I grew up around of a lot of serious men — the fathers of most of my friends were quiet types, hidden behind newspapers and cigarette smoke and steely silence. Respect for them was mandatory. Interest in us was infrequent but intense. And when they spoke to us, it was through a litany of familiar inquiry:
Staying out of trouble?
Keeping up your grades?
Looking after your mother? (Whatever that meant).
All that seriousness never made sense to me as a kid, so it’s no wonder that, as an adult, I’m a silly dad. I once chased my daughter and her friend around with a gigantic pork loin. My son and I talk a lot about our hineys. I streak (at home). I sing in supermarkets and get down at clothing stores. I give the kids free punches to my stomach when I’ve said something offensive (which is often). When we travel, I adopt regional personalities (Country Phil, Papa Jacque, Mango Joe, etc.) which my kids (and even, somehow, my wife) find hysterical. Upon request, I don my wife’s dresses and pose for pictures, which my daughter keeps in a digital album. My right pointer finger is occasionally possessed by a demonic being named “Bad Finger” who appears without warning to tickle the bejesus out of the nearest kid. I could go on…
But for all the kicks and giggles, there’s a downside to being a silly dad. For starters, my kids often don’t listen to me. My words have diminished meaning because they can’t always differentiate between my moments of absurdity and those when I’m trying to be profound. They can ignore my imperatives and yet be deaf to my requests. I typically have to say things (unofficially) 3.5 times before the words register. This makes parenting difficult and often embarrassing, like the time at a restaurant with a group of old friends when I watched my son hoist a sauce cup of ketchup over the head of a friend’s daughter. I told him to stop. I told him to stop again. I told him to stop a third time, but the little bugger dumped the ketchup anyway. I often worry about this obtuseness to my warnings having a far more serious consequence.
Considering that I’ve essentially sacrificed my authority to comedy, a burden falls on my wife to be the corrector-in-chief. Many of her sentences start off with the disclaimer, “Yes, I know Daddy said/did that, but…” She is also tasked with the undesired role of bad cop, the lone sheriff in town laying down the law just to make sure our kids know how to mind their Ps and Qs, so they don’t have to grow up in the principal’s office for stupid stunts like dumping ketchup on the heads of other children. Let’s just say, as well, that these distinct parental roles aren’t doing wonders for my marriage, either — for imbalances always manifest somehow, and I’m too old to find a new family (even if I wanted one, which I desperately do not).
I’ve come to realize the reasons why so many fathers back in the day adopted the posture that they did, (though I also realize that existing too far on the side of seriousness can be harmful, as well). It’s important to enjoy time with our kids as — all parents from every era can agree — they do grow up fast. I often admire the easy-going nature and friendly role many modern dads manage. My job is to find a better balance between my role as a parent and the call of my colorful personality. It’s a matter of tempering my instinct for silliness as opposed to eliminating it all together. I need that. My kids need that. My wife needs that.
Someone better tell “Bad Finger” the news.
Published on Babble: The Downside of Being a Silly Dad