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Big Daddy: Parenting wisdom from DBer Nate Kelsey

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Former US fighter pilot Nathaniel Kelsey shares a quarter century of parenting wisdom in his new book Protect Your Child, Save Your Sanity. Elizabeth Kerr hears all about it, and gets a lesson in thought control thrown in.

It may be surprising to some, but there are many, many new parents out there who don’t know how best to use a onesie. Those flaps on the shoulders of an infant’s one-piece aren’t superfluous. They’re there to make its removal after a bowel blowout quick and clean(er). And how about a juice box? The tabs on the side aren’t just for easy stacking. Pull them up and they’re instant handles for tiny hands.

Many of us would face-palm it after learning something so seemingly obvious, but truly savvy parenting takes experience, something Nathaniel Kelsey, aka Major Dad Official, has plenty of.

“I thought I could come up with 101 things people who’ve never had kids would never think of,” says the five-time dad and now author. “There are just so many things that product designers either didn’t provide instructions for, or some things you just don’t ‘get.’ I thought I’d do my part.” And that’s how Protect Your Child, Save Your Sanity: 101 Techniques & Words of Wisdom From a Father of 5 Children came about.”

Protect your child

Nate’s part on this day is relaxing in DB Plaza as his youngest children, three-year-old Jack and five-year-old Lövey, smear gelato all over their faces as kids so often do. In many ways, they’re just like him. A Wisconsin native and Alaska resident (the family splits their time between DB and Alaska), Nate has more than a little cowboy in him.

He’s big and burly; the kind of man you’d want by your side if you were heading into the wild. You’d put money on his spirit animal being a bear, maybe a moose. And a moose is, in fact, the logo of his knife-making company Edge Alaska Custom Knives. (Check out the handmade, hollow ground ATS-34 Stainless Steel Fighter, with mirror finish and presentation grade wood handle, it would definitely prove useful in a survival situation.)

Nate’s macho side comes as no surprise given his childhood run-ins with legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, his best friend’s grandfather. The boys were regularly regaled with Hollywood stories about John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and cowboy heroes of the 1950s and ’60s. “This guy Yakima was larger than life – and a big guy, 6’7”,” he says. “We were eight, maybe 10 years old, and he would tell us amazing stories. We hung on every word.”

That may be where Nate learnt how to command a room – that and five years as a US Army helicopter pilot, 17 years as a US Air Force fighter pilot and two years as an Army Ranger. Garrulous, quick to make a joke and engaged in his surroundings, it’s easy to see where his youngest get the confidence to be children.

Slightly off point but worth a mention, Nate says he learnt a lot about thought control while in the forces. He was taught that people will know you’re looking at them, even if they are facing the other way, if you let your eye wander above their waist level to the back of their neck. To this day, when in a restaurant, Nate gets the waitress’ attention by doing a ‘pony tail tug,’ whereby he mentally pulls her hair. Nine out of 10 times, he says the waitress turns round.

Save your sanity

Nate and his wife Jill first landed in Hong Kong in 2010 when he was based here as a freight pilot, and she was broadening the horizons of her digital magazine, First Time Parent. Appropriate as the SAR may have been business wise, it’s a far cry from Alaska. Nonetheless, the family likes DB.

“It’s Hong Kong-lite,” Nate says. “What’s really cool about DB is that you don’t have crowds. Though that’s changing.”

Nate does worry about the deteriorating air quality and its long-term effects on his kids’ lung development, but for now the diversity of Hong Kong life keeps him here. “You can meet someone from South Africa, Denmark, Norway, Botswana and Thailand in the same evening. I don’t think you get that wide a spectrum of cultures anywhere else,” he says. “It was my favourite layover anywhere in the world. The vibe is different; it’s a little more chill.”

Being asked time and again why his kids are so well behaved (how he does it) formed the basis of Nate’s hands-on, frequently clever, often old-school book of tips from a veteran parent for newcomers. Published in December and available on Amazon, the 37 pages of quick tips and logical problem solving provide the kind of instant relief many new parents need, but have no idea where to find.

Major Dad Official’s guide is a far cry from the ‘standards’ by Dr Spock et al. Twenty-two years in the military will teach you to be prepared for anything – and to stay grounded.

And it was while he was literally grounded that Nate, now 58, found the opportunity to compile the book. Recovering from back surgery supplied the time to put his experiences, which he stresses are all his, down on paper.

“My kids are human, just like me, I’ve just been here longer,” he explains. “My job is to take them from totally dependent as a baby to totally independent at 18. That’s my responsibility as a parent.”

Words of wisdom

Not everyone will see eye to eye with Major Dad Official but his tongue is usually firmly planted in his cheek. Whether you agree with his description of a paediatrician as a “board-certified witchdoctor” (who he nevertheless recommends you refer to for real medical advice) is personal. Ditto for the recommendation that the “trick to raising a girl is knowing to ask, ‘In what colour, my dear?’”

But the book is refreshing in its unpretentious, road-tested wisdom; the little details, like using teething gel for earaches when doctors aren’t around, are truly inspired.

Nate has no time for pop psychology and status symbols; he’s not here for the so-called competition trap that’s so common now. “That starts immediately, as soon as you’re pregnant. ‘Oh, your kid’s three. Is he in AP college classes yet?’ I address that too,” he says. “There’s nothing to say to a new mum other than, ‘Congratulations!’ and ‘You look terrific.’”

He points out that parents need to parent, that respect is a two-way street, and that despite what sensational media may say, what parents say carries weight. Ideas planted young are hard to shake.

And teens aren’t all that mysterious. Nate’s already had three: Adam, 23, Hayden, 21 and John, 16. John, who’s at the table in the plaza but has no gelato on his face, is as eloquent and sophisticated a 16-year-old as you’re likely to find. Nate’s done something right, and his first book focuses on those intimidating early years.

“If you didn’t do the right things from zero to 12 years old, you can’t start doing them when the kid is 13 years old,” Nate says.” Truer words were never spoken. Too bad it took so long for someone to write them down.

Image: Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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