Why Fathers Dread Family Vacations – Part One

Family vacations present new adventures and wonder...at least for the kids.

Family vacations present new adventures and wonder…at least for the kids.

Growing up, it was hard to understand why my father never got as excited as the rest of us over family vacations. Whether it was getting on a plane and spending a week in Disneyland or simply camping at a nearby state park, when a family trip was approaching, my sister and I would sometimes have our bags packed as early as a week in advance (perhaps the only time we were ever ahead of schedule in those days), as we dreamt about what the adventure might hold for us. My father never seemed to want to breach the subject. At the time, a part of me thought he was a curmudgeon for it—these days, I know better.

Any trip that requires packing luggage also requires the father to load the car and then fetch the small toy at the bottom of whatever suitcase has already been buried under other luggage in the back of said car to stop the one-year-old from screaming like a hurricane warning siren. More than that, with small children come larger and more oddly shaped items to pack, making for one crazy game of real-life Tetris.

Now, don’t feel bad for me—at least not entirely. My wife has it way worse when it comes to family packing and getting the kids ready. Typically when I’m outside packing the car, she’s inside chasing the two-year-old with a pair of two-year-old pants, yelling at him to put them on as he screams back, “NOPANTSNOPANTSNOPANT!” Meanwhile, the four-year-old is following my wife with his own pants on his head, because “look, Mom, I’m funny…I’m funny, Mommy!” (and I know just what my wife is thinking at this point: at least HE has his pants ON!) and, through all this, the one-year-old empties the bathroom wastebasket of its contents…and wears it as a hat to mimic the four-year-old.

I hear all of this from outside the house, fighting the urge to prolong the process of packing up the car because–once I do–I know I’ll have to tag in to this madness.

But this time I’m lucky. This time my wife exits the house with the children dressed and ready—one child wearing mismatched shoes and a shirt meant for a child two years younger, another with marker blemishes across his face, and another with his diaper on the outside of his pants.

We are now ready to depart…or so I foolishly think.

I look at the back end of our SUV with a broad smile and a long sigh of relief, thrilled with how tightly and efficiently I was able to pack that car. I really am a prodigy at these sorts of things. Then I look to my right, where my wife is carrying a baby basinet that seems more appropriately sized for a small horse, one that bears a shape that is not conducive to packing into an already-overstuffed SUV.

“Do you have room for this?”

Remarkably, she is able to repress her frustration from her earlier dealings with the children. Sure, she’s glaring at me like I just put one of her scrapbooking scissors into a bin that was clearly meant for scrapbooking ink stamps, and sure her left eye is twitching like a twerking Miley Cyrus…but all three kids and myself had yet to be maimed. Knowing what it’s like to get the kids ready for anything, I call that a win.

And so I look at the massive baby bed next to her, and then back at the car, noticing how the body of it droops heavily toward the back wheels. I know this item won’t fit. Of course it won’t fit, but I have to be delicate, have to use that charm of mine that once won over her affection enough to agree to spend the rest of her life with me.

But knocking her up won’t help in this situation, Phil.

Kidding, kidding! Sheesh, that’s how rumors get started.

But I do have a fleeting thought that how I respond here could dictate how long of a life I get to enjoy–and so with careful deliberation, I come upon the exact right words:

“Yes, hun.”

Her eyes soften and her grimace twists into a smile. She mouths the words, “Thank you,” and proceeds in buckling the boys into their car seats. I had made it…I had survived.

And that’s when I did the dumbest thing ever.

“Uh, you know Kyle’s diaper is outside of his pants.”

…and while I can’t tell you exactly what happened next—I blacked out through most of it—I am fairly certain that whatever happened is the reason I now have a slight limp whenever I attempt a sharp left turn.

Finally, we get in the car and begin our journey…

…but that’s for another day.

The Potty Song

When my son was two, he was a ticking time bomb of poop that not even MacGyver could disarm.

When my son was two, he was a ticking time bomb of poop that not even MacGyver could disarm.

