A Note from Mrs. Kelly: Occasionally on Fridays we will feature notes from other friends. Today I'd like you to meet my dear friend "Mrs. Sedaris." If you're looking for an interesting fall read, check out her note below and pass it on!
Passing Notes Today: Mrs. Sedaris
Hi Girls -
It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and two of my kids are in the kitchen, rustling around the pantry looking for something to eat. We just had lunch an hour and a half ago, but already they’re back for more. Like many mothers, my kitchen has a revolving door. Sure, it’s invisible to the naked eye, but it’s there nonetheless, constantly spinning as my three children come and go, begging for snacks throughout the day. They’re fed on a regular basis, mind you, but still they come, clamoring for string cheese and apples and those ubiquitous cheddary fish-shaped crackers. Shooing them away is a temporary fix. They’re back within minutes, it seems, complaining of grumbly bellies that can only be soothed by the snack that smiles back. I will sit down to fold a basket of laundry, only to hear a familiar noise coming from the family room, where upon entering I will find three little guilty faces knocking back Pirate Booty behind the couch, crouched down like criminals hoarding their, well, booty.
Talking to my other mom friends, it seems that my house is hardly an oddity. Across the country, our homes are filled with kids who fill up on snacks throughout the day and who then protest when asked to sit down and eat a proper dinner. I wondered if parents across the world face the same type of daily kitchen conflicts, and the answer, according to Pamela Druckerman, is non! At least not in France. Druckerman, who is perhaps best known for her 2011 Marie Claire article in which she detailed how she planned a ménage à trois as a 40th birthday present for her husband (note to my dearest: No. Never. Nope. Not even as your last-gasp deathbed wish. You will likely be getting a new button-down from Banana Republic for your 40th birthday) is an ex-pat who chronicled her experiences observing French parenting in her 2012 book, Bringing Up Bébé.
According to Druckerman, French kids eat three meals a day, plus one afternoon snack, ”le goûter,” and if they get hungry, are expected to wait between meals, no exceptions. And when they eat, it is not the stuff of a typical American child’s diet: no mac and cheese and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets to be found. French children are raised on the same foods and meals that French adults eat: braised leeks and goat cheese and fish. In fact, when Druckerman brought her daughter to the U.S. to visit family, the little girl disdainfully turned her nose up at the commonplace macaroni and cheese that most American children love. “That is not real cheese,” she said.
Of course, the French attitude towards dining and food extends far outside the home to schools and restaurants. Most American adults do not eat as well as French schoolchildren reportedly do, with four courses being served for lunch: a starter, an entree, a cheese course, and a dessert (usually fruit). Restaurants do not even offer children’s menus, says Druckerman, a reality that would send many American parents looking for someplace to eat with a hungry toddler into a panic.
French parenting differences don’t end there, says Druckerman. While many American kids seem like tiny dictators with parents accommodating their every whim and buckling under the pressure of public tantrums, French parents expect their children to heed their will. To remind their kids who’s in charge, French moms and dads utilize a saying, “C'est moi qui décide.” It roughly translates to, “It is I who decides.” (I like to think this is what George “I’m the Decider” Bush would have said, had he been French.) Rather than throwing fits to express disappointment or impatience, the expectation for French children, says Druckerman, is that they learn to cope with feelings of frustration as well as how to delay gratification. This begins in infancy with French parents purposely waiting a few minutes before tending to a crying baby’s needs, something that is universally known in France as practicing “The Pause.”
Yet despite having high standards for behavior and respect (based on what the French call a “cadre,” a framework of non-negotionable rules and expectations), Druckerman says French parents actually allow their children quite a bit of freedom. They believe that childhood is a time for unhindered play, and they frown upon the competitive nature that sometimes seems so prevalent in American parenting. Most French parents believe that overscheduling children with endless activities is fun for neither the child nor the parent. And Druckerman asserts that French parents would abhor the type of “helicopter” parenting commonly seen here in the States. While a visit to an American playground would likely find many parents vigilantly trailing their youngsters and narrating their every move (“Look at you on the slide! Wheeeee!”), French parents expect their children to have fun and behave themselves while they sit down to enjoy a cup of coffee and a chat with a friend while their little ones play.
Sounds good to me.
But if Druckerman (and yours truly) sounds completely enamored with all methods of French parenting, she is not. She is quick to point out that she found certain aspects of the French parenting culture to be disarmingly out-of-step with American practices. Breastfeeding, for example, is looked upon somewhat suspiciously and accordingly, French breastfeeding rates are dismal, the lowest in the Western world. And while many American mothers-to-be have taken back some measure of control in their pregnancies and deliveries, arming themselves with labor plans and debating methods of pain relief, it is assumed in France that all decision-making during a pregnancy and labor will be relinquished to a woman’s obstetrician. Most French adults might inquire where a pregnant woman will be giving birth, but never how - it is assumed that it will take place in a hospital with an epidural.
In addition to what many would consider somewhat dated attitudes towards breastfeeding and childbirth, Druckerman also described other widely accepted French practices that would make many American parents shake their heads in disbelief. For instance, she explained that it is the norm there for schoolchildren as young as five to go on week-long vacations with their classmates, their teacher, and a handful of adult volunteers. French parents believe that it is good for their children to develop a sense of autonomy, to be able to separate from their parents. That is true - at a certain age - but I personally cannot imagine sending one of my young children away on a trip without their father or me, let alone with a group of random parents who I may or may not know or trust.
However, despite the fact that there are many French parenting customs that American parents might find disagreeable, there is much valuable insight to be taken from this book. French children are expected to be polite and courteous, eat what is put in front of them, learn to cope with uncomfortable emotions, and are not coddled or over-praised. There is a lot of good in that. There is something powerful in letting kids learn to deal with frustration and impatience, and in teaching them that they are not the only person in the world, or their family, whose wishes matter.
The takeaway to Bringing Up Bébé, I think, is that the best approach to rearing children, as with most things in life, probably does not lie at either extreme but somewhere in the middle, and it seems that there is an awful lot that French and American parents could learn from each other. I may not be willing to let my 6 year-old travel across the country by himself on a field trip, but I do see the benefit in allowing him the freedom to travel the span of the neighborhood playground without me following him around and breathing down his neck. Next time we go, I plan on keeping an eye on him from afar, but otherwise sitting down to sip my latte in peace.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear someone foraging in the pantry and I need to go kick them out of the kitchen. They can wait until dinner.
Mrs. Kelly Comment: Did the French baby turn her nose to Kraft dinner or Annie's Shells and Cheese? 'Cause that's a big difference. I dream of a world where lattes and playgrounds can co-exist peacefully. Sounds like an interesting read. I have lots of questions so I guess that means I should get reading. Thanks for sharing!
Mrs. Williams Comment: Bonjour Mrs. Sedaris! Wait, what? The cheese in Kraft Mac n' Cheese isn't real? I'm wondering, is there anything in this book about the moms going away on a trip by themselves with other moms they may or may not know...because that's a parenting book I could really get behind! Really, Mrs. Sedaris, it was fun reading your note today. Thanks!
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