Thursday, July 28, 2011

The calendar doesn't lie

From today's Briefing:

Twenty-five days.
Depending on your point of view, that number either strikes fear into your heart or sets your heart afire.
Twenty-five days until school starts.
Historically by this time of summer, I’m counting the days because it’s long past time to return my children to the loving, firm care of folks with degrees in education and child development. Usually by now, my supply of summer patience has been irreversibly depleted.
This time last year, the arguing between Cooper and Katie had reached unprecedented levels. They were tired of each other and of my proposed solutions to their problems.
We’re in a different place this year. They still argue, of course. They aren’t robots. But the bickering is tolerable, understandable even, considering their age difference and varying interests and inclination to grow weary of being around the same person for long stretches while trapped indoors because we’re enduring the hottest summer of their lives.
Plus, our summer list has some unfulfilled wishes. We haven’t slurped a snow cone from Frisco’s legendary Snow Cone Lady. We haven’t walked through the ocean tunnel at the new Sea Life Aquarium in Grapevine. We have four more chapters until we reach the end of Anne of Green Gables; then we hope to watch one of the related miniseries.
All three of us are avoiding giant back-to-school displays in stores. We’re clinging to later-than-usual bedtimes and lazy mornings and impromptu adventures.
In years past, I’ve planned summer vacation for June. We’re eager to get out of town and out of our routines. But that left us homebound for the hottest, longest days of the season.
And while we had recent memories to reminisce over, we didn’t have a getaway to look forward to.
So I turned the calendar upside down. Our big vacation, to a land where water falls from the sky in August and temperatures rarely climb out of the 70s, ends just before school starts.
(Check back with me in 25 days, after I’ve been snapped out of denial and I’ve rushed around to get ready for school, to see if this was really a bright idea.)
I realize not everyone shares my reluctance for summer to end.
Before June was even over I made small talk with a mom in the grocery store. She was herding three young children through the aisles.
“It’s time for school to start again,” she lamented, unable to suppress her whine as she re-shelved items pulled down by busy little hands.
Most of the area’s day camps and vacation Bible school programs and library magic shows have closed shop, giving parents fewer options for inexpensive or free entertainment.
Outdoor swimming pools, baking for weeks in unrelenting heat, have lost their refreshing punch.
This week a brave mom brought five children to the neighborhood pool — three of her own, two friends. The preteen girls didn’t agree with mom over placement of chairs. They couldn’t suppress their attitude.
“When does school start again?” the mom, too worn out for a fight, asked.
Twenty-five days. Use them wisely.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, July 25, 2011

After church yesterday

(After Cooper served during two worship services -- playing two hymns on the piano for the prelude and performing a magic trick for children's time.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Should I change my mind on Angry Birds at dinner?

From today's Briefing:

The kids and I recently ate dinner at a nicer-than-usual restaurant. The kind with real tablecloths, dim lighting and entrees costing up to $30.

As we waited for our food, the three of us played dots and boxes with paper and pen. Cooper was in the middle, so he had a game going with Katie on one side and me on the other. We talked and joked as we conspired to draw boxes.

We were the only family in the restaurant not relying on an electronic device.

I counted four other tables with children, and each child was holding a phone or computer tablet or handheld video game. Every single child was focused on a tiny screen. Not a single child required interaction from nearby adults.

I’ve had an internal debate ever since.

Am I old-fashioned for not allowing my children to play with screens at the dinner table? Should I accept iPhones and iPads as just another version of coloring pages?

Should hard-working, loving adults be allowed the opportunity to eat a nice meal prepared by someone else without little voices interrupting? Or are they obligated at every opportunity to teach their children the art of polite conversation and eye contact?

I’ve wondered the same thing at Cub Scout events. During this year’s Pinewood Derby, boys gathered around their Nintendo DS consoles all over the school cafeteria during other boys’ races. If their cars weren’t zooming down the track, they retreated to a pixelized world.

Was I wrong for asking Cooper to steer clear of other people’s video games and instead cheer for Scouts not in his age group?

I’ve wondered the same thing at church, where I’ve seen children playing muted video games during the sermon. My instinct is that it’s disrespectful, and yet I have no problem allowing my children to doodle on the bulletin during the same sermon.

My debate stretches beyond video screens. Should I care at all what other families are doing, as long as my own family follows our values?

What’s wrong with me that I am bothered by someone else’s child, in the next pew, playing Angry Birds? Shouldn’t I be confident enough in my own parenting choices to not be ruffled by different choices around me?

