Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Preparing for life's big changes

From Saturday's Briefing:

It's not even Christmas, but we're planning Spring Break 2017, and the same question keeps running through my head: How did we get here so fast?

This year's spring break will be a road trip devoted to visiting college campuses for my 15-year-old, halfway through his sophomore year of high school, eager to find an engineering school that fits.

Is Cooper ready for full-fledged college independence? Not yet.

He's struggling to wake up to an alarm clock. He's tried sleeping with the clock next to his bed, but he would turn it off and fall back asleep. So he moved it across the room, presumably forcing him to get out of bed and perhaps wake up enough to stay out of bed.

Nope. Instead, the new location prevents him from hearing the alarm at all, and he sleeps through incessant beeping until I open the door and wake him.

We've got two and a half (super fast) years to find a solution for the alarm plus some time management and priority issues.

The good news: He's got a whole bunch of other life skills down, partly the product of years as a Boy Scout and living in a home with a single mom. He can prepare simple meals and, if pressed, take care of laundry. He takes out the trash, changes light bulbs, moves furniture, can access the attic on his own.

This week Cooper noticed that my tire light was on. The next day he was in the driveway, checking the pressure on each minivan tire.

He's a problem solver with initiative. He can carry on a conversation with adults. He can advocate for himself.

We've casually visited a few colleges already, more as tourists than as prospective student and parent. These days, he fits right in, standing 6-feet-3, walking and speaking with confidence.

To strangers, perhaps Cooper already looks like college material. The two of us ate dinner out last weekend, and the waiter offered him a wine list. (We both declined and enjoyed sparkling water instead.) He ate caviar for the first time and instantly approved.

After, we attended a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert. All those years of children's theater performances - and expectations about staying seated, staying quiet and applauding politely - paid off. He has impeccable concert manners. Years of music instruction have paid off, too. He knows more about music than I do, and filled me in during intermission.

Am I ready for him to leave? Not yet.

Everyone tells you that the time flies by, and I totally believed them all, but nothing compares to actually experiencing it.

The shift from total dependence to near independence somehow happens gradually and all at once. This evolution is especially poignant during the holiday season, when my memories of toddler Cooper, mesmerized by the magic of Christmas, blur with teen Cooper, on whom I now rely to decorate the very top of our tree.

The well of holiday memories is deep - annual visits with Santa, candlelight at Dallas Heritage Village, Children's parade downtown, strolls through NorthPark, Christmas Eve with grandparents, gifts and baked French toast on Christmas morning. Some of those traditions we've outgrown, others we'll continue long after our schedules aren't defined by a school calendar.

How did we get here so fast? With little moments we no longer remember and lessons that scaffold with each passing year and big moments we'll never forget.
Are we ever really ready for the next big step? Our readiness is irrelevant - they happen regardless. We adapt, we live the new normal, and we eventually celebrate the memories we've created. We keep moving forward.

Tyra Damm is a Dallas native, veteran journalist, fourth-grade teacher and Dallas Morning News Briefing columnist since 2008. She lives in Frisco and writes about family life and parenting. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com

Friday, November 11, 2016

There's more to group projects than meets the eye

From tomorrow's Briefing:

