Friday, August 30, 2013

Turn off TV star's influence once the show's over

From today's Briefing:

Early this summer at the neighborhood pool, a group of moms were talking about a TV show I’d never watched. Or even heard of.
They were describing episodes with the same familiar affection I associate with the heyday of Seinfeld orFriends.
“I’ll even catch myself watching it when the kids aren’t home,” one mom confessed.
That evening at dinner, I asked the kids if they had heard of this apparently hilarious, multigenerational show.
They answered with a hopeful blend of disbelief and relief.
Good Luck Charlie? Of course we’ve heard of it! We’ve watched it at Grandma’s.”
There was a pause. They stared at me, trying to discern if I was simply curious or if there was a more practical proposal to come.
They could stand the suspense no more.
“Can we watch it?”
And that launched the beginning of our Disney Channel summer.
I recorded episodes of some seemingly harmless sitcoms and let Cooper and Katie watch a show or two a day.
Austin and Ally, Jessie and, yes, Teddy, Amy, Gabe, Bob, P.J. and Charlie have all been guests in our home. They were invited — and they are easily dismissed.
That’s the great thing about television: You can turn it off just as easily as you turn it on. And now that summer is over and our evenings are filled with homework, practices, reading and family time, we’re waving goodbye and escorting these Disney Channel guests out the door. Perhaps we’ll meet again in June.
We’re bidding adieu before we even know their real names. You see, I don’t want my kids attached to young actors or young singers — or older ones for that matter. I can tolerate a mild-mannered, semi-mindless sitcom every now and then, but I don’t condone idolizing the players.
How many times have we Americans been outraged by the antics of a maturing child star?
The relationship starts out so promising. We embrace the cute, precocious, slightly sassy — but-not-over-the-top — ingénue. We fawn over her growing collection of work.
We applaud her diversification — she’s an actor and a singer and a dancer! We buy licensed merchandise. We read the ghostwritten autobiography.
We tell ourselves, “Now, there’s a girl my own daughter can look up to.”
And then, faster than you can say Britney-Spears- Lindsay-Lohan-Vanessa- Hudgens, it all falls apart, and we exclaim, “Oh, no! But what about the children?”
The Damm household didn’t watch the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night. My children don’t even know what MTV is because I never invited it into our home.
Children don’t need to watch reality shows or music videos (though I’m not sure those are even on MTV these days).
They vaguely know that Miley Cyrus was “that Hannah Montana person,” but they couldn’t pick her out of a lineup. Because I never invited Miley Cyrus into our home.
They don’t know that she made a fool of herself onstage, dressed in next-to-nothing to dance in the most obnoxiously provocative fashion.
So, while I’m dispirited by her platform, troubled by her desperate stunt and concerned about young women who might admire her disturbing choices, I’m not worried about the two people I’m responsible for.
Miley’s gyrating fall from grace — what little she had left — doesn’t disappoint us personally because we were never personally invested in her.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, August 23, 2013

Parenthood alters our perspectives, priorities

From today's Briefing:

When Cooper was barely 3 months old, we bundled him up and flew to Baltimore to visit friends.

The five of us — a childless couple and a new family of three — were enjoying Sunday brunch at a downtown café when Gretchen asked, “Does becoming a parent change you?”

“It has changed everything,” I answered.

Yet I stumbled as I tried to articulate how a squirmy, chunky infant could totally alter my world.

Twelve years later, I still hear the question, and my explanation grows more complex.

Being a parent changes my lenses.

Last week, a friend and I watched Dirty Dancing at our nearby movie theater. I hadn’t watched the film in years, but thanks to multiple viewings in high school, I still know almost every stitch of dialogue, every lyric to every song.

I don’t remember the dancing being quite so, well, dirty. Or so many bare midriffs.

I couldn’t turn off my momma sensibilities. As Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were lunging at each other on the studio floor, I kept thinking, “How old will Cooper and Katie have to be before they’re allowed to watch this?”

Being a parent intensifies my passions.

Books, faith, travel, the elimination of fast food in my diet — these were all significant concerns pre-children. Now, they are among my guiding forces, influencing how we budget resources and time.

When these young people entrusted in my care adopt the same passions, my heart swells.

This weekend, Katie was reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by one of my all-time favorite authors.

In between chapters, she took a break to tell me, “Beverly Cleary is such a great writer. She makes you want to keep reading, and it makes you sad when you have to stop, even for food.”

Even more incredible is when they cultivate their own passions.

My children have taught me music, art, history. Cooper wows me with his camping skills and genuine joy found in living outdoors — certainly not inherited from me.

