Our Spooky Town

Only a few days after we moved into our new home last January, we were driving on the main highway, and we passed by a hideous warehouse-type store that was painted a dull, cheap shade of orange.

“What’s that?” Sutton asked.

“Um… that’s Spookytown.”

That’s what the sign out front said, though instead of o’s in the word “Spooky”, there were two fiery red demon eyes.  If I thought the name might scare my kids, I was dead wrong.

“Oooh, can we go there?” Sutton pleaded.

“No, it’s only open around Halloween.”

She brought up Spookytown constantly — whenever we passed by it, whenever the subject of Halloween came up, and sometimes completely unprompted.  “Next Halloween, we’ll go to Spookytown!” she announced.  “I won’t be scared, because it’s just pretend.”

She was simultaneously horrified and fascinated.  At two years old and change, scary is supposed to be simple.  If something’s scary, you stay away from it.  But here, there was this store that sold nothing but scary stuff, and people went there ON PURPOSE.  My curious little girl was dying to learn more.

As someone who’s never much liked Halloween, it’s taken me some adjustment having a daughter who’s obsessed with it.  She brings it up every single day, all year round — more than Christmas, more than her birthday.  The topics range from what her costume will be to the character traits of different types of monsters like vampires, ghosts and wolfmen to, of course, Spookytown.

We drove past that deserted eyesore for months, and every time, it launched a conversation.  Then one day, it was gone.  Spookytown disappeared, and overnight, a tile store moved in.  They slapped on a fresh coat of paint, installed a new sign and dismantled the demon eyes.

Sutton was crushed — and Halloween was only getting closer.  “We’ll find another Spookytown,” we assured her.

For months, she lived with the uncertainty of not knowing where her October scares would come from.  Drew and I know that Halloween stores are the bad pennies of retail.  You can always count on one showing up again.  Sutton was forced to take our word for it.

Then, in late September, there it was, a quarter of a mile up the road from the old Spookytown.  New Spookytown.  The second we saw it, Drew jerked the steering wheel toward the parking lot and the tires screeched cartoonishly as we skidded up to the entrance.

It was, as expected, a shithole.

There were cheap packaged costumes, cheap overpriced decorations, and a display of animatronic ghouls in a decorative graveyard.  Even though the store had just opened, only half of them seemed to moan on cue.

The kids loved it.

The way they ran from the Smurf costumes to the zombie makeup rack, shrieking at full dog-whistle pitch, it was like they were in Disneyland.

Neither of them could make up their minds what costumes they wanted to wear, so we bought them each three different ones over the last month.  I know, we’re suckers, but we’ve gotten plenty of use out of them with all the costume parades we’ve had up and down the hallway of our house.

As we counted down the days to Halloween, reports started coming in of an unprecedented storm headed directly for us.  Drew and I gathered candles and filled the bathtub with water, while the kids played quietly with their toys and talked about candy.

“Why did you take down the pumpkin in the front yard?” Bennett asked.

“Because the Frankenstorm is coming,” I said.

It seemed like a joke, like the kind of twisted boogeyman parents make up to scare kids.  A Frankenstorm.  But this wasn’t something out of Spookytown.  It was real, and Drew and I were genuinely scared.

Somehow, the storm that tore apart most of our geographic area left us untouched.  The lights flickered a few times, but we never lost power.  By Halloween morning, everything seemed normal.  I put the kids in their costumes and herded them to the car.

“Who wants to go to Spookytown?” I asked.  They went nuts.

It seemed like a simple plan.  We’d been to Spookytown half a dozen times over the last few weeks.  Why not now?  I made a right turn off our street and almost immediately had to hit the brakes.  Up ahead, the road was blocked by a giant tree.

It was just sitting there.  No one was even trying to remove it.  I turned down a different street, and I soon realized why that fallen tree wasn’t a priority.  There were downed trees everywhere, practically one every block.  I saw one that had landed on the roof of a house, but mostly they were in the streets.  It was like driving in a maze, constantly having to turn around and find a different path.

The ten minute drive to Spookytown took forty-five minutes, even with almost no traffic on the roads.  When we pulled into the parking lot, it was eerily empty.  A man at the door told us that the store had no power.  It was their biggest day of the year — in fact, the only day that really mattered — and they weren’t sure if they’d even be able to open.

