Be Like Barack

I’m betting after a few weeks as an Obama, the puppy will have figured out how to hold the scoop in one little paw and the bag in another and then toss the whole mess in the trash all by itself.

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Longing for School Days

Some kids might have to put in a regular 40-hour week at school instead of getting their afternoons off while their parents are still slaving away, according to a recent Associated Press story. Instead of ending school around 2 or 3ish, some school systems are trying longer school days, the article reported. Meanwhile, here in Spain, a longer school day, roughly 9 to 5, is the norm (although kids might go home for lunch).
So having experienced both shorter and longer school days, I should be able to tell you which works better. And the answer is…hmm. I mean, it’s a toughie from the parents’ point of view. From the kids’ point of view, I haven’t the slightest idea which is better. I imagine it depends on what the kids are doing in school and what they’d otherwise be doing outside of school. Maybe they’d learn more with extra school hours, and that learning stuff is a good thing. But of course as a kid, there are times when an extra hour in class would seem an infinity. Especially in high school at times, but according to the article, few schools are adjusting high school schedules because of teenagers’ sports and work commitments.
From the grown-ups’ point of view, there’s no question that when all the adults in the household work outside the home, longer hours are absolutely more convenient. Not to mention that having school in the summer would make sense too. Is the current school calendar really a holdover from days when more families farmed? In any case, current U.S. school schedules are ridiculously inconvenient for many families’ situations these days.
For the younger kids, if there’s a parent who works in the home – doing paid or unpaid work – it’s less clear. Having an adult who can be cruise director in the afternoons can mean that there’s a little more breathing room in the schedule. At least when everyone’s not being chauffeured to activities, there’s more time for kids to just play, or get homework done or even do a family activity during the week (while in school they’d get more group activities of course). (The fun home activities are naturally a best case scenario; sometimes everyone ends up spending the afternoon at Target buying urgent school supplies and detergent. Or in front of a video while Mom finishes an urgent project.)
A longer school day means everyone’s scrambling at night to fit in homework, dinner, bath, story, and get the kids off to bed by a decent hour. Which is what any work-outside-the-home parent could tell you. It’s also hard to figure how Americans would fit in all the extracurriculars they like to load up on (here, activities don’t start until 5 p.m. at the earliest) but it sounds like some of the schools might use the extra time to fit in different types of activities.
The trade-off to having kids off in the afternoon, of course, is less time for the adult to have for herself. And with so many “full-time, stay-at-home” parents also working “part-time at home,” the extra hours needed to hold down all the jobs that end up equaling full-time-and-a-half work often get added to the 10 p.m. mommy shift.
Having the kids in school here does open up luxurious vistas of time not seen since son the elder was born more than six years ago. But it also gives me an idea of the clockwork rhythm it helps to have to count down evening activities and hit the kids’ bedtime. Because Spaniards tend to have later hours, I hear more complaining from English-speaking than Spanish-speaking moms about the evening scramble, but it is tough on everyone.
But oh those open hours. To get work done before sunset. Or run a vacuum without interference (if one were to run a vacuum).
There are points on both sides. A longer day is very practical. But for me, since I can be around, I’d still rather have the kids off in the afternoons, particularly since they’re still just in preschool and first grade. (Not that they aren’t home regularly when they’re sick with one of the 27.8 colds per month that kids average.) The school here wasn’t ready to change though. Apparently some U.S. schools are, going the other way.

