Monday, December 14, 2009

Yes, We Can...

...afford to eat better.

The professor in my argument class this quarter decided that our main focus should be health care because of the timeliness of the issue. Like we can't just flip on the television and hear about that--but whatever. We had to write several essays related to health care and have class-wide discussions on it.

My first essay focused on why our health care costs so much--more than twice what it does in other industrialized nations, in fact. The answer seems to be that we are sue-happy and, more important, very unhealthy due to a really crappy diet. Obesity and related problems create up to half of our national health care bill. That's not counting things like type 2 diabetes that are closely tied to but not entirely caused by obesity.

My second essay discussed how we can change this. I said that if we are really serious about it, we need to treat junk foods like another famously harmful substance: tobacco. According to my research, the average obese person has health care costs far exceeding a smoker. So why are we serving junk food in our school cafeterias? Why can people buy chips and soda with food stamps? Why don't we tax these foods and make them illegal on school campuses?

My teacher wrote a note on my paper suggesting that most Americans can't afford healthy foods. And I say: Yes, we can.

Convenience foods cost more than whole foods per pound, and they seem to be the culprits in our expanding waistlines. People think that dollar menus are cheaper than cooking, but are they really? Sure, it's hard to beat one dollar for a burger, but no one is getting fat from that two hundred calorie burger. They are getting fat from a larger, three or four dollar burger, along with two dollar supersized fries and a large Coke. A single value meal is around six dollars, about the cost for a healthy homemade dinner for your whole family.

People in third world countries eat better than we do and have lower rates of diet-related disease, because they can't afford our crappy diet. Americans have more expendable income than most Europeans, who also manage to eat better. Anyway, whole foods are cheaper than Frankenfood if you look beyond out of season pomegranates and radicchio. So it's counterintuitive to suggest that money is the issue.

I think time and laziness are the issue. I'm not saying fat people are particularly lazy, but that we all are in this country. Some people are blessed with metabolisms that can handle all the extra calories and the sedentary lifestyle, others are not so lucky. And none of us feel like dedicating an hour to cooking in the evening, although many of us do it anyway. It's easier, albeit more expensive, to just open a box. And therein lies the problem.

We do have the money--beans and rice are cheap. We do have the time as well, for the most part. Most people feel like they have no time, but when their favorite TV show comes on, suddenly time is in surplus. We spend time on the phone, time shopping for things we don't really need, time waiting in fast food lines. It's only when it comes time to throw the beans in the crockpot that we get all short on time. Suddenly we don't have even a minute, unless that minute is spent in a McDonald's drive-thru.

If you aren't working, or even if you are, you have time--as much or more time than I do, at least. We can eat healthy. Yes, we can. To borrow another famous tagline: just do it.

There are a few caveats here. If you are feeding yourself on less than $5 a week, then you will be relying on ultra-cheap, ultra-unhealthy foods like ramen. But you won't get fat... you'll have a hard time just getting enough calories to survive. Obesity comes from eating too much--way too much--for a period of years, not from spending a few tight months eating from a Styrofoam cup. Also, organics do cost more. But you won't get obese from eating a conventionally grown apple.

In one of our class discussions, a girl said she and her one year old live on fast food because she is too busy as a single mother to cook and she can't afford better food anyway. But she gets her nails done every week and has a constant flow of new clothes and Coach handbags. She has time and money to shop and watch someone airbrush her nails. Just not the time to eat healthy.

It's not her fault, either. Every time you turn on the TV, some expert is claiming that Americans are fat because we can't afford the money and time for a healthy diet. People are being encouraged to make unhealthy choices and told that they have no control over something as basic as what they put in their mouth. But we all have the choice. We all have the option to eat well. Say it with me: Yes, we can.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Part-Time Homeschooling

I completely believe in homeschooling. My children never learned so thoroughly nor developed socially as well as they did when we were a work at home/learn at home family. Going back to college only reinforces my belief, because the top students in every single one of my classes are fifteen-year-old homeschoolers who shame the rest of us with their ability to learn.

Not only are they better students, the homeschoolers at my college are a refreshing change from the kids near their age. They dress more modestly, are better spoken, and fool around less in class. Many of my non-homeschooled classmates have difficulty relating to people in the class who are older than them or from different ethnic backgrounds. They stay in their own enclaves and giggle while the homeschoolers seem to socialize with a variety of people, and at more appropriate times.