I took the kids instead to the supermarket.  It was open, but barely functional.  The shelves had yet to be restocked from the pre-storm hysteria.  The freezers were cordoned off with police tape, and what remained in the refrigerated cases was marked “Not for sale”.  Employees whose job was to fill up the shelves were instead spending the morning throwing things away.  Clearly, they had lost power at one point, and all the perishables had perished.

So this was our Halloween.  One thing was for sure: it delivered on spookiness.

The only bright side was that my kids didn’t have many past Halloweens to compare this to.  For all they knew, this was a kick-ass All Hallow’s Eve.  We decided that our afternoon would be spent watching Halloween specials on TV and having a pizza party.  You know, typical Halloween stuff.

Then, the doorbell rang.  It was Cinderella.  She had tiny glass slippers and a school jacket draped over her light blue ball gown.  Her tiny arms spread open the mouth of a shopping bag full of fun sized candies.

In my 17 years in Los Angeles, living in apartments and condos with security codes, I’d never had a single trick-or-treater come to my door.  This was the first time I’d given candy to a little kid in a costume since I was a kid myself.

I thought Halloween had been canceled, but when I looked up and down my block, I saw more of them.  Harry Potters and Spider-Men and, for some weird reason, a lot of Crayola crayons.  (Seriously, what the hell?  Is there a factory nearby?)

“Drew!” I shouted.  “Trick-or-treaters!  Tons of them!”

It was like the sappy final reel of a Christmas movie, where the protagonist loses his last bit of holiday spirit only to glance out the window and see snow falling or Scrooge hoisting a roast goose.

A Halloween miracle.

We turned off Dora’s Halloween episode and raced the kids to the door.  “You guys want to go trick-or-treating?” we asked.

“YEAH!!!!”

It was the best Halloween ever.

A Tale of Two Flower Girls

Bennett, in his favorite outfit

After two previous posts, I wasn’t planning on writing yet again about my son’s fondness for wearing dresses.  Most of the time, he’d rather wear his Thomas the Train t-shirt and jeans, but occasionally, he asks to wear something out of his sister’s closet.  None of us makes a big deal about it, except maybe his sister, who likes to gush about what a beautiful princess he makes.

But this was a very special dress… and a very special day.

Drew’s brother Peter was getting married.  Drew and his other brother were the Best Men, Sutton was a flower girl and Bennett was a ring bearer.

At least, that was the plan.

Naturally, we made a big deal about the flower girl dress, at the risk of causing Sutton to spontaneously combust with glee.  It had a sash, Aunt Ali had picked it out personally and it was so special it could only be worn on that one magical day.  It wasn’t white, as Sutton would remind us over and over.  It was “cream-colored.”

We looked at pictures of the dress online almost daily until it finally arrived, when Sutton began asking us every ten minutes if we would take it out so she could look at it.

As with most formal occasions, men’s fashion was an afterthought.  Bennett would wear a white shirt, dark pants and suspenders, which we could shop for and purchase at our convenience.

We shouldn’t have been surprised when Bennett announced that he was going to be a flower girl, too.  He never showed much interest in the dress itself, never stood at the closet door and gawked at it with his sister, but he insisted that on the wedding day, he was going to wear it.

His uncle and aunt-to-be assured us that they didn’t care what he wore or what he carried down the aisle, just as long as he was a part of their big day.

This was months ago, and Drew and I had to make the call.  The flower girl dress was expensive, and it needed to be ordered way ahead of time.  Would we have a ring bearer in the family… or two flower girls?

Those of you who have never been parents of a three-year-old need to know one thing:

You can’t plan for a kid’s desires five minutes in advance, let alone five months.

Trust me, I live with this kid.  One moment, he might ask very sweetly for me to play “Part of Me” by Katy Perry, but 22 seconds later, once I’ve found it on my iPod and hooked it up to the speakers, he’s furious that we’re not listening to Maroon 5.

Who knew what he would really want to do on the wedding day, when he saw the other ring bearers in their white shirts and suspenders?  Would he do a 180 on us and refuse to go down the aisle in the cream-colored gown?

OK, I’ll admit we also considered the fact that a little boy in a dress was going to steal some of the spotlight from the bride.  If our son identified as a girl and this were a matter of acknowledging his gender identity, that would’ve been different.  But it seemed like it was more the case of a little boy who was jealous of his sister.  We bought him the suspenders.

Occasionally over the next few months, the subject of the wedding would come up, and we’d mention that Bennett was going to be a ring bearer.  “Nope!” he’d say.  “I’m a flower girl!”  Then, we’d quickly change the subject.

