Friday, December 23, 2011

Constant surprise is the best gift of parenting

From today's Briefing:

When you’re little and it’s a couple of days from Christmas, the anticipation of what’s to come after Santa visits is almost too much to bear.
You’ve studied the catalogs and circled options. You’ve compared notes with friends. You’ve written a list. You’ve counted the number of sleeps until the big day.
Then you wake up Dec. 25 and rush out of your room to discover the gifts.
And then it’s over.
If it’s the right gift, it’s not really over, of course. You can build with it or play with it or create with it over and over. But you get only that one shot to be surprised.
I’m learning that one of the best gifts of parenting is the constant factor of surprise. Admittedly, not all of the surprises are as welcome as Christmas morning, but the joyful surprises definitely outnumber the lousy ones.
Parenting surprises are often truly unanticipated, stunning even. There’s no countdown to the exact moment your child takes unassisted steps. Or says “thank you” without being prompted. Or independently sounds out and reads a road sign from the backseat of the car.
My 10-year-old son has had his share of school-related struggles. Cooper’s a big-picture, big-idea kind of guy, so he has to work extra hard on tasks requiring precise attention to detail.
He has dysgraphia, making writing a particularly laborious and frustrating chore. On top of that, we learned a year ago that despite his love for reading, he had been obliviously coping with and compensating for dyslexia.
Cooper doesn’t let these challenges define him, though. He’s learning to break big tasks into manageable chunks. He misses regular class work every day to meet with our public school’s excellent dyslexia specialist. He has to study spelling words with more tenacity than many of his peers, and yet he hasn’t made less than an A on a spelling test in months.
Cooper, like fifth-graders all over the country, is learning American history this school year. Every few weeks, he’s tested on a group of states, their capitals and their location.
For his first test, we studied at home every night for a week. I quizzed him randomly (“Coop, it’s time to wash up for dinner. But first, what’s the capital of Delaware?”) and gave him blank maps to be filled in.
By the Thursday before the test, Cooper was, without question, ready. I wasn’t surprised when he came home with a big ol’ 100.
A few weeks passed. Then Cooper’s social studies teacher sent an email with a list of reminders, including notice of a cumulative states test the very next day. Somehow I overlooked previous notes about the test, this one on the first 11 states he studied, plus an additional 12 southeastern states.
I admit that I panicked.
When Cooper came home that day, I asked why he hadn’t told me about the upcoming test.
“I’ve been studying in class,” he said with casual confidence. “I’m ready.”
I was skeptical but reluctantly let it go. I didn’t mention Kentucky or Arkansas or any other U.S. state the rest of the night.
When Cooper came home the next day, his first words were, “I made a 100.” He earned that perfect score all by himself. He proved that he’s managing his time better, that he’s more capable of knowing when he does and doesn’t need help.
What a welcome gift for this momma who worries more than she should — and looks forward to the next random surprise worth celebrating.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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