My 3 Sons: Parenting Restrictions

Originally published on Patch.com on March 6, 2012.

I can’t watch R-rated movies, unless I sneak one in late at night when they’re not awake. I have to eat my vegetables at dinner, even though I hate them. On the rare occasion I get to go on a date, I have to be home by 11:30 or else I am fined.

Sleeping in is a rarity, and when it happens I’m still rudely awakened several hours too early. I have to go to church — including Sunday school — every Sunday. When they’re watching, I’m not allowed to cuss. If I snack, I better make sure I have enough for everyone and it’s a designated snack time.

I’m not a teenager living under my parents’ roof. I’m a father of three young boys. And they have more control over me than my parents ever did.

I didn’t plan for this U-Turn in my life. I knew parenthood would change my life, I just didn’t think it would restrict my life so much.

Over the past month, the movies I’ve seen are Kung Fu Panda 2, Cars 2, The Lion King, The Zookeeper and The Muppets. I did manage to sneak a peek of two grown-up movies, but I fell asleep during Bad Teacher and was too scared to finish Paranormal Activity 3. And seeing a movie at the theatre? Only if I want to see Chipwrecked in 3-D with a hundred other talkative kids, and spend $20 on popcorn and candy. No thanks.

All my saved high definition Dexter and Boardwalk Empire episodes on my DVR have been bumped by new episodes of Spongebob Squarepants, Jake and the Neverland Pirates and Wild Kratts.

My iPod is dominated with songs from Disney soundtracks, The Chipmunks and The Wiggles. At least I have an Academy-Award winning song on there: “Man or Muppet.”

The restrictions don’t end with technology. I am lucky to be married to an awesome cook. Unfortunately, she always cooks vegetables, too. I used to politely decline, but now while we’re challenging our sons to eat their vegetables, I’ve been informed that I must eat them too. One time I tried to escape when my wife prepared my most dreaded vegetable: cooked carrots. I just didn’t put any on my plate. The kids noticed, and I ended up scarfing some down.

I also must always watch my language. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a potty mouth. But the occasional s-word will slip out after a spill, a step on an always-sharp Lego piece or a bad move on an iPhone game. The latter got me in trouble recently, when my 4-year-old heard me let an s-bomb slip. He repeated me — several times — but in a silly mood, my wife and I couldn’t stop laughing to address it appropriately. Finally, Carla built up the proper serious face to address it, and little Jackson replied, “But I always lose, too.”

Great. I’ve tarnished him at 4. And every time I let a little of my “bad habit” adulthood slip into my daily regimen in front of my kids, I fear they lose a little bit of childhood.

My 3 Sons: Getting More Relaxed with Each Child

Baby Matthew turns 1 today, but you wouldn’t know it in the Dennis household.

There’s been little preparation. As of Thursday afternoon, we have yet to purchase a gift, do not have the ingredients for his cake and haven’t even picked out his special birthday outfit.

Being the third child, Matthew has experienced much more laid back parents than his older brothers did in their first year. And that relaxed state has grown with each child.

For instance, seven years ago, the first time Jaydon took a fall and bumped his head, we rushed him to the emergency room. Three years ago after Jackson’s first fall, we called the 24-hour pediatric helpline for advice. For Matthew’s first fall, a little cuddling was the cure.

Before we gave baby Jaydon his bottle, we would make sure it was the proper temperature by using a bottle warmer. For baby Jackson, it was running it under hot water. Baby Matthew gets the bottle right of the refrigerator.

When Jaydon dropped a food item on the floor, we immediately threw it away to avoid germs. For Jackson, we followed the “15 second rule”  — if it’s been on the floor for less than 15 seconds, it somehow was not contaminated). With Matthew, that has been extended to the “15-hour rule,” or essentially, if we recognize what meal it was from and it was within the current day, it’s safe to eat.

At shopping trips, we had a cart protector for baby Jaydon. For baby Jackson, a simple Clorox wipe of the bar and seat was adequate. Now, we just plop baby Matthew in the cart.

When Jaydon fussed in his crib, we immediately came to his rescue. For Jackson, we waited a few seconds to see if he would calm himself down. If Matthew is fed and clean, it will take some sustained crying for mom or dad to visit the crib.

And for Jaydon’s first birthday, we held a birthday party with all his baby friends. Jackson’s first birthday was a more intimate affair at our home, but he was still showered with gifts. And baby Matthew, well, we’re just hoping to have a cake ready and a savings bond ordered.

We’ve thought about our seeming neglect of protecting Matthew, and at times have felt guilty. But ironically, of our three sons, Matthew has been the happiest and healthiest baby in his first year. Or maybe it just seems that way, because we’re not so obsessed about protecting him from every conceivable germ, physical bump and emotional bruise, and truly letting him be a baby.