Potty training has been on my mind a lot lately for some odd reason, which reminds me of a story of one of the methods we tried with our oldest. He was two years old at the time, which essentially means that he was a ticking time bomb of poop that not even MacGyver could disarm. His urge to poop typically brought out a “POO-POO, POTTY!” from his toddler lungs which, in turn, prompted both his mother and I to drop whatever we were doing at the time, snatch him up and rush him to the bathroom with the urgency of a man with a piranha in his drawers, knocking over chairs, tables, each other…

Since this all occurs in the matter of about ten seconds, here’s what it looks and sounds like in real-time:

Boy: “POO-POO, POTTY!”

(Lots of crashes and curse words thrown about)

My wife and I: SHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHIT!!!

We had been doing this dance about seventeen times a day for quite a while because inevitably, when we sat the boy on the child toilet seat, he would look up at us with his big hazel eyes, wriggle his hands (a bit of sign language we had taught him from before he could talk—it means, “All done”) and follow that up with, “All done…play now?”

The irony of all this is that he did not go to the potty—he didn’t even really attempt to go to the potty. My refrain from strangling the boy is nothing short of astounding, and is why I believe my left eye breaks out into random bouts of spasms these days.

To remedy our son’s habit of crying wolf and not giving much of an attempt when he sat on the toilet seat, my wife brilliantly suggested that we make up a “potty song” that lasts about thirty seconds. That way, he might be compelled to sit on the toilet for a long enough time for something to actually happen.

Being a hack musician and a writer of sorts, she asked me to come up with the jingle. Now, I’m not going to say what I came up with was brilliant, but I’m pretty sure The Beatles have nothing on me…or at least Justin Bieber.

This is what popped into my head, sung to the tune of Octopus’ Garden, written by Ringo Starr of The Beatles):

I’d like to pee in the pott-ee
For that one good chance to flush it all away
It will be warm–this big shit storm
Cuz I’ve been eating fiber every day
Give it a try and you will see-ee just how much fun the potty can be!
I’d like to pee in the potty
For that one good chance to flush it all away

You might be shocked when you learn that we ended up going with her jingle (apparently my vote counts for half), though I find myself singing it under my breath now and again when I’m tending to my own business. And I think it helps a little.

Playground Toys these Days Lack Scare Factor

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Figure-1: The Hamburglar climbing toy was like a prison with bee hives.

With the change in season and the warmer days we’ve seen recently, my wife and I have taken the boys outside a little more, which includes the occasional visit to the public parks. Now, it’s only been the last few years or so since I’ve begun to really pay attention to the kid climbing toys at these parks, but what I’ve discovered in that time is nothing short of alarming:

Kid climbing toys suck these days.

I hate to be the one to say it—I used to vomit inside my mouth a little bit whenever I heard someone from my parents’ generation say it—but…(big, long sigh)…here goes:

I wish things were a bit more like the good ol’ days.

As an example, let’s examine the play toys at certain fast food restaurants, most notably McDonalds and such. Sure, they have flash and they have intrigue, but none hold a candle to what my generation came to know and love: the pieced-together, rust-laded metal deathtraps that each had two-page lists of danger warnings headlined by May cause death…or the hope for death. Nowadays, it’s more typical to see climbing toys that are enclosed by netting or other “safety” measures…as if we’re a society of barbarians (am I right?). It’s also more common to see these climbing apparatuses indoors rather than out because, like everything else in our post-2000 world, the rain may or may not cause cancer.

In my day (the late 1980s, when synthesizers and what I call boom-box rap, had taken over plaid everything and whiny guitar leads), every climbing toy at a typical McDonald’s restaurant was essentially a cage for children. Mickey D’s upper executives couldn’t get away with the Hamburglar toy today, which consisted of a tunnel encased by metal bars and a passageway so tiny that it was inevitable for kids to get trapped in there—and somehow the toy always came equipped with a massive bee hive or two.

