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RELUCTANT NOVICE

'My Three Sons' Put a 'Dad' to the Disneyland Test : A friend's boys--ages 4, 5 and 6--take a fortyish male on a long ride to Anaheim.

June 17, 1993|PATRICK McCARTNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. McCartney is an area free-lance writer

You never thought your male, 40-something biological clock would tick so loudly. But as the last of your old gang submits to wedding bells--and the inevitable infant cries that follow--it is now impossible to deny.

Listening to the proud-parent stories of buddies you used to hang with brings about a certain uneasiness.

You, after all, have never had children of your own. Never married, for that matter. Still, you've always believed that, given the chance, you'd make the perfect dad.

You certainly have all the right stuff for it: humor, compassion and patience. Enough of the latter, in fact, that you secretly think you could out-father any of your buddies.

Isn't the fact that your four nieces are always happy to see you proof enough?

But a friend and single mother named April is skeptical. Good parenting, she says, is like a chef with a counter full of food. You have to know how to mix it all together.

To prove yourself, she offers you a challenge. Would you be interested in trying your hand at parenting her three children--with her looking on from the sidelines--for just one day?

A piece of cake, you answer.

But April then ups the ante with a knowing smirk: Even if you all go to Disneyland? The kids have never been there.

April's children, you know, are not just any kids. They are boys--ages 4, 5 and 6--with enough restless energy to power L. A. for a year. On the other hand, you reason, it couldn't be that hard a task. If the woman before you can raise children, balance a job and also juggle a heavy schedule of classes, surely one day of fatherhood should be a snap.

You accept.

The day arrives, and April and her boys excitedly pile into your car at daybreak. As you all head south on the freeway, you imagine the impressive job of car-behavior management you will do. This will be your chance to apply--in the field, as it were--all those child-development theories, parent-effectiveness articles and decades of Dear Abby columns you've faithfully read over the years.

At first, the boys are well-behaved, content to bang their heads against the seat cushions in the back of the car for amusement. You are further encouraged when Daniel, sensitive and a little shy at 6, settles down and stares pensively out the window.

But the feeling of comfort is short-lived.

Daniel's extroverted brother, 5-year-old Jonathon, begins peppering you with a nonstop battery of questions when he's not squirming or bouncing on the seat as if it were a trampoline.

"Are all these cars going to Disneyland too? Why are those buildings so tall? When are we going to stop?"

It is then that you worry for the first time about your ability to entertain all three kids. The concern is intensified when, less than halfway to Anaheim, the boys' enthusiasm wanes and they grow peevish.

You chuckled the first time they asked how much longer it will be, but now your answers to the same question--repeated every few minutes--have grown terse.

"We'll get there when we get there," you finally say, an unmistakable edge of irritation in your voice.

When you glance at April, an indulgent smile flickers across her lips. For a brief moment, you feel a spasm of uncertainty and sense your authority has begun to crumble.

Finally, you arrive at the Magic Kingdom. After organizing enough gear to outfit a Sierra pack train, you join a stream of families entering the park and lecture the boys, over the din of voices, about the importance of staying close in the crowd.

Shepherding them through wall-to-wall humanity, however, proves tougher than imagined. Each one darts away from your watchful gaze more than once, causing momentary panic and screams from you before he is relocated. You fight a growing impulse to bark orders and scold them when they disobey.

Ahead is the ride, "It's A Small World." You remember the first time you saw it, when you were already too old and sophisticated to appreciate the puppet-children singing a relentlessly upbeat anthem of brotherhood.

But the children display an unbridled sense of wonder. "That's my favorite!" Daniel gushes afterward.

A feeling of vicarious wonder comes over you: What's hokey to you holds magic for them.

But your day as a parent is about to meet its toughest test. Soon you are in a grueling, half-hour wait for Space Mountain, Disneyland's indoor roller coaster.

As the minutes crawl by and the line advances with the speed of someone groping for a lost contact lens, Jonathon suddenly snaps.

He will not, he announces, wait any longer. He stops, refusing to budge, and wraps his hand in a death grip around a banister.

You place your hand calmly on his shoulder. "Please join us," you say in a reasonable, adult voice.

No effect.

As the line begins to move--and Jonathon remains motionless, blocking the path--people backed up in the line behind him grow fidgety. You can see the question form in their eyes: How will you react?

You do not know yourself.

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