Friday, March 30, 2012

Instinct takes precedence

From today's Briefing:

For more than a year, Cooper has been begging to read the Hunger Games trilogy.
When he was 9, the answer without hesitation was no. (Right there on the book, it’s recommended for grades seven and up.)
When he was 9 1/2, the answer was still no, after I sought advice.
When he was 10, the answer stood firm, after I sought additional advice.
Now, at 10 1/2, the answer remains no, after I read the books myself.
According to Cooper, he is the only fifth-grader not allowed. (In reality, I do know a few other families who are telling their children to wait.) The PG-13 movie is absolutely out of the question.
Am I the meanest mom in suburbia? The most overprotective? I argue no to both.
Do I condemn all the moms and dads who’ve let their 8- and 9- and 10-year-olds read the books? Not at all.
But I absolutely defend my decision for my child.
Before I read the books, I relied on friends and family members who had. They all know my son — both his voracity for books and his sensitivity to injustice. I honestly expected the teens from church to give the green light, but both boys I asked said no.
I recently gave in to pop culture peer pressure and read all three books in a five-day span. (A lot of housework was ignored that week. I also ignored a healthy curfew.)
The books are well-written. The plot and character development are compelling. The stories are chock-full of lessons on confidence, sacrifice, strategy, relationships, out-of-control power.
The content, though, is incredibly disturbing. Quick, nonspoiler description: In post-apocalyptic North America, a central government rules over 13 geographic districts. One district rebels and is obliterated. To remind the remaining 12 districts of the despotic government’s power, two teens from each district are chosen annually to fight to the death on the cruelest possible reality show. The game continues until only one teen survives.
Suzanne Collins’ descriptions are vivid enough to have appeared in my nightmares for a full week. (Nightmares are especially unwelcome when you’ve been shorting yourself on sleep to read.)
And while I don’t regret my Hunger Games marathon, I certainly don’t classify the books as required reading for elementary school students — or anyone for that matter.
Every time Cooper asks and I say no, I remind him that there are hundreds of other books to read that aren’t inappropriate for him. He reads plenty of science fiction, biographies and graphic novels. He’s been exposed to plenty of good-vs.- evil plots, classic literature and what I endearingly call “junky books.”
I also remind him that it’s my job to protect him — his body, mind and soul. Based on his age and experience, I limit how far from home he can ride his bike by himself. I make sure he’s wearing a helmet before he pedals away.
I provide a healthy mix of food and drinks and limit junk food. I encourage physical activity daily. I limit the amount of screen time he gets weekly. And I monitor the media he takes in.
Because once an image or idea is in your head, you can’t go back. Once a 10-year-old, no matter how mature and responsible, is exposed to unnecessary death and destruction, it’s there forever.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A little of both

This morning at church, just after Communion, a friend whispered to me, "Katie looks more like Steve every day."

This afternoon at church, while Katie was at a birthday party and Cooper was playing the piano, I said hello to the Korean minister who leads a small congregation on our campus. In broken, sincere English he said, "You and your daughter. The same. That is good."

Before and after church today

Here was today's schedule.

8:30 a.m. Church (me and Katie)
9:45 a.m. Sunday school
1:20 p.m. Pick up Cooper from First UMC, Frisco, after his first-ever Boy Scout camping trip
3-5 p.m. Katie at Mia's birthday party at JumpStreet in Plano
4 p.m. Cooper piano lesson
5-7:15 p.m. Noe with us while Liz and Baylen were at cotillion and Layne and Connor were at Cub Scouts

All of that means that there was no way to take a photo of both Cooper and Katie on Steve's bench today. At first Katie balked at a photo without her brother. After I explained the logistics, she agreed.

Cooper came home from his trip, took a bath and a shower (a lot of dirt builds up over two days of camping), got dressed, unpacked his gear and climbed back into the minivan to get Katie to Mia's party. He spent the first few minutes reading, until Julianne kindly offered to let him get a wristband and join the jumping. So, he jumped on indoor trampolines for half an hour, got back in the minivan to head to church for piano with Jonathan (but first sat for a bench photo), played for 30 minutes, got back in the van, returned to JumpStreet and jumped for another 30ish minutes.

