Finding the right glue for a father-son bond

Camping, fishing, or slot cars? How to choose activities that promote

With spring comes what might be called high season for father-son bonding.

Go to any ballpark in America. You'll find a kid munching a mustard-drenched frank while Dad casts furtive looks to see if his boy is enjoying himself.

But if you or your son are not drawn to the crack of a Louisville Slugger, what are the alternatives?

What activities promote meaningful communication and a relationship beyond being the rule-setter in his young life?

"You don't want to put your son through the fifth degree trying to figure out what his interests are," says Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a Gaithersburg, Md.-based organization committed to increasing the number of loving, responsible fathers.

"Listening is really the key," Dr. Horn continues. "Listen, watch, and give your son opportunities to engage in various kinds of activities. If he doesn't like doing them, don't push him. The worst thing is to push him."

Nudging, however, is different and may be necessary to move a youngster beyond complacency.

"TVs, computers, Nintendo, and Walkmans can make it hard to get a kid's attention," says Ron Klinger, the author of "Common Sense No Frills, Plain English Guide to Being a Successful Dad" and the president of the Center for Successful Fathering, Inc, in Austin, Texas.

"Being a good dad," he says," "can mean telling a child, 'Turn it [TV, computer, etc.] off and go with me."

Mr. Klinger says many men have a playful side and sense of humor that connects with boys once brought out in the open.

For Klinger, this occurs when he and his buddies go fly-fishing. "My 15-year-old son is not crazy about fishing," Klinger says, "but he loves to go along on our trips. I typically have one or two guys my age go with us, and we laugh and joke and tell stories. My son really eats that up."

What's important, both Klinger and Horn emphasize, is to remember that the activity, regardless of what it is or how enjoyable it may be, is secondary to the "relationship time" it provides.

The sign of a good hobby, recreation, or activity, then, is that it encourages an easy exchange between father and son.

"You'll be surprised when you're building that model airplane together," Horn says, "at how the conversation turns to school and friends."

Part of the strength of the Boy Scout and Cub Scout programs lies in the bonds that outdoor adventures forge, says Stephen Medlicott, director of research services at Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Irving, Texas.

A campout may be one of the few times busy dads share significant one-on-one time with their sons. "It's pretty special when it's just you and him," Mr. Medlicott observes. "It's an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned, to communicate with dad, to feel the safety and security of being with someone who cares about you."

These outdoor experiences - sleeping in a tent, building a campfire, or spotting shooting stars - never get old for boys and often are what keep them in the program, Medlicott says.

Camping is also an integral part of the YMCA's Indian Guides program, which groups 7-to-10 father-son pairs into tribes (as well as other parent-child combinations).

"The commitment to work together with other dads to come up with activities and trips can make it easier to get things done," says Barbara Taylor, spokesperson for the national program.

Feeling responsibility to the group also helps make this a priority for fathers, who might otherwise get sidetracked.

The Y-Indian Guides program fosters the idea of spending "intentional time, of making a date with your son," and then not breaking this date. Although not meant as a penalty, Ms. Taylor says most tribes make it a policy that father-son pairs participate together or not at all. "Typically the policy is, if the dad can't make it, the son doesn't come," she says.

When doing activities with sons, take the smorgasboard approach because young boys sometimes discard interests like old clothes. "You have to understand with children that interests come and go because kids are developing," Horn says.

It's important, therefore, for dads to be flexible and to have a thick skin. "Sometimes dads get excited about doing something they enjoyed with their own fathers," Horn says. "The kid might look up as if to say, 'I can't think of anything more boring.' When that happens, he's not rejecting you, he's just rejecting the choice of activity. What you want to do is search for something else."

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