What I Learned While My Wife Was At TypeACon

life-lessonsSince Thursday, it has been just me and the boys (and – when they were in school – just me).  While I’m sure that B will be coming back today with plenty of new lessons to put into action, I’ve learned a few lessons as well.

Yes I Can

All too often , I sell myself short.  I’m always my biggest critic.  Sometimes it’s that the websites I make aren’t good enough (no matter how much people rave about them).  Sometimes it’s that I can’t learn a new skill and – all too often – it’s that I couldn’t manage at all without B.

Now, mind you, I wouldn’t be able to do this every single day.  I’m glad that I have B as a partner to share the parenting load.  Still, if need be, I can remember things like medication or which clothes the boys need to wear given the days’ weather without B looking over my shoulder.  I’m perfectly capable of doing the household chores while taking care of the boys.  I’ve got to stop doubting parenting abilities (as was well as doubting myself in other areas).

Learn To Pick My Battles

That being said, I did have a parenting fail moment. We had arrived early to school Friday morning and I suggested a walk around the block to kill time. Everyone was for it until we just got underway. That’s when NHL began to protest about how he hated walks, had gym that morning, and WASN’T walking any more.

What I *should* have done was given in and waited inside with the boys as they usually did.  Instead, the planned walk became fixed in my mind as "the plan" and, as often happens with me, I stubbornly persisted.  As the walk wore on, NHL got more and more agitated.  By the time we walked into school, he was completely wound up.  As I walked out of the building, it suddenly hit me.  I just put "the plan" ahead of my son’s well being.  Thanks to me, he was now starting the day on edge instead of calm.  His day would likely spiral out of control from this point and it was all my fault.

The guilt ate away at me for the rest of the day.  Out of necessity, I’ve learned to be able to put these kinds of worries out of my head lest I obsess over them.  (A topic for another day.)  This time, though, I couldn’t.  No matter what I did, I just kept picturing NHL having a horrible day all because of me.

When I picked him up, NHL said that he had a wonderful day.  Thankfully, his teachers and him were able to turn it around.  Still, I apologized to him for my behavior.  I’ve got to learn to spot when I’m obsessing on something and figure out how to pull myself out of the obsession.  It’s not going to be easy, but it’s something I need to do.  Not for me as much as for my boys.

Sometimes Simple Activities Are The Most Fun

As much as I loved going with the boys to the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady on Sunday, my favorite day of the long weekend was on Saturday.  The boys and I had eaten breakfast (homemade French Toast) and watched two episodes of Doctor Who (Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead).  The boys had a blast seeing the Vasta Nerada and meeting River Song for the first time.  It started them talking about counting shadows and "Spoilers!" for the rest of the weekend.  After watching some TV, got tired and took it upon himself to take a nap.  While he napped, JSL played and I made some slow cooker apple sauce.   After NHL woke up, we went to lunch, had some play time in a local park, and then went for frozen yogurt.  It wasn’t anything grand and elaborate, but it was a lot of fun just spending time with my boys.

Carve Out Some Time By Yourself

Second to my time with my boys was the time by myself.  On Thursday, after dropping the boys off at school and B off at the airport, I came home to an empty house.  After just enjoying the peace and quiet for a bit, I set to work sewing a fez.  Without any distractions, I was able to focus entirely on it and the work went quickly.  Pretty soon, I was done.  As the final glued pieces dried, I was amazed by how much I enjoyed being by myself.  I don’t get much "just me" time.  If I do, I tend to feel guilty that I’m not spending the time with B or the boys.  With both of them elsewhere and unable to be with me, I had nothing to feel guilty over and was able to just enjoy the "me time."  By the time I picked up the boys, I was feeling very relaxed and happy.

Fezes Are Cool

Yes, I know that the Doctor loves saying this, but they are.  I keep finding myself coming up with odd reasons to put on the fez I made.  I just can’t help myself.  Yes, I’m wearing it right now.


The fez project hasn’t quite itched the crafting bug, though.  Instead, I can’t wait to start my next crafting project: Bow ties.  I’ve already purchased the materials and might start this week.  After all, bow ties are also cool!

Just Me And The Boys

This weekend, B is off to Type A Con in Atlanta.  While she learns, socializes, and perhaps even parties, the boys and I will be spending some quality time together.  I plan on finding some fun activities for us to do, but I’m sure there will be many episodes of Doctor Who watched.  Of course, while the boys are in school, I’ll likely be enjoying the quiet time and sewing a fez for my Doctor Who costume.  (Quick follow-up from my quandary post: I bought suspenders, will try making a fez and possibly a bow tie as well.)  Yes, we’ll miss B a lot and will be happy when she returns, but I’m sure we’ll also have a lot of fun together by ourselves.

What’s the longest that you and your kids were together without your spouse?

Proud Geek Dad Doctor Who Moments

jsl_tardisOne of the best things about being a parent is introducing your kids to the things you love.  As I’ve mentioned before, my latest interest share with them is Doctor Who.  The boys have gone from outright hostility towards watching it to grudging interest to (upon seeing their first episode) full blown Whovian.  This, of course, has led to multiple proud geek dad moments, but this past weekend there were four.