Being a parent sometimes clouds my judgment.

I’ve learned, in the harshest way possible, that we are unable to protect our babies from pain.

Four years ago, when their daddy was at home, lying in bed, dying from cancer, nothing could shield them. Cooper and Katie grew up quickly that summer, forced to confront sorrow, loss, grief.

I don’t know which memories linger for them. Does the purr of an oxygen concentrator take them back? Does the smell of rubbing alcohol remind them of their father’s final days?

When I received the phone call Tuesday afternoon that my mom — bedridden for more than five years — wanted to see us, that she was ready to let go, my momma instinct told me to travel alone. My children have already seen death. They live daily with absence.

I desperately wanted to insulate them from the pain of saying goodbye to another loved one.

Half an hour later, in the time it took to tie up loose ends, shut down my work computer and drive home, I’d reconsidered.

My mom would want to see how tall they’d grown, would want to hear their voices, would want to kiss their freckled faces.

Because Cooper and Katie appreciate the gift of life and the finality of death, they would want one more chance to hug her and say “I love you.”

And I needed all of us, three generations, in one room.

Mom was asleep when we arrived Tuesday night. I gently woke her. Her eyes slowly registered the three people — her people — leaning over her nursing home bed.

“I wasn’t sure you’d make it in time,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

I smoothed her hair. She told me not to cry.

Perhaps I could have stopped more quickly, but I could hear Cooper crying, too, and I could see Katie struggling to compose herself. And my heart could barely take the collision of my mom fading, of a flood of childhood memories, of my children watching.

I want to comfort them all as I seek my own peace.

Being a parent stretches, challenges, exhausts. It clarifies what truly matters. It changes everything.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Cooper & Katie at their Maw's nursing home

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Three Billy Goats Gruff

Earlier this year, Katie tried out for the Lone Star Storytelling Festival. You can watch her tryout video here.

She was selected as one of the student tellers and has been practicing her story at home and at the Frisco Public Library, where librarians and storytellers offer coaching sessions.

On Monday, Katie and some fellow student tellers performed at the Frisco Senior Center. They have a couple more community performances before the big event in October.

I'm really proud of how quickly Katie has pulled together her story, how she has taken direction, and how she stands before a microphone without shaking in her shoes.

(Please excuse the poor recording skills.)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Back-to-school tips from the real experts: Moms

From today's Briefing:

If I followed years of cultivated magazine advice, I would have to wake up at 4 a.m.

No time for exercise? Wake up 30 minutes early. No time for reading? Wake up 15 minutes early. No time for journaling? Wake up 15 minutes early. Want to enjoy solitude and quiet before the day begins? Wake up 30 minutes early.

I learned long ago to read tips and apply only what makes sense for me. With that caveat, at the dawn of this new school year, I offer advice for the beginning and beyond, culled from the people who know as much or more than East Coast magazine editors: real moms who juggle carpools, careers, PTA, housework and more.

Planning ahead

Stephanie says: We start walking through our back-to-school routines several days before school starts. We go to bed at school-night time, lay out clothes before bed, pack backpacks and set them “on-deck” to be taken to the car, and have breakfast at school-day time. Saturday and Sunday before the first day of school, we actually do a dry run, getting out the door, into the car and heading through the carpool lane. It makes the first day of school less stressful for all.

Kari says: I get my life/house organized and situated before the craziness of school starts. I lose total control once I have to deal with homework, show and tell, star of the week, sports practices, etc. I find the more I can get things under control beforehand, the better I am (or the further I get before absolutely losing my mind and my cool).

Ria says: Make sure you always have plenty of computer paper at home and all colors of ink for the printer. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve called a neighbor in a complete panic because the ink was low. Also, keep extra poster board and tri-folds on hand for those projects that go awry at the last moment.

Farrah says: I make sure my daughter is über-prepared for school and has everything she needs, but when she brings that first round of homework home and we can’t find acceptable pencils and her little brother hid the sharpener, chaos erupts. So this year, I put together my own box of school supplies and stashed it in a high cabinet. It’s labeled “Mom.”

Establishing responsibilities

Renee says: The most important thing for me to do at the beginning of the school year is to realize that the coming year offers each child new opportunities for growth. Instead of thinking of ways to bring order, I began engaging them in doing some of what I had previously been doing for them: making their lunches, picking out and organizing their supplies, setting their clothes out. They gained confidence and learned to contribute to the family and others in the process.

