Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Finding a Helipad for Helicopter Parents

After decades of keeping my terrible secret, I have finally found the courage to come clean and admit the awful truth…..I am not now, nor have I ever been, particularly interested in babies.

While other women oooohed and aaaahed and were eager to hold and cuddle them, when some beaming Mother dumped one in my lap, I couldn’t wait to return it. Generally wet at both ends, I found them squidgy and squirmy, and they always left permanent marks on my clothes.

I did, however, find them interesting and sometimes amusing when they began to develop personalities at the toddler stage.

But, somewhere along the line, probably around the time American mothers began to devour how-to books with the word “parenting” in them, the relationship between mother and child became totally reinvented, and the whole toddler phase quickly lost its charm for me as well.

Newly enlightened mothers seemed convinced that the simple act of passing through the birth canal endowed these squidgy little beings with wisdom beyond their years or, in this case, wisdom beyond their months.

These mothers were convinced that baby was born knowing what was best for him/her – when and what to eat, when to go to bed, when to be potty trained, etc. And to thwart any of his/her desires was to risk psychological damage that might be irreversible.

A friend of mine refused to put her little girl to bed until the child told her she was ready. “She knows when she’s ready to go to bed,” my friend insisted. Have you ever seen a three-year-old tug on her mother’s skirt and say, “Mother dear, I do believe I am feeling rather sleepy at the moment; I think it is time for me to retire for the evening?” Neither have I.

As a result, every night the poor little thing would wander around exhausted, bumping into walls and furniture until she finally collapsed in a heap wherever she happened to be; at which point, my friend would pick her up, undress her, and put her to bed. Two hours later the frightened child would wake up to find herself alone in a dark room and scream in terror. This was a nightly ritual I witnessed on many occasions.

Although born and raised in the US, my French parents raised my brother and me very much à la française, and while much has changed in France, not all of it for the better, child rearing has hardly changed at all. By and large, French children are still raised the same way I was several generations ago. It worked then and it still works now, as American writer Pamela Druckerman found out to her surprise when she moved to France 10 years ago and began having children of her own.

Following a brief, frustrating visit to a restaurant with her husband and toddler, during which the little girl upset salt shakers, ripped open sugar packets, screamed to get out of her high chair and had to be physically restrained from trashing the establishment, Ms. Druckerman could not help but notice the difference between her out-of-control child and the well-behaved French children around her as they and their families enjoyed leisurely four-course dinners. Not only were the adults able to enjoy actual adult conversations uninterrupted, but the children were actually eating the same food as their parents and actually enjoying it.

On the other hand, she and her husband had had to bolt down their dinners and beat a hasty retreat before her little girl did any more damage.

Fascinated, she decided to find out what she was doing wrong and what French mothers were doing right.

The result is Bringing Up Bébé, a delightful and insightful exploration of the differing “parenting” styles of French and American moms.

Much of what she discovers about the French method of child rearing has to do with a structured routine, setting boundaries or the cadre (frame), saying non, non, non and meaning it and giving the child enough alone time so that he can learn how to amuse himself, developing his creativity.

While the American helicopter mom hovers anxiously over her child in an effort to keep him constantly stimulated, the French mom takes a more relaxed attitude, knowing that over-stimulation is not healthy and boredom does not necessarily lead to self-destructive behavior.

Ms. Druckerman readily admits that the numerous cultural and societal support systems in place in France contribute to the success of parenting à la française. If Ms. Druckerman decides one day to repatriate with her now three children to the United States, it will be interesting to see if she can successfully transplant the French parenting style to her American way of life as my parents did many years ago.

Hmmmm…..sounds like a great idea for her next book??!!

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