Pillow Talk

Well, I’ve been hunkering down here for a while. You know, phone off the hook, no doorbell or e-mail answering. The reason is a grand project: son the younger needs a pillow for his preschool class. I don’t know what they’ll do with it, because nap time is already taken care of, but ours is not to wonder why. The kid needs a pillow for school, he’ll get a pillow.
But, the pillow has to be a certain size, a size which is not the size of all the pillows available in the stores. It has to have a foam rubber filling. It needs a cover.
Step one: find the foam rubber. Locals, I guess, would instantly know all the foam rubber stores in the area, but I was a bit lost. In our family, the closest thing to a local is the husband, not that he’s from around here, but he’s closer than I am. He made some calls and found a place that not only had foam rubber but gave him a piece free since it was for school.
Step one accomplished. That was easy.
Step two: make the cover. The idea is to sew it, I suppose. (Cue the laugh track.) I did, once upon a time, take a home ec class in junior high, and this was the old style girlie home ec which I chose over shop class despite my budding feminism and desire to move beyond stereotypes, because given the choice to make food or wood shavings, well, get real; and I did at one point make a very respectable elephant pillow as well as a near-perfect green v-necked t-shirt, but despite the sewing knowledge I must have gained, none of it stuck. At all.
So I bought the cheapest bed pillowcase I could find, and some stick-on Velcro strips, and I couldn’t find that tape you can iron on instead of having to sew something, but I brought my purchases home and I’ve been contemplating them for a while. The pillowcase turned out to be stretchy and tough to work with. And I’m pretty sure there’s got to be some sewing involved. The husband has had some clever suggestions involving folds and angles and such, although I’ve noticed he didn’t offer to jump in on this stage of the project. Still, every time I put it all together and think about how it will look completed, only one word comes to mind: pathetic. I can see bringing it in and the teacher just staring at it, in shock at the most deformed pillow that’s ever passed through the preschool. And then every time son the younger gets it out for whatever they’re going to do with it, she’ll give him an extra bright smile so he knows it’s not his fault that his pillow is so hideous and to try to make it up to him for whatever sad home life he has with a mother who can’t even make a simple pillow.
Today, facing reality as well as imagined humiliation, I went to one of those clothes alterations stores in a shopping center. A custom-made pillowcase is 10 euros, with zipper 15. (The unacceptable pillows on sale ready-made are 6 euros or less.) But the zipper’s key. Because if it’s for school, you’ll want to wash it, said the sewing store woman. Of course. She knew exactly what I was talking about. “I’ve made a lot of those lately,” she said.
Naturally. Because Spanish women are working in increasing numbers, or just not the seamstresses their mothers were, chalk this pillow-making gig up as one of the formerly unpaid women’s chores that can now be tallied economically – 15 euros a pop in this case.
U.S. schools require their own labor-intensive parent projects too, despite the fact that in many cases mom’s too busy or not interested, and dad’s equally too busy or unenthusiastic to try to shove it off on him. But someone’s still got to bring in something for the bake sale. Maybe it’s time to teach home ec in preschool.

Back to School

Moral Certainty Mommy: Sit down with your children and tell them about the importance of working together and teach them how to respond when the PTA volunteer or the room mother asks them how to contact their parents: “I’m an orphan.”

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Failing Preschool

Californians are a selfless lot.
This past Tuesday – like all, I mean most, OK, like just lots of other Tuesdays in California – was an election day. On the ballet was yet another proposition, Prop. 82, this one proposing to tax the rich to pay for free, optional preschool for all four-year-olds.
Californians rejected it, in part because it wouldn’t do enough to help the poor.
Bwa ha ha ha.
That was one of the arguments in favor of voting “no,” doubtless quite true, but with a typical California preschool costing at least a few thousand dollars a year, and a typical California mortgage costing at least 150% of what you make, there are quite a few middle-income families who you’d think would be delighted to vote themselves in free schooling, whether or not it had quite enough coverage for poor kids. Still, it was a good argument aimed at the liberal constituency that should have been the proposition’s natural support.
But while there was a strong campaign against it, Prop. 82 also failed to make its case fully to those whose narrowest self-interest should have automatically led them to “yes”: parents of whatever political stripe who make up the preschool mommy. (Backer Rob Reiner also did the proposal no favors, despite the fact that San Diego parents I spoke with who had used the First 5 programs he helped establish almost universally liked them.)
You think a soccer mom has been a voter to reckon with? You do not want to mess with a preschool mommy. I got to know her when I lived in San Diego, and we, I mean she, is a suspicious lot, reluctant to let one of her precious kids out for his or her first schooling into just anyone’s hands. Whatever her take on the role of government, she’s pretty sure that California schools are a mess, whether or not her local school is a disaster or a gem.
Some of them, and I won’t name names (me), might for example have personally visited at least seven preschools and considered many more before choosing a place for her first-born to go for a total of no more than 12 hours a week.
The idea of switching to a whole new and unseen system of schools (the “yes” side did a poor job of explaining the practicalities), and public school-managed classes at that, is just too uncertain for your average preschool mommy to commit even rich folks’ money to.
Despite what they charge, private preschools have a better chance of creating warm fuzzies with parents than their kids’ public schools, in part because parents feel they have more of a choice. That’s another area that really hurt the initiative: it appeared to set up a conflict between public and private schools. And with Montessori schools, which by reputation are the Volvo of preschools, voicing a protest, that gave liberal voters uncomfortable with the proposal another semi-respectable way out.
Still, let’s get to the real reason Prop 82 lost: aspirational politics. As my Spot-on colleague Scott Olin Schmidt has pointed out, Californians have no problem with taxing the rich. A 2004 proposition that passed, for example, funded mental health programs with a tax on those with an income over $1 million. Prop. 82’s wording, however, said it would tax incomes of $800,000 for a couple, or $400,000 for an individual. Now, even today, even in California, a million dollars in income does sound like a lot. But $400,000? It just doesn’t sound quite big enough. It’s what lots of Californians hope to pick up when their dot com hits it big, or after the first couple of years in real estate. You know, it’s the kind of tax hike you can almost feel sympathetically.
And you know you can count on us (present and former) Californians for sympathy.

