Pledging Beta

Recovering Alpha Mom shirt from

Recovering Alpha Mom shirt from

The book practically leapt off the library shelf and into my hands. How could I resist a title like, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit? Jill Conner Browne‘s sassy bon mots just cracked me up.

–(On men) “They’ve basically got two gears–horny and hungry.”

–(On women) “There is all kinds of stuff that you just shouldn’t ask any woman. Directly. If you want to know something personal about her, ask her nail technician or somebody who went to high school with her. You can find out just about anything you want to know about her this way–especially if she’s a bad tipper or was prone to stealing ninth grade boyfriends.”

–(On children) “Somewhere around 11 to 13, the eyeballs of children become extremely loose in their sockets, so that just about any disturbance in the air around them–say a word issuing forth from, say, your mouth–will cause immediate and severe rolling.” (My son must be precocious, because he started doing this at age 8)

–(On aging) “Who cares how old you are anyway? I’ve got waaay more interesting stuff to lie about in my life, thank you very much.”

I related to a lot of the book, but there was one section in particular that really hit a nerve. I had been struggling all summer with the question of how much I want to volunteer at my son’s school this year, and her observations about Alpha Moms really hit home for me. Last year I raised my hand to volunteer a few too many times and by the end of June I was burnt out, bitchy and resentful–leaving my husband only hungry.

Not wanting to go through that again–or needlessly torture my family–I thought long and hard and decided to give up some of the boards and committees and projects I had been involved with. My problem was, I still felt guilty.

Then I read the chapter titled, “Life is Hard Enough–Pledge Beta.” Conner Browne talks about how researchers have now come up with official categories for moms, including the “dearly demented and overtly overachievers,” otherwise known as Alpha Moms.

I’m sure you know the type. These women volunteer for everything so energetically that you could swear they’ve sucked all the energy out of the universe for themselves. Just looking at them makes me tired.

These are the women who laugh at the black and orange crepe paper you were so proud of yourself for remembering to bring for Halloween party, then furiously whirl around the room until it’s transformed into Disney’s Haunted House, complete with magic elevators and hitchhiking ghosts. Then they refuse to take compliments because they “just whipped everything up” the night before after their Pilates and Mandarin Chinese classes.

Those are Alpha Moms I realized. I always thought they were called Skinny Witches. Who knew?

A light bulb went on. I had been struggling to be an Alpha Mom, but I just don’t fit in. Why didn’t I see it before? I was trying to pledge the wrong sorority.

I can’t keep myself perfectly groomed and wear heels all the time. Who am I kidding? I consider myself well dressed if I go a day without spilling something on my shirt. Clearly I’m meant to be a Beta Mom.

Beta Moms, according to Conner Browne, “show up late, running down the halls, flip-flops flapping on the floor, breathing hard, sweating, wearing oversized T-shirts and frantic,” because they forgot about the stupid party until five minutes AFTER they were supposed to be there.

These are my people. I belong with the Betas, who the Alpha Moms only trust to bring paper towels and garbage bags to the party, but still bring extras in case we forget.

Boy do I feel better now.

I think I’ll take Conner Browne’s advice–“I can tell you this with absolute certainty: Nobody goes to the nursing home wishing they’d served on a few more committees or kept a cleaner house”–and just say no to a whole lot of things this school year.

And in keeping with my new Beta Mom m.o., “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit” is overdue to the library. But I just may have to keep it a teensy bit longer.

Send an email to email if you want to pledge Beta. There are no meetings, no dues, and no expectations. But we just may have a party someday.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on August 29, 2008.

Kindergarten Redshirts

Photo chomnancoffee,

Photo chomnancoffee,

School starts this week and a lot of families will be getting a late start–on purpose.

No, I’m not talking about those people who simply choose to extend their summers until after Labor Day, the way God intended. I’m talking about the people who decide to give their children an extra year filled with preschool or playtime before the academic rigors of kindergarten begin.

This graying of kindergarten is an interesting phenomenon. For many parents–especially the upper-middle class ones who can afford to stomach the extra year of preschool on the front end and extra year of supporting a child on the back end until s/he graduates from high school or college–the calculation goes something like this: you look at your four-year-old darling, especially if he’s a boy–because they tend to be squirrelier and less verbal when they’re little–and realize that his summer or fall birthday means that he’ll be younger than most of the other kids in his kindergarten class. So you decide to send him to school a year later. Then he’s at the older end of his class, with the presumption that his added maturity will give him an edge from grade to grade.

Private schools have a later birthday cutoff, but even in public school sometimes principals or teachers may suggest waiting another year to start is in your child’s best interest.

Not to mention their own.

