Halloween season always reminds me of the time I dressed as Clifford the Big Red Dog. My children’s school needed an adult volunteer to wear the costume for a reading event. I decided to oblige in part because I like to laugh, and in part because my two young daughters liked the idea. In other words, they had not yet reached the Age of Embarrassment.
As children gathered in the gym, I started to suit up in a “secret” adjoining room. The costume was large and heavy, so a few parents helped me with the process. I remember being so amused by one of the instructions on the costume’s interior: “Always have another adult with you to avoid the danger of being overcome by a large group of children.” At first I thought, how ridiculous! But to be safe I made sure a couple of moms would help direct traffic.
That turned out to be a wise decision. For when I entered the gym, bedlam erupted.
Upon seeing Clifford, dozens of young children screamed, jumped up and down, and rushed up to me as I struggled to reach my seat. Those two moms quickly turned into Not-So-Secret Service agents guiding a celebrity by the elbows and urging the kids to clear a path.
Unfortunately, within minutes I was hot, claustrophobic, and disoriented even while sitting. Also, I could barely see the children who were at my feet, some of whom were murmuring “Is he real?” and plucking at my ankles. I tried to hide my socks but my big fluffy hands could not adjust my outfit. Mercifully, the event ended quickly, and the moms helped me escape the gym before Clifford passed out. But he (and I) learned to take future “swarming crowd” warnings seriously.
While my daughters approved my Clifford appearance, a few years later it was a different story (and costume). Before consulting with my daughters, I had agreed to don the costume of “Honey Bear,” who looked a lot like a certain bear who loves honey but for licensing reasons was called by a different name. When my youngest daughter, Lindsay, learned of this plan, she complained: “Aw Dad, why do you always have to be an animal? Why can’t you just be a regular dad?”
Her question reminded me of a family exchange one night at dinner when my oldest, Lauren, was getting increasingly embarrassed by some of my bad jokes.
“You are so Dad,” she said to me while shaking her head and half-smiling.
“Who do you want him to be?” my wife asked.
“Less Dad,” she replied.
Clever wordplay, I thought, but how do you achieve that costume? Granted, I knew what she meant, especially as the girls approached middle school age. As all parents learn, new phases of children’s development call for new parental costumes. As children grow older and more self-conscious, they often want “less Dad” (and “less Mom”). Especially when it comes to interactions with their peers.
Lindsay made this bittersweet lesson of parenting perfectly clear to me recently. While I would not be donning an actual costume, I was slated to be a chaperone on her middle school trip. When she found out about the plan, she said: “Dad, on the trip, you can’t do what you do.”
When I asked her what she meant, she acted out a series of my go-to quips, one-liners, mouth noises and gesticulations — all the props from my many “Dad” costumes that have built up over the years, you might say. I had to laugh, but then I realized that on the trip I had to be virtually “no Dad,” a kind of emotionless impostor of a father. Visions of the human duplicates from the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers flooded my mind.
I am happy to report that the trip went well. I managed to keep my usual antics to a minimum. In a costume change of Big-Red-Dog proportions, I was able to morph myself into a hollowed-out shell of a parent, which pleased my unembarrassed daughter immensely. I guess sometimes “less” Dad (or Mom) really is more.