He will sleep well tonight.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Face your fears or you'll have to take the long way

From today's Briefing:

One of Cooper’s purchases at the school book fair last week was a book on phobias.
He’s fond of walking around with the guide and asking folks, “What are you afraid of?” Then he’ll cross reference the answer with the book to diagnose the fear (kind of like Lucy talking to Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas).
Afraid of the dark? You have nyctophobia. Afraid of moths? You have mottephobia. Afraid of teeth? You have odontophobia.
I’m afraid I disappointed him when I couldn’t give him a concise answer.
I have my share of fears, but they’re not easily defined. Like the fear of unwittingly making a string of poor parenting decisions. Or the fear of realizing too late in life that my priorities were all wrong.
And then I was within a couple of miles of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, and I remembered a simple fear: the fear of high bridges.
The cable bridge that connects two Gulf Coast counties is lovely to look at. And I don’t really mind being a passenger on the bridge, as I’ve been a number of times in previous trips to Florida. But the thought of driving over it makes my heart beat a little faster.
It’s about four miles long and at its highest point soars 193 feet above the bay. The incline is fairly steep. On either side is a whole bunch of water.
I could have avoided the bridge last weekend (early in our spring break travels), but the alternative route would have added at least 30 minutes to our journey. So I summoned extra courage and committed to the route my smartphone suggested.
As we neared the soaring bridge, I turned off the radio and gripped the steering wheel. I took some deep breaths. I asked Cooper to pull a dollar bill from my wallet to pay the toll. I said a little prayer, asking for safety. I mildly scolded myself for being scared of a road that thousands drive over daily.
Then I focused on driving, reminding myself over and over again to breathe. To not look unnecessarily to the right or the left. To stare at the few feet of pavement ahead, not the looming steep incline. To stay above the minimum speed limit (fear when driving often makes me slow down).
And then it was over. We made it safely across, and my breathing and heart rate resumed to normal. I loosened my grip on the steering wheel. I decided when it was time to drive back, I’d take the longer route.
My fear has a name: gephyrophobia. (I had no idea until this week, but it’s right there in Cooper’s book.) I’ve self-diagnosed it as a mild case. I don’t mind walking over bridges, and I don’t have trouble driving over most — just the really tall or curved ones.
It’s definitely not a fear of heights. A couple of days after crossing the dreaded bridge, I took my children on a parasailing adventure in which we soared 600 feet above the Gulf of Mexico.
We each were outfitted with harnesses and life jackets, then clipped onto a parachute contraption. A motor under the deck of the boat unwound a thick cable attached to the chute, and as the boat moved forward, we moved up and away.
After my initial fear that the cable would snap and that we would plummet into dolphin-infested water below, I relaxed. I enjoyed Katie’s laughter, interrupted only by her exclamations of “This is awesome!” I enjoyed Cooper’s thoughtful observations on everything around us. I relished the peace of floating in air — something I’d only imagined before.
And I told myself that if I can fly 600 feet in the air with all control relinquished to weather conditions and the two guys in charge of the boat, surely I can drive 190 feet above water on a steel and concrete bridge in which I have complete control (save the folks driving around me).
I’m just not sure I can apply such rational thought to my irrational fear. I’ll know for certain Saturday, when I either cross the bridge or choose the longer way home.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, March 09, 2012

A trial for kids and parents

From today's Briefing:

A small group congregated, away from the crowd, and spoke in low voices. There was giggling. A couple of gasps. Some reddened cheeks.
The topic: puberty.
The whisperers: not teens or preteens, but moms of fifth-graders.
Our little group casually gathered before our boys’ soccer game last week. We were talking spring break destinations, middle school electives and then the biggest topic of the week. The maturation video. Thefilm.
Just after 2 p.m. today, fifth-graders across Frisco will segregate by gender to watch a 20-minute video about their changing bodies.
They will have time for questions and further discussion. Then they’ll pack their backpacks, head out the doors for a week away from their peers and into homes led by parents with varying degrees of comfort discussing puberty.
My level of comfort has improved over the past few months. Partly because Cooper has already learned about puberty — and much, much more — from a trained counselor in a church-led sex education class. And partly because there’s really not much of a choice.
My child won’t stay a child forever. There’s no stopping the natural plan for his body. I’ve got to get on board or get left behind.
I recently watched the video that Cooper and his buddies will see this afternoon. The boy version focuses on hygiene (frequent showers and deodorant, please) and what to expect as the body and its reproductive organs mature.
As you hope an educational video would, it’s all explained with correct medical terminology. There are some animated drawings to describe functions that would be inappropriate if illustrated with real people.
What impressed me most — in both the version for boys and the one for girls — was the adult behavior. Granted, they are actors playing parents and teachers and a school nurse, but they are good role models for the giggly adolescent that still lurks inside most of us.
When children in the video asked questions about their changing bodies, my first instinct was often to squirm, to dart my eyes around the room, even though no one was with me.
Not so for the serene adults in the video. They treated each question with earnest, calm concern. They didn’t once giggle or turn red or condescend or dismissively wave off a child. They spoke with simple language, never shying from the truth. (Though I quibble with the optimistic notion that eventually girls just get used to their periods, as if it’s no big deal.)
When Cooper completed his church-sponsored sex ed class last fall, all the kids and all the parents made a vow. That they would be honest, and so would we. That they would come to us as the experts, and that we would always answer.
So today I’m bracing for more questions. I’m working on shifting my instinct from nervousness to laid-back cool. And I’m focusing on gratitude for my built-in support group of friends, for plentiful resources and for the opportunity to be an expert for my son — as long as it lasts.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Open house

