My 3 Sons: The Chocolate Thief

Did you pay for that?
Did you pay for that?

Originally published on Athens Patch on July 21, 2013.

Grocery shopping with little children can be challenging.

Shopping with each child individually isn’t bad, but when together they form a little army destined to take down daddy. There’s the constant begging for whatever food product that features Spongebob on its packaging (why couldn’t they do that with vegetables?), the nagging over how long the shopping trip is taking (it would be much shorter if they stopped nagging!), the desire to turn every item into a toy (“look dad, I can juggle apples!”), and the reminders that “mom wouldn’t buy that” when I put ice cream or barbecue potato chips in the cart. And of course, there’s the constant fighting between them, whether it’s over pushing the cart, deciding what flavor of juice to buy or who gets to unload the cart at the register. I can’t help but thinkevery other shopper and store employee is judging me as a parent.

On a recent shopping trip I was in the bakery aisle browsing some cake mixes. When I finally settled on a traditional yellow mix with chocolate frosting and went to put the items in the cart, baby Matthew’s mouth and hands were covered in chocolate, and chocolate chips were scattered all over the cart and on the floor. Apparently I parked too close to the shelves, because Matt innocently grabbed a bag of chocolate chips, somehow opened it up (not sure how he did that, because to this day he cannot even put on his shoe), and starting cramming morsels into his mouth.

I was mortified. “No Matthew!” I said, taking the bag away from him.

“I like chalk-lit,” he replied, showing me his chocolate-covered hands.

Surely the police would be called, baby Matthew would have a criminal record, I would be reported to DFACS and we would be banned from our favorite grocery store. Instead, it was quite the contrary. I told a store employee about the mess and through the melted chocolate around his mouth Matthew flashed one of his million-dollar grins (or in this case $2.79 — the price of the bag of morsels), and she laughed and said she’d take care of it. At the checkout with the torn bag, I explained the situation to the cashier, cued Matthew who gave his token smile. She took the bag, tossed it and told us not to worry.

I was obviously thankful, but Matthew was even more verbose in his gratitude, blurbing “tank you” to the cashier.

Delighted I escaped certain imprisonment, I quickly pushed that cart out of the store and  loaded the car. I went to pick up Matthew from the cart and noticed him something scrunched up in his hand.

“Candy daddy!” he said holding up a pack of Skittles he grabbed from the checkout counter.

Maybe we won’t be going back to that grocery store.

My 3 Sons: The Trampoline

Image
Jaydon and Jackson cooling off on “sprinkler trampoline.”

Originally published on Athens Patch on Dec. 12, 2012.

My one piece of advice to a family with young boys: buy a big trampoline.

Years ago my wife and I were examining ways to provide more outdoor entertainment for our sons. Of course, they have their bikes, scooters and skateboards, but we wanted something that could occupy them for significant chunks of time while also keeping them contained within our backyard.

We explored the options. A pool was too costly and took too much effort to maintain. A sandbox was too messy, and since I typically handle vacuuming and mopping duties, I quickly eliminated that proposal. A mini-playground was a nice idea — but then I remembered that I lack handyman skills. I envisioned our kids flinging off the swing as the base of the playground becomes loose because daddy forgot to tighten a nut, or a bolt, or whichever one it is you tighten. So we settled on a trampoline — a big one — with “easy to assemble” printed on the box. And after a two-week battle with the 200 parts that came with it, the trampoline was completed.

It was an instant hit with our oldest boys, 8-year-old Jaydon and 4-year-old Jackson, and in turn the best thing to happen to their parents.

The trampoline has become our “go-to” option when our two oldest kids are too revved up around the house. Running around too much in the living room while mom and dad are trying to relax? Go jump on the trampoline. Wrestling each other while baby is trying to get in on the act? Go wrestle on the trampoline. Nerf gun bullets flying in the kitchen while we’re cooking dinner? Go shoot each other on the trampoline. Throwing balls at each other in the hallway? Go play dodgeball on the trampoline. The trampoline has become an outdoor pseudo “time out” that everyone enjoys: mom and dad get peace in the house while the boys still get to be rowdy.