One kindergarten teacher I know, Tammy, was nervous about commenting (which is why all of these names are pseudonyms), but did offer this, “All I can say is I’m really NOT into parents starting their kids at age four (turning five in the fall). That’s the worst.”

And as a parent, there is nothing worse than watching one kid who is not ready to be in school dominate all of the teacher’s attention for an entire year.

“I do believe that if a child is really immature, cannot hold a pencil, write their name, color a page and stay within the lines pretty well, cannot sit down long enough to listen to a story, cannot retell one fact from the story, and cannot follow a few simple instructions, then another year would be good for them to practice these steps in preschool,” says Chandra, another kindergarten teacher.

The other part of this equation is that “kindergarten is the new first grade,” according to many educators. Although most adults remember kindergarten as an idyllic year of naps, snacks and feeding the class hamster, it has become more and more academically demanding. With the advent of “No Child Left Behind” the pressure to teach things earlier and earlier gets even worse.

An estimated nine percent of children nationally are entering kindergarten a year later than they could, though there’s little evidence that children perform better in school if they start late.

But the decision to redshirt is such an individual one, and the research on the academic side–while mounting as a topic worthy of interest and study, especially since almost half the states have pushed back their birthday cutoffs since 1975–is still unclear.

At the same time, no one that I spoke to who redshirted their child regretted it.

“I absolutely did it,” says Wendy, whose son’s birthday is in late November. “Best thing I ever did. Especially with a boy. I have a girlfriend that did the opposite and her son is always the ‘baby’ of the class, and although she doesn’t see it, he suffers greatly for it. Pure immaturity. And they get meaner as they get older.”

To some professionals, redshirting children is necessary because kindergartens are more concerned with academics than with the emotional and physical development of youngsters. To others, the practice is not much better than coddling.

“I found that with some kids they acted young because their parents babied them, so it did not matter if they were one year older or not,” says Yvonne, another teacher friend.

Sometimes families decide to redshirt for reasons unique to their family dynamics. I have one friend, Darlene, who held back her second son because otherwise he and his older brother would have been one grade apart, and she didn’t want them competing so closely on the academic, social and athletic playing fields.

It’s no accident that the term “redshirt” comes from athletics, since the one place where redshirting is a proven advantage is on the sports field. Up until a few years ago the birthday cutoff date for Little League was July 31, which is a lot better explanation than astrology for the fact that 60 percent more Major League Baseball players are born in August than in July.

Aside from stacking the sports odds in favor of kids, experts also worry that redshirting puts low-income students at an extra disadvantage. The children who end up going to school young because their parents can’t afford to hold them back are also the ones with the least preparation and lowest rates of participation in preschool. Then those children arrive at school and have to compete with older, better prepared students whose parents may demand more challenging classrooms so their kids aren’t bored.

Still, parents are understandably more concerned with their own child than the bigger picture.

“Around the teenage years, it really starts to suck when your child is a full year younger than all his friends,” says Lola, whose son is entering high school having just turned14. “All the friends who are a year older start to like members of the opposite sex, start growing hair in lot of new places, think their parents are idiots, don’t want to play video games anymore, want to be downtown all the time and get their driver’s license long before your child who is the correct age for their grade. This leaves the correct age for their grade child feeling inadequate to say the least, not to mention lost and confused.”

Of course no one wants their child to have any disadvantages, which is why my friend Angie might have the best idea of all. “My recommendation to parents would be to have babies born between October-March.”

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on August 22, 2008.

When you know you’re a grownup

UntitledLast weekend we were heading down to the beach and as I rummaged through the five bottles of sunscreen and three different hats in my trunk I had a stunning revelation–I might actually be a grownup!

My days of frying on the sand in a mixture of baby oil and iodine are certainly over. I don’t even call Hendry’s Beach “the Pit” anymore because hardly anyone knows what I’m talking about. Now I’m that lady in the hat and huge sunglasses that makes sure to bring water and snacks for the kids. Wow, I might actually be a grownup.

Here are some other signs:

My friends have stopped hooking up, then splitting up. Now they’re getting married and divorced. And sometimes they’re dating people half their age–and it’s legal.

The last time I went to Disneyland, my favorite rides were the ones that didn’t hurt my back.

I could have gone to high school with Barack Obama. He would have been a senior, but still, we could have gone to school together.

No matter how impossibly cute the shoes are, I won’t wear them for more than an hour if they hurt my feet.

I’ve actually started mailing in those rebate offers.

My friend Sandy has a daughter that graduated from college, and Sandy is younger than I am.

A $4 bottle of wine no longer tastes “just fine” to me.