Cooper researched the first American flag as part of fifth-grade social studies. He also created this replica, which was chosen for display in the class.

Cooper, Kelly and Katie: We are so fortunate to have Kelly as a friend and as their GT teacher. 

Music teacher Mrs. Williams and Katie: Both Cooper and Katie love Mrs. Williams and her class.

Each first-grader wrote a message in a bottle, pretending to be stranded. Translation of Katie's work:
Dear Mommy, I am stranded. I need food and water. Bring a big boat. The island has a volcano on it. It is ginormous. There is a lot of trees. I can only eat coconuts. Will you get me? Will you bring Cooper? I need you to come get me! The volcano is going to erupt! Love, Katie
Katie and Shannon: Mrs. Gallant is the perfect first-grade teacher for Katie. We are so thankful for her love and care.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Calamity can test a family's resolve

From today's Briefing:

We are surviving the Great Flood of 2012.
“Great” is relative. It really only affects my little family, but to the three of us, it is a very big deal.
One morning last week, at exactly 6:45 a.m., Katie hollered, “There’s water all over the bathroom!”
I needed no coffee to get moving.
I pulled towels from cabinets to begin soaking up water in the bathroom, the hallway and Katie’s adjoining bedroom. I called (and woke up) our plumber and followed his instructions on turning off the water that was steadily flowing from the toilet. I shepherded Cooper and Katie through the motions of getting ready for school, helping them avoid puddles and telling them that everything would be OK.
When I turned my attention to preparing breakfast and lunches to go, I almost started to cry. Because water had been flooding part of the house for who-knows-how-many hours, because I am the only adult in the house, and because I had no idea what it would take to repair the damage.
I am not afraid to cry in front of my children, but in this case, it seemed selfish. So I took some deep breaths and carried on.
After the children were at school and I was back home to survey the damage and to begin greeting the bevy of workers who would parade in and out of my home (and are still doing so), I gave in to the building tears. Then I returned to survival mode.
In the midst of muddling through, I’ve been reminded of some life lessons.
There’s never an ideal time for an emergency. If I had known that water was going to spread across a quarter of the house, I would have pulled linens off the hall closet floor and moved Katie’s bookshelf from the path of destruction. I would have insisted that Cooper and Katie clean their playroom better.
That’s not how accidents work, of course. There’s no step-by-step script for life. There are many opportunities for improv.
We have too much stuff. I’ve washed and dried all the linens and towels, but they don’t yet have a cabinet or closet to return to. When they’re stacked on chairs in the family room, it’s painfully obvious how much stuff we have and how little we really need.
Two giant bags have already been donated to a nonprofit resale shop. More are on the way.
Children can contort their bodies to take up whatever bed space is available. Katie’s room is uninhabitable until reconstruction is complete. In the meantime, she’s my roommate.
She sleeps on the right side of my queen-size bed. When I kiss her goodnight, her body is straight, limbs tucked in, head on the pillow. By the time I finally get to bed, she’s violently kicked off the covers by arms and legs all akimbo. There’s barely room for me to crawl in.
I’ve learned how to return her to the other side with enough force to be effective but gently enough to keep her asleep.
By morning, I’m barely holding on to the bed, forced to the edge by wild 6-year-old appendages.
It could be worse. Everyone’s got a flooding story. I’ve heard horror stories about families returning from a weeklong weeklong vacation to find the icemaker has been flooding for days. Or a second-floor accident that seeps downstairs. Or sewage water that destroys an entire ground floor, requiring three weeks of forced evacuation.
It’s just stuff. Living through much more difficult times offers perspective.
When I stood in the kitchen, fighting back tears, I reminded myself that the reason I’m the only adult in the house is because my Steve lived with and ultimately died from cancer.
All the pain and uncertainty he lived with — that’s worth crying over. Life that continues without him — that’s sometimes worth crying about. Walls and cabinets and carpets ruined by water — it’s all stuff. It’s not life and death.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at