This past weekend, we went to Philadelphia for the wedding.  The other kids in the wedding party weren’t at the rehearsal, and Bennett continued to insist that, during the ceremony, he would be spreading rose petals down the aisle.  We knew we had blown it.  Bad call.  The next day, we’d have one very hurt, angry little boy on our hands.

The morning of the wedding, we met up with one of the other ring bearers.  Bennett had actually had a play date with him a while back, during the bridal shower.  “You remember Little Pete?” I asked him.

“Yes,” Bennett said.  “I played with his trains.”

When it came time to put on his ring bearer outfit, Bennett didn’t put up much of a fight.  He thought Sutton looked pretty in her dress, and he beamed when we told him how handsome he was.

We breathed a sigh of relief.  We had made the right call.

Sutton did an amazing job as flower girl, and Bennett and Little Pete were top-notch ring bearers.

“I’m so proud of you,” I told Bennett after the ceremony.  “Did you like Little Pete?”

“Yes,” Bennett said.  “When I grow up, I’m going to marry him.”

I smiled at my kid and said, “Bennett, nothing would make me prouder.”

We Were On “The Today Show”

I never planned to put my kids on camera.  I mean, my cameras, sure.  I have about 10 bajillion hours of video of them doing completely mundane things like drooling or singing that new Taylor Swift song, which in my son’s interpretation, goes like this:

“We are never ever ever, never ever ever, never ever ever, never ever ever, never ever ever, NEVER EVER EVER, NEVER EVER EVER… WE ARE NEVER EVER EVER…”

That’s it, over and over.  It never ends.  Never ever ever.

You can see why I keep these things to myself.

On the other hand, I feel a kind of parental duty to educate people about my family, to make the world a better, more understanding place for my kids, and of course, other kids in nontraditional families.

So when my friend Robin Sindler, who’s smart and talented and amazing and just happens to be a producer for The Today Show, came to me and asked if she could shoot a segment on our family, I thought about it for a bit and then said yes.

Then Drew said no.

Then, Robin said she would fly Susie down for an interview, meaning we’d get to spend a few days with her and her daughter, Grace.

We talked about it a lot, and eventually Drew agreed that if we were ever going to do something like this, we’d want to do it with someone we trust, on a show we respect, so our lives don’t get Jerry Springer-ized or used as a jumping-off point for some loudmouthed debate.

The Susie visit was a bonus, and of course, no story about my family would be complete unless it adequately praised Susie for her gift to us.

A few days later, Robin arrived with a small (and terrific) crew, and Drew and I slogged through what was probably our worst day of parenting ever.  We said things like, “Careful with Daddy’s mic pack!”  “Stay on the swing and keep smiling!”  And, “If you can just make it through one more bit of b-roll, we’ll have McDonald’s for lunch.”  We made the kids sit in the basement watching Beauty & The Beast while we shot our interview.  When Grace started crying, we asked Susie to take her for a walk so it wouldn’t ruin our audio.

We filmed at our swim class.  Usually, Drew’s at work for swim class, and I’m forced to sit with the other parents in a galley area so I don’t distract the kids.  For the camera crew, they let us sit at the edge of the pool, with our feet in the water.  The kids got to swim up to us and show us their moves, while a camera pushed in on their dripping wet faces.  They felt like movie stars.

It reminded me of all the reasons I never wanted our kids to be child actors.  “This is just for one day,” I kept reminding Drew.

I knew it had made an impression a couple of weeks later when we were reading one of my kids’ books.  (I think it was a Curious George book, but I can’t seem to find it now.)  There was a picture of a camera crew, including a woman who was standing in the back, taking notes on a small pad.  Sutton pointed at her and said, “That’s the producer!”

We had no idea how the piece would turn out or how many months would elapse before it would air.  It turned out it was only about three weeks.

I was terrified to watch it.  I didn’t want the kids to see it.  Drew had it on in his office, and he promised to call me afterward with his assessment.

“Go turn it on now,” he demanded.  “Sit and watch it with the kids.  It’s beautiful.”

So we did.  I backed up my Tivo and sat with the kids on the couch.

They were most excited to see their cousin Grace.  “Oh, she’s so cute!” they squealed.  I think they’re so used to seeing videos of themselves that they didn’t see this as anything special.  When it was over, Sutton asked, “Now can we watch another show about us?”