My 3 Sons: Let it Snow

Matthew enjoys the northern snow.

Originally published on Athens Patch on Dec. 15, 2011.

For my three sons, snow on the ground is synonymous with Christmas. With both sets of grandparents and extended families in Chicago, the 800-mile trek up north has become an annual holiday tradition.

Of course, seeing family and getting gifts tops their “things I’m excited about” list, but getting a chance to play in the snow is a close third. And most of the time, Mother Nature complies with their wishes. Last year she dumped nearly two feet of snow on Christmas Eve. Armed in boots, a stocking cap, gloves and a rigid snow suit in which he can barely move his arms — resembling little Randy Parker from “The Christmas Story” — our 3-year-old Jackson rushed out into the snow and plopped on the ground.

After experimenting with making snow angels, throwing snowballs and sampling what snow tastes like, it was time to complete the family task: building a snowman. With the help of grandpa, we built a 3-foot snowman, which to no surprise the boys named Frosty. Jackson was pretty protective of Frosty. He didn’t want anyone else to touch his creation, and was especially mad when his brother started throwing snowballs at the snowman. When it was time to head in for hot cocoa, Jackson didn’t want to leave Frosty alone, perhaps waiting for him to come to life. He kept a close eye on his snowman from grandma’s patio door and living room window, taking a break from playing every few minutes to make sure Frosty was OK. He hesitated to join the family for Christmas Eve church service, worried that someone might attack his snowman in his absence.

He feared going to bed — even with the promise that Santa Claus was coming — because he was worried that Santa would kick his snowman. We assured him that Santa wouldn’t do that. Then he expressed concern that the reindeer would knock over Frosty. We assured him that Rudolph’s red nose would spot the snowman and Frosty would be safe. Indeed, Frosty would survive Christmas Eve, but Santa’s presents shifted Jackson’s attention on Christmas morning. His first memory of Christmas was much more snow-filled than Jaydon’s. Then an only-child, the promise of snow on the ground was his motivating factor taking the 15-hour drive. When we pulled into grandma and grandpa’s driveway, he was elated to see snow on the ground — albeit a little patch of snow no more than a half-inch deep. As we unbuckled him, he jumped out of his car seat not to race to the front door, but to jump on the tiny patch of snow at the edge of the driveway. Every time we went outside the house, he would race to the edge of the driveway to stand in the tiny patch, which shrunk each day during the unseasonably warm weather.

Mother Nature eventually changed the winter warm weather to sub-freezing temperatures — too cold to snow — transforming that tiny patch to ice. As we ready the family for the trip, our boys have recalled their vivid memories of last year’s snowfall. We assure them there will be snow during our visit. We’re hoping Mother Nature complies.

My 3 Sons: The Santa Question

Jaydon a year ago when he was a believer.

Originally published on athens.patch.com on 12/1/11
My 7-year-old son Jaydon inherited his mother’s inquisitiveness. So it’s only fair that I avert his life questions to Carla.

Jay: “Dad, how did God create the world?”

Me: “Your mom sings in the choir. You should ask her.”

Jay: “Dad, how do tornadoes happen?”

Me: “Your mother lived in Kansas for a few years. You should ask her.”

Jay: “Dad, what makes boys and girls different?”

Me: “Your mom has a biology degree. You should ask her.”

Last week he asked me a question — in the form of a statement — that caught me off guard.

“Dad, I just don’t believe there’s a Santa Claus,” he said.

Thankfully, his little brothers weren’t around to hear this in his more-than-certain tone. Knowing we were on our way home where he could destroy their Christmas dreams, I felt that I couldn’t wait for Carla to bail me out. My mind raced to memories of my own childhood. When did I question Santa? I never had a chance. In second grade, Sister Mary told us there was no Santa. That won’t work here. Next my mind raced to WWCD — what would Carla do? Shoot. I don’t know. I really should’ve listened more to her answers to his questions. Then my mind jumps to the multiple parenting books and articles that Carla has forwarded me over the years. I really should’ve read those more intuitively, but I think I can scrape together an answer. (Please note by no means is this an actual step-by-step solution to answering kids’ difficult questions. It’s just what my brain put together from stuff I think I read at some point.)

Step one: Ignore child’s question.

I turn up the radio. Jay isn’t satisfied.

“Dad. Dad. DAD! Please turn the music down. Please just be honest with me. Is Santa for real?”

Step two: Avert child’s question.

I ask Jay about his day at school.

“It was fine,” he said. But I don’t want to talk about that now. Please tell me if Santa is real.”

Step three: Answer child’s question with another question.

I ask, “If Santa isn’t real, then who do you think puts all those gifts under the tree?”

