Friday, March 25, 2011

Low Expectations

There is something to be said for low expectations. My daughter competed in the school spelling bee last night. In the weeks before, she was hesitant as to whether she even wanted to compete again. She did the competition last year, studying words nightly, going to 3 practice bee sessions, making note cards. She invested a great deal of time and energy into it and then had an early and embarrassing defeat, the second or third kid kicked out in round one over an easy word that she knew, but misheard. She spelled further instead of farther. She went into this year’s competition with a very different attitude. She didn’t study at all except for twenty minutes last weekend when she and her classmate were over at the house and we practiced some words. He’s an expert speller – studies the roots of words, knows all the origins – Nicole refuses to even bother to break them down in to syllables when trying to spell them. But other than that, Nicole’s plan for the bee was, “I’m gonna wing it.” Her only goal – make it through round one and don’t be the first kid out.

As the competition started, it was clear there were kids who were very invested in it. Nicole was not. Earlier she refused to change clothes into something nicer or even comb her hair. I was able to get a comb through her locks under great protest and redo her pony tails, which over the course of the school day had become wild, with hair standing straight up in a fashion that made her look just a little bit like Don King’s daughter. Nicole got her bee number and took her seat at the back of the stage.

Round one came and she got her word correct. I could see the relief on her face. She had achieved her goal – she made it through the first round – after that, she didn’t care what happened. The bee continued and she kept getting words she could spell. With each word spelled correctly, she appeared more confident, more interested in competing, which is odd to see because she’s not a competitive person – except when it comes to her sister and t.v. viewing time – but sports or academically, she’s more easy going than that. It’s rare that there will be something she wants to badly that she’ll kick into competition mode. The last time she did was for the student council elections. She was disappointed when she didn’t get voted president, but then about ten minutes later, after a few tears had been shed, she came back to me and tried to figure out how she could make herself the political confident of the girl who won. Clearly, she's a born back room operator.

Nicole continued spelling and suddenly, we looked up on the stage and realized it was down to her and three other kids. They were all spellers from her class, one of them was the friend she practiced with, the spelling bee champ from the last two years. He practices words and roots and is by far the strongest speller in the class. He was going for a three-peat. A few misspelled words later, and it was down to Nicole and her friend, a fierce speller who amazes me every time – there doesn’t seem to be a word he can’t tackle. Between them, there would be a winner and a runner-up. I thought for sure that Nicole would be out after the first round of the finals, but they went back and forth spelling three or four more words until they both got one wrong. They continued spelling again until finally, one of them got a word wrong that the other could answer. Nicole was out, the runner-up, not the winner, but for her, for us, it was a huge win. The kid who was out in the first round with further, made it through a dozen or more words that her dad and I sat in our seats trying to figure out how to spell. But the best part about it was, because her expectations had been so low, she wasn’t really invested much either way. Sometimes that’s the best way to go – then you’re pleasantly surprised when go farther than you planned…or is it further?

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Making of an Ivy Leaguer

A Manhattan mother sued her 4 year old’s pre-school for not properly preparing her child for an Ivy League education. That would be like me suing Gatorade for not giving my kid the nutrients to be an Olympic athlete. The mother claimed that the $19,000 a year pre-school had the children doing finger paints and teaching shapes and colors (gasp) instead of preparing for the ERB, an admissions test children must take to get into New York City’s highly competitive, elite private schools and that by not preparing her properly, it damaged her daughter’s chances of one day attending an Ivy League school. The mom called the pre-school’s program more of a “big playroom” rather than the advertised age specific learning curriculum she wanted for her daughter. She says her daughter was forced to play with 2 year olds, and became bored by the less than stimulating atmosphere. She accused the school of committing fraud, wants her $19,000 back and is organizing a class action lawsuit for other parents dissatisfied with the pricey school’s ways.

The pre-school we sent our daughters to, which wasn’t much less than the one this Manhattan mom was paying for, was organized, creative chaos. We lovingly referred to it as a “semi-hippie” environment which was completely developmentally based, child led learning. The school’s nickname around town was, “The Naked School” because most of the time when you arrived to pick your kids up at the end of the day, they’d be running around in a diaper, undies or au natural, digging in the mud, smearing paint on themselves or others, dressing up in construction hats or frilly dresses – usually the girls in the hats, the boys in the dresses. In fact when my oldest went to kindergarten, her biggest adjustment was that she’d have to keep her clothes on. On the first day of school she earnestly asked us, “You mean I can’t take my clothes off?” She was somewhat disappointed, but she got over it.