I’ve heard from lots of people since this piece aired — friends who loved hearing the story for what was probably the millionth time, strangers who enjoyed hearing it for the first time.  Now that we’ve seen it, we have no regrets.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy it, too.  It may be the last time you see us on TV for a while.

Until I can figure out how to embed, you can click here to watch the segment.

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The 10 Biggest Secrets I Keep From My Kids

Hey guys, it’s me, Daddy, and I’m only writing this post because you can’t read, you don’t know what a blog is and because you’re still in that developmental sweet spot where you take everything I tell you at face value.

Suckers.

Your old man is full of secrets, things that could destroy my authority if you ever found out.  Here are 10 highly classified facts that I will take to my grave… or at least wait to tell you until you have kids of your own.

1.  TV is a reward for me, not you.

There’s a reason I never promise you TV for being good.  When you’re behaving, I don’t need to turn on the TV.  Overall, you guys are terrific company… but when you’re not, that’s when TV comes to my rescue.  Those 22 blissful minutes of Yo Gabba Gabba are my reward for getting through the crying, whining, fighting meltdown madness that’s become a recurring feature of your toddlerhood.

Here’s the big secret: if you want more TV, you should act out more.  You know how sometimes I’ll pop popcorn and we’ll have a “movie day”, where we get to watch all of Beauty & The Beast or Toy Story from beginning to end?

When that happens, you’ve been BAAAAAAAAAD.

You can never know this, of course, because that would encourage you to misbehave.  So I have to be clever about it.  I always make sure to calm you down first, so you don’t know that I’m only turning on the TV because I’m on the verge of tearing off your Tickle Me Elmo’s head with my teeth.

2.  While you’re napping, I shove my face full of chocolate chip cookies for two hours straight.

You don’t see me eat much, do you?  It’s not because I don’t require sustenance like every other human being, though if it adds to your sense that Daddy is some kind of awesome superhuman, I’m fine with that.  No, the real reason I never eat in front of you is because when you’re watching, I need to model good eating habits.  You think I like eating vegetables and chewing slowly?  Phooey!

I spend every moment in your presence suppressing my natural urge to shovel peanut butter M&Ms through my maw by the fistful.  When you’re asleep, oh boy, do I make up for lost time.  I practically funnel chocolate sauce directly down my throat.  I watch lots of TV, too, and I sit as close to the screen as I want.

3.  I fall for your crocodile tears about 90% of the time.

I don’t know whose side of the family it comes from, but I’d be willing to bet that you two have some Meryl Streep in your blood.  Your performances are unparalleled.  You are gripping emotional powerhouses, both of you, able to summon cascades of tears at will.  I feel like I should be tossing bouquets of flowers at your feet, or at least teaching you to act out Uncle Vanya so your talents can be put to good use.

Even when I’m sure you’re faking, I get sucked into the performance.  I want to give you that second cookie you’re demanding only because I don’t have an Oscar to hand over instead.

Seriously, I don’t know how you do it.  You cry over the most trivial things, but still, you get me to believe that nothing matters more in the world than you getting a turn with the “good” xylophone.

I don’t want to spoil you by always giving in, but I don’t want to stifle your theatrical gifts either.

Bravo, kids.  Brav.  O.

4.  I don’t know how we’re going to pay for your college.

I’m really grateful you guys have no concept of money, because if you knew what college costs versus how much money we have in the bank, you’d wake up crying at night even more than you already do.

Let’s put it in terms of Play-Doh.  If you add together all the various sources of Play-Doh at our disposal — the cans in the craft cabinet, the little mini tubs that came with the Cookie Monster Letter Lunch set, a few unopened packages we keep stashed in the closet for rainy days — it’s a comfortable amount.

Now picture all the Play-Doh in the world.  That’s what a year of college is going to cost by the time you guys are filling out your applications.  I’m not exaggerating.  Our Play-Doh supply would barely cover one semester of independent study credits at that college in Texas that gets all the oil subsidies.  We’re screwed.

I mean, sure, we have a few years.  We’ll keep stashing away Play-Doh in the meantime, but don’t get your hopes up.

5.  I find your speech impediments adorable.

I’ve written here before about how much I hate baby talk, and I stand by that.  Grownups trying to sound like kids are idiotic.  But secretly, I love hearing little kids try to sound like grownups, and failing.