Amy says: We established a couple of routines/responsibilities when the kids were young. They unpack their backpacks and leave folders in a certain spot for me to look through and sign. They also take their lunch boxes and water bottles to the sink. In the morning, I leave their folders back on the counter along with a lunch. It is their job to pack the backpack as well as choose their own snack for the day.

Getting dressed

Ria says: Have girls choose their clothes the night before. This includes all hair accessories, socks, shoes, camisoles, everything. Girls are dramatic about this and can set the entire household into a tailspin as they are searching for that one item!

Tracy says: For my son with ADD, I absolutely had to put one of those cubbies in his closet labeled “Monday-Friday.” He and I together would choose a week’s worth of clothes and put them in the cubby, and that’s what he had to live with for the week. Otherwise, clothes would hold him up every morning.

Marie says: During chilly winter mornings, getting out of a warm bed is the hardest part. Warm school clothes in the dryer to give your kids something snuggly to get into. If you have a gas fireplace, flip on the fireplace first thing.

Packing lunches

Stephanie B. says: I plan lunches by printing and creating options for lunch combinations: almonds, string cheese and crackers plus an apple, or a tortilla with cream cheese and some rolled up ham, etc. It helps them to pick things and me to pack lunches the night before.

Beth says: If your kids are older than first grade, have them make their own lunches for the next day after they finish their homework and before they start free-time activities.

Making memories

Stephanie says: We take a video of the girls at the breakfast table before they leave every year on the first day and ask the same question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Shari says: After school, have your kids rate their day from 1 to 10. Have them tell you one good thing that happened in school and one negative thing. Ask: What could you have done to make today a better day?

Beth says: Plan an after-school celebration the first day. I took my kids out for ice cream when they were younger. Now that I have kids getting out at different times, I plan a dessert for the evening meal, so everyone will stay at the table longer and we can take turns telling about our day.

Offering encouragement

Ria says: Each child truly is unique and has their own gifts. Strengths and weaknesses vary in academics, athletics, and most important, character. The best encouragement I can offer my children is to do everything with excellence.

Tracy says: We encouraged each boy every day by saying, “Make this YOUR best day!” I truly believe that you can encourage your kids and love them through just about anything!

Being realistic

Tammy says: Accept that you won’t be perfect and that you will make a mess of something. Don’t forget to pray for your kids each day; that will cover all our mistakes!

Shannon says: We wing it, run late, are unorganized. We don’t lay an outfit out the night before. But every day on the way to school, I grab my son’s hand in the front seat and pray.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, August 09, 2013

Embrace the unexpected adventures

From today's Briefing:

Planning vacations is one of my specialties.
In fact, I often do so much planning that the actual execution is kind of dull. When you’ve studied online reviews and Google maps and travel advice from five different sources in advance of arrival, the whole experience can feel like déjà vu.
Some destinations, though, no matter how much advance intel is acquired, offer surprises.
Like Las Vegas. Nothing prepared me for the grand scale and audacity of the Strip. Like Glacier National Park. Words and photos fail to completely capture the beauty and scope.
Like the hike from Ecola Point to Indian Beach on the Oregon coast.
Cooper, Katie and I recently spent a week in Oregon, first in Portland and then in Cannon Beach, not far from where Lewis and Clark first spied the Pacific Ocean in 1805.
For months in advance, I studied state parks and notes from hikers. On the must-do list: Ecola State Park. I read reviews of different trails and decided, with only slight unease, that we could handle the mile and a half hike from elevated Ecola Point to Indian Beach.
We drove into the park on a misty, foggy morning. The slow, winding ascent to Ecola Point was delayed for a meandering herd of elk.
We parked, I took photos of the rocks, hills, shoreline and lighthouse, then we started our journey to the beach.
The first clue that this may not have been the best choice: a posted sign warning “You are in cougar country” with a long list of suggestions should we meet up with cougars. It included tips such as “Do not run. Running encourages them to chase” and “Fight back if attacked.”
None of my advance research had revealed cougars.
The kids forged ahead, singing camp songs loudly, in hopes of scaring away giant cats. Cooper, our intrepid Boy Scout, led the way.
We followed a narrow, cleared path surrounded by moss-covered trees, overgrown ferns and blooming plants I’ve never seen before. Light mist continued to fall.
Deep in the forest, the trail turned steep. The early morning rain had turned dirt to mud. Our pace slowed as our footing became less secure.
At the steepest descents, Cooper would study the path, take cautious steps down, then coach Katie on where to place her feet. Katie would tell me the same, adding encouragement like, “You can do this, Mommy!”
My planning nature also makes me a worst-case scenario kind of person. As we inched along the trail, with not a single bar of cellphone service, I wondered how we would reach the outside world should one of us slip, fall and break a bone. (My biggest worries were no longer roaming bands of cougars.) Exactly how extensive was Cooper’s first aid training?
I kept these thoughts silent, of course, using my words instead to cheer for our tiny team.
We reached a break in the path, where the only option was to leap over a mud pit. Katie watched her long-legged brother struggle before landing on solid ground. She wouldn’t budge.
She began to cry. She rubbed her face. She wailed that she wasn’t going anywhere.
I had to use my stern mom voice to stop the impending spiral into an emotional abyss.
She eventually leaped, I followed, and we moved on.
We were occasionally rewarded with breathtaking views of the ocean. And then the trail would wind back in, where treachery awaited.
One section of the path was so angled and slippery that not even brave Cooper could find a way down.
“We have to slide,” he told us before he crouched down and starting careening toward the bottom of the hill. He had to steer right; on the left was an even scarier decline.
Katie did the same, though she scooted more on her bottom than on the soles of her shoes.
I hugged the nearest mossy tree trunk, took a few deep breaths, told myself over and over to veer right, not left, and then finally hunkered down and slid to join my children.
The worst was over, and within a few minutes, we reached Indian Beach and its blessedly flat land leading to the sea.
Cooper bubbled with confidence. He raved about the “team building” and “family bonding.”
Katie splashed in the waves. She declared that she would never do that again and that we should walk back on the paved road, not back through the forest.
I said a prayer of thanks for safety and for unexpected adventures that end well.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
One of the elk herd on our drive in
This sign didn't scare us one bit. Well, maybe a little.
Occasionally our path led to the edge of a cliff, with sweeping view of the Pacific.
Katie gathers her courage for one of many steep declines.
At last! Flat land!
Indian Beach is lovely. (In fact, you may recognize it from films such as The Goonies, Point Break and Twilight.)