The longer I teach, the better I understand that the classroom offers a bundle of lessons beyond the district curriculum and my plans -- for both student and teacher.
Take this week, for example, as my fourth-graders have been researching extreme weather events.
I divided students into groups of three, four or five and assigned a topic: tornado, tsunami, earthquake, flood or hurricane. For homework, each student gathered resources, and the next day they received questions to guide their research.
I allowed each group to divvy up roles. Students decided who was responsible for researching causes, effects or safety precautions. I stepped back and listened.
Some groups divided tasks quickly and wasted no time getting to work. Others negotiated, wheedled, demanded and whined, eventually settled on roles, then started reading and taking notes.
Without fault, after tasks were claimed, every single group worked cooperatively. They shared books, articles and video links. One student, responsible for causes of earthquakes, found an interesting long-term outcome and eagerly shared it with her teammate in charge of effects. Some groups couldn't contain their curiosity and attacked all the questions together.
Officially, they were practicing nonfiction skills: setting a purpose for reading, making connections, asking questions, summarizing, synthesizing. Less overtly, yet just as crucially, they were practicing their collaboration skills.
These 9- and 10-year-olds are working toward a common goal. They want to perform well as individuals (almost all of them are conscientious about following directions and earning all available points on the scoring rubric), yet they also support one another and revel in shared discovery and success.
They represent families who are native Texans and families who immigrated in the 21st century. They all speak English, and many speak or understand at least one other language. They represent at least four major faith traditions.
Some are athletes; others chess players. Some dance competitively; others spend most of their free time playing video games.
They squabble about the rules of four square and freeze tag. They irritate one another. They compete for first in line for lunch. They have started to sort themselves into cliques.
Give them a problem to solve, though, and they are all onboard. They don't necessarily set aside their differences; instead, they capitalize on them.
Some students have background knowledge about hurricanes because they've lived near a coast. Some have relatives who've been affected by flooding or earthquakes. Many have grown up terrified of -- or fascinated by -- the tornadoes that plague North Texas every spring.
Some fourth-graders are online research whiz kids. Others are lightning fast with an old-fashioned table of contents and index, narrowing in on topics faster than you can boot up your laptop. Some record extensive notes in precise handwriting. Others scribble efficient (and sometimes incomplete) phrases.
These young people, all 41 in my charge this year, inspire my optimism for our future. They are the antidote to the vitriol and doomsday declarations from both extremes in our country.
These children -- and millions of others just like them across our nation -- remind us that kindness bears civility, that compromise is possible, that strength lies in our differences, that we are greater together than we are torn apart.
Our children -- every single one, without distinction -- deserve a country in which the adults take notice and start to model our behavior on theirs.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

When you run short on time, make your own

From Saturday's Briefing:

My Katie aspires to publish poetry and books.
It's the career goal that's endured the longest in her 11 years, outlasting paleontologist, veterinarian and artist.
I offer advice while she's still amenable (before the full-on teen years hit). I encourage her to read voraciously, practice writing daily and visit with as many people as she can. I promote taking risks and trying new approaches.
I tell her to prepare for the cold, dark writing winter -- the days haunted by a lack of ideas or coherent thoughts -- by gathering ideas and details all year.
"Store acorns for the days you desperately need food," I occasionally tell her. "Act like a squirrel."
Much more often, though, she hears from me words like:
"Move with a purpose."
"Don't dawdle."
"Let's go!"
We have meals to make and eat, laundry to clean and fold, homework to complete, words to study, songs to practice, deadlines to meet, people to see. There's little time to mess around or look around.
There are moments every now and then when she's putting on shoes or brushing her hair or eating a quick meal from the comfort of the minivan because we've simply run out of minutes to complete those necessary tasks in the home.
There are evenings when all three of us collapse in the family room, exhausted from the running around that comes with being engaged and involved and possibly slightly overcommitted, and we take turns describing our day, with nary a mention of respite or relaxation.
Therefore I've become an unwitting contradiction, imploring my children to enjoy each day as a gift while also imploring them to keep up the pace (and plotting ahead to the next possible morning that we can all wake without an alarm clock).
Katie's living a full life, which will certainly offer fodder for writing, but does she have enough time to reflect on it? Does she have time to gather and sort acorns?
Apparently she's making time on her own.
A friend and neighbor recently shared with me how Katie walks to school in the mornings. She strolls. She ponders. She examines tiny details. She absorbs the world at her feet and fingertips.
I'm forever finding little notes around the house. She writes encouraging phrases on the chalkboard near her bed.
She's doing a little plotting of her own. She talks about living in a tiny cottage near the coast and the mountains, preferably in Oregon or Maine. She's invited me to live nearby, though not in the same home because she doesn't want anything too big and she plans to have a family of her own.
Last week, she and I were admiring the moon from our quiet, flat suburban street, when she sighed and remarked, "I need to live where I can stare at the moon through a canopy of trees."
She's soaking up details and storing them away. She's finding time to daydream and consider and observe. It's too early to predict what career path she'll ultimately take, but I have no doubt that whatever she chooses, she'll pursue it with passion -- and at her own pace.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Monday, October 17, 2016