I love Sutton’s slight lisp, and I get a kick out of the way Bennett drops his “S” from the start of words (“Daddy, ‘utton wants a ‘nack!”)  These things remind me, as you’re growing up, that you’re still going to be little kids for a while.

I know better than to encourage poor speech habits, of course.  I do the right thing, suppressing my smiles and correcting you gently, so you’ll learn to speak properly.  But secretly, whenever you mangle the English language, I’m thinking, “Aww!”

6.  Your other Grandpa, my dad, is dead.

Sorry, this one’s kind of a downer.  I’ve shown you pictures of my dad, and I’ve told you a bit about him, but I’m really grateful that you’re still too young to ask the big question: “How come we’ve never met him?”  To explain that, I’d have to tell you about death.  Then you’d figure out the really big secret, that daddies can die.

Ugh, I just can’t have that talk with you.  And it’s not just about you not being ready.  I’m not ready either.  I don’t know when I will be.

When we talk about your mystery Grandpa, I tell you the good things, and then I change the subject.  I know I won’t be able to get away with that forever, but for now, that’s the best plan I have.

Grandpa loved kids, by the way.  You would’ve had so much fun with him.

7.  “F#&%”, “S*@#”, A$$#@!&”.

You know that Madonna song we love to sing along to?  You’ve probably noticed how I always turn down the volume when M.I.A.’s rap part comes on.  Let’s just say there are a few vocabulary words which may come in handy later in life, but which I’m glad you haven’t picked up on just yet.

8.  I was an even pickier eater at your age than you are.

I spend way more energy than any sane person should trying to get you kids to eat things you don’t want to.  Even your junk food diet is limited.  C’mon, why can’t you see how awesome Taco Bell is?

Here’s the truth, though: If I’m always encouraging you to try new foods, it’s mostly because I don’t want you to end up like me.  I’m living proof you can live to the age of 14 eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and pretzels.

Sure, at some point my tastes got a bit more exotic (i.e., Taco Bell), but I’m hoping that, unlike me, you’ll have at least sampled each of the four food groups before you reach puberty.

9.  Someday, I’m going to go back to work.

I know you don’t understand work.  That’s why you’ll sometimes cry in the middle of the afternoon and demand to pick Daddy up at the train station, as if he’s just waiting there all day for us to swing by.

Work takes daddies away from their kids, that’s all you really grasp of the concept.  Well, this may come as a shock to you, but before you were born, I used to work, too.  Staying home with you is better than any job I’ve ever had, and it’s worth every sacrifice Daddy and I have had to make.  It’s not going to last forever, though.  In the future, you won’t need me as much, at least not as much as we’ll need the second income.

A few months ago, I was in the running for a job, one that would’ve been too good to pass up.  I’m not going to lie, I was excited about the prospect.  I was also heartbroken.  I imagined what it would be like to tell you I was going back to work, that you would now have two daddies you hardly ever saw.

Then you’d cry about how much you missed both of us, to a person we hired to take care of you all day.

10.  You guys are my best friends.

I used to think people who were BFFs with their kids were terrifically sad.  Now, I kind of get it.  No offense to any of my grown-up friends, but you’re way cooler than any of them.

Yes, I need adult conversation once in a while.  I need to talk about politics and celebrity scandals and last night’s Breaking Bad.  But in general, your reluctant, unfocused recounting of your school day is better than any of that.  Really?  Billy spilled his juice at snack time?  Tell me more!

Again, you can never know this, because the only thing sadder than you being my best friends would be if I were yours.  You don’t need a graying old doofus roughly 14 times your age as a buddy.  You need me as a parent.  My job isn’t to play trains with you and Billy after school, it’s to serve you juice… and to send Billy’s parents the cleaning bill when he spills it all over you.

F#&%in’ Billy.

******

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Teacher Conference

“Sutton and Bennett’s dad?  Hi.  We had a little biting incident today.”

“Oh no!  What happened?”

“Well, Sutton bit Bennett.  They were just playing around, but then she asked him to bite her back, and he broke the skin.”

“Oh, whew!  So they only hurt each other, not anyone else’s kid?”

“Oh yes.  They’ve never hurt the other kids, though Sutton has a habit of tackling all the boys and kissing them.”

“Great, so I have nothing to worry about then.”

Past Posts Revisited: 10 Reasons We (No Longer) Love McDonald’s

A few months ago, I wrote a post wherein I asked my kids what makes them mad.  Sutton’s response was quick and brutal: my singing.  Well, I’d like to state that her opinion has evolved.  Now when the topic comes up, she says, “I don’t like your voice!”

