Monday, July 14, 2014

Imperfect youth is a useful experience

From Saturday's Briefing:

I spent a great deal of my childhood imagining an ideal childhood.

My parents would still be married. We would still live in our North Dallas ranch-style home. Mom would stay home, with lots of time for cooking, baking, cleaning and volunteering at school. Summer would include sleep-away camp for me and fun road trips for the whole family.

My vision was influenced by sitcoms, by the novels I devoured, by disappointment in reality, by my suspicion that every other family around was more normal.

I didn’t often consider that my dream world probably didn’t exist anywhere. And I sure didn’t spend any time imagining how my actual circumstances were preparing me for adulthood and eventual parenthood.

I find myself thankful all the time for some of those nontraditional experiences. My mom, despite her personal struggles, offered valuable lessons about acceptance and creativity, friendship and responsibility.

I know that it’s OK — preferable even — to be countercultural. I don’t consult popular opinion for decisions on video games, social media, music and movies.

I try to support my children if they choose a path outside the norm. This time last year, Katie started considering a vegetarian diet. She eventually settled on pesce- tarianism — vegetar- ianism with seafood — and has been loyal to her decision since. I know that my mom would have embraced a similar choice from her own children.

My mom also taught me the value of a messy space, someplace in the house where it’s acceptable to doodle, cut, paste, paint, sculpt. It’s the reason our kitchen table is rarely clear, why there are constant projects in process around here, why I’m forever buying spools of ribbon. The mess can irritate me when I’m seeking clutter-free peace. That’s why we keep the family room as tidy as possible, as often as possible — I can escape there and avoid eye contact with glitter glue.

My mom is why I root for the underdog and why my children embrace them, too. She was often underestimated, and she reached out to folks in need, even when she didn’t have much to give. She didn’t gather friends because they were popular. She built relationships because it was the right thing to do.

This week our little family has been talking about Central American children who are risking their lives to travel to the United States. About five minutes into our conversation, Katie asked if she could make stuff to sell to raise money for those children — a legacy from my mom, no doubt.

My chaotic childhood taught me the value of responsibility — often because it wasn’t modeled or because it was forced on me and my sister. We took charge of many meals and loads of laundry because someone had to. I learned early on that no one was going to double-check my homework or keep track of when projects were due. That was my job.

My own children are learning responsibility differently, portioned out because they need to learn, not for survival. I constantly remind myself to not shield them from work but to teach them how to work — and then to let go gracefully. I’ve got a whole lot of letting go still to accomplish.

It’s tempting now to shelter my children from disappointments, to maneuver around situations, to hide the fact that folks make bad decisions or use hurtful words. I’m forever cautious about what they see, hear and experience. I want to protect them as long as possible.

And yet I want them to learn to cope with disappointments, to feel the weight of an unavoidable situation and know that they can endure and emerge stronger.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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