Dad Overboard: Confessions of a (Way Too) Protective Parent

One man wades through 18 years of home movies to realize that he probably guarded over his son just a bit too much.

Just two days before my son’s 18th birthday, I did what most parents never do. I actually looked at the 8-millimeter videotapes — all 73 of them — that I’d dutifully created with my Sony camcorder at every single birthday and school recital of my son’s life. I looked at summer vacations and at the occasional dog washing.

Three observations:

I should have turned on the anti-jiggle feature.

My wife and I spent a fortune on birthday ponies.

Perhaps we had raised the “boy in the bubble” without an actual plastic bubble.

Did we go overboard in the protection department? It was one of those things you don’t realize you’re doing when you’re doing it, but when you have the benefit of time and distance, it’s easy to see some things.

Kathy and I took our jobs seriously and had insulated our son from all dangers, real and imagined. Now that he was on the verge of manhood, we wondered which things he would mention to the shrink that he’ll start seeing when he’s 30 to figure out “why my parents messed me up.”

Let’s examine the evidence.

Taboo Toys
As I watched 18 Christmas mornings back to back, I realized that despite the fact that we wanted our son to grow up to be a normal boy, we never gave him what he really wanted: a gun. Not a real gun, but a toy Uzi or an automatic pistol or something that he could aim at squirrels and neighbor kids and squeeze off a round from when he felt the urge.

He didn’t get one, because we’d read a few of those “how to be a perfect parent” articles that made it clear guns glorified warfare and violence. If kids played with toy guns, the research indicated, they’d wind up oblivious to the difference between good and evil, and one day we’d get a call from a college dean to inform us our son was in the bell tower blasting away at coeds.

So he never got a gun. Later we discovered that the urge to shoot things is programmed into boys at the factory, and by the time our son was three, he was shooting at squirrels in the trees and rabbits in the yard with his fingers locked in a pistol-like pose. Later he improvised a weapon from a bent stick and shot at the Good Humor truck.

On his 18th birthday, to make up for his ammo-free childhood, I toyed with the idea of giving him a set of brass knuckles and some napalm, but my black-market sources had dried up by then. He had to settle for luggage.

Like the Beverly Hillbillies, we had a “cement pond” in our backyard. At first we thought it was so handy having a 52,000-gallon swimming pool just ten feet from the house. But shortly after our boy started walking, we stopped sleeping because we were positive that in the night, he would slip out the back door and go swimming — straight to the bottom.

To make sure he didn’t, we locked every door. We had a pool cover and a state-of-the-art floating alarm that would, in theory, shriek when something fell into the water. In reality, if the wind blew more than five miles an hour, it would make a wave in the pool and the alarm would wake up the neighbors.

When we did use the pool, our son always wore something inflatable.

And I’m not talking about those little blow-up things that go on the arms. We outfitted him in a Coast Guard-approved full-body flotation device.

There he was on the videotape from his third birthday, encased in this orange inner tube that stretched from his shoulders down to his crotch. It had taken two people 15 minutes to install him in it, so when it was time to ride the pony, we decided it wasn’t worth the trouble of taking it off. He rode the horse while inside the flotation device.

He looked like a bloated cowboy. If Leonardo DiCaprio had had one of these, his character would have been available for Titanic II.

Scary Foods
You’ve heard that trans fats in French fries can kill you, but did you know that something even more diabolical is probably lurking in your kitchen right now?

We’d taken a child CPR class shortly before our son was born. The instructors made it clear that the most dangerous thing in your house is not a loaded gun, it’s a grape.

Grapes are just the size of a kid’s windpipe, and if a child eats a bunch of them quickly, one might get stuck and cut off the air supply. They said hot dogs were also exactly the diameter of a kid’s throat and great caution must be used when consuming them. Both these foods were fine to eat, we were told, as long as they were cut up. From that day forward, whenever we had grapes or an unknown-meat-filled-frank, we’d always cut them into molecule-size bites.

On my son’s first day of preschool, my vigilant wife asked the teacher what the morning snack would be.

Grapes, my wife was told.

“Will they be cut in half?” she asked.

When the principal paused and then said no, my wife promptly volunteered to work in the kitchen and personally halve 15 pounds of green grapes.

That was the last time she ever asked what was on the menu.

Looking over all our videotape evidence, my wife and I realized that we probably did overdo it on our firstborn. Now we watch new parents and we admire how they are overdoing it.

“The Kryptonite Stroller, that’s a nice touch,” says my wife.

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