This is why it’s good to update old posts now and then.  Things change.  Sometimes, my kids grow firmer in their convictions, and sometimes, I ease up on mine.

I have to admit I no longer stand fully behind my post on why I love taking my kids to McDonald’s.  At the time I wrote that, we were only one month into our cross-country move.  I had discovered that the local McDonald’s had a family night every Thursday, featuring a nice magician guy.  He made balloon animals for the kids, while I got to enjoy the snotty teenagers heckling him from nearby.  It was a nice routine, at  time when we really needed one.

The free ice cream on Family Night is the world’s tiniest cone. Who says McDonald’s isn’t concerned about childhood obesity?

That was eight months ago, and I’ve discovered more things to do around our new home.  I’ve also gotten thoroughly sick of McFood.  I don’t think I’ll ever become one of those fast food fascists who never lets their kid step foot inside the golden arches because it’s POISON — POISON!!!, but going there once a week is no longer something I proudly recommend.  Here’s my point-by-point rebuttal of my prior post:

1. My kids are always the best behaved children there.

Still true… but also a source of concern.  You know those balloon animals the magician makes?  My kids ask for giraffes and flowers.  The other kids get swords and guns.  Then they battle each other to the “death” (if only).

Worse are the McDonald’s-es with play places.  Now that my kids know those exist, it’s hard to get them to go to a location without one.  Sure, that labyrinthine plastic apparatus lets them work off the ocean of calories they just consumed, but when you put all those kids together in a confined space, just out of grown-ups’ reach, it’s bound to turn into a miniature, neon-colored Thunderdome.

Adults have no jurisdiction inside those twisty, netted structures, because they simply can’t fit inside or even see what’s going on up there.  There are always some little monsters quick to take advantage of the lack of supervision and go all Lord of the Flies on each other.  It’s a Hobbesian state of nature, every pipsqueak for himself.

My kids mostly stay above the fray in this pop warner Hunger Games… but I wonder how long that will last if we keep going there.  The day I see them with pig blood smeared under their eyes, we’re outta there.

This piece of crap kept my kid busy for 20 minutes.

2. The meal comes with its own entertainment.

My kids still love Happy Meal toys… unless they’re given two different toys and one of them gets a better one than the other… or they’re given the exact same toy but one of them still thinks the other’s is better… or they both get crap toys.  I cringe when I first peek in the bags to see what the toys will be, hoping they will meet my kids’ approval.

3. It kills time.

It’s great getting out of the house for a while… but McDonald’s is not really a fun place for a grownup to be.  If only the McAcoustics didn’t so greatly amplify the shrieking and stomping, maybe I could zone out a bit and forget that the chicken sandwich I’m eating is hastening my demise.

4. The zit-faced 16-year-old slaving over the grill for minimum wage is a better cook than me.

Hey, kid, ease up on the salt… or at least throw some beta-blockers in the Happy Meal box.  Sheesh.

5. It’s an excuse for me to eat McDonald’s.

Nothing on the McDonald’s menu appeals to me anymore.  When I wanted to be sorta healthy, I ordered a salad… which is basically just a chicken sandwich (you can even get it breaded and fried!) on a bed of iceberg lettuce instead of a bun.  Eventually I realized that I could get a halfway decent salad by taking the kids to Panera Bread instead, and they could eat grilled cheese sandwiches instead of French fries.  If one of us is going to settle for food they’re less-than-thrilled about, I’d prefer it be them and not me.

6. It’s cheap(ish).

Panera Bread is about the same.

7. It’s low maintenance food.

So is Panera Bread.

8. They eat a full meal there.

Not anymore.  The food doesn’t have nearly the appeal it used to. My son can eat a peanut butter sandwich every meal, every day and never complain.  But even for him, one serving of McNuggets a week is sufficient.

Half the time, I have to beg them to eat a second McNugget just to make sure they won’t McStarve.  Honestly, they eat more at Panera Bread.

9. The food’s not much worse than what I serve at home.

The food at Panera is better.

10. McDonald’s teaches my kids the value of moderation.

You know what teaches them the value of moderation even better?  That three out of four times we eat out, we go to Panera Bread, instead of McDonald’s.

McDonald’s has become more of a once-a-month destination, and personally, that’s made my meals a lot happier.