Class Sleepovers At 5

Today I’ve got a little match-up quiz for you.
Match each kindergarten class with the country where it’s located:
Class A: These kids are taking a trip to a “pumpkin patch” around Halloween, where the kids will go on some rides, do some pumpkin-related activities and bring home a pumpkin. (Did I mention that pumpkins are involved?) The activity lasts for a few hours during the school day, and adults in attendance include the teacher and one parent for every four students.
Class B: These kids are visiting a farm where they’ll do some farm-type stuff and learn about plants and animals, with an ecological bent to the lessons. The trip is overnight, with three teachers going along for the whole class of 30-plus, and some (unknown to the parents) farm staff there to direct activities.
Now, which class is in Spain and which is in the U.S.? Here’s a hint: lawsuits are a lot more common in the U.S.
Oh yes, Son the Elder’s class of five- and six-year-olds is going on an overnight trip. This is common in Spanish schools for kids this age. The small group of English-speaking moms at the school were all quite taken aback of course and trying to decide whether to send their kids just for the day or to go against first instinct and let them spend the night. In the U.S., at least in my day, schools didn’t sponsor overnight trips until high school, when kids could really do some damage. (The U.K. apparently starts a bit younger; no word on Australia and New Zealand yet but I’ll keep you posted.)
This one really surprised me, I must say. There’s absolutely no way his old California kindergarten class would ever have gone on an overnight trip, especially without a single parent around. Parents would have gone ballistic if it had been proposed: kids would have been pulled out for home schooling, the principal would have had to resign, local TV “news” would have done a feature on how to keep your kids safe when they’re spending the night away from home.
But one woman’s careful parenting is another’s overprotectiveness, and vice versa or whatever, I suppose.
Besides a different legal system, the absence of that local TV news-style hysteria (in part because TV news is regional or national) when horrible things happen to children is another factor that contributes to the different approach to letting go here. I don’t know if that also means there’s less legitimate public attention paid to what can happen. The occasionally hyper-protective U.S.-trained mom in me can certainly come up with an extensive list of what could happen, if anyone asks (not that they have yet, and I suppose that’s OK, although I’d certainly be less oppressive than the parasite expert I was talking to the other day who could make you swear off any food except boiled water, but I guess the school really doesn’t need to worry about most of that, although farms do have a lot of dirt from what I understand).
So I’ll keep that list to myself and trade it for the list of what kids should pack that the school sent out. After all, the kid’s five. It’s about time he was out on his own. At least around here.

