Animal House Hits My House

animalhouseposter2As you approach the doorway, a headless Pokemon (Pika Pika! Pi-Ka-Chu!) flies out of a window and lands at your feet. Adrian takes a break from his potty break to greet you. Oops, sorry about your shoes… and your leg. Jake whirls by you on a Razor scooter, through the front door and onto the back porch, where he sings a surprisingly good rendition of “Burning Down the House.” Alex tries to accompany him with what’s left of smashed ukulele.

“Sorry,” he says, as he hands me the pieces and runs off. We have … had a ukulele?

Dressed in makeshift togas, Lauren and Caitlin run by with their Rapid Shoot Super Soaker Water Guns cocked, ready to take down Koss and Jared.

“No water in the house,” I shout, without the slightest delusion that anyone is listening to me. Welcome to my son’s 8th birthday party.

When I let Koss pick the theme for his party, I expected him to choose Pokemon, Sponge Bob, or Harry Potter. You know, a commercially exploitable theme that would be easy to incorporate into invitations, piñata, decorations, games, craft projects, band-aids, snacks, cake, favors, little gift bags, ribbons, tags, stickers and candy for the little gift bags.

I got Animal House instead.

Luckily, I lived in a frat house one summer a million years ago. Otherwise I would have been completely unprepared for what happens in a home invasion by seven kids with enough adrenaline to power Bolivia, Kamchatka, and Yakutsk (and that’s before the ice cream sundaes).

Many moms believe that planning a child’s birthday party requires as much tactical planning as invading a small country, more if you have to hire a magician. Since my son’s birthday is right in the middle of the summer, I tend to be a little more laid back.

OK, a lot more laid back. I let my son plan his own party. He had grand plans from the get go. A wild game of Cranium, a water gun fight, and a dance contest. It sounds pretty harmless, right?

I figured it couldn’t be any worse than letting my husband plan the party, which would have involved a few bags of chips, a couple of pizzas and a lot of beer. All serve yourself, of course.

After all, there has to be some advantage to living in the Shack besides a good school district. I finally figured it out. This is a great house for a frat party. There’s almost nothing here that I really care if they thrash. The furniture is old and falling apart, the carpet is disgusting, the yard is full of weeds, and the walls have seen better days.

So this year we decided to bite the bullet and let our son have his dream party. Did I mention he wanted a slumber party?

Not only did we let them thrash our house, and play with fire, we let them stay here and sleep it off afterward.

I use that word, “sleep” in a very loose way. I think at about 3 a.m. a few of them were sitting down. That counts, right?

It’s been almost a week, and our birthday hangovers are still hanging on. My kitchen’s recovered from the food fight, and my headache has almost gone away, but I’m still scrubbing the walls from the home invasion.

I mean this literally.

One of the more ingenious games they played was “Burglar,” which involved repeatedly climbing through the window from the front porch into the living room, throwing throw pillows, stereo equipment and knickknacks into a bag and running through the neighborhood shouting, “Have you seen Delta House?”

It’s listed under my name in the phone book.


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Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on August 3, 2007.

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.

The Handwriting is on the Wall

By wikipedia:en:user:Sotakeit (w:Image:Cursive.JPG) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By wikipedia:en:user:Sotakeit (w:Image:Cursive.JPG) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In case you’ve missed the writing on the wall, cursive writing is going the way of eight-track tapes. Today’s students will almost certainly be the last generation to learn handwriting, and I’m not sure that this is a bad thing.

Until the 1970s, penmanship was a separate daily subject taught through sixth grade, but a recent survey of primary-grade teachers found that most now spend 10 minutes a day or less on it. Even kindergarteners are learning keyboarding instead of handwriting. And while we used to celebrate a National Handwriting Week, today marks the celebration of National Handwriting Day. There’s not even a parade, despite the fact that it’s also John Hancock’s birthday today, for which my husband and I usually exchange the traditional gift of fountain pens and parchment paper.

So much for the longevity of longhand.

After all, effective communication is the ultimate goal, so why bother with a time-consuming, archaic method of communicating when so many high-tech, high-speed methods are available? Anyone out there who is worried about the development of the next generation’s communication skills should watch how skillfully the average13-year-old wields the text message function on his cell phone. Of course spelling will be the next part of the curriculum to go, but that iz a topic 4 anoth col.

Sure, I’m a little dependent on my laptop–OK, I was semi-suicidal the day my wireless card stopped working–but that doesn’t mean I have anything personal against handwriting. Until recently, I took a certain amount of pride in my penmanship. It’s extremely legible, which is the point of writing. The other cool thing about it is that in defiance to all of the handwriting experts who say that they can predict your personality traits by looking at something you’ve written, my sister and I have almost indistinguishable handwriting and distinctly different personalities. It’s eerie when I get something in the mail from her. Cue the Twilight Zone music: “I don’t remember writing that.”

I used to wonder if my son’s writing would look the same as ours did. Would genetics kick in, the shape of our hands perhaps? With two professional writers for parents, it was no great surprise that our son was an extremely verbal, great natural communicator. He started out this way on the page too, filling his kindergarten journals with imaginative stories about silver-tongued aliens and basketballs that could fly five zillion feet in the air and return with the snap of his fingers.

Then came the dreaded D’Nealian Alphabet.

Bearing only a slight resemblance to the loopy cursive writing style that I was taught in elementary school–and have barely used since–the D’Nealian Alphabet is designed to be a bridge between printing and cursive writing, adding curves and slants to the traditional circle and stick printing that children learn first.

Sounds simple enough. Almost logical.

Not for Koss. His previously legible printing quickly curved and slanted its way into oblivion. Before we knew it, none of us knew what the heck he was writing about. His sentences became shorter and less and less coherent. There was so much red ink when he got his papers back that I thought he might have had another bloody nose. The poor kid was thinking and worrying so much about his handwriting that he forgot what he was trying to say.

