up picnic. Throw in a Frisbee or a ball and bat, and you're set for the afternoon. The bonus here is that green grass and blue skies offer a perfect backdrop for talk times.

For more ideas, Mr. Shepard and Mr. Goldman advise, ``think about the times when you made [your children] happy and you had a good feeling about it. What happened at those times? What were the surroundings? Were other people around?

``Chances are,'' they continue, ``that your kids responded best when you did something uncomplicated.''

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