Additionally, there was almost always a giant, bouncy Grimace toy (which even looked like a cage). Heck, even the spiraling slide (see Figure-2) was a jail of sorts, with its metal canopy that ran down half the length of the slide. The lure for children to climb up the slide part was always too great, which usually made it just a matter of time before the thing resembled an overstuffed sardine can and some kid was stung by a bee.

And truly, while they couldn’t get away with these sorts of designs today, they were in fact brilliant designs. The cage aspect in particular essentially guaranteed that the parents could spend their meal in peace without worrying so much about a child escaping the premises. In those days, applying leeches to the skin was the remedy for a bee sting, so that part really wasn’t so bad either. To be fair, this may be an exaggeration, but I have no idea what the remedy for a bee sting was in the 1980s and that sounds sort of close to what I imagine it being…with fewer sacrificial chickens and a lot less hallucinogens (again, the good ol’ days).

It wasn’t just the 1980 fast-food chains that had it in for kids. Playgrounds were basically a showcase of death contraptions. It wouldn’t have surprised me if some of those old climbing toys have since been repurposed for the U.S. Militia’s torture interrogation academies.

The see-saw was another deathtrap in the 80s and 90s.

Figure-2: The see-saw was another deathtrap in the 80s and 90s.

First, there was the teeter-totter, or see-saw, which I believe is the French term for ball-buster. The function of a teeter-totter was threefold:

  • It served as a kind of catapult for children under the age of six, or older than six but just extra small for their age. I recall seeing this happen a few times—it was like watching a Chihuahua ride a mechanical bull on the highest setting. The child was never simply flung from his or her seat, either. Nope, there was typically a kind of paddleball effect going on first.
  • I believe the original intent of the see-saw was to neuter any young male who was short-sighted enough not to take care in how he straddled the device. In this way, the country made its first attempts at population control.
  • The see-saw also acted like a sort of blunt guillotine for any small child who happened to stick his or her head underneath while it was in use.

4066971942_8e9dc996b7_bAnd without a doubt, children these days will never experience the excitement…the joy…the sheer pee-your-pants terror of those merry-go-round/spinning ramps. These were one of the best toys ever! The ideal way to play with them was to find an older, bigger kid and then get a bunch of younger kids. The younger kids would find a spot on the merry-go-round and anchor themselves to it as best they could. Then the bigger kid would spin it fast enough for the 1980s metal apparatus to travel to the past so that the younger kids could find their respective parents and make sure they went through with their first kiss at some school dance while a gang of goons tried to stop them and mess up the entire future…

…or something like that.

I can remember times when I rode on this merry-go-round toy, clinging to the eroded metal bar with my skinny kid arms and half-expecting to hit my head and awaken to the sight of several oompa loompas leering over me (I swear I even saw the image of an old, cackling woman on a bicycle at one point).

If you did happen to fall from this merry-go-round while it was spinning at 70 Knot and were fortunate enough not to be flung from the toy like a Raggedy Andy doll being spewed out a jet propulsion system, you were likeliest to get caught underneath the platform and either have your limb snatched away or be dragged along with it. I have some recollection of kids frantically encouraging a couple of recently legless smaller children to stop crying so the parents wouldn’t come over and stop the game.

Nope, my kids will never know these joys. Instead, they’re stuck playing with plastic balls with things like pads and netting to help cushion their falls. What has happened to the world?

 

Recommended Video: “Song Written by a 3-year-old”

colleenballingerpicI wish I’d thought of this first, but it’s brilliant. Colleen Ballinger has a vlog and on it she made a music video that consists of lyrics taken directly from answers a three-year-old gave to a set of questions about happiness.

Check it out on YouTube.

The Toddler and Public Restrooms

You won't be seeing my boys' faces on this site--just their crime fighting facades.

You won’t be seeing my boys’ faces on this site–just their crime fighting facades.

Going to the potty is a huge deal to toddlers and, for some odd reason, my boys find it especially thrilling when they get to do it in a public restroom. We took my four-year-old to a monster truck rally and he nearly wet himself when he saw one of those large, stainless steel urinals that have everyone peeing in this open bucket that looks like a long trough.

