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Great Kids In No Time

SIGN UP FOR CAREER DAY
Studies show that children whose fathers are "highly involved" in their kids' schooling--who attend "Back-to-School Night" or man the three-legged-race station at field day--earn more A's. Better still, "highly involved" is defined as only three or four of these appearances a year.

"Teachers communicate more with parents if they've met them in person," says Maureen Black, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland medical school. In other words, build relationships with the teachers, and your children won't get away with anything.

Planning tip: Since the school calendar is set by Labor Day, ink in the year's events as soon as you can so there won't be conflicts later.

HAVE 5-MINUTE CONVERSATIONS
If you're running late and the kid comes in while you're shaving, don't tell him to beat it. Instead, "Hoist him on the sink, let him help you lather, and answer his questions--he'll have lots of them," says Robert Frank, Ph.D., author of Parenting Partners.

Answering them all is impossible--we have no idea why that glob of shaving cream looks like Uncle Bobby--but any man can give a kid 5 or 10 minutes.

The payoff: Spontaneous chats bond kids to their dads in ways planned activities can't, Frank says.

TURN OFF THE RADIO
Don't waste the nightly 20-minute drive to tae kwon do classes listening to stock reports. Instead, just listen. Frank says paying attention to what your kids are saying now makes it more likely they'll listen to you later.

Trouble getting through to your teen? Take your kid's friends along. Teen-agers are more forthcoming with their peers' parents, Frank says. So you're more likely to hear about a bully or a bad teacher from your boy's buddy than from him.

DOUBLE-DARE THEM
Research shows that a dad's less-fearful approach to parenting--letting the kids climb higher on the monkey bars, playing tackle instead of touch--develops their cerebrums in ways catalog shopping can't. To guarantee that your kids get a good mix of brain-growing activities, make sure you pitch your own ideas for family excursions.

HAMMERED FOR TIME?
Don't try to make every event. A better strategy: Rotate evenly among the concerts, ball games, and dance recitals. "If you only go to see her pitch at softball games, the message is that only her pitching is important to you," says Frank. Supporting her in all her activities will show her that, well, you support her in all her activities.

DON'T BE SO PREDICTABLE
A lot of fathers are only too happy to accept a marginal role--some will even boast of being the "bath dad" or the "bedtime- story guy." But narrow duties like this quickly become perfunctory and less meaningful. The answer isn't in devoting more time, but in shifting around what time you have. "One man I know will occasionally take a 2-hour lunch--and stay an hour later at work at night--just so he can eat and play with his kids when they all have more energy," Frank says.

PUT THEM IN THE GAME
You want your kid to love sports, but drinking beer and ignoring him for 8 hours on Saturday and Sunday isn't going to turn him into a die-hard fan--or help your relationship. What might do both, however, is taking time to explain what you find so cool about a sport. "See, Timmy, how the receiver held on to the ball even though his leg was being hideously snapped in two by that psychotic linebacker?"

And don't spend halftime in the john. Go outside and play catch instead. A University of Alabama study found that adults judged their dads' success as parents in part by whether their fathers had played games with them.

DON'T BITCH ABOUT YOUR JOB (IN FRONT OF THE KIDS)
Use the nights you must work late as a chance to drive home important lessons. Grumble and complain about your responsibilities, and so will your kids. "They repeat what they see," says Black. Instead, use the next missed dinner to stress the importance of fulfilling your commitments to other people. (Just realize you'll be exposed as a phony if you meet your responsibilities at work but constantly bail on promises to your family.)

MAKE FUN OF YOUR KIDS
Not every conversation needs to be a heart-to-heart. "Fathers interact with their kids in more playful ways than mothers," Frank says. "They tease and use more wordplay." So, as long as you're not cruel, tell your wife that giving your kids silly nicknames and trash-talking during a game of Uno is more than fun--it's educational, too!

LET THEM SEE YOU SWEAT
Even the busiest man should treat exercise like a telethon pledge--don't think of yourself, think of the kids. Why? Your children will be more likely to adopt healthy habits themselves when they see that you're committed to exercise, says Black. "A 5-year-old isn't going to start running every morning, but he is more likely to exercise when he gets older."

SPAM THEM
E-mails and cell phones are a bitch at work, but they make long-distance parenting easier. A call from the airport, a good-night fax or e-mail, or a text message sent to their pager can keep you in the loop. "Men who spend stretches of time away from home tend to lose daily connections, like how their kid did on that test she was studying for," Frank says. Follow-up reinforces for her how important her schoolwork and other activities are to you.

HIRE A BABYSITTER
Time spent away with your wife is good for your children. "One of the most important ways for a dad to raise good kids is to love their mother," Black says. Kids pick up on marital tension and blame it on themselves. Another ugly fact: Children of divorce are 1.4 times more likely to go through one themselves.