How I address current events with my kids

From Saturday's Briefing:

I wish we lived in a world in which we didn’t have to read about or hear about or worry about the really tough stuff -- like cancer, violent crime, drug and alcohol addiction, acts of hate, lying and cheating, sexual assault.

Yet we do.

We live in a beautiful, broken world. We are lovely, flawed people.

I’m never more aware of our frailty and vulnerability as I am when addressing current events with my children.

Long gone are the days of sheltering them from news. Instead, I’m constantly equipping them with what I hope are valuable antidotes and coping skills for a challenging present and future.

What’s working so far: an emphasis on our faith, with weekly worship services, daily prayer and conversations and questions about God; constant gathering of facts and opinions to understand issues from multiple viewpoints; and organic conversations that bubble up based on our interests and a whole bunch of events outside of our control.

As I gather advice and opinions, I share what’s relevant. For example, a recent New York Times article by Maia Szalavitz describes four traits that make young people susceptible to addiction: sensation-seeking, impulsiveness, anxiety sensitivity and hopelessness.

The article offered a relevant opportunity to talk (again) about illegal substances and taking care of our bodies.

Cooper and Katie already know that there’s a history of addiction in my family, and they know that’s why I’ve chosen not to drink alcohol. Because they have no modeling at home for moderation, we talk about what responsible drinking looks like.

It’s an ongoing conversation, with increasing importance given their ages and freedoms and widening circles of friends.

So, over the weekend I told them about the article on addiction, and we discussed risk factors and consequences of drug and alcohol abuse.

The same day, we had another crucial conversation -- this one about sexual assault.

(Never did I anticipate that a presidential election would take us down such a path, but here we are, and there’s no going back, so now we’ve got to address it.)

I wanted each of them -- one a boy, one a girl -- to hear the same words.

You are the best advocate for yourself.

Your body belongs to you. You are responsible for the food you eat and the exercise you do (or don’t do). You regulate how much water you drink and how many hours you sleep.

You get to control who touches you and who doesn’t. If you don’t want to be hugged, say so (politely, of course). If someone is too close, find a kind way to move away.

No one is allowed to touch any part of you, especially a part that would be covered by a swimsuit, without your permission.

You owe every single human the same respect you want for your own body.

The only body that belongs to you is yours. You are not allowed to force anyone to eat or drink something they don’t want. You are not allowed to force yourself on anyone else. Keep your hands to yourself unless otherwise given permission.

Do you understand? Do you have any questions? Do you promise to tell me or another trusted adult any time you are unsure?

These kinds of conversations are never easy, though they become less awkward the more often we have them. I’d rather have slightly uncomfortable discussions than live with regret of unspoken words.

It’s a tough job, preparing our imperfect children for an imperfect world. Perhaps, though, this generation will grow up to curb dishonesty and violence and to salve the wounds we’re creating today.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Our kids need to face adversity to truly grow