He answers, “I think you and mommy buy the gifts, wrap them and put them under the tree when we are asleep.”

Step four: Repeat step three, in an attempt to exhaust child.

“Well you know mom and dad don’t have a lot of money. How in the world could we afford so many gifts?”

He answers, “You just charge it.”

(Great. Looks like we’ve already instilled bad financial habits on him.)

Step five: Use threats on child.

“Well you know what happens if you don’t believe in Santa. He won’t bring you gifts.”

After a few seconds of thoughtful silence, I think I may have caught him off guard.

“Will Jackson and Matthew still get gifts?” he asks.

Perfect! I think I found my out, which leads me to step six.

Step six: Guilt the child.

“That’s right,” I said. “Don’t ruin Christmas for your little brothers.”

“OK,” he answers. “But I just have one more question.”

Excited that I may have escaped this conundrum, I confidently encourage him to ask me anything.

“I know Jackson and Matthew were in mommy’s tummy. How did …”

Before he could complete the question, I give him my answer.

“It was your mommy’s belly. You should ask her.”

My 3 Sons: While they treat, I trick

I guard my haunted house.

When I was in middle school, I couldn’t wait until eighth grade. Every Halloween, the eighth grade class at my Catholic school would sponsor a haunted house for the community. Since I was an unpopular — and pretty dorky — child, I envisioned that haunted house as my time to shine. I would disguise myself as a monster and be the most terrifying — and popular — character in the school. I was crushed upon entering eighth grade and learning that the church was cancelling the haunted house.

Perhaps that emotional scar I still carry with me is what makes Halloween my favorite holiday. It’s the one day of the year when I can channel that 13-year-old dork and transform myself into anyone — or anything — I want to be. From visiting haunted houses as a teenager to attending Halloween parties as a young adult, I embraced Oct. 31, costumes always necessary.

My three sons have been incorporated into my celebration of Halloween. Our house has turned into the place to be for Halloween for my children and their friends. And it has become the house that trick-or-treaters remember and revisit year after year.

The preparation starts several weeks beforehand, as I create as spooky a front yard as my wife will let me. A mock graveyard adorns our front lawn. Black lights dangle from our awning. A full-size skeleton hangs on our garage. Skull lights circle our front bushes. Severed heads swing from a dead tree (it’s literally dead and despite Carla’s wished, I refuse to chop it down because of its awesome Halloween effect). Barbed wire circles our mailbox. Spider webs are tangled between our bushes. And most importantly, a mummy welcomes visitors as they enter our walkway. With their mother’s help, my oldest boys carved up scary pumpkins to add to the scenery. Without a doubt, my house is the spookiest — if not the only decorated — home in our neighborhood.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Dennis household is where Halloween is celebrated amongst our friends with kids. After some pizza and drinks, our home is the staging area for our children to assume their alternate identities. Jaydon morphed into a scary ghost. Jackson was a sword-fighting ghost (his creation). Baby Matthew was a pumpkin. Our friends’ children included a panda bear, Harry Potter, a hippie, a cat, Iron Man, a witch and a lion. It was quite a crowd.

The parade starts as the motley crew marches down to the Halloween festival that our neighborhood sponsors. And then starts the magic of trick-or-treating. All the kids, with parents in tow, head up and down our subdivision seeking their treats. The tricks, however, remain at our house. While they’re off trick-or-treating, I return to the Halloween headquarters and morph into a monster.

I shut off all the lights in the home, flip on a strobe light and blare the “blood theme” from the show Dexter. I close the door a crack and wait for the victims — I mean — trick-or-treaters. I hear voices as parents urge their hesitant children to walk through the graveyard, past the mummy and approach the door. As they say “trick-or-treat,” I slowly open our creaky front door (it’s always creaky and despite my wife’s wishes, I refuse to grease the door because of its awesome Halloween effect). The first sight is a bloody machete I expose, then I peak through the door crack and offer up some candy.

I’m not cruel. If I notice a child is scared I take off my mask and assure them it’s all fake. But the real fun is when an older child, who probably is too old to trick-or-treat anyway, provokes me by saying, “I’m not scared.” Then the chase begins. And they always escape unscathed, at least physically.

My Halloween reputation is strong. Several parents drive their children to our neighborhood specifically to visit our house. Some have asked me (as the monster) to pose for pictures with their kids. Even when I visit our neighborhood elementary and middle schools, some students will recognize me as “that scary dude from Halloween.” And best of all, my oldest son is proud when his father is recognized as “that scary dude.”

It’s difficult as parents to maintain our own selfish interests while meeting the needs of our children. But in the case of Halloween, I have scored.

My 13-year-old self would be proud.