Monday, September 21, 2015

Climb that tree, baby bear

From Saturday's Briefing:

A line of children and their people wiggles around the museum building. We’re all waiting for the doors to open for a wildly popular temporary exhibit in Washington, D.C.

Cooper, Katie and I find our spot behind a mom and her two sons. Her boys spy nearby trees, ask permission to climb and sprint away.

Katie watches the scene unfold. She sees the boys kick off their Crocs, peel off their socks and scramble up the trunk like bear cubs. She pleads, “Can I go climb a tree?”

“Well, no, you’re not, um, exactly known for your tree-climbing skills,” I answer apologetically, suspecting that I am crushing her spirit even as the words come out of my mouth.

What I was really thinking: I’m afraid you’ll scrape your knee or your elbows. I’m afraid you’ll fall and break a bone. We have a flight back home in six hours, and we have school tomorrow. I don’t want to risk it.

Hope drains from Katie’s face. Her shoulders slump. She asks again, using only one word. “Please?”

I look at the bear cubs, one nestled in the crook of a branch, the other climbing still higher. I look at their momma bear, who is so casual about her climbers that she’s not even looking in their direction.

She’s checking her watch, perhaps wondering how much longer she’ll have to stand in line next to an overprotective mom.

In those next seconds, I consider the tension that’s present every single day in the life of a parent: balancing the instinct to protect with the necessity to let go. I consider the actual likelihood of my 10-year-old requiring a trip to the emergency room.

I relent.

“Go climb,” I say. “Be careful!”

Katie zooms to the far corner of the museum grounds. She’s chosen the tree with the lowest branches, the one she’s most likely to conquer.

I keep our place in line and crane my neck to watch my own wannabe cub.

Her sneakers are too slick to offer traction on the trunk, so she kicks them off. Socks are next.

She tries again. And again. And again. Other children leave the line and start trying to climb, too.
There’s an ad hoc meeting under the branches, with lots of motioning and examining and pointing. They’re hatching strategy.

At last, Katie looks close. She’s wrapped her arms around the bottom branch. Her feet have found footing on the bark. But she lacks the upper-body strength to move any more. She hangs from the branch like a sloth — a freckled, bespectacled, giggly sloth.

She drops to the ground. She walks around the tree. She returns to the branch. She tries again. She resumes the sloth position.

Cooper tries to boost her up. She still struggles. She shoos him away. She settles back into sloth mode.

The line awakens. Parents begin to wave their children back and hoist bags on shoulders. The doors will open soon.

Katie abandons her sloth tree and runs barefoot across the lawn. She sits on the square of concrete at my feet to put on socks and shoes. I notice a few minor scratches on her knees. Her hair is disheveled. There’s some dirt on her shirt.

“I almost did it!” she gushes. “I almost climbed that tree!”

She stands up just in time to shuffle into the museum, wearing the most joyful smile — a reminder that I need to resist my predilection for worst-case scenarios.

I need to embrace acceptable risks more often. I need to keep in check my overprotective tendencies — a difficult task for this momma bear.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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