My son has many passions. Running. Hiking and camping. Cycling. Marching.
Every single one of those activities is on hold.
Cooper is in the middle of healing from a stress fracture at the base of his fibula, directly above his left ankle. The pain began at a cross country meet and totally debilitated him during practice a few days later.
So he's wearing a walking boot to give his ankle time to rest, and he's not suiting up with his team, enjoying the outdoors with his troop, riding his bike to school or marching at halftime.
This is when my theories on a growth mind-set are totally tested.
Children need to learn how to handle disappointment, frustration and heartache. They need to develop perspective and healthy coping skills.
I embrace the idea that grit is an essential trait for success.
The trouble with grit, though, is that you've got to go through adversity to practice.
It's a challenge I face daily as a mom and a teacher.
I want my children, the two who live in my home and the 41 who learn in my classroom, to develop passionate perseverance. I want them prepared to tackle big problems. I want them to face challenges with cheerful spirits and happy hearts.
I just don't want them to actually face the pain -- the physical aches, the emotional trials, the mental strain -- that accompanies those challenges.
It's an irrational wish, of course. We all face challenges. We all suffer. We all make mistakes. We can't shelter our children from every stumble -- and we create potential damage when we try.
When a child struggles with a particular reading skill, for example, she deserves to know. We name the skill, indicate where she is now, set a goal for where she needs to go and work toward that goal, one step at a time. It's powerful to watch a child persevere toward a goal and incredibly rewarding to celebrate with her once she's achieved it.
If a child continually leaves homework at home, and you continually deliver it for him instead of allowing the natural consequence of a late grade, he will never learn to bring the homework himself.
It's the same with grief. When a child faces a loss, -- death of a loved one, divorce, broken relationship -- she needs to acknowledge the pain and rely on trusted adults to foster appropriate coping skills. Allowing or forcing the child -- or worse, forcing the child -- to ignore the grief fails to make room for valuable healing and tools for the next, inevitable loss.
The most recent X-ray of Cooper's ankle reveals a cloud of protective cells over the fracture, indicating that the body is working toward healing. He won't be down forever -- just a small blip in a big timeline.
Cooper has handled his injury with grace. He never complains about the clunky boot. He continues to attend band practice and games, albeit with a smaller role. We talk frequently about the long-term goal -- to be completely healed so that he can enjoy an active lifestyle his whole life -- to help him get through the short-term disappointment of missing his favorite fall activities.
He's building inner strength now, and he'll have time to rebuild strength in his leg later. He's got miles to run, mountains to climb, trails to bike and music to play. I suspect he'll tackle them all with gratitude and a renewed zest when time allows.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Before long, your novice kid may be a little musician

From today's Briefing:

I’ve just said goodbye to Cooper and Katie, who are studying at home while I take care of grocery shopping before the week begins.
I’m half a mile from home, stopped at a traffic light, when the phone rings. It’s Cooper, the child who rarely calls. He’s more of a texting sort.
My heart, conditioned over 15 years of parenting, feels heavy as I answer. Something terrible must have happened for him to call so soon after my departure.
There’s dramatic wailing as I say hello. The news is worse than I imagined.
“What’s wrong?” I demand.
“It’s awful!”
“The noise! Can you make her practice outside?”
My heart rate slows. I start to breathe normally.
“Cooper, your sister does not have to practice playing her oboe reed outside. We endured weeks of squeaky clarinet playing when you were in sixth grade. We all have to start somewhere. Be nice.”
This is no emergency. This is the beginning of sixth-grade band.
Beginner band requires patience from all: students, who long to play entire songs yet still struggle to properly assemble their instruments; band directors, who inherit children with varying abilities and musical backgrounds; and family members, who listen to the squeaks and squeals without grimacing or complaining. (Well, not too much.)
It’s also an experience worth savoring.
I admit to fleeing the house a few times when Cooper began clarinet. I couldn’t wait until he started playing recognizable tunes, with notes neither too sharp nor too flat.
Then, all of the sudden, it seemed, he was playing mostly discernable melodies. In no time, we were attending the first concert of the year, at which a whole gaggle of sixth-graders managed to keep a beat, hit the right notes at the right time and remain silent the rest of the time.
As with so many other rites of passage, I’m trying to hold on a little longer the second time around. I know how fast these baby musicians become more experienced, how quickly the squeaks settle down. I want to enjoy the fleeting early days.
I want to remember Katie’s eagerness to practice the proper way to sit and to care for her reeds. I want to remember the unadulterated glee with which she exclaimed, “In band today, we actually got to play the oboe! I played an actual note! It was clear!”
I want to remember the day I was still at work and received via text message an audio file of Katie playing the first four measures of “Hot Cross Buns.” I could hear her posture and pride in every note.
Are they the most beautiful notes I’ve ever heard? Not exactly. They have a slightly disarming gooselike quality — a sound that soon enough will be replaced with a little more grace and a little less squawk.
There’s a whole lot of enthusiasm behind those notes, though, certain to fuel her willingness to practice at least 20 minutes a day. And in no time, she’ll be sitting on the cafeteria stage with dozens of other musicians, contributing to a bigger sound and bigger purpose.
Those band kids will receive applause from adoring fans — those family members who stayed in the room for cacophonic practices, who grinned even when it was tough, who wanted to escape, and even those who grumbled once or twice.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Lessons for the middle school mom

