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Dad's Side: When Grandma Knows it All

From deep within my brain, I can pull up a memory of my parents teaching me how to tie my shoes. Something, I believe, about bunny ears. I also have a vague recollection of being shown how to button a shirt. Years later, my dad showed me how to tie a Windsor knot. And now that I'm a parent, my mom and dad are still teaching me how to dress.

That sentence didn't come out the way I intended. I meant that they're teaching me how to dress my two daughters. Especially in the earliest of our first baby Isabelle's days, we would have the same conversation every visit: "She must be freezing. You're letting her wear that?" my mom would ask. "No, of course not," I'd stammer, looking down at our 3-month-old. "Your real granddaughter is in the car, dressed much, much warmer. Oh my God, whose baby is this?"

Actually, I wish I could think that fast on my feet. Usually, I just stammer something incoherent as my dad runs to turn up the thermostat and my mom hands me a newspaper clipping about a baby who recently developed frostbite because her father was carting her around in too few layers.

Now, I should say right here, before my mom relegates me to the kiddie table next Thanksgiving, that my mother and father are wonderful parents and grandparents. I love them very much, and whenever my wife, Susan, and I visit them with our girls, there's usually little  -- if any  -- tension. But then, every once in a while, it happens: I'll go for a visit without Susan, and my parents will ambush me. Just like in the movies, when a poor clod is whacked over the head with a shovel, I never see it coming.

Because they have a great relationship with Susan and want to keep it that way, my parents package their advice for us and deliver it to me. Especially my mom. Sleeping habits, eating habits, burping, proper ventilation in the house, germs, allergies, and pet safety...if it's even mildly baby-related, my mother has given me advice on it over the course of Isabelle's and our second daughter Lorelei's young lives. My mom has been in the nursing field for more than 30 years, so she's aware that there's danger out there  -- maybe too aware. For instance, I once had an allergic reaction to a guinea pig when I was a boy, and so now anytime the girls get a sniffle, my mother eyes our pets  -- one dog and four cats at last count  -- with suspicion. And Isabelle's thin hair, she kept insisting, was due to bad nutrition, something our pediatrician disputed.

There was also one long stretch when Isabelle would wake up in the middle of the night and refuse to sleep for hours. My mother called me almost every day for months, asking how the baby had done the night before. I appreciated her concern, but I guess old habits die hard. Like probably most guys out there (Ray Romano made a fortune from a sitcom based on this subject), I still like pleasing my parents, and if I admitted that Isabelle had woken up again during the night, my mom's voice would crack. She always sounded wounded, like she had discovered me in the kitchen, rifling through her purse.Eventually, just to make her happy, I would lie and tell her that Isabelle had slept fine (I know, I know  -- I'm going to be sitting at that little table the rest of my life).

Geoff Williams is a Babytalk contributing editor.

Pandora's box of parenting advice

My dad, a stockbroker, enjoys games of one-upmanship. He often volunteers to put Lorelei down for her nap. I try to be helpful by offering him some tips on the best way to get her to sleep, but he looks at me like I have the brainpower of a chipmunk. "You know," my father will say, "I've done this sort of thing a few times before." "Well, sure," I begin, "but every baby is different, and maybe I've rocked Lorelei enough to-"

He dismisses me like a Rockefeller sending an errand boy to wash the car. My dad also enjoys reminding me that back in his day of diapering, they used safety pins, not plastic tape, and that somehow he and Mom managed to get through life without baby monitors. This is when I keep expecting him to add, "When I was parenting at your age, I had to do it walking to school uphill in five feet of snow."

And once, after my dad noticed we didn't have a blanket in the trunk of our car, he began forecasting a day of doom, one in which our car would get stuck in a snowdrift, with the heat and cell phone out. We'd be marooned in the car, all shivering and wishing we had only listened to him and put a blanket in the trunk! Then one December day, my transmission blew out on I-275. Granted, it was in the afternoon, our heat and cell phone worked, and within 45 minutes, my mother and father  -- smirking, I think  -- picked the four of us up. Now, even in August, we keep a blanket in the car.

The truth is, once Pandora's box of parenting advice is opened  -- that is, once your parents feel comfortable offering you their childcare advice  -- the results can be exhausting. (Uh, I meant exhilarating, Mom. Sigh. I just know I'm going to be sitting at the kiddie table.) Because when my parents and I rumble about childcare, one of two things usually happens. Either I turn into a 10-year-old, meekly complying with their suggestions, or I become a rebellious teenager, spouting out spirited but ridiculous defenses that I don't believe a word of: "Isabelle's our baby, her wardrobe is our decision, and if we want to, we'll slather her in tree sap!"

I have had my moments of truth, though. Every once in a while, I'm able to stand my ground as a grown-up and offer a firm, logical defense: "Mom, Dad, I appreciate your suggestions, but these are my children, not yours," I have said, just before quickly adding, "And I didn't dress them. Susan did."

I know where I went wrong: From the beginning, I've given my parents the idea that I'm a hapless dad who needs all the help he can get. (Let's not concern ourselves with whether or not that's true.) And so I hope expectant dads will accept some coaching. It's too late for me, but you can still save yourselves.

When your parents see you and your new baby for the first time, it's the mark of a new era, a new chapter in your lives. When you become a father  -- no matter what your age  -- it's finally clear to your folks that you've become a man.

Until you open your mouth, that is. Once you do that, forget it  -- unless you can somehow demonstrate that you are completely on top of this baby thing and that you know exactly what you're doing with a newborn. In other words, fake it. By not faking it, I gave my parents the impression that I'm a high school freshman in the body of a 36-year-old. As a result, my mother has worried about our children, sometimes more than my wife and I do.

I'm not, incidentally, suggesting that new dads never ask their parents for advice on parenting. They brought you into the world, and they've been there for you  -- for all your bruised knees, science fair projects, romantic breakups, and financial jams. But when asking for insight, do it subtly. Pretend that you already have the know-how to solve your problem  -- and as they offer their tips on handling newborns, look thoughtful, as if you're considering their ideas but may go another route. Attend a few weeks of acting school beforehand, if you must. Otherwise your parents are going to typecast you for the rest of their lives as the dad without a clue.

Finally, make a vow not to offer unsolicited advice to your kids when they become parents. Don't offer the helpful hints. And when you think of sharing stories of how you used to parent in your day, don't. I know I'm not going to go that route. Once my daughters are mothers, they're on their own. Unless, of course, I notice that they're doing something wrong.