Parenting is a lot easier when my rules match everyone else’s. Everyone I know agrees that running into the street without looking both ways is wrong. No child I know balks when chastised for running into the street recklessly — it’s expected that any nearby adult or even another child is going to holler, “Stop!”

Parents all around me — excellent parents who love their children and want the best for them, just like me — have different opinions on most everything else. Caffeine and sugar intake. Snacking between meals. Bedtime. Acceptable volume for an “inside voice.” Acceptable amount of talking back. G or PG or PG-13 movies. Screen time limits.

Everyone cobbles together what works for them. We adjust based on personality, experience, mood, time of day, special needs.

My screen time rules are influenced by research (though I’m certain that I ignore all kinds of other research out there on any number of topics).

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests no more than two hours of screen time a day, citing problems with obesity, sleep patterns, behavior, violence, creativity and more when kids stare at screens for too long.

On top of that, most of the time I’m eager to hear my children’s voices and answer their questions and talk about our disparate experiences from the day. I want to know that when they’re adults they’ll know how to conduct a conversation at the dinner table.

And I guess I can’t help but hope their companions will, too.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry and Hermione

As EVERYONE knows, the final film in the Harry Potter series was released Friday.

(At VBS on Friday morning, there were quite a few sleepy, dejected youth workers. Sleepy because they'd stayed out late for the midnight showing of part two of the seventh movie. Dejected because it's all over. Serious HP depression was settling in.)

Cooper will be going with a friend or our awesome sitter Haley sometime soon. Katie and I can't see it yet because we've only made it through the third book, and the rule, long ago established by Steve, is that you don't see the movie until you've read the book.

Katie is begging to start the fourth book, but the content is too dark for her still. And there are so many other wonderful books to read. (The three of us are loving Anne of Green Gables right now.)

As soon as I read about a Harry Potter party at our local Barnes & Noble, I knew we had to go. Even if we can't all see the movie right now, we can certainly take part in the hype.

Cooper dressed as Harry, of course. He reluctantly retired his Gryffindor robe for public wearing. He's been wearing it since he was 4. The once-long sleeves are now elbow length. He can still wear the scarf, though.

Steve and Cooper as Harry, October 2005
Harry, Hedwig and Katie
Katie was thrilled to take the robe for her costume. The robe plus her fuzzy hair really made her look like a young Hermione.

We gathered Hedwig (our snowy white owl puppet) and a wooden flute (to act as a wand) and headed to the mall.

Both children took a quiz to help the "headmistress" (the store's community relations director) and the sorting hat place them in a house.

Both were placed in Gryffindor.

We answered trivia questions, went on a scavenger hunt throughout the store, made golden snitches and drank some butterbeer in the upstairs cafe.

It was a magical day for us Muggles.

Cooper waits for the Sorting Hat's answer.

Katie was seriously nervous about the Sorting Hat's decision.
She was thrilled to learn that she, too, would be placed in Gryffindor.
The golden snitch: foam ball coated in spray glue, covered in gold glitter and embellished with pipe cleaners 
We left a trail of glitter as we left the mall, where the snitches were unceremoniously tossed in the garbage. I don't need gold glitter decorating the van or the house. 
The cafe served butterbeer for the occasion. (I even came home with the recipe.) (Also, this is such a Steve face that Coop is making.)
Main ingredients: cream soda, caramel syrup, toffee nut syrup and whipped cream

Friday, July 15, 2011

More PTA adventures

I recently wrote about lessons from a PTA conference. My level of detail pales in comparison to Julianne, who offers an excellent entry on her blog.

Me, with free coffee in one hand, spinning a wheel for more free stuff with the other


We're attending a Harry Potter party at Barnes & Noble tomorrow afternoon. Katie wants to go as Hermione -- specifically young Hermione, with the wavy hair.

So, tonight I separated her hair into tiny braids all over her head. 

Just before bed tonight

As we sat crisscross together on her bed, I told her that many African-American moms and daughters have this same ritual every week. They sit together and visit while mom braids (though certainly with more precision than me).

I wondered out loud about our friend and neighbor Kyla, who used to wear her hair in braids -- what day of the week did Celeste braid Kyla's hair?

"What?!" Katie exclaimed. "Kyla is African-American?"

Katie has known and loved Kyla her whole life. 