Parental Schoolwork

Raise your hand about which sounds better to you: waiting in a cold line outside from the middle of the night until an office opens at 9 a.m., or conducting a bureaucratic paper chase requiring you to obtain 15 documents with three seals each, deal with ten different government departments and show your secret Spiderman ring each time you request a paper.
Of course I’m talking about signing up for schools here.
Sometimes when a “hot” school in the U.S. without specific entry requirements, like a public magnet school, simply admits kids straight off a list in the order they sign up, parents interpret this to mean that to try to get a slot before they’re all filled, a grown-up has got to get in line by 4 a.m. or whenever; that’s just like in your concert-going days but this line is fueled by caffeine and competition.
For Spanish public-funded schools (at least in the Valencia area) you need to have a certain number of points to make it into the hot school in the neighborhood; points are awarded for things like living in the district, low income, family employment status (an interesting bit: two parents working – or one in single parent families – gives you extra points for preschool-aged kids, to give them an edge on getting a slot since education at that age isn’t obligatory), a child’s disability or artistic or sports talent, or having siblings already at the school. Every point you want to claim needs to be proven by assorted paperwork; the exact requirements are irrelevant because no matter what papers you collect, you will not do it properly the first time. There’s no way to avoid having to collect at least some papers, even if you’ll take any school (ha, right!) and can’t claim a single point beyond living in the district.
As you might have guessed, it’s school application time here. I’m complaining about paper gathering but I’d be complaining too about getting up in the middle of the night. (I say I’d be complaining, but the one time I thought it was necessary to do the line thing, for a preschool that we naturally ended up not sending Son the Elder to, the Husband bravely did the duty, ending up second in line and impressing the hell out of everyone else there (moms) since he was the only father in line for at least the first couple of hours. Sometimes pregnancy is a useful condition.)
And sure, we parents might complain, but these school entry methods are actually useful systems, testing and rewarding parents for the exact traits each society deems important, which presumably parents pass on to their children, who by going to the better schools will presumably have more of chance to make an impact in society and thus ensure that those traits are still rewarded in the future, maintaining oh-so-important continuity and tradition.
What’s admired in mainstream U.S. culture? Early risers, get-up-and-go, supposed equality of opportunity (actually rewarding those with the best alarm clocks), lovers of fresh air, thermal underwear wearers, etc.
In Spain, where people can study for years to get their dream job as a government bureaucrat, what pays off is having patience, negotiating ability, an understanding of bureaucracy, good cream to moisturize hands dried out from washing off lots of ink and from dealing with papers, dressing in layers (hot offices, cold offices, going inside, outside), etc.
So as a foreigner here I’m trying to adapt – I’m asking around about good hand creams.

At Least It Gives Me a Reason To Drink

So a bunch of the big soda companies have said they won’t be selling their least nutritious potions in U.S. schools. Sounds good, right? But oh boy, how does this news annoy me? Let me count the ways.
First, are we supposed to say, “whoopee,” now that we’re not hawking Coke to children in school? I know, let’s set up a martini bar in every high school, and then when we take them out we can get all excited and applaud our fine treatment of the youth of America. Not selling children junk drinks in schools seems like one of the least things you can expect from a public education.
And second, that this announcement comes from the drinks companies shows clearly where the power lies. “OK school systems, we’ll pull out the junk we’ve been offering the kids because we’re not making that much money off of it and it’s turning into a possibly expensive public relations problem, so you can thank us by continuing to drop those dollars into our machines to buy (ha ha ha) water. Also, please make sure not to fix the hall water fountains.” Why haven’t the school systems just said “no” on their own? (Although some have, and it’s about time.)
I know, I know, school systems say they needed the money. Well, raising money this way does nothing but get kids trained to be good junk consumers at a young age. (Apart from the fact that schools shouldn’t have to scramble for money they need for, uh, education and stuff.)
Whatever you think about the “obesity epidemic” of kids getting fat and unhealthy, or about how strict parents should be with childrens’ diets (and my home has certainly never been a health-food-only zone), surely we all agree that soda is junk. The simplest solution is just not to have it in schools, and leave it up to parents to decide on any “naughty” additions to their kids’ diets. After all, if schools are pushing soda on kids, parents have to work doubly hard. If anyone gets credit for offering a food or drink treat to my kid, it better be me, and I want to be able to use it if I need to, say, head off a short-person revolt in the middle of grocery shopping.
Oy, after thinking about all this, I need a drink. I wonder how long it would take to get one of those frozen margarita machines installed? With a childproof lock of course. Sometimes it’s good to be the grownup.