At the gym the other day I saw an aerobics class that looked about my speed, then realized it was for seniors.

Not only have I stopped buying cereal for the toy prizes, I’ve started stocking up on Raisin Bran and Cheerios when it’s on sale.

Sometimes my idea of a fun Friday night out involves pizza, Scrabble, and not leaving the house.

I consider the speed limit more than “just a guideline.”

I call my doctor by his first name, I’ve seen him drunk, and I still trust him.

Sometimes I hear my mom’s voice coming out of my mouth (“Because I said so.”) and it only freaks me out a little, but every once in a while, I’ll look in the mirror and see my mom’s face and it freaks me out a lot.

There’s a lot more food in my refrigerator than beer.

Thinking about having sex in a car makes me fantasize about back injuries.

When Koss asked me the other day, I couldn’t remember how to make a cursive capital “T” since it’s not a part of my signature.

When my friends suddenly become very moody, I wonder if they’re pre-menopausal, rather than pregnant.

I left a concert early at the County Bowl this year because I was too stressed out about someone getting hurt in the mosh pit to enjoy the music.

When the phone rings, I always hope it’s not for me.

I finally know for sure that my secrets are safe with my friends because they can’t remember them either.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on August 15, 2008.

Legacies: Storyteller

storytellerThe infectious chirping of children’s laughter greets visitors. Pigtails fly as a little girl rounds the playground on a tricycle, her smile as bright as the sun. This scene could take place at any of Santa Barbara’s high quality preschool programs, with one exceptional difference–this is Storyteller Children’s Center and these children are homeless.

Founded in 1988 by volunteers who pushed aside cots at Transition House to make space for a small group of children, Storyteller has a come a long way from those humble beginnings.

“We started out as a half-day program for about ten kids,” says Executive Director Terri Allison, who co-wrote the initial proposal to fund a childcare center for homeless children when she worked for the Community Action Commission. The children thrived and the program grew, incorporating in 1991 and moving to First Congregational Church, then to a dedicated center in 1999.

As the program matured, so did its goals. “In the beginning, the group was very focused on providing a safe space for kids,” says board president Jon Clark. “Now we’re looking in a more focused way at the children and their families and what they need. … In particular because of the living situations these children are in, it really is on Storyteller to provide educational experiences, nutrition and all those things that will help them grow.”

Most families are referred through word-of-mouth or from other agencies such as Transition House, Domestic Violence Solutions, St. Vincent’s, Department of Social Services and Child Protective Services.

“A teacher sits down with every family for at least an hour … to establish a level of trust with them and also to figure how we can help,” Allison says. In addition to early childcare and education services, offerings include on-site counseling, family services and case management; parent support groups and education workshops; mental health and disability services; health, vision and dental screenings and nutrition services.

“The teacher helps set goals with the parents and we monitor them on a monthly basis,” Allison says. “We know that the best way to affect change is through the whole family, so parents to have the skills that they need, as well as the children.”

“Parents who leave their children with us are expressing tremendous trust in the people that work at Storyteller,” says Clark. “Once that trusting relationship is developed, there is so much that we can do to help them deal with their family issues and parenting issues. That was a real eye-opener when we realized that the relationship between the organization and the families and the trust that developed was such a huge asset.”

Studies of graduates and their families show a marked improvement in their social and economic status and Storyteller is working with UCSB to research the longer-term impact of its programs. “What we’re trying to do is to make meaningful changes in the lives of children and their families that are going to play out over time,” says Clark.

“There is so much scientific evidence about the huge differences that quality preschool education can make in later years,” says Allison. Experts agree that investment in high quality education for young children has substantial economic payoffs–for every $1 invested, $3 to $16 is returned from decreased jail time and increased physical and mental health.

One of the biggest challenges for Storyteller is trying to focus on the depth of services to individual families and still offer a breadth of services to the community. The waiting list for children continues to grow. Allison cites research that there is only one licensed childcare space for every three eligible children in Santa Barbara County–regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

Still, Storyteller is doing its best to help more children. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the organization opened a second facility, thanks in large part to the generosity of the Orfalea Foundation, who bought the building and is leasing it back to Storyteller rent-free for ten years, enabling Storyteller to mount a $3.2 million capital campaign for the expansion.

Last spring Storyteller was able to increase capacity from 29 to 50 children in the two preschools. By September of 2009 they expect to have 72 children enrolled.

“It’s really amazing to think of how far we’ve come,” says board member J.P. Sharp, a volunteer since 1994. “It was a real grassroots organization of helping children and helping parents and really teaching them how to parent. This is still a wonderful place to visit and volunteer.”

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine in Fall 2008.