Kyla and Katie, last day of school, June 2011

Things will be different in 5th grade, I'm learning

From today's Briefing:

For a decade I’ve been outfitting Cooper with relative ease.
He’s not picky. His most pressing need in a wardrobe is comfort. Beyond that, I’ve had free rein in choosing his clothes.
So, I tend to shop online or in stores without him. His closet is stocked mostly with items purchased without his permission, and he’s never complained about a single piece.
Until last week.
I’d had my eye on a long-sleeved T-shirt that seemed to suit him perfectly. Soft blue cotton with the phrase “MAD SCIENTIST” printed in green on the front. (One of his career aspirations is, in fact, to be a mad scientist.)
The shirt was on sale, so I bought it. I couldn’t wait to get home and show him my find.
“Look at what I got you, Cooper!”
“Hmm.” He studied it and chose his words carefully. “That’s a good shirt for the house but not for fifth grade.”
“Oh. Huh. I thought you’d really like it. I mean, feel this fabric. And did you read the words?”
Apparently, the words are the deal killer.

This morning before VBS

Thursday, July 14, 2011

You're as old as you think you are (and I feel older)

From today's Briefing:

My sister has a theory that everyone has a mental age — the age that you think you are, no matter how many birthdays pile up.
In my head, I’ve been stuck at 30. Not because I fear aging or the big 4-0 that’s coming next year. I’ve felt 30 since I was 10, when I started saddling myself with more grown-up worries than necessary.
But now I’m feeling older. More middle-aged.
This realization started dawning while watching My So-Called Life in syndication, for the first time since it was in prime time.
The short-lived drama debuted in 1994, the year I got married. The year after I graduated college. The year I was 22, not far removed from my own teen years.
At the time, I considered it a show about teen angst. The protagonist, Angela, is a high school student in the middle of self-discovery. She is slightly rebellious, in love with a dangerous boy, and friends with a couple of misfits with dramatic issues.
I identified with Angela’s stress over tiny details and fitting in and finding her voice.
Now, I’m much closer in age and stage to Angela’s parents. I identify more with their angst than hers, and it’s difficult to even finish an episode. Despite the excellent writing and acting and my own nostalgia, the entertainment value has faded.

Monday, July 11, 2011

PTA adventures

I am serving with a great group of moms on the PTA executive board next school year. Five of the six of us were in Austin this weekend to learn more about our roles.

I learned much more than how to run a membership campaign and report rolls to the state (which are, no doubt, important to know).

Like how a Hey Cupcake carrot cupcake is the most delicious carrot cake ever created. 

 What it's like to ride on a rickshaw.

What it looks like when the bats fly out of the Congress Street bridge before sunset.

The craziness that is Sixth Street on a weekend night.

How much fun we'll have this school year as we serve our children's school together. (Me, Julianne, Liz W., Jenny and Melinda)

(I also learned some things that are both unmentionable and not appropriate for illustration. Ply me with a soy latte, and I might fill you in.)

From church last Sunday

(Cooper's 10th birthday, July 3)

How we can get boys to read more

From Friday's Briefing:

John Martin of Seattle is a writer, teacher, parent and intensely passionate advocate for literacy. He’s the founder of Boys Read (, an organization that encourages young men to embrace reading and learning.
He’s frustrated by statistics that show low literacy rates, high dropout rates and high incarceration rates, especially among children of color. I spoke with Martin by phone this week about why boys, in general, struggle with reading, why we should care and what we can do. Here are excerpts.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Fear of needles is nothing a French breakfast can't fix

From today's Briefing:

Anticipation of a dreaded event is almost always worse than the event itself. Sometimes there are even pleasant surprises.
I remember that every time I’m done filing months of stacked paperwork. Or leaving a dental appointment. Or sitting down after speaking to a group of people.
The past couple of weeks, I’ve been dreading Katie’s appointment for allergy testing, anticipating heightened drama from the patient.
Her fear of needles is intense. This spring, she needed a shot of antibiotics to help fight persistent ear infections. Administering the shot required two nurses plus me. Katie’s screams echoed throughout the clinic, which was obvious from the curious, sympathetic looks we received when leaving.
On our drive home, she extrapolated her worries from that shot.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to have babies. Because that hurts more than shots. And shots hurt. But the problem is, I’m really good with children. So, what should I do?”

Friday, July 01, 2011

A clean playroom is great; giving up control is better

From today's Briefing:

As Cooper and Katie have taken on more chores, I have relinquished all kinds of control.
Take, for example, the silverware drawer. Katie is in charge of putting away clean flatware. Over the past year, she has rearranged the pieces. Her organization system trumps mine. But it wasn’t always this way.
When she started the job, I never explained my plan; it seemed obvious to me. You match the salad forks with the salad forks (except the few that look different from our matching set — those go in a different bin). Big spoons with big spoons (same exception applies). Et cetera.
Katie ignored the existing system. When grabbing a butter knife or teaspoon, I might notice pieces askew from “my” way and I’d spend a minute or two rearranging.