Thursday, May 24, 2012

Parenting à la française (per Schwartz)

I’ve been on a French kick recently —and it seems like I’m in good company. I recently finished Karen LeBillon’s French Kids Eat Everything and now I’m reading Bringing Up Bébé. LeBillon’s book has definitely made me think about both my own parenting-food habits and those of our nation at large (i.e. why must we snack all the time?). But the public response to these books (both of which had article-length versions of their contents in major newspapers) has made me think about bigger issues as well. To wit: why are we American parents so interested in different “national” approaches? Last year, the Tiger Mom and “Chinese-style” parenting, this year French-style—pour quoi? 
Coming back to Schwartz’s choice paradoxes (as I so often do!), I think one big reasons is that American parents feel overwhelmed  by the number of choices that confront them as parents. As if having a newborn child weren’t already dramatic enough—we have added all kinds of extra questions about how to approach things. Which I get—heck, I think it’s kind of fun exploring approaches! But it can also be too much. Way, way, too much. And what happens (coming back to Schwartz) when people are overwhelmed by choice? They either a) don’t make choices or b) make bad choices based on easy-to-assess categories and  c) we make choices that we later regret at disproportionate rates) .  When it comes to dealing with your kids, option A isn’t really much of a choice. After all, you have to feed them something, somehow. But in the absence of a really clear underlying approach, most of us end up parenting on the fly. Which would be fine if that meant we were parenting from our hearts and minds. But often, it ends up being by instinct. Child hungry+tired parent=easily obtainable, child-pleasing food choice (i.e. low quality snack food).
In searching for a simple parenting philosophy, we know that our own country offers too many options— enter the foreign approach. It’s simple! It’s clear! Everyone in the [superior nation of your choice] does it! It works! American pragmatism meets our cultural inferiority complex and simplifies the choices in the process. What’s interesting to me is that we realize that we need a more authoritative way to approach our children—we sense that being their friends isn’t going to cut it—for us or them. But we’re not quite sure how to do that yet. So all these books aren’t a simple solution to our national parenting ills. But –I hope—they’re making us think about finding simple approaches to raising healthy, happy, and (dare I say it?) good kids—as well as “above average” ones.  I just hope we avoid the Scylla and Charibdis temptations that there’s either a) a magic bullet out there when it comes to raising perfect kids or b) it doesn’t really matter what you do.  In the meantime, vive la différence!

Friday, May 18, 2012

The [Sigh] Burdens of Motherhood: A Late Mother’s Day Reflection

Last night, while my daughter was setting the table I started to lose it. It’s her job to set the table this month, but that didn’t stop her from sighing as she did it. Every time she put something out or down, she sighed. Setting the whole, entire table was just too burdensome, apparently-- I would have laughed if it weren’t so irritating (and disturbingly familiar).  A few weeks ago, I visited with an old guy friend (I’ll call him John). We had some serious conversations, including extensive discussion of his family life, parents, and, particularly, his mother. I know his family well, and I was somewhat surprised to learn how unhappy he was with his mother (I don’t think all his siblings feel that way). But John clearly feels abandoned by his mom in some critical sense, and in explaining his deep resentment, he told me that whenever he calls his mom to ask her for or about something, she always lets him know how inconvenient, burdensome, or difficult she finds the task or request he’s put to her. She does what he asks (I guess, anyway!) but she lets him know she doesn’t want to. I felt bad for both John and his mother, because I imagine she really does love him but doesn’t realize how she hurts him by doing this. She’s a good woman who doesn’t realize what she’s doing to him.

My friend’s comments on his mom have really made me think about the way I treat my kids. When John told me how mother acts, I felt a little….accused. I know John’s mother loves him; I know I love my children. But kids are also a lot of work. So they ask me to do things when I’m doing something else or when I’m trying to be attentive to something or someone else who needs me. And it’s easy—at least for me—to let them know that their requests are a drag. But ever since that conversation with John I’ve tried to be careful; a little more attentive to how and what I say. So if I can go outside and play for 5 minutes and then come back to finish dinner, I go outside first, when they ask me. If I can’t do something they want (which happens with extreme frequency), I am trying to just tell them that, rather than sighing and explaining how I can’t possibly do what they ask because it’s far too difficult blah blah blah. I’ll give them a reason (I’m helping your sister with her homework, for example), but I’m trying to avoid unnecessary commentary (adult whining you might call it). Hopefully my kids will see the difference.

You might say I’m trying to (just) say yes when I mean yes, and (just) say no when I mean no. Harder than it sounds!