Friday, August 02, 2013

Take pride in lessons kids have learned

From today's Briefing:

The daily work of parenting doesn’t allow much time for self-evaluation.

The overarching goal each day is to raise healthy, safe, emotionally stable children who know they are loved and are inching toward responsible adulthood.

It sounds simple, but the execution is complex.

At the end of the day, I feel successful if everyone made it to appointed locations on time, if at least two meals were healthy, if there are no illnesses or injuries, and if any tears and/or outbursts are forgotten by bedtime.

And then we try to repeat it all the next day.

Weeks, months and years go by before I suddenly realize my shortcomings. This week’s harsh realization: My 8-year-old can’t tie shoelaces or ride a bike.

With that admission, I am imagining the full weight of judgment from parents who have handled these basic life skills, and from people who aren’t parents and can’t possibly imagine what I’ve been doing all these years.

It’s the same with classic music and books. I realize that my children and I haven’t watched The Wizard of Oz or read Little Women together.

I haven’t taught them the polite way to take a phone message. They’ve never heard me use the phrase “balance the checkbook.”

And that’s just the beginning of a long list of what I realize I haven’t shared. What’s on the list that I don’t even know about?

The first two years of a child’s life seem almost scripted. More resources than you can count offer definitive lists of what your child should be doing by specific ages. Grasp objects, roll over, crawl, stand, walk. Babble, blow bubbles, talk.

Super diligent parents can follow the timelines through age 5. And then it’s a big free-for-all. Children are completely at the mercy of their caregivers to provide guidance at the appropriate time.

The good news — there’s still time, even if it’s not as long as I would like. In six years, Cooper will be leaving for college. I’ve got a decade left with Katie.

I expect that with not much instruction, Katie will be tying the laces on her new sneakers before third grade begins. (That’s in three weeks, by the way, for all you parents who aren’t yet counting the days.)

We can build on her previous bike lessons and get her rolling down the greenbelt. We can knock out movies and linger over books. We can practice answering the phone. And I could perhaps attempt to balance my checkbook — not only to teach the kids but to actually, you know, balance the checkbook.

As soon as those tasks are conquered — or likely before — some new ones will crop up.

Lest I get overwhelmed with all that I’m not doing, I’ll continue to pay attention to what’s working well in our house.

At bedtime of the very same day I was feeling guilt about shoes and bike-riding, I walked through the kids’ hallway. Katie was at the bathroom sink, in the dark.

“Katie, why are you brushing your teeth with the lights off?”

“To conserve energy,” she answered. “And face my fears of the dark.”

Her kind heart and courage wrapped me in comfort, allowing me to shed a little bit of my self-imposed guilt.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at