When I think back on that original post, I still understand what I felt at the time, I’ve just grown since then.  (Mostly, I’ve grown sick of the food.)  If you’re still in more of a once-a-week mode yourself, more power to you.  I would never judge anyone for taking their kids to McDonald’s that much.  Hey, I’ve been there.

A word of advice, though: if they open a Panera near you, check it out.  And if you have any other family-friendly dining suggestions, please let me know.  I’m gonna be SOOOOOO sick of that place in a few months.

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9 Unwritten Rules of the Playground

Nobody ever tells you the Rules of the Playground.  I’m not talking about “No littering” or “No loitering after dusk, teenagers!”  Not the kinds of rules you might actually find posted in a public park.

I mean the unspoken code among parents that governs everything that occurs on surfaces made of asphalt, spongeturf or wood chips.  A trip to the playground is like having a playdate with whoever shows up.  Unless everyone agrees to a few ground rules, things can quickly devolve into a shrunken simulation of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

I’ve decided to take it upon myself to write down these implied rules, as best as I understand them.  Granted, there may be a bit of wishful thinking thrown in.  Here goes:

1.  Everything you bring is communal property.

It’s not just polite to share, it’s the only practical way to do things.  I’m not going to check every toy my kid picks up to make sure it belongs to us.  I’m also not going to shout at them, “Don’t touch that dump truck until we track down its owner and ask permission!”  You brought it, you share it.  If it’s not being used, my kids and I are going to assume it’s up for grabs.  The same goes for the junk we brought.  When my kids get bored with it five seconds into our trip, it’s all yours.  Enjoy.

2.  It’s your responsibility to round up all your toys when you leave.

Yes, my kids played with your toys, but they’re your toys, so when you’re ready to leave, good luck finding them.

If you don’t like having to round up a hundred things, don’t bring a hundred things.  Kids really don’t need that much stuff anyway.  How many hands do your kids have?  Mine have two.  That’s two toys each, and maybe a ball for their feet.  If they get bored with those, then thankfully, they’re at a park so there’s a good chance they can find something else to do.

And don’t be a dick if some kid is playing with your stuff when you’re leaving.  Bend over and say, “Hey, thanks for taking such good care of our lobster sand mold.  It’s time for us to go now, so we need to pack that in our stroller.  Do you want to play with that shovel over there instead?”  When the kid turns to look, grab the lobster and make a break for it.

3.  If you bring it, label it.

You know that bucket of sand toys you got at Target for $3.99?  Yeah, we all have that exact same set, and it gets confusing.  Put your initials or your kid’s name on it so we know whose is whose.  Think of it like branding cattle.  Come up with a family logo if you want.  Have a blast.

4.  If you can’t bear to share it, leave it at home.

Some parents and kids think their toys are exempt from the communal property rule.  “But it’s Madison’s special Pocahontas doll — it’s like her daughter!”  Sure, I get it, but try explaining that to my two-year-old.  There’s nothing I hate more than when my kid throws a fit because they want to play with some other kid’s toy.  I don’t want them playing with that toy anyway.  I brought them to the park so they could run around and get some exercise.

Other than sand toys or things that can only be enjoyed at the park, I suggest you don’t bring any toys from home.  I don’t get why some parents let their kids bring their favorite Princess Jasmine or Lightning McQueen thingamajig to the park.  It’s a park.  The park is the toy.

If your kid brings her entire Disney Princess collection, then suddenly my kids don’t want to go on the slide or play hide and seek.  They want to sit on their tushies and play with a bunch of crap they could’ve played with at home.  If your kid won’t share, that just adds insult to injury.  Now I have a kid who isn’t getting any exercise and who’s screaming her head off because she can’t play with your kid’s lousy toy.  Screw you.

5.  If you can’t bear to lose it, then definitely leave it at home.

Last winter, a woman came up to me as we were leaving an indoor playground.  “We can’t find the purple car,” she said.  “The one she was playing with.”  She pointed to my daughter.  I already had the kids’ shoes on, and they were zipped up in their coats and most importantly, I’m not the idiot who brought a bunch of toys to a room full of toys.  (Toys which we were paying to play with, no less.)  I took a quick, half-assed look around for the stupid car, but honestly, I really didn’t care if she never saw it again.  I know, she and her kid were very courteous about sharing with my daughter, but like I said, if you bring it, it’s your responsibility. Take a look around.  It’ll turn up.  Or not.  Screw you.

