Advice Needed for a Newly Single Dad

A father stumbled upon Thingamababy over the weekend who could use the collective advice of Thinga-readers. We’ll call him “Jim.” Here is his lightly edited story (assembled from several e-mails).

I just wanted to write you a note and thank you for the path you have started me on. My wife and I are currently separated and in the middle of what looks to be a messy divorce. We have two boys, one 9-months-old and one 20-months-old. The marriage went south but I want the boys to feel special and to be the best Dad that I can for them.

I was looking for some interactive toys on Google when I came across your website and I’ve starting reading a bunch of stuff on it, some comments pointing to other websites which I will explore as well.

I am trying to come up with things that they will enjoy playing with, activities that will be fun for all of us, etc. but have to admit that in the background I keep Noggin on in case I’m playing too much with one and the other gets bored.

Do you have any tips on things that both might enjoy at that age? I picked up a couple of interactive Thomas the Train and Elmo books this weekend that I’m hoping they’ll like.

Money is tight for me so I have to be selective in what I can get. I sometimes skip a few meals because I’d rather spend it on them than me (I’m still healthy and eat well etc., don’t want you to worry about that).

I wanted to be a very hands on Dad and felt like I was pushed into the corner [in the marriage] and that my job was to earn a paycheck and say goodnight to the boys when they went to bed which broke my heart. It is only because of my getting a lawyer and the judge ordering her to let me see them every other weekend that I am able to.

I want the boys to feel free to be able to do stuff, such as play in a puddle right after bath time, sit with Dad near the sidewalk to watch the cars go, and jump off the retaining wall we had at the old house with Dad’s assistance because the oldest enjoyed it. I could go on but I imagine you get the picture.

I am concerned about the kids’ social skills because they haven’t interacted with other kids outside of the children in their mother’s family. I was reading about library story times and think they would enjoy that. I have also recently gotten back into the Lutheran church that I love and have gotten reacquainted with the pastors and really want that to be a strong part of their life as well.

The two weekends that I have had them things have gone great and we’ve had a wonderful time playing together. We’ve read books, we’ve built stuff with Mega Blocks that I purchased a ton of used, and we’ve played with a castle that has little soft balls that roll down the inside of it.

I just want to make sure that the time we get to spend together is quality time both in terms of our time with each other and in terms of stimulation and enjoyment for them.

I would appreciate any advice you could provide or additional websites that a single Dad could use to make sure that his boys get brought up healthy, happy and knowing how loved they are.

Do you have…?

  • Suggestions for toys or activities enjoyed by both a 9- and 20-month-old (or the same in a few months when the baby is more active).
  • Suggestions for promoting social skills during weekend visits.
  • Recommended websites for single dads.
  • Any other advice.


18 Responses to “Advice Needed for a Newly Single Dad”

  1. BusyMom says:

    I can’t help with websites.

    Social skills:

    As he mentioned, storytime is one option, but even just a trip to the park (one with equipment for toddlers) can be a social outing. The 9 mos old will be somewhat limited in what he can play, but the 21 mos old will be able to climb on the toddler toys.

    Do you have neighbors with children? Playgroups are another great activity to help the children with social skills. Often times, you can coordinate something with a neighbor or two.

    Toys: In addition to MegaBlocks, Thomas Trains – there are the powered ones, the TakeAlong Thomas and the wooden Thomas. The TakeAlong are probably the cheapest and have tracks available. You can usually find lots for sale on eBay as well. Building blocks – wooden or foam – kids love to build towers (or have you do it) and knock them down. Unfortunately, it will likely be a few months before the younger one can do much more than watch, but he likely will be entertained by the crashing building as well. Books – kids can sit and read books to themselves for hours and love it when you read to them. There are thousands, head to the library and let the older one choose some favorite characters and read away. For the younger one, lift the flap and touch and feel books are great at this age.