The first came as we walked through the mall.  B and I had split up to cover more ground.  While she went into one store to buy an item we needed more of, the boys and I browsed the menswear department to see if they had any burgundy suspenders.  I decided to go on the hunt because I want to dress as the Eleventh Doctor for Halloween.

Side Note: I actually like Tennant over Smith, but have to admit that Smith’s Doctor has a more iconic look – and one that is easier for me to replicate too.  Besides, I have the Eleventh Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and I’d look silly dressing up as the Tenth Doctor with the Eleventh’s sonic!

Anyway, as we looked through the suspenders (and as I suffered from sticker shock – I’m not paying nearly $20 for suspenders I’ll wear once or twice), JSL piped up with a request of his own.  He had decided that he wanted to dress as the Doctor for Halloween also.  I don’t think his plan of dressing as Doctor Nine is doable, but his desire to dress as a Doctor filled my heart with geeky glee.

Next came a couple of nights ago.  We were heading home from having dinner with B’s parents when B noticed that only part of the car had been rained on.  Having just watched "Smith and Jones" – where it rains on a hospital and not the surrounding area just before the hospital is transported to the Moon, I thought a Doctor Who reference was in order.  However, I didn’t say it.  Instead, JSL beat me to the punch and exclaimed that we were going to the Moon.  I was so impressed and proud that he not only remembered the episode enough to make the reference but also was quick enough to beat me.

Then, yesterday, as we drove up to watch Disney’s Planes, NHL and JSL began to discuss Doctor Who.  NHL decided that someone should build a Doctor Who theme park.  He didn’t stop there, however, but began to imagine a TARDIS rollercoaster ride.  I had to admit that I’d love to visit such a place.

Finally, just after this happened, we were walking through a department store.  As often happens, we walked by a row of mannequins.  However, NHL didn’t see them as mannequins.  Instead, he pointed out that they were Autons, clearly poising for an attack.  Thankfully, many of the Autons-posing-as-mannequins were lacking arms, legs, and/or heads so they should be easy to beat when they inevitably come alive and try to take over the world.

Ah the life of a geeky parent.  Where others might see a normal menswear shop, rain, and mannequins, my kids see plastic-based aliens ready for attack, a H2O based teleport to the Moon, and a location to purchase bowties – because bowties are cool.  I’m so proud of my little Whovians and I can’t wait to see what new geeky interests we’ll share next.

I Just Saw The Most Interesting Show On YouTube aka Time For a Web Filter

file6311261312400_SmallThe other morning, NHL walked into my bedroom as I woke up.  He was carrying his Galaxy Tab 2 tablet.  This isn’t a rare occurrence as he tends to wake up very early and we let him use the tablet to entertain himself as we sleep a bit longer.  This time, though, NHL informed me that he had just gained a bunch more friends on My Muppet Show.

This immediately concerned me.  Not because he had more friends – there isn’t any way for one friend to contact another.  You can only view each other’s stages and vote for them to be selected stage of the week.  What concerned me was HOW NHL had found additional friend codes.

You can’t just look up new friends in-app.  However, people have posted their friend codes in multiple places online.  I worried that NHL had been visiting strange websites without consulting us.  He assured me that he hadn’t.  He found them on YouTube.

Now, we’ve talked to NHL about YouTube before.  It’s an amazing place with some fantastic videos for kids.  However, it is also a place where many videos are NOT kid-friendly.  Telling which are and are not for kids isn’t easy.  A video can start innocently enough and quickly veer into Not-Safe territory before a kid can say Stop Playing.

Given that NHL has shown the technical know how to browse the web and given that we don’t want to block it completely, it’s time to look for some web filtering apps.

What apps/programs do you use to filter your kids’ web browsing?

NOTE: The Number Lock image above is by forbiddenarts and is available from Morgue File.

Prepping a Tablet For Children

prepping-a-tablet-for-childrenAwhile back, we uncovered a large mass of gift cards we had all but forgotten about.  Some were ours, but a lot of them were for our boys.  They would get gift cards in addition to their birthday or Chanukah presents and we would put them away.  After all, they had just received a pile of toys.  There was no need to for them to add to it.

We totaled up the cards and began to dread the huge influx of toys that would clutter our house.  Until, that is, we thought: Why have them get toys?  Why not suggest they put that money towards a tablet computer instead?  JSL and NHL loved the idea and now they each have a Galaxy Tab 2.

A tablet can be an ideal computer for a child.  They are small enough for a child to use easily, can be used for games, educational programs, or reading, and are portable enough to bring on the road.  Instead of bringing a big pile of toys in the car for a road trip, you can simply put the tablets in the kids’ hands and they will be entertained for quite some time.  On the downside, though, tablets are fragile, can lead to your child accessing inappropriate content, or can have your child access the wrong content at the wrong time.