One of the biggest downsides of having three boys is that I always have to be the one to take them into the public restrooms. Let me tell you—it’s no picnic. At a wedding a couple summers ago, when I stood up from the dinner table with the intention of heading to the men’s room, I was interrupted by an abrupt cough. Now, after living with my wife for several years, I have come to know her coughs quite well. This one was not an I-have-an-obstruction-in-my-throat kind of cough. It was more of an I’m-about-to-ask-you-to-do-something-you-won’t-want-to-do kind of cough, usually reserved for the fourth quarter of a Seahawk’s game. I should have listened to my gut and pretended not to hear, should have made a break for it, hurdling chairs, knocking over children if it came to that, and ploughing through the window and into the lake where the bloodhounds might have a harder time sniffing me out.

Only I didn’t do that. In fact, I did the worst thing possible. I made eye contact with her.

“Your toddler should probably try to go potty, too,” she said with a wicked gleam in her eye that seemed to say, this is what you get for not giving me a girl, you selfish jerk.

I sighed and took the kid’s little hand in mine. I led him through a crowd of wedding guests who were camping by the open bar, laughing, sharing stories and generally enjoying their lives because they didn’t’ have a little one to escort to the bathroom. I muttered an inaudible curse upon each of them before we finally reached the restroom.

It was packed to the nines, which is a bad thing when you have a toddler who needs to make wee. Fortunately for us, he didn’t’ seem to be in too much of a rush, so waiting in the line wasn’t as bad as it could have been. When it was finally our turn, we opted for a stall over a urinal—the larger, handicap stall to take advantage of the extra space, as things can sometimes get messy when a toddler tries to use the potty. Admirably, though, he tended to his business without making a mess, and proceeded to clap his hands at this feat.

“Good job,” I say, giving him a smile and a pat on the head. He flushed the toilet, because it is imperative that he gets to do so.

Next it was my turn.

I’ll spare you the details; suffice to say that, being an experienced potty-goer means nothing when you have a toddler in the stall with you. It can be like trying to swat an elephant with a fly swatter: either he’s not going to notice that you’re there at all, or it’s not going to end well for you.

When you’re alone in a public bathroom stall with a toddler, it can be a survival situation with two-thirds of your energy focused on making sure he doesn’t open the stall door, and the other third going into keeping him from unraveling all the toilet paper.

Two-year-old: What’s that, Daddy?

Me: Toilet paper. Don’t touch.

(Six second pause as he is distracted by a bug)

Two-year-old, upon noticing the toilet paper dispenser…seemingly for the first time in his entire life: Oooh, what’s THAT, Daddy?

Me: (Face to palm, and then a sudden gasp as I knock his hand away from the stall door lock)

Now, remember how I said that going potty is a huge deal to toddlers? Not only is it a huge deal when they go, it’s also a deal when anyone of any age goes. So when I successfully made my first offering to the porcelain throne, my two-year-old made certain to celebrate my accomplishment

…with the bathroom still fully packed with wedding guests.

Two-year-old: GREAT JOB, Daddy! You went poo-poo! That’s AMAZING! *emphatic clapping*

Needless to say, there was a chorus of laughter, but this didn’t dissuade my two-year-old from making a public request for others in the room to encourage me just as he had done.

Two-year-old: “Tell him he did a good job, guys! Guys…tell him!” (That’s what we get for telling him to encourage his friends when they’re trying something new)

This was the day my final ounce of pride died off like a key character in a George R.R. Martin novel–with lots and lots of gasping and torture. Mind you, I still made darn sure to prevent the two-year-old from opening that freakin’ stall door, and you can bet that we stayed in there for a good forty-five minutes to ensure the last of our bathroom audience had left the room…and maybe the state.

Meanwhile, my son’s attention was back on the bug, none the wiser to the horror he had just put me through. I can’t wait until his first slumber party—I have some payback ideas in mind.