    Just love them. Remember, a weekend with dad can be simple and doesn’t need to be over the top. It is the simple things that matter the most.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 3:21 am

  2. Ticia says:

    I’d say you have most of the gear they need. As far as socializing, you can get most of what they need just taking them to the church nursery. Look for fun activities to do with them. At this age, and even for the next few years just going to the pet store/toy or book store is a great adventure for them.

    A good way to find out if you’re boys are into trains is to go by a place that has a train table set up and see how much they enjoy playing with them. Check your local Craigslist, as the previous commenter said, there are always trains there. Just take your time and know how much you want to spend.

    I have twin 3 year olds and an almost 2 year old daughter, and they play together lots. I sometimes think she believes she’s a boy, they build duplos together and play Batman.

    But, all in all, you sound to be doing a great job.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 5:33 am

  3. adrienne says:

    hiya, Dad-

    My heart goes out to you and your family; what a tough situation with very young kids.

    Until about 2, most kids are into parallel play and don’t think much about cooperative play, so don’t worry too much about them if they’re not interested in playing together or with other kids. Church can be a great place for kids to socialize. We’ve also found great weekend opportunities at local museums, libraries, and nature centers.

    Throughout infancy and the toddler years, you remain your child’s favorite toy. I didn’t realize this very quickly with my son, but once I did life became a lot easier.

    We listen to music (some kids, some not- Ranger’s favorite song last month was the Ramone’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” and is currently “I Go to Rio” by Peter Allen) and dance a lot. (Totally free if you already own music or hit the public library collection frequently).

    Ranger’s grown up enjoying playing with benign stuff out of the kitchen cabinets and empty boxes. Basics like blocks, stacking cups, and Viking Toys’ Little Chubbies cars (safe for very young ages and reasonably priced) have been perennial favorites since about 9 months.

    Parent Hacks is one of my favorite sites for great activity ideas like painting on the sidewalks with water (entertaining, safe, easy, and non-toxic).

    I really love the book “Your Toddler Month By Month” as a guide of what to expect in terms of toddler development. I wasn’t a kid who babysat or had younger kids in my family or neighborhood, so as a new parent all things baby and toddler have been a real mystery for me. The book is great because it gives lots of information on age appropriate play that I’ve found really enlightening.

    You can get good deals on gently used toys and books at children’s consignment shops and sales and yard/rummage sales. Just keep an eye on the kid recalls from the CPSC (there’s a kids’ products feed that’s really useful) so you don’t buy something that’s been deemed harmful. As you probably already know, buying resale definitely makes your entertainment dollar go a lot further.

    See if your community offers the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

    It’s a free program that sends children a great age-appropriate book once a month. Some of our son’s favorite books and authors have come through this great program. The program doesn’t sell your name to any marketing lists nor does it offer an “upsell” program. It’s an honest-to-goodness free book literacy initiative.

    Your boys will value their time with you- even if it’s spent making silly faces or rolling a car back and forth across the living room floor. Don’t worry too much about toys and trappings.

    Long before we had kids, my friend told me about life in his then 1 toddler & 1 infant household. About a month after Christmas, he was literally tripping over the toys that flooded their house. He walked into the clearing of the kitchen carrying a load of old toys to put in the garage and found his eldest sitting happily in a giant mixing bowl banging on it with a wooden spoon. Kids are simple, curious, and inventive; often, we make them complicated.

    Good luck to you and your family.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 6:38 am

  4. CallMeKelly says:
    The above link has free plans for a train table if you’d like to build your own.

    I have two boys, 4yo and almost 2yo. They LOVE trains. Yours are quite a bit younger overall… lets see:

    Sensory play is tops for my kids. Throw some towels on the kitchen floor and fill some long rectangular pans with dried beans or flour. They can use wooden spoons to “draw” in the flour if you only put down a shallow layer. It is both fun and good coordination control for them to use a spoon or scoop and transfer dried beans from one pan to another… Water play is fun too. Just a long shallow pan with water in it will occupy them for quite a bit of time.