The trampoline is also the perfect year-round backyard accessory. During the hot summer months we put a sprinkler under the trampoline. When it’s raining (as long as it’s not lightning), it’s a nice way for our sons to get some outdoor time without getting muddy. I’m hoping for some snow this winter, so we could witness our first trampoline snowball fight.

Baby Matthew has even started to partake in the trampoline fun. Although we don’t let him join his brothers’ craziness just yet, he enjoys his solo time chasing a ball and bouncing around.

Even if they don’t admit it, most parents at some point have used the TV as an indoor “babysitter.” We have discovered that its perfect outdoor counterpart is the trampoline.

My 3 Sons: The White Sox Game

Originally published on athens.patch.com on Sept. 29, 2012.

Jaydon enjoys a $3 cotton candy at his first White Sox game.on Sept. 28, 2012.

Growing up just 20 minutes from old Comiskey Park, I grew up loving the White Sox. I’ll never forget my first game. It was June 20, 1985 — I still have the ticket stub. My dad and grandpa Chuck took me to the old ballpark with my Cub Scout troop, and despite my incessant cheering for my childhood heroes Carlton Fisk, Harold Baines and Ron Kittle, the Sox were pounded 12-1 by the Oakland Athletics (and to this day, I still hate the A’s). Despite the setback, I remember watching the entire game, clinging on to every pitch.

It was with much anticipation that I took Jaydon took his first White Sox game 27 years later. It was a typically hot Chicago August evening as we watched the Sox battle the Los Angeles Angels. Although growing up 15 hours from U.S. Cellular Field, Jaydon has grown up a White Sox fan, thanks in part to former University of Georgia baseball star Gordon Beckham playing second base for the Sox. We walked to our seats in the hopes of seeing his favorite players — Beckham, home run powerhouse Adam Dunn and future Hall of Famer Paul Konerko — lead the Sox to victory. I was really hoping his first Sox experience would be much better than mine, so didn’t mind dropping $150 to get some good seats.

It was an outstanding game — several lead changes, home runs and extra innings — and we missed most of it. We got there well before the first pitch, and even got to to see the Sox staked to an early 4-1 lead. Then Jaydon wanted some food. In talking up the game experience to him I mentioned the unique and delicious food options at The Cell, so I obliged. We trek 15 rows up to the concourse and get a nachos with cheese and salsa, two Chicago-style “Comiskey” dogs and two “souvenir Cokes,” which is Coke but tastes better because it’s in a special cup. Jaydon thought that was a bargain. Down $30, I disagreed. Only one inning missed. Not bad.

We get back to our seats in the second inning and the lead has narrowed to 4-3. Not sure how that happened. After an uneventful half inning for the White Sox and Jaydon already through with his “souvenir Coke” the inevitable happens.

“Dad, I have to use the bathroom,” he says.

Knowing not to test a 9-year-old bladder, I cram the rest of my hot dog, his hot dog and the rest of our nachos in my mouth, excuse ourselves from the five people separating us from the aisle and make the 15-row trip back to the concourse. After the restroom trip, Jay reminds me that his mom said we should grab him a Sox cap while at the park. So we walk around the concourse to find the “official” gift shop, of course stopping at every little souvenir stand so he can determine he doesn’t like any of the caps. We arrive at the gift shop, seemingly miles from our seat, and Jay has a field deal browsing wall-to-wall White Sox apparel and gifts. After much consideration, he settles on a cap, but then wants to look at the toys. An avid Lego fan, he’s enthralled by the selection of Lego White Sox players. He wanted the whole team. I talked him down to one — Gordon Beckham, of course. Out another $40, we take the 15-minute walk back to our seats. It’s already the fifth inning and the Sox are now down 5-4.