When I go to the park, I bring a couple of plastic buckets and shovels, and maybe a playground ball.  Grand total: less than $10.  Even in this economy, I can afford to take that kind of hit.  If something breaks or someone walks off with one of our toys by mistake, I can easily replace it.  This is another reason not to bring your kid’s favorite thing.

6.  Your kids are your own responsibility, so don’t look to me for help.

Everyone has different rules for their kids.  Maybe you let your two-year-old scale the ten-foot-high rock wall.  Hey, you must have better medical insurance than me.  It’s not my business.  Just because your kid is doing something dangerous, I’m not going to step in, especially when I have two kids of my own to keep out of the emergency room.

It’s not that I don’t care about your kid’s well-being.  I’m going to make sure I don’t hit him with a swing, but it’s not my job to protect him from all booboos in my vicinity while you chat it up with your friends or play Angry Birds or whatever people do on their cell phones for hours at a stretch — seriously, what’s with you people?  If your kid is teetering off the edge of something and my kid is about to eat a bug, sorry, but my kid comes first.  I’ll save your kid’s life if I have a second left over.

By the way, it’s a public park.  You ever watch the news?  Ever heard about the things that happen to kids whose parents aren’t watching them every freaking second?  Yeah, it sucks that you never get a second to sit down and rest, but having your kid end up as an Amber Alert sucks worse.

I’m not saying you can’t ever check your email, but do it quickly.  You want to relax?  Stay home and lock your doors.  If you’re in an open area full of strangers, you’re on duty.  Look alive.

7.  Down the slide has the right-of-way.

Sure, going up the slide is fun.  It’s rebellious.  It’s a challenge.  If I see your kid going up a slide, I’m probably gonna think he’s pretty cool.  But if some other kid decides he wants to come down that slide, your kid better move his ass, fast.  In the war of up versus down, gravity wins, every time.

Oh, and those covered twisty slides are one-way only.  If your kid dares to climb up one and mine flies down like a torpedo, careening around a bend completely unexpectedly and laying your kid out on the asphalt, so be it.

8.  You are the policeman for your child.  I am the bodyguard for mine.

I’ve written about this topic before.  If your kid is being a menace, it’s time to take him or her home.  Yeah, I know, you packed a picnic and planned to stay for two hours.  Well, too bad.  If he can’t stop punching or pushing or pulling hair, he’s not welcome here anymore.  Teach him a lesson — or not, just get your lunatic away from my kid, pronto.

You don’t have to be embarrassed.  Even the best behaved kids can go nutso sometimes.  Maybe they’re tired or pumped up on sugar or trying to get somebody’s attention.  We’ve all been there.  It’s only if you ignore the situation that the rest of us will think you’re a terrible parent.

“But wait!” you say.  “My other kid is playing nicely!  It’s not fair to punish them both!”  Well, why not find another way to reward the good kid?  “We need to go home now, guys.  Everyone who doesn’t have another kid’s flesh wedged under his fingernails gets ice cream.  Sorry, Johnny!”

If you’re going to keep your psycho at the park, you’d better be all up in his business from now on.  My kid’s blood is on your hands.

Yes, per Rule #6, you don’t have to protect other people’s kids from falling off a slide or getting carried off by a predatory hawk, but you do have to protect them from your own kid.

9.  Unless somebody’s crying or bleeding, it’s not a fight.

Knowing when to step in is only half of it.  You also have to know when not to.  You’ve heard the saying about picking on someone your own size?  Well, that goes for you, too.  When you try to mediate a dispute between kids, you’re not an impartial judge, more like a lawyer for your offspring.  So whenever possible, let them work it out.

So you just saw a kid push a smaller kid out of his way and cut in front of him for the weird flying fish bobble contraption?  Your instinct tells you to jump into the fray and teach everyone right from wrong.  But hey, if the kids are cool with what went down, why rock the boat?

Kids don’t always realize when another kid is being an asshole.  If you step in and tell your kid to stand up for himself, then you’re introducing shame to the situation, or showing him that he needs Mommy or Daddy to solve his problems for him.

Besides, injustices occur on the average playground at the rate of about a ten per second.  You can’t possibly police them all, so wait until there’s a safety issue or a really serious offense, then lay the smack down.

I know, your kid pushed mine, and you’re mortified.  But if my kid’s willing to let it go, then so am I.

Go finish your Angry Birds game.

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