    Playing animals is great fun for them. Just unzip your dignity and set it down somewhere, then crawl around on all fours making noises and ask the oldest what animal you are (assuming it may be a little advance for the 9mo)… this always leads to wild romping through the house with both boys becoming various wild animals, expect to become a horse or elephant that is naturally required to give rides to small children at some point.

    Find a woodworking shop, rent a scrollsaw, or borrow one and make your own toys. My oldest was over the moon when I made his first zoomie style car and now I can make whatever they ask for: rockets, giraffes on wheels (I had to get the wheels at michaels), elephants etc. It really knocks the socks off you to see your kid playing with something you made. You can make all sorts from just one board and save a ton of money.

    My husband likes to ask our oldest about pictures we draw together… who is that? Where are they going? What will they do there? It is supposed to build imagination and it usually cracks us (the parents) up completely. It also gives a good picture of how they view life.

    I think that because you do care you can’t go wrong. The only thing they really need is for you to love them and even the heartbreakingly short amount of time that you get will be enough to impress on them how much you love them. Just have a good time. Run around the house, teach them gymnastics in the living room, play hide and seek. They will have a blast!

    September 22nd, 2008 at 6:40 am

  5. Jennifer says:

    Most important (which sounds like what you are doing) is HAVE FUN WITH THEM!

    Do things with them (like the library) and follow them as they explore, adding to what they find.

    Go to the park, take a nature walk, stop and look at the bugs, the leaves, the grass. Revel in every new discovery of theirs.

    Most of all, enjoy them. It sounds like you already are. You don’t need to be the “disneyland dad” (taking them somewhere expensive everytime they come around). They want to spend time with you. So, even if your weekend involves staying home, do it.

    As they get older, make things together; fix the fence, make birdhouses, cook dinner.

    It’s going to be tough. Be consistent. My stepson is now 22 but from the time of the divorce, he and my husband spent the weekend at his grandparents house. They had their own place there. My husband did this because he was living in apartments and never really knew how long he would be there. At least this way things would be consistent for him when he was visiting dad. Even today he thinks of grandma’s home as his.

    Just around the corner (believe it or not) is going to be weekend soccer games and other things. Go to EVERY ONE! Even when it’s not your weekend. Unless you have a restraining order. Our dating years where when he was in highschool. Want to know what I did every Saturday whether it was his weekend with him or not? We went to the games. We went to the waterpolo games, we went to everything.

    He tells me that the early years, it was difficult. There was tension. They sat on opposite ends of the fields. But my stepson had the most people there cheering him on every game. Between mom, dad, granparents, and step parents. We learned to put it all aside for them. It will take awhile to get to that point (the putting aside); but don’t miss one game, one award ceremony, anything. It’s important to them.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 6:52 am

  6. Stephanie says:

    This is a tough situation, but make the best of the time you have with them. I agree story time at the library is a great (and inexpensive) way to interact with your kids. Read stories to them, and see when story hour is so they can interact with other kids.

    Since you are reconnecting with your church, have a standing Sunday school date would also be great for your kids to socialize and pick up the values you have. You might want to volunteer in the classroom to have more time with your kids.

    But most importantly, have fun together. Let them guide you with their imaginations. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on fancy toys for this. As for a website, I looked around and found this one:
    This might help with a lot of your questions and find other dads in a similar situation.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 9:34 am

  7. K G S says:

    Going to the park/playground is great, especially on weekends, when there are usually a lot of kids and dads out playing. Even if the baby can’t “play” on much equipment yet he’ll love watching everything going on around him. They’ll also learn a lot there by imitating older kids and by messing with things they find on the ground. This is a great thing for times people are feeling tired or grouchy; it’s pretty hard to stay grouchy for long at a park.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 9:52 am

  8. Shannon says:

    They are a little young for most crafts now, but your boys are close enough in age that once the younger one is a toddler, they will be able to participate in them on a fairly even playing field. I would check out for great ideas, most of which are incredibly inexpensive. You could start now with paper and crayons and just draw with them.
    Something I’ve always found is a great hit with kids that age are nature walks. Take a bag or box with you to pick up interesting bits of windfall, like pinecones and acorns. Tell them the names of trees you see, point out animals, let the older one pick the direction to walk in.