From Saturday's Briefing:

My baby begins middle school in two days, and so far I haven’t cried once. Not at the pep rally. Not at schedule pick-up and orientation. Not during the hour she practiced opening her locker and walking from room to room.
This is growth worth celebrating, people.
We’ve got Katie’s big brother to thank for my calm demeanor. He trained me to be a middle-school mom. What did he teach me? Oh, the list is long and includes:
Patience: Sixth grade often means a new musical instrument. A new musical instrument often means your home will be filled with out-of-tune, squeaky notes that don’t yet resemble a single song you’ve ever hummed. If the noise is just too irritating, try taking a walk or vacuuming on the other side of the house.
Above all else, be patient. You’ll eventually attend the winter concert, perched on the edge of your seat, scanning the crowd of musicians for your hard-working child. Your composure will be rewarded with a song or two that actually sound familiar, and you’ll marvel at the talents of middle school music directors, who wield superhuman powers of patience.
Grace: When Cooper started sixth grade, I thought a successful transition to middle school would take about six weeks. The first grading period came and went, and we were still in transition mode, with trials related to how to remember to bring home the correct materials each day, how to remember when assignments are due, how to meet so many teachers’ varying expectations. 
That’s when I adjusted my expectations and defined all of sixth grade as his transition time. That one shift in thinking reminded me of the importance of grace.
Value of making mistakes: Cooper left his clarinet at home one morning. After he’d walked off the bus and into school, he realized his mistake. I received his text as I was parking at my office, about 10 miles from campus. 
I left the minivan running and considered driving home to pick up the instrument and deliver it to school. I reasoned that my boss would understand, and I wanted to help my son avoid disappointment. 
It was a short-lived thought. I know better than to rescue unless necessary. I know better than to try to shield a child from disappointment. I know it’s my job to help that child cope with disappointment. 
So I turned off the ignition and texted him a quick reply, something like, “So sorry you forgot!” 
He was embarrassed during class. He received a 70 for a participation grade that day. He has never once forgotten his instrument since.
Power of taking risks: Middle school offers opportunities to try out new interests — maybe robotics or tennis or graphic design. There’s less pressure on students to excel at everything, with an emphasis instead on learning new skills.
Cooper showed up for cross country practice one day, kept coming back and improved a little each meet. He competed in the science fair one year and Future City the next. The stakes were low, but the rewards — working with a team, practicing the scientific method — were high. He starts his sophomore year in high school Monday, a member of the marching band and cross country team and a second-year engineering student.
I don’t know what kinds of mistakes Katie will make or what kinds of risks she’ll take. I don’t know how often I’ll need to rely on patience and grace. That element of the unknown is what makes the whole adventure slightly terrifying but mostly exciting. 
The new school year is worth celebrating. And if you see me crying Monday morning, I expect they’ll be tears of joy for my baby, the girl whose hand I love to hold and whose hand I know I must gradually let go. 
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

From Katie's 2nd-grade journal (rediscovered today)

Translated: I had a problem about my Dad. He had a tumor. When he went to the hospital, the doctors tried to take it out. They could not. So he got special care. One day my cousins and my aunt were at my house and my Dad died. 