I'm sure this is a generalization. I'm sure there are many mature and well-taught public school graduates and many immature and academically unprepared homeschoolers as well. However, this generalization has been true 100% of the time in the last year and a half of college. Which worries me, because my kids are now attending conventional school.

As I said above, I believe in homeschooling. On the other hand, something that I didn't consider when I married an older man is that at some point, I would need to pick up the financial workload. My husband is about 15 years away from retirement while I am in the middle of my childbearing years. When he reaches senior citizen status, we will still have children in the home and need to provide more than a retiree's lifestyle. We can save for that time, but these savings will barely put a dent in the financial needs of our future. Going back to school seems like the only realistic option, but it definitely infringes on the lifestyle I feel called to.

I decided to make a list of the things I feel my kids are missing out on by attending 'real' school and attempt to address them one by one.

1. Lack of appropriate socialization. What I hear over and over is that homeschoolers don't get socialized; however, my experience is just the opposite. They do not spend all day in a small room with people their own age, but is that really preparation for the future? On the other hand, they usually accompany their parents on daily errands, sometimes even go to work with them, as well as volunteering, going to lessons, and attending mixed age co-ops. My kids saw more of the community when we homeschooled and seemed more socially aware.

My solution has been to involve my children more in the community now that we are in school. I have taken them to school with me on occasion so they see what other kinds of formal education look like, and we are always looking for volunteer opportunities. We continue to take various lessons and try to maintain our friendships with adults and children of different ages and backgrounds.

2. The moral and ethical void of public schools. Wow, if my kid comes home with the words to another Black Eyed Peas song memorized, I am going to scream. When you send adults into the world, they have the foundation to deal with it; when you send children, their foundation is unset and prone to taking imprints you may find unpleasant.

This is honestly the hardest issue to overcome. We have a character building program that I bought while homeschooling, and we continue to use it. I am much more restrictive on television viewing than I was when we homeschooled. We take time for morning and evening prayers, and I emphasize moral and religious values at every opportunity. Is it as good as homeschooling? Nope. Is it sufficient? For now, yes, and when it stops being sufficient we will stop being public schoolers.

3. Materialism and emphasis on appearance. I used to love it when my friends came over with daughters in princess costumes. The clothing children wear to co-ops ranges from mismatched rags to thoughtfully created designer ensembles, and every variation in between. It doesn't seem to affect the social sitch at all in that crowd.

This is a hard one to combat at schools because no one wants to have their kid be the one ostracized because the parents take a stand on principle. My fourteen-year-old is willing to take that stand on his own: he'll dress however he wants, and everyone can take it or leave it. But he is a product of homeschooling, while the younger ones are more impressionable. I will buy new garments when needed provided they meet standards of decency and are within a certain price range. We do a lot of this at thrift stores, and I alway point out the waste involved with so many people buying and then getting rid of perfectly nice, stylish, name brand clothing. The result is that the younger kids seem to feel that the name-brand game is a little silly, but necessary if you want to get along, and something to be begrudgingly worked around. Which is exactly how I feel.

As for the constant need for stuff, I know that many public school parents will buy their kids the foods and toys seen on television. I believe that a constant pursuit of stuff is wrong, and I show it through my actions. We also purchased the Veggie Tales film, Madame Blueberry, which addresses this behavior in a more interesting and less preachy way than I can.

4. Bullying and victimizing behavior. It's the nature of many children and adults to try to gain power however they can. Honestly, the way we dealt with bullying in the homeschool community was for any adult present to step in and stop it, then report the incident to the offending child's parents. Believe me, no one seemed to have trouble doing this. If anything, many parents seemed over-sensitive to it. Public schoolers, on the other hand, are supervised at recess on about a 1 adult to every 100 children ratio. They can't see and intervene constantly. They have these bullying assemblies, but my second grader could not even define bullying after the last one. It wasn't a semantic issue; she honestly had no idea what it was except that it was very mean and bad.

Luckily, we have a large family, enough that everyone here has been on both sides of mild variations of bullying behavior. So they can see that it is mean and how bad it makes others feel. My kids are pretty empathetic, so this small amount of experience goes a long way. We talk a lot about how important it is to be friends with the kids standing alone at the perimeter of the playground and to include anyone who wants to play.