In Which a Stranger’s Comment Reminds Us To Move Beyond Either/Or Thinking

Son the Younger needs some friends. No, no, nothing’s happened, and he’s quite a fun guy in my opinion. It’s just that we’ve moved, we don’t know anyone his age, the kid would like to play.
My first thought was to hang out in a playground and let nature take its course. He’ll see a kid, they’ll stare at each other, they’ll both want the same shovel, I’ll have to make nicey nice with the other mother, we’ll all work it out, and we’ll call it a day – peer group social interaction needs fulfilled. Except at most we would find a lone 1-year-old in the parks in the morning, and Son the Younger is – count the fingers – 2. That year makes a big difference; the 1-year-olds are still at the Weeble stage, while 2-year-olds, well, you know, 2-year-olds are big guys.
Although the empty parks may be an anomaly of my neighborhood, I’ve been trying to understand them and reach some kind of broader pronouncement on Spanish culture (because really, who’s going to tell me I can’t?). What’s got me confused is that more kids seem to be in preschool around here than in my San Diego neighborhood, but rates of families where both parents work are lower than in the U.S.
So every time I chat with a parent or cultural commentator or tree or whatever, I’ve been trying to understand what’s with the preschool custom if not all the parents are at work. (Or maybe the kids are tucked away somewhere else? Are there some madre y me classes I don’t know about? Are the kids all playing in their own backyards? Do they nap all day to keep up with the famously late Spanish hours?)
One day in my favorite playground (because it’s next to a snack bar of course – coffee!), Son the Younger was checking out a 1-year-old for his playmate potential, and I asked the mother what was up with the missing toddlers.
Most of her friends, even if they didn’t work, had their kids in preschool, at least for part of the day, she said. That way they get some time for other things. (She planned to start when her son turned 2; she was waiting because he had been a little unhappy when she tried him before.)
This should have been obvious, but it struck me. The kids are in preschool because that’s what you do, and it doesn’t need to be solely work driven. (Spanish preschools are also cheaper than in the U.S., which changes the decision factors.)
The “ought to’s” are different here. It needn’t be that either both parents work, and so school is a given; or else one parent is home with the kids being super-stimulator child development and cruise director. Of course in the U.S., non-working parents do send their kids to preschool also, but in this Spanish suburb at least, it seems much more the norm for kids to go, and from younger ages than in my former suburb. Preschools here are also 5 days a week, even if it’s a part-day, rather than the 2 or 3 days a week you could choose as an option in the U.S. Then public schools start with classes for 3-year-olds, and kids that age seem almost universally in school.
I’m so used to the U.S. “hyperparenting” phenomenon, where parents, usually mothers, consider themselves responsible for super-involved childrearing, that I was surprised by another cultural norm, even though I consider myself a moderate to laid-back on the parental hovering scale. (There’s a very interesting interview with writer Angela Barron McBride over at Mothers Movement that discusses mothering expectations. Mommybloggers pointed it out to me.)
I had thought to wait until Son the Younger was 3 to send him to school, but he’s certainly ready now – as he tells me often when he sees his older brother go off to school. It’s also the best way to find other kids here, as I’ve learned. And – my neighbors would agree with him. So the preschool search is on.

In Which a Sixth-Grade Acquaintance of Ours Shares an Opinion

Right off, I want to say that this has nothing to do with not getting picked for the cheerleading squad in eighth grade. I bear no grudges; in fact, I learned from the experience, and you can’t completely fault any experience that helps you gain knowledge. And it shows that I can understand that kids try on many roles as they develop into adults, experimenting with things that might make them cringe when they’re older.
So fine, cheerleading is fine, and I know lots of people would tell me it’s a fine sport , and I can see how that’s true in many cases.
But then there’s other cases.
The other day I was in the playground, currently my top spot for interviewing sources, talking to a smart sixth-grader from the neighborhood. She was saying that one of the activities she’s doing this school year is cheerleading. Sixth grade strikes me as a bit too early to indoctrinate kids in school spirit and working hard to support others’ achievements, but, hey, whatever.
Plus, visions of Title IX, the young age of the kids, the feminist movement, this being the 21st century, the march of progress, etc., dancing in my head, I figure it’s gotta be pretty much co-ed gymnastics with rhymes.
So, ask I, do any boys do cheerleading?
No, says the young woman – explaining the obvious to the out-of-it fogey she’s conversing with – it’s a girls’ activity.
Well, ask I, clutching for something, she already having said that her group planned to cheer on the boys’ football team, do you cheer for girls’ sports too?
No, says she – somewhat flummoxed by my questions from another planet – that would be weird, why would you want to cheer for girls?
Certainly you can’t expect an 11- or 12-year-old to approach after-school activities with a fully realized ideology, or even any ideology at all. Presumably, though, the school is run by adults, who might have thought things through better. But in any case, and remember I speak from personal experience, if anyone’s looking for a good volunteer activity, a few Sisterhood 101 classes for the local adolescents couldn’t hurt. Then they can teach their elders.