BORE THEM SILLY
If the only time you see your kids is on the weekend, fight the urge to cram 7 days of fun into 2. "If you're dragging a crabby kid through the amusement park to squeeze every last second out of your time together, it's not good for anyone," Frank says. Instead, make sure your kids have downtime each day--a few hours when they decide what they're going to do and how they're going to do it--so they learn how to think for, and motivate, themselves. Experts say they'll do better in school and will be less likely to suffer from depression.

10 Lies Every Parent Should Tell

1 "The tooth fairy called. She said the way you're behaving, you might as well keep the tooth."Parents threaten consequences all the time, but it helps to have a strong third party on call to bring perspective. From Halloween on, throw all your disciplinary needs onto Santa's lap.

2 "Monsters like to eat dust bunnies. I bet you're going to get lots of monsters in this room." Call it a cleanliness incentive plan.

3 "Mommy and Daddy aren't fighting; we're rearranging the kitchen." Kids might not buy this one, but in our desire to be right, we jump into fights even if it means exposing our kids to adult conflicts. Need to scream? Get 'em out of the house first.

4 "Mommy and Daddy aren't fighting; we're playing leapfrog. On the bed. Without our clothes." In case the makeup sex gets out of hand.

5 "Reading books will make you a millionaire." In today's screen-dominated world, kids must grow up knowing that books, not blogs, will unlock the secrets of their universe.

6 "Don't worry, sweetie, that can't happen here." Um, sure it can. Murder, terrorism, earthquakes—they can strike anytime, anywhere. But parents must be kiddie Pepto-Bismol: Coat them, soothe them, relieve them.

7 "I know everything." Before teachers, coaches, and the kid down the street get their shot, parents must be a child's go-to encyclopedia for all of life's questions. The important thing is that your children, not you, believe it.

8 "That guy is homeless because he didn't eat his vegetables." If you really stretch it, there's science to back this up, given the importance of nutrition to brain health. More important, this lie teaches cause and effect, and gives your child the power to determine his destiny.

9 "I'm not afraid." Your smile is their Kevlar vest, your hug proof that everything will in fact be OK, no matter how bleak reality might be.

10 "This is Daddy's special juice, and it's poison to children." Happy hour is sacred ground, folks.

How to Be a Better Father

1. Be More Vocal
Speak up: Your kid is listening. In families with two working parents, fathers have a greater impact on their children's language development by age 3 than mothers do, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Provide a creative, dramatic play-by-play of the activities you're engaged in and your surroundings. Use big words, even if they're unfamiliar to your kid. Children learn a lot by context.

2. Don't Give in to Tantrums
"When your anxiety visibly rises, you add fuel to the fire," says Hal Edward Runkel, a family therapist and the author of ScreamFree Parenting. And if you simply hand over a piece of candy, you encourage more bad behavior. Instead, when your kid starts shouting, be calm and attentive. Don't ignore it. This signals that you will not be rattled and the child won't win—ever. It may not work for the first tantrum, warns Runkel, but it's magic by the fifth.

3. Challenge Them
Children as young as four years old start to compete with their parents—sprinting to the car, wrestling on the sofa, stuff like that. Roll with it. Let them win a lot, and then slowly ramp it up so they have to work harder for their victories. "It's a way for kids to develop a sense of strength and to let them test their muscles," says Justin Richardson, M.D., who teaches psychiatry at Columbia University. They'll start to walk more confidently and be less of a mark for bullies.

4. Encourage Calluses
If you can instill in your kids an enthusiasm for work, that's about as good a gift as a father can give. Within earshot of the kids, explain to a friend or family member that they helped paint the Adirondack chairs, and make it clear how pleased you were with their effort.

5. Teach Them to Tinker
When your kids are little, take them with you to the hardware store. Let them watch you explore that leaking faucet or flickering lamp, trying to figure things out. There's magic in repair, especially in an era when so many things are just replaced instead of refitted. You want the kids to see the world as susceptible to their wit or muscle, to their ingenuity and effort.

6. Set Realistic Expectations
Maybe you don't wish for a prodigy, but our competitive society suggests otherwise. That's why so many kids have trouble focusing, says C. Andrew Ramsey, M.D., a psychiatry professor at Columbia University. Make sure your kids know your expectations. Celebrate improvement first. And explain the value of slow mastery. "Whether your kids love Tom Brady or Beyoncé, let them know that these people succeeded because they mastered one skill," says Dr. Ramsey. "Learn to go through one door and many others will open for you; try to go through five doors at once and you'll go nowhere."

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