Some tablets, like the Kindle Fire, come with parental controls built in.  We were sorely tempted by the Fire, but the availability of the Google Play store (or lack thereof) was a bigger issue for us.  So how does one take an Android tablet without built-in parental controls and protect it?  Here’s what I did.  Feel free to leave any further recommendations in the comments area below.

Physical Protection

The biggest concern is tablet breakage.  It doesn’t matter how well you lock the tablet down if the child drops it and cracks the screen.  Then you face either an expensive repair or replacement.  We’ve imposed strict tablet usage guidelines with the kids.  They know they aren’t to run with the tablets and should avoid walking with them whenever possible.  They are frequently reminded to take care of their tablets and that they are fragile.

Still, even the most careful child will have an accident from time to time.  That’s why we purchased Otterbox cases for our boys’ tablets.  They cost more than some other cases, but they do the job nicely.  The one time we had an incident (with B’s iPad), the iPad emerged without a scratch or crack on it.  It might have survived without any case, but the drop was several feet and could have easily broken the iPad.  Will it protect any device from any fall?  Of course, not.  No case would do that.  But the Otterbox does help to tremendously stack the odds in the tablet’s favor.

If the price of the case makes you pause, just consider what the price of fixing or replacing a damaged tablet would be.  I’d be willing to bet that the price of the latter would be more than the price difference between the Otterbox and a plain case.

Disabling Unneeded Apps

disable-appsThe next step is to decide which applications should not be used on the tablet.  For example, JSL is never going to use GMail or Google Hangouts on his Galaxy Tab 2.  Why, then, should those apps be available?  The problems is that some apps come pre-installed and can’t be removed.  (This is true for Android cell phones as well and the same steps can be used for them.)

First, go to the System Settings area.  From there, find Application Manager or Apps (depending on which version of Android you have).  Go to the listing of all applications and find an application you want to disable.  When you press on it, you should see either an “uninstall” button, an “uninstall updates” button, or a “disable” button.  If the button reads “uninstall”, you can just remove the app from the device.  If it says “disable” then clicking the button will prevent the application from running.  If the button says “uninstall updates” then you’ll need to press this first.  After the updates are uninstalled, the button will change to “disable” and will allow you to disable the app.

Locking Apps That Kids Shouldn’t Use

app-lockWhat if you want an app available in case you use the tablet, but don’t want the kids using it?  Or, perhaps the app is so integral to the functioning of the device that it can’t be removed/disabled.  So how do you prevent the kids from using the app when you are not looking?  (After all, you can look over their shoulder all day but all it takes is a few minutes unsupervised for kids to get in trouble.)

For this, I installed App Lock.  App Lock lets you decide which applications need to be protected and to set a password to protect them.  So if you check your GMail on the tablet, but don’t want the kids looking through your e-mails, you can set a password on it.  If they try to launch the app, it will prompt for the password.  You can also set time and location locks, but those are premium features which cost either $0.99 per month or $2.99 per year.  So far, we haven’t decided to opt for the Premium protection, but it is an option.

For now, though, the basic level of protection is an effective solution to the problem.  Without knowing our secret passcode, the boys can’t access any applications that we deem out of bounds.

Time Limits Imposed

time-limitSometimes you want to allow your children to use an application but don’t want them spending all of their time on it.  NHL, for example, would spend all day playing games on his tablet (or at least until he drained the battery) if we let him.  However, I don’t want to cut off all gameplay entirely.  So how can I let him read on his Galaxy Tab 2 for a few hours, but limit how long his gameplay takes?

Enter Screen Time Parental Control.

This application will allow you to set a daily time limit and specify which apps count towards that limit.  So I can allow NHL unlimited Kindle reading time and permit him to use games with educational components (like MathDuko) as long as he likes, but other games will count towards his daily limit.

In addition to this, the limit can be overridden.  Tell me if this sounds familiar:  You tell your kid that dinner is in five minutes.  Five minutes later, the food is on the table, but your child is too engrossed in gameplay to come to the table.  You call again and five minutes later the food is getting cold while the child CONTINUES to play.  Now imagine that you just pull out your smartphone and load up the Screen Time Remote Control app.  Using this, you can send a quick message to your child’s tablet saying “Come to dinner now!” and lock them out of their games for a specified period of time.  Or, if you are trying to get out the door, but they have an hour of gameplay time left that they refuse to give up, you can override this with the remote control app to expire their time immediately.

Of course, these apps aren’t a substitution for good parenting.  The best protection for children using tablet computers is still talking with them, setting clear limits, consequences for purposefully crossing the limits, and support if they find themselves on the edge and don’t know what to do.  Still, these tools can give parents some additional ammunition for the digital age.

What are your favorite ways of protecting your children and devices?

Disclaimer: B received a Galaxy Tab 2 as part of the Verizon Lifestyle Bloggers program.  We purchased the other Galaxy Tab 2 ourselves.  I was not asked to make any blog posts in exchange for this device.  All opinions expressed above are my own.

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