    Good luck, the best thing you can do is want to be with them, they will know you love them from there. Anything beyond that is gravy.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 10:17 am

  9. Jenn says:

    I have a special bottom drawer in the kitchen for my girls and they know it’s just theirs…it’s filled with tupperware bowls & lids, wooden spoons, and other odds and ends that a infant can mouth, but not choke on. I also put pots and pans on the floor and let them go at it. It will keep them entertained while I make dinner, do the dishes, clean the kitchen and it won’t cost you any extra money because these are items you already have in your kitchen.

    An idea for outside is paintbrushes and a small bowl of water. Kids love to “paint” anything and everything outside just with water and again this will not cost you much at all.

    Kids this age just want to be with you and have your attention, toys are secondary. Talk to them, tell them stories, sing, read and just have fun. Like someone else said….keep it simple. Good luck to you.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 10:37 am

  10. CallMeKelly says:

    I just wanted to add that the most mundane things make the best toys (so to speak, not really toys if undirected) for ex. we just pulled a clean, splinter free 2×4 out of the basement, set it on the floor and the boys played at balancing, hopping or walking and then we stood one end up on a box and it was a ramp for trains… silly mundane things ..

    September 22nd, 2008 at 10:54 am

  11. Mark says:

    As a former youth leader at a greying lutheran church, I’d also advise that you make sure you find a church that is committed to young families and youth at all ages, from toddlerhood to high school. You can get tons of support, encouragement, and social opportunities from your church but not all are necessarily focused on young people. Size doesn’t necessarily matter, although you may find a greater diversity of programming or activities at a megachurch — but there’s something to be said for going somewhere that you know everyone by name as well.

    In a more general sense, enjoy the chance to spend time with your kids and learn about parenting dad’s way, whatever form that may take for you. Remember, there is no diapering gene and there’s no reason you can’t be just as effective, dynamic and enthusiastic a parent as mom can, even as you guys figure out different paths to the same goal — raising happy, healthy, and loving kids. Good luck to you, buddy.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 1:49 pm

  12. callmekelly says:

    found this through some other site, thought you might like it.

    September 22nd, 2008 at 2:45 pm

  13. Marianne O. says:

    Great suggestions! Thanks AJ, I think we’re all learning here.

    Here’s a link to a list of cheap but fun things to do with kids. Most are for older kids (card games, riding bikes, etc.) but some are adaptable to toddlers and preschoolers (e.g. play soccer, have a scavenger hunt).

    It’s amazing how activities can be adapted for the little ones. My 3 year old has a blast flying his “kite”, which in reality means running around in the wind with a decorated paper bag attached to a long piece of yarn. With some creativity there is no end to the cheap fun to be had.

    September 23rd, 2008 at 7:22 am

  14. Karli says:

    Not sure where you are located, but we have a GREAT resource here in the Portland Oregon area. You may be able to find something similar where you are:

    (From the website:) OutdoorDads is a family outdoors group in Portland Oregon. Our goals:

    *To encourage parents to get outside with their kids, and meet other parents who do the same
    *To instill in our children a love of adventures in the natural world

    OutdoorDads hikes once a month. Hikes are typically 2-3 miles long at the most with minimal elevation gain, we go at a very modest pace, and are within a 45 minute drive of Portland. While primarily a group for dads, all outings are open to both dads and moms. We’re mostly geared for kids from 3 months to 5 years, but all ages are welcome.

    OutdoorDads is an informal group, and we want to keep it that way. There’s no membership fees, applications or waivers. Participants pay only for personal expenses related to a particular trip (typically US Forest Service parking fees, park entrance costs, etc.)