Our pre-school did not believe in work sheets or skill drills. They read to the children, supported their play, encouraged their imaginations and curiosity, guided them in getting along with each other and showed them how to use their words to express who they are and what they needed. They supported the children’s learning, and they supported the parents as we discovered how to parent and how to help our children learn. As kindergarten approached, some parents worried that their kids wouldn’t be properly prepared. I remember one parent meeting which turned tense as a father complained that he didn’t see enough focus on ABCs and 123s. Others grumbled in agreement, expecting that very pricey tuition check to deliver more than clay sculptures, finger paint drawings and unabashed nudity. But we had faith in what they were doing (or we were too na├»ve to know we shouldn’t) and realized that, for our child, this was the program that would work for her. And it did. Without the pre-school using flash cards or worksheets, alphabet drills or comprehension tests to prep her for kindergarten, without us fretting over her classroom skills and competencies, Nicole left pre-school and entered kindergarten at 4 years old, about two years above grade level in English and math and ready for her academic career which would some day lead to…whatever school she wants to go to.

The other day, my youngest, Natalie, informed me that she was going to Stanford for college. I told her I thought that was a fine school but asked her what she was going to do if she didn’t get in. She informed me that even if she wasn’t accepted, she was going to go. She planned to show up anyway and go to class every day until they had no choice but to let her in. That’s the other thing our pre-school instilled in our kids – unbridled self-confidence and the idea that anything is possible. Stanford better look out, Natalie is coming, like it or not.

I think a great deal of craziness like this woman suing her pre-school is because some people don’t have enough meaningful things to do in life. If this mother had more to do, she wouldn’t waste her time fretting that her four year old might some day not get into Harvard because of a bad pre-school experience. So, you had one bad year, the next will be better. Colleges, even the Ivy League, don’t judge kindergarten math scores when evaluating you for acceptance. I’m sure the Manhattan mom's kid is smart, I’m sure she’ll do well in life regardless of a bad pre-school match, but to sue over it? Crazy. The funny thing would be if after all that, the kid decided to go to a state school. Who’s the mom gonna sue then?

For more on the story, check out the NY Daily News piece -

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bad Day at the Grocery Store

Not that going grocery shopping is ever a really pleasant experience for me – I generally hate it – but last week I had a particularly rough time. I’m not one of those people who actually enjoy strolling the aisles, looking for new items, sampling the cut up fruit in the produce section, seeing what’s cooking in the deli. I usually am sandwiching my grocery run between work or school or some other unmovable deadline and have about an hour to do two weeks worth of shopping. I have so much to get because most of the time I wait between shopping trips until my cupboards are bare and I’m sending my kids to school with marshmallows as a snack and trying to pretend there’s some type of nutritional value in it.

I hate being rushed and every time I am in the store, I am rushed. Rushed or badgered. The badgering usually happens when I make the mistake of bringing my children with me and I have to endure trying to hurry through the store while fending off pleas for Pop Tarts and Doritos which they try to surreptitiously sneak into the cart while they think I’m not looking. But I’m always looking – that thing about mothers having eyes in back of their heads – never believed it when I was a kid, but now that I’m a mother, I know it’s true!

Then there is the price issue. I hate that everything is so expensive. I know that I’m frugal, not only out of need, but by genetics. I come from a long line of cheap on one side of my family – cheap to the point of ridiculousness in some cases, as I remember my father wearing his shoes until he had holes in them…really, on a doctor’s salary??? And I know I have to curb that instinct in myself. But I do find the price of food at the grocery store so irritating, particularly these days – a buck each for an apple, $5 for butter, $25 dollars for a value pack of steaks – where’s the value in that??? Also, I’m so appalled by the prices of everything that I walk through the store talking (often to myself) about the price of the items (which incidentally seem to be put in smaller size packages just as the prices are going up).

Then at check out, I leave the store with over two hundred dollars of groceries in about a bag and a half - bags which I had to supply myself. I hate it. So basically, a trip to the grocery store for me is about being rushed, frustrated and talking to myself to the point of looking like a lunatic. You can see why the overall experience doesn’t thrill me. But now, I have something else to worry about at the grocery store – my daughter.