The “Whiny Couch”

The whining really has gotten out of hand, which is why my wife and I implemented The Whiny Couch approach.

The whining really has gotten out of hand, which is why my wife and I implemented The Whiny Couch approach.

My two-year-old has been having a hard time with whining lately, because…well, because he’s two. Parents know that the terrible twos don’t really start right when the child turns two years of age, but rather spans a stretch from when they’re about two-and-a-half until midway through their third year. A good friend of mine coined the term three-nager for this age group.

My toddler has entered this stage like a twelve-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert, with claws drawn and a touch of crazy. This means my wife and I are constantly repressing the urge to stab ourselves in the eye with one of the baby’s plastic sporks. Yesterday, I caught the two-year-old sticking his finger in the hole of an electrical socket and trying like crazy to expand the hole by picking at it with his fingernail. When I saw this, I immediately pulled him away and explained that he is never, ever to do this again. “It would hurt a whole lot,” I tell him–but my toddler has a toddler brain, and toddler brains are wired to reason that everything their parents say and do are really a ploy to trick them into eating spinach. He therefore responds to all of our commands with an emphatic “No” followed by a poignant “I will never do that!”

True to form, his response in this instance was:

“No, I WILL do that” (referring to sticking his finger in electrical sockets).

Me: “You want to be hurt?”

The two-year-old: “Yes, I want to.”

Me: “But…it will hurt a lot.

The two-year-old: “Yes, I want to be hurt a lot.”

Me: “Like, it will hurt more than when you fell down on the patio earlier and cried.”

The two-year-old: “Yes, I want to fall down and cry.”

The biggest mistake I always seem to make is that I try to reason with him as though he’s a human being–however, toddlers are anything but; I’ve grown convinced that they’re actually possessed by the spirits of long-deceased talking chimpanzees whose sole mission is to test the resolve of parents. Why chimpanzees? Because of toddlers’ affinity for handling their own poop and being without pants, is why.

The trick to parenting a terrible twoer or a three-nager is to avoid bluffing whenever possible, because they are not really listening anyway and will pretty much agree to whatever threat you make if it helps prove the point they believe they’re making. I think this (and the chimp demon inside of him) is the real reason my toddler goes without pants as much as he does. In fact, I have mentally prepared myself for the day when he storms into my room, throws his pants on the floor, and declares: “You are NOT going to bring me down with this, man—NOT today!” and then with a fist to the heavens to bring home his point he adds, “Fight the power!” The four-year-old would stand just behind him, iPod in hand with Big Yellow Taxi playing on it. He would raise his fist along with his younger brother and, once the tirade was over, the two would leave, hands snapping in unison like something from a tough-guy, alley gang scene in a 1970’s musical.

When our kids do something wrong and know it’s wrong, my wife and I send them to time-out, which we have designated as the lower steps of the staircase. We do not send the kids to the time-out spot for needless whining or crying. For this, we send them to The Whiny Couch, with the stipulation that they only have to stay there as long as they are whining or crying (not screaming–they are not allowed to scream unless they are hurt). They can leave The Whiny Couch whenever they wish, so long as they’ve finished their whining or crying.

The Whiny Couch has been mostly a success, and so we decided to take it one step further. To reinforce to the kids that going to The Whiny Couch was not punishment but rather a space to go to regain control of their emotions, whenever my wife or I felt agitated or too frustrated to be able to control our own emotions we volunteered to go to The Whiny Couch for a few minutes. And the plan worked, for there have been several occasions when the four-year-old, unsolicited, has announced that he needed to go sit on The Whiny Couch for a few minutes because he felt a tantrum coming on.

I adore The Whiny Couch–and what’s not to love? A few minutes away from the kids where you can rest? Absolute heaven.

Of course, I began to love it too much, which is why I’ve since been banned from The Whiny Couch by my wife. In hindsight, I may have gone overboard with the magazine rack, vibrating massage neck and back pillows, mini fridge and sleep mask. Probably shouldn’t have pre-scheduled regular hourly visits there, either.

Live and learn, I guess.