    September 23rd, 2008 at 10:26 am

  15. Joe says:

    As a crisis counselor who works with at-risk children, I will just offer you a glimpse into the mistakes parents make that manifest in the children later on:

    Bad-mouthing another parent in front of the kids (they are always listening, even if you think they are asleep).

    Undermining one another’s rules. It only hurts the kids when one parent is lax in discipline and the other has to work to twice as hard to set/enforce limits.

    Making your time with kids about you instead of about the kids. Parents are people and have emotional needs, but expecting your kids to fill those needs is misguided. Nobody ever said raising a child would be easy… and it can be difficult to take when a child doesn’t reciprocate affection the way you would like. But you need to stay strong and model the kind of behavior that will help, not hurt, the child.

    September 23rd, 2008 at 11:42 am

  16. Islander says:

    One easy thing my daughter (now 2) and the girl next door (6) love to do, I clean the sink and then put dish soap in and make big piles of bubbles…then give them each a plastic dish of some sort and grab a few of her little people or animals and a face cloth and they play for the longest time. I just re supply them with bubbles…it is like playing with sand/water.

    It is something I think kids of different ages can enjoy – and it give you a few minutes to prepare a meal and put a few things away.

    September 24th, 2008 at 11:26 am

  17. Karen says:

    My heart goes out to you. But you are on the right track wanting to spend quality time with your boys and they have the best dad, YOU!

    I have 3 boys 2, 4 and 5 month old now.

    My boys loves to play in the bath tub. Give them plastic bowls and cups. They like to pour it from one cup to another. Or empty shampoo bottles or mouthwash bottles. They love that. Nothing expensive. And keep all the water mess in the tub. Just make sure don’t fill the tub with water and always be in the room just in case they slip and fell in the water.

    Story time is the best for my kids. They cannot not have story time with their dad. Is like their “date” with him. Is bonding time.

    Walking around the neighborhood after dinner. Our kids love to do this…might be a little hard with the 9 month unless u have strollers.

    Library story time is great. Also check your libraries..sometimes they have special event like magic shows, etc

    My sister and I like to take the kids to Pottery Barn kids…not to buy anything, but just to let them play with their floor samples stuff, kitchen, ironing board…is awsome…They love it! ;0)

    Bringing them to the mall indoor playground…they love that too…and you get to relax and they get to burn their energy and afterwards eat ice cream.

    My 2 older boys love to bake cookies/cake with me. They esp. love to mix the cookie or cake mix.

    If you can go to the park or backtyard, buy a bottle of bubbles. They love to chase bubbles…just something with bubbles, is fun. Also flying kites…my boys love it. I found some clearance once at Target for less than $2.

    DO NOT buy electronic toys like electric trains. Replacing the batteries would drain your wallet. It start to drain our wallet…Get some dinosaurs, they are pretty cheap at walmart for less than $1 at the clearance section. I love seeing the boys use imagination. Then u can rent The Land Before Time movie and watch it together (when they are older). Puzzles are fun too….my oldest loves puzzles.

    They love to help you clean tables, vacuum, sweep the kitchen floor, etc.

    Play kitchen…give them your pots and pans that u don’t mind them using….they will cook legos, blocks, anything in it….tons of fun on the living room floor.

    Some parks now has really nice facility. There’s one by our home they have HUGE playground with water spray. All free!

    Soccer, they love it! chasing and kicking the ball.

    I hope that helps.

    September 25th, 2008 at 2:14 pm

  18. Martin says:

    I’m the dad in the article and I’ve been watching this since it was posted. I want to thank AJ for posting that and everyone that has posted in here for all the ideas! There’s a lot of great tips in here I wouldn’t have thought of and I appreciate everyone taking the time out of their busy day to post their thoughts. I’ve also been browsing through some of the provided web links and although I’m obviously not done yet, it has really opened my eyes up to how many things can be done without a lot of money with just some time and effort. Perfect fit :). Thanks again everyone!


    September 28th, 2008 at 7:40 pm