03/22/2013 01:36 pm ET Updated May 22, 2013

How to Be a Fun Dad But Still Be in Control

By Baldwin Cheng, Common Sense Media blogger

As a dad, I constantly feel torn between needing to be a strict "Tiger Dad" vs. wanting to be a "fun dad." On the one hand, I have a responsibility to protect my kids and teach them the right life skills. On the other hand, I want to have close bonds with them, to share in their lives, and not to be the bad guy all the time.

When my two older kids were still in elementary school, our nightly family ritual always included a negotiation over "just one TV show, pleeeeease," which inevitably turned into two or even three, followed by a lot of whining, crying, and empty threats (from both kids and parents). We had to Just. Say. No.

So we laid down some strict limits: No TV or video games on school nights, and a cap on screen time on weekends. Now, if they really, really want to watch a show, I'll record it to watch on the weekend.

We put similar limits on their tech: game systems, cell phones, the Internet, and Facebook. They started with limited access and Big Brother-ish monitoring. I blocked inappropriate websites using a great free service, Open DNS. I logged in to read their texts, emails, chats, browser histories, and Facebook walls -- at first daily, then weekly, then less frequently. (But occasionally I still do, in case you're reading this, kids!)

But I can't play media cop all the time. It's too much work, and I'm only human. It's hypocritical, I know, but sometimes after a long, stressful day, my wife and I just need to lock the bedroom door and... watch Modern Family while the kids finish their homework. While setting boundaries is important, I realized that control only gets you so far. If I couldn't live up to the standards I set for my kids, why should I expect them to? I was protecting my kids from the bad stuff, but I wasn't teaching them how to make good choices. And, it turns out, sharing media time with the kids has helped bring us closer.

That's where the "fun dad" side comes in. I've found that playing LEGO Star Wars or watching silly YouTube videos together usually gets the kids to share more about what's going on in their world than my trying to wring out an answer to "How was your day?" at the dinner table.

One thing I've found that works wonders is taking turns. I'll pick an age-appropriate movie, show, or game I think my kids would like, and then I'll ask them to show me stuff they like. We watch or play them together. We might not agree on whether they're any good, but I almost always learn something more about who my kids are, and I think they learn more about me.

If you're the parent of a teenager, you know this is HUGE. One of the most gratifying moments for me in the last few years was when my teens realized that Jon Stewart was actually funny. They, in turn, introduced me to Adventure Time, which I find hilarious, even though I'm not sure why.

Here are some favorites I share with my older kids:


  • Adventure Time: When we're watching this, I'm not sure if my kids are laughing with me or at me.
  • The Daily Show: A funny way to keep up with current events.
  • The Office: I don't know why the kids like this so much -- they don't have jobs.
  • Psych: This clever detective show combines juvenile humor and '80s pop culture references -- something for everybody.
  • New Girl: There's sex talk on this sitcom, which can be awkward, but it's also a chance to talk about what makes a healthy relationship.

Video games:

  • Batman: Arkham City: I'll confess, I gave in on this one. It pushes the limits on content, but it's also a really well-designed game.
  • LEGO Star Wars: The Original Trilogy: A fun, easy game that requires players to cooperate. Plus, it's Star Wars!
  • Madden: Sometimes my son and I play on the same team, trying to complete the craziest plays we can find.
  • Mirror's Edge: It has first-person shooter elements, but you also have to think creatively to parcour your way out of trouble.
  • Portal: A unique puzzle-solving challenge; lots of levels have stumped us.

What do you think -- am I taking a balanced approach, or am I just a softie? Are dads more prone to thinking like me?

More on Parenting at Common Sense Media
Texting While Parenting: Can It Wait?
Should I Give My Kid a Virtual Allowance?
Girls and Body Image Tips

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