I tell Jaydon we are not going to leave our seats for awhile, and he agrees. We catch an uneventful fifth inning and see the Angels tack on another run in the top of the sixth. Then nature calls again.

“Dad, I’m really sorry, but I have to go to the bathroom,” he says.

I glance at the guy next to me and I sense he feels my frustration. He gets the rest of his group to stand up so we can make our way to the aisle and the 15-row trip to the concourse, again.

After the restroom, Jay reminds me about this fun place for kids at Sox park that I told him about a long time ago. It’s called “FUNdamentals,” an attraction where kids can practice their baseball skills with White Sox “coaches.” I mentioned this to him months ago, but intentionally neglected to him about it this trip because I bought good tickets and wanted to watch the game. I knew FUNdamentals closes at the seventh inning so we walked around the ballpark to the attraction.

Jaydon had a blast and didn’t mind the long waits to hit, pitch, run  and field. Meanwhile, the White Sox hit a couple blasts to tie the game at 6. After 30 minutes of FUN, the attraction closes and we take the long walk back to our seats, of course stopping to pick up some frozen lemonade and cotton candy (another $15 gone). It’s the ninth inning, and I’m determined not to miss another pitch.

The game goes into extra innings and the Sox shut down the Angels in the top of the tenth. At the bottom of the inning, with one out and one on, Alex Rios slams a home run to center field, giving the White Sox an 8-6 win.

In more than a hundred professional baseball games attended, I’ve never witnessed a walk-off home run, and my son gets the chance in his very first ballgame. And underneath his new Sox cap, gripping his Gordon Beckham lego and souvenir cup, Jaydon had a big grin on his cotton candy-covered face. It made the hole in my wallet and the worn rubber on my shoes all worth it.

My 3 Sons: Hide (the remote and watch daddy) Go Seek

Originally published on athens.patch.com on July 2, 2012.Image

Being a parent has given me a renewed perspective about material possessions. Things I used to treasure are now secondary to the happiness of my three sons. But baby Matthew is challenging that perspective when it comes to the single most important item to me in the house: the master remote control.

Like most families, our entertainment system comprises of multiple remotes — five to be exact — but of course it’s the one we need most that he has mistaken for his favorite toy.  Leave it anywhere in his reach, and it’s button-pushing time. He has no respect for the importance of what’s on TV.

For instance, I’m watching a rare, nationally televised game of my beloved White Sox. It’s late in the game, Sox are down by one with one man on base, my favorite player Paul Konerko steps up to the plate, swings and smashes the ball deep and … Spongebob is making Krabby Patties. Matthew looks at me with a grin, holding the remote, and runs to the kitchen laughing. How does an 18-month-old even know how to do that?

He knows the importance of the remote to daddy. Whenever I’m watching TV, he seeks out the remote. He doesn’t do this when his mom or brothers are watching TV, only me. And he isn’t fooled when I try to give him a different remote, he wants to control the master remote.

If I place it out of his reach or give him a stern, “No, no,” he transforms to his “adorable puppy dog” routine as he buries his face in my lap, whimpers and gently cries. This puts me in an awkward position — it’s not like he’s trying to touch a hot stove or run across the street — so I acquiesce and give him the remote so he can change channels, reprogram our settings or order a movie (all of which he’s done).

The worst is when he hides the remote. Somehow this always happens right before I want to watch something. His favorite hiding places include his toy box, under the couch, in the one unlocked kitchen cabinet, the bathroom, in one of his toy houses, under our telephone stand, in the fireplace and in the VCR.

Interrogating him is useless because he can’t talk — every answer is his favorite word, “Duh!” — which only makes me feel more stupid. Guiding him to show me where he put it only leads me on a wild goose chase, quite literally, as he misinterprets my frustration as playfulness and thinks I’m chasing him. And displaying any level of anger brings out “adorable puppy dog,” which makes me feel like a heel.

Eventually the remote will show up. In the meantime, I think I’ll just read a book.

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.