I ran into the store last week to buy a few items and dragged Nicole with me. At the check out line, I started chatting with the grocery clerk, an affable guy who is probably as old as some of the shoes I have in my closet (remember my father and the holes???). We talked about movies and the weather, he gave me my receipt and I pushed my cart filled with the bags I brought and about enough food to feed us for a day, to the elevator. As the door closed, Nicole said, “Oh, I wish I were ten years older.” I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. I couldn’t even imagine. And then it hit me…the grocery clerk. After picking my jaw up off the floor I asked her to repeat what she said to clarify. I have this paranoid fear that I’m losing my hearing or going slightly crazy (a fear which didn’t develop until I had children), so I often asked my kids to repeat what they’ve said so I know the crazy is coming from their mouths and not me. Nicole rolled her eyes and repeated the horrifying words she’d said only a moment earlier, “I wish I were ten years older…” Brain cells were misfiring as I tried to figure out if I should show her how horrified I was by her statement, be angry or act calm. I felt I had to have the right response, I just had no idea what that was. Instead I said the oh-so-mature and well thought out response, “Yuck.”

I realized the phrase, “Oh, I wish I were ten years older,” is one of many phrases that I really don’t want to hear from my kids as they grow older. It started me thinking about others that are on my list of phrases you never want to hear your child say:

I woke up with this weird tattoo.

A lot of girls do it at this age.

It was only 3 or 4 grams.

They said it would be off my record in six months.

He does not wear more makeup than I do.

Spring break in Vegas!

I’m sure there are others, many others I will shudder to hear. For now, suffice it to say, I won’t be going back to that grocery store for a while. I could try online grocery shopping with at home delivery. But I’m afraid of what she’d say about the delivery guys.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

At the End of the World

We live in Los Angeles, in the city, not the mountains. It’s been decades since the city saw anything approaching white wintry weather. Yet last weekend it hailed, and then it snowed. This weekend it’s 80 degrees. Wacky weather like this always makes me wonder if the end of the world is coming.

As we sat at the table eating lunch and the first pieces of hail started to fall, my daughters started to scream. They’d never seen hail before, never seen snow actually falling. They are true California girls and since neither David or I have any need to rush up into the mountains and subject ourselves to the cold and snow we moved out here to get away from, the girls haven’t seen a great deal of the wintry stuff! Nicole was scared – had all kinds of questions about what the hail was and why we were having this crazy weather. All over the country the weather had been weird during the week – from massive snow on the East coast to flooding in the Midwest and now snow in L.A. As we sat watching it hail, there were more screams and laughter, great excitement mixed in with a little concern about what was going on with our weather, our environment. I jokingly said, it was the end of the world. Nicole, who has a tendency to take everything I say very seriously, panicked and started to yell at me not to say things like that. That of course prompted her father, who can’t resist an opportunity to tease her, to wonder aloud if we shouldn’t be packing up, getting ready for the final judgement. That sent Nicole off the deep end. Natalie, however, looked up from her lunch and asked, “At the end of the world, will there be more quesadillas?” That’s my Natalie, never one to miss lunch.

But the world has seemed as out of whack these days as the weather. From the retaliations to the protests rolling across the Middle East, to the shooting rampages in the U.S. and dealing with the pain and suffering of strangers, friends and family coping with the economic crisis as we look at paying $4.19 a gallon for gas and two hundred bucks a week to feed a family of four, things seem as if they are in constant flux, looking for normal, but not knowing what normal is anymore. It worries me, I find no calm in it and I struggle with how to explain the nuttiness of the world to my kids – informing them without upsetting them.

They are no longer of the age where I can turn off the TV and pretend that they are too young to know what is going on anyway. They need to know, want to know. Even if I did try to shelter them, they get information from other sources now anyway – friends, TV, radio, Internet - so better to “mom up” and tell them directly rather than letting them hear it in the streets. Nicole, my oldest, was in the room when the news reported about a man arrested for the kidnapping and rape of a middle schooler. She heard the lead to the story before I could change the channel and asked me about it. I explained in the most basic, non-descriptive way that the man had tried to take a child and hurt her. Nicole clarified, saying, “He tried to have sex with her.” So much for keeping it simple. I worry how much she knows about things that I think she doesn’t know yet. After that, it opened up the floodgates for showing her tidbits from the news and seeing her reaction. I let her watch an interview with Charlie Sheen ranting about tiger’s blood and letting his girlfriends (I resisted the urge to call them bimbos) raise his kids and asked her what she thought. Nicole looked me straight in the eye and said, “He’s crazy, mom.” Funny how perceptive kids can be.

Things feel out of whack right now. As I get ready for the morning and consider going out to the beach today – after cleaning up the yard from last week’s snow – I am beginning to wonder if maybe the end of the world is coming. But if so, no need to worry. As Natalie has confirmed, at the end of the world, they will be serving quesadillas. In that case, how bad could it be? I hope mine comes with chicken.