5. The lack of an education. Isn't it ironic that so many parents send their kids to school to get an education? Yet that seems to be conspicuously absent. They barely get in their three R's and the occasional science or social studies unit between announcements and crowd-management. We did that the first hour of the morning when we homeschooled, then had hours for social studies, history, science, art, archaeology, religion, and dance lessons. All before noon, usually. By the way, my kids go to one of the highest rated school districts in our state. They are getting the best education available in American public schools.

I quickly identified the shortcomings of the school and have taken measures to overcome them. The elementary school we go to is good at teaching math, and pretty good at handwriting and reading. They make it as boring as humanly possible, but my kids love to learn so it doesn't really phase them. They read and write voraciously, so I haven't ever had to teach or police that, even when we homeschooled. That leaves the other things on the list, and I continue to do our Sonlight curricula minus the math and phonics to make up for this. We still take the occasional day off for museums. I have even taken members of the brood to school when we were learning something relevant to our other lessons. One of my teachers worked in Antarctica and gave a slide show on it; I brought Grace because of her obsession with penguins, and she talks about it still almost a year later.

So, I think we have the bases covered, for now at least. The secret to part-time homeschooling is to view the school as a flawed adolescent babysitter. Watch, listen, overcome the shortcomings that you can, and remember that you can always scrap Plan A and go back to homeschooling if need be. I miss my homeschooling mommy friends and the joy of watching my children's faces light up when they finally got it, but those are selfish desires that I can deal with alone.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Wishes

With finals over, I am finally free to rev up for Christmas. We actually have most of the shopping done, but there is decorating and general festivity to be done. However, my biggest gift this holiday is a 'B' in physics.

To clarify, I am usually a solid A student, but this one subject has been kicking my backside. I already had a B in Physics, but the final was scary in a 30% of our final grade kind of way. So when I saw that it hadn't had a negative effect on my grade, joy is probably an understatement for the way I felt.

What does this have to do with the holidays? Delayed gratification. It's something that our Santa Claus culture celebrates in words and disdains in actions. Right now the message everywhere we go is "don't you want....?" The impression I get from most of my non-homeschooling friends is that they feel compelled to buy their children every item on a long wish list of toys. For the record, I think this will have a long term negative effect, especially on their physics grade.

Being a college student, especially a pre-med student, requires a grasp of delayed gratification. How frustrating is it to do the same problem over and over, ending up with the wrong answer every time, until at last you have worked through the bugs and get it right? We have about twenty problems like that for homework every single week. No wonder over half of my class was gone before finals week. Modern life is about getting what you want as easily as possible, right? And Christmas is a frenzy of this attitude.

What will my children do if they want to be a doctor or a dentist or a lawyer? Will they be able to put in hard work with the reward deferred for a decade or so? A lot of young adults now can't seem to put in the two years necessary to get basic training for a skilled labor job. They don't even want to start at the bottom at a normal, every day job. Remember how Jacob worked seven years to win the hand of Rachel, only to have his father-in-law switch out his daughters? Jacob worked another seven years to get the wife he really wanted. That's a little extreme, but it stands in sharp contrast to modern men who expect sex on the third date.

I don't want my children to end up unsuccessful because their desires aren't handed to them in a pretty wrapped box. I want for them to want, and work, and associate the hard work with the eventual success. I want them to know what intellectual hunger feels like. I want for them to decide what success means to them and then to pursue it wholeheartedly.

On the other hand, I think that never getting what you want is disheartening. Not to mention that our society preaches that only naughty children don't get showered with gifts on this one special morning. So here's how I have been handling it: one present from parents, one from Santa Claus, and a stocking of fun but useful things including a little candy. They get many gifts from aunts, uncles, and grandparents as well, so it's hardly an austere existence.

I try to make sure that at least one of those gifts is their heart's desire, whatever that happens to be. Because I'm not into buying toys outside of major holidays (it severely limits their ability to have fun making homemade musical instruments with cardboard), this hardly seems excessive. This year, wish lists in my home include blocks, erector sets, bicycles, and some new-fangled cupcake-only version of the Easy Bake Oven. These are things that Santa is happy to buy.

These are things that my children have wanted for months, so imagine their joy when their wish is at last gratified. The world waited thousands of years for Christ, so waiting a few months for a new bicycle doesn't seem unreasonable. This patient waiting will come in handy should any of them decide they want to be a doctor.