Though the topic is tragic, I am so thankful for this record of what Katie remembers about Steve, three years after his death. Her abbreviated version reveals what mattered most to her at he time: her dad, the people who cared for him and the love that surrounded him and all of us when he died. 

This is always a rough season for me. August 2009 was when Steve felt the very worst. He was in pain, he had lost all mobility, his independence was gone.

But he was loved beyond measure. And he was approaching peace about his waning days. 

The rest of Katie's second-grade journal offers joyful memories -- parasailing in Florida, seeing The Lion King on Broadway, riding a train on the Sharkarosa field trip, reading at the library. Steve didn't get to experience these moments with his KT, but it's the life he wanted for her and for Coop and for me. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Real-world family bonding, thanks to Pokemon Go

From Saturday's Briefing:

We’re running out of summertime.
It happens every year, of course, but it’s jarring just the same. As soon as you get in the groove of swimming pool visits and late-night popsicles, it’s time to buy 24 pre-sharpened pencils and wide-rule, loose-leaf notebook paper.
In between school supply missions and doctor’s visits, the kids and I are enjoying last-minute morsels of freedom.
For me, that means some guilty pleasure binge- watching, a couple more novels (historical fiction has been my go-to genre this season), dinners with friends and a little bit of quiet time, away from everything, including my people.
That hasn’t been difficult to arrange, because my people are currently a little obsessed with catching those Pokemon critters with their smartphones. (The idea of an augmented reality app on a tiny handheld computer/ phone device seems totally normal now, but I can’t help but pause in awe and a tiny bit of bewilderment of the world we live in.)
Some are a little more engrossed in Pokemon Go than others. Cooper is a Level 17 (though possibly higher by publication time), and Katie is halfway through Level 10. I sit unabashedly at a pathetic Level 3, as I would rather spend my free time with the activities mentioned above.
Brother and sister are four years apart, but age doesn’t matter in Pokemon. They talk at length about hatching eggs and evolving Eevees, about their highest combat power Pokemon and which gyms to attack.
When Katie catches a flying creature (they can be difficult), Cooper compliments her. He also offers brotherly advice, which I partly understand, such as:
“I don’t know why you waste all of your star dust on a Raticate when you could be saving it for a better Pokemon later on.”
They even choose to be on the same team: Mystic, more commonly known as the blue team. 
I’m enjoying the sibling harmony, so much so that sometimes I’ll even change my route to accommodate the young hunters. The long way home from church offers more Pokestops (the places you can get Pokeballs, which allow you to capture the animated guys) and more options for catching. 
Cooper is willing — eager, even — to run errands with me, because you never know what’s out there. And while he’s in the front seat next to me, we have bonus conversations. 
We’ve gone on extra walks around the neighborhood. We’ve discovered new neighborhoods. We’ve discussed density patterns and how they affect the availability of Pokemon to catch.
Even with my fondness for the month-old game, I have my limits. When we were on vacation last week, I placed some Pokemon moratoriums, delivered in my best mom voice:
“It’s not every day we drive along the Pacific Coast, so put your phone away.” 
“We don’t have trees this tall anywhere in Texas. Look out the window instead of at your phone.”
“How many more Pokeballs do you actually need?” 
As summer fades, I expect Pokemon will, too, at least at our house. We’re about to be engulfed in homework and band practice. Mornings will be rushed. School nights will be too hectic for games of any kind.
In no time, real reality will push augmented reality aside. Gone, too, will be afternoons at the pool and Gilmore Girls marathons and chocolate- dipped soft-serve cones because it’s a Tuesday. 
We’re holding on as long as we can. 
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.