His well-intentioned first grade teacher gave him extra handwriting homework. Just imagine how much fun it is for a six-year-old kid to do an extra two pages of letterforms a night. A-A-A-A, B-B-B-B, C-C-C-C, D-D-D-D, just shoot us now and take us out of our D’Nealian misery! Talk about D’wasting D’time.

But his motor development is fine. You should see him put together those Bionicle pieces. What he suffers from is called dysgraphia, otherwise known as “bad handwriting.” Luckily, we’re living in an age where it doesn’t really matter that much in the larger scheme of things.

I’m doing a little happy dance because Koss’s teacher this year is letting him use a computer for some of his writing assignments.

I’m sure my own second grade teacher is rolling over in her retirement home. I can just hear her say, “Penmanship is extremely important. Don’t you know that the health of at least 1 in 10 Americans is endangered by the poor handwriting of their physicians?”

To which I’ll say, “So what. By the time Koss graduates from medical school there won’t be any more prescription forms, we’ll have prescription chips embedded in our bodies.”

And she’ll reply, “But did you know that up to $95,000,000 in tax refunds are not delivered because of unreadable tax-forms.”

And I’ll say, “Haven’t you ever heard of Quicken?”

To which she’ll reply, “But more than $200,000,000 in time and money is lost because poor handwriting results in phone calls made to wrong or non-existent numbers.”

I could tell her about cell phones and email, but at this point it seems more merciful to send her a little hand-written note, thanking her for teaching me how to write…or just transfer her to voicemail.

Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound

Kids put the squeeze on the boundaries of cuisine

Photo by Mojpe,

Photo by Mojpe,

“When it comes to feeding your kids, everyone’s a critic,” warned my friend Lori.

Sure the food police may be creeping around cafeteria corners and leering at grocery carts, but I’ve come to realize that when it comes to kids and food, there are a lot more hypocrites than critics.

I, for one, am happy when my son eats at all.

Can he really be the only kid in the United States who has never — not a single day in his young life — managed to down the federally-recommended three servings of vegetables, two servings of fruit and two servings of milk per day?

And I’m told, by other concerned parents who are apparently better able to shove food into their children’s small orifices, that when he turns seven he’ll need even more fruits and vegetables. At this rate, he’ll need a broccoli I.V. and brussel sprout drip or he’ll never be able to catch up

Who are these kids that are eating all of these fruits and vegetables? I’ve certainly never met them.

I called the USDA, and they put me in touch with the five-year-old boy who actually follows all of their guidelines. His name is Oliver Q. Stump, and he lives in Denver, CO. He’s in great health, reading at a fourth grade level, and is exceptionally well mannered. However, I found him to be an exceedingly dull conversationalist.

Have a Butterfinger, Oliver. You need to lighten up.

The rest of us can only try. At their Valentine’s Day party, my son’s kindergarten class not only had cookies and cupcakes on the sign-up sheet, but also fruit and vegetables.

I was impressed. Unfortunately, none of the produce actually made it to the party, and I was surprised to find that when the kids opened their Valentine’s cards, at least half of them contained candy.

Were these the same moms that complained about unhealthy croutons in the school’s salad bar?

I had been buying red and pink foil chocolate concoctions for weeks, but it never would have occurred to me to share them with my son, let alone his classmates — and it’s not just because I don’t share chocolate.

While I’ve been following the progress of “healthy chocolate” research at Mars Inc. for years (according to the New York Times, dark chocolate Dove bars are now loaded with more cardiovascularly-friendly flavanols than many green teas), I know better than to make five-year-olds into lab rats.

I prefer my selective scientific gullibility to work only in my favor, not against the integrity of my son and his friends.

“I want to teach my kids that carrots are just as much of a treat as M & Ms,” said my friend Jody.

Good idea, though there’s a reason they never made Willy Wonka and the Rutabaga Factory into a movie.

If it actually worked, there would be a bunch of orange-tinted kids on the playground instead of a bunch of fat kids. For those of you who didn’t get the memo, or have been living under a rock for the past decade, this will be big news: Kids are eating too much junk food and not getting enough exercise.

In other words, they’re acting like adults.

“Can we go to McDonald’s for dinner, Mommy?” asks my son. “They have salads.”

This is how he tries to sell me on McDonald’s, with the temptation of a 12,000 calorie salad — for me. Nonetheless, “Would you actually eat something if I take you there?” I plead.

That’s how low the bar can drop in our house sometimes.

My son, who is five and weighs less than his three-year-old cousin, is almost never hungry. That is, unless he’s sucking up to Grandma or it’s time to go to bed. Then he suddenly gets an appetite.

Anyone who’s ever met me knows this is clearly not genetic.

Ever look up “food issues” in a psychology journal?

My mom was the one who gave me Tab in my fourth grade lunch box and gave out pencils on Halloween.

My dad was the one who made me the top seller every Girl Scout cookie season. He would eat them before I could even make the rounds of the neighbors, a weakness later discovered by the SBCC women’s volleyball team, who made a fortune by storing their fundraising candy bars in his office one year.

My husband is the tall, skinny guy who, after years of cutthroat “eat all your vegetables” contests with his siblings, has not had anything green pass his lips (other than a beer on St. Patrick’s Day) since he left home for college.

And I am the one who rejoiced at the healthy kids meal we recently had at Bubba Gump’s in Long Beach, which included carrot sticks and celery with the chicken strips and fries.

My heart went pitter-patter when Koss actually ate a carrot.

So what if he mistook it for a French fry, he still swallowed.

Like I said, the bar is low.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on March 3, 2005.