⪧ We left our life in New York City to make a new one in Provence ⪦

January 24, 2012

Raising children.



Last night, Xavier showed me a piece about the differences between French and American parents. An easily generalizable compare/contrast exercise. It goes something like this: French parents are authoritative. French parents don't allow their kids to...(long list). French parents' whole worlds do not revolve around their children. French parents often sound mean. American parents allow their kids too much freedom. American parents value creativity and expression. American parents are lax and lazy with their children. American parents allow their kids to throw food in restaurants (well, maybe not exactly that - but to that tune).

The conversation is not that simple. Individual parents act in individual ways, regardless of their cultural parameters and setting. That said, I do think that cultural differences in the way 'childhood' itself is dreamed up, conceived of and disciplined are real. I watch this close up in the way Marguerite is parented by her two French parents and in watching other French parents I know well - what is valued, what is emphasized, what is insisted on for a child.

Having lived in France for three years and watching French people raise children with whom I am close has given me exposure to real cultural differences. It is true that there is less tolerance for children in France in public spaces to behave like 'children' (as Americans might define the term). It is true that when a child in a public space behaves this way, there is quite a lot of judgement from passersby (none of which is silent). It is true that a French parent will tell a child directly that they are in the middle a conversation and will not tolerate interruption. It is also true that American parents often feel their children are incapable of 'behaving' in public spaces - that while eating, a child will be all over the place. It is also true that many American parents interrupt whatever they are doing to concentrate on a child.

While these differences may be observable, I think "good parenting" comes down to a question of what parents or a society value in their children. If the answer is compliance, how your child is perceived, or "good behavior" (however that is defined given the cultural context), then a more severe approach is useful. If the answer is something different (creativity, self-expression, liberty, etc.) that approach can be challenged.

My sister sent me this link recently on parenting - also fascinating in the context of this discussion (somewhat extreme on the other side of the spectrum).

I have thought a lot about this - being a quasi-parent already. Throughout Marguerite's life, I have had an indefinite role. I imagine many step-parents feel this way. My experience has been different than a lot of other step-parents in that Marguerite will never not remember me in her life - I've been here since she was a baby. She has two parents who have insisted heavily on the codification of parenthood - of being her "mom" and her "dad" - the nomencleture imports a lot of meaning here. This is probably largely due to the circumstances and the desire to have control over a tough situation. I have never wanted to be Marguerite's mom. It doesn't ever occur to me, but there has been a lot of insistence on the fact that I am not.

Mlle. has absorbed some of this insistence (although most of our interactions are pure and untainted by these dynamics). In Central Park recently, Marguerite made me laugh when she was eyeing cotton candy with wishful eyes and her dad was up ahead of us. I said, "Would you like some cotton candy, Marguerite." Her response, "Yes! But Papa may not be OK with that." I told her that I could approve such a purchase and snack. She said, "Yeah - I mean, you are a parent, but you are not a parent who made me - I could only come out of one belly." True. Very true. She reiterated the possession sentiment of many parents - that the child is theirs.

This naming of who is a parent and who is not has made me think hard about the approach I want to take with my children. I have a strong connection with Marguerite and feel a bond with her that parallels other family bonds I have. She has a similar sense of connection with me. I understand the visceral feelings a parent might feel may not be present for me with this little girl, but my interests for her mirror what her parents (at least what her dad) want for her.

So, then I think about little fetus and what will happen when she comes out. I have rational thoughts about it - I never want to operate under the mentality that my children are literally 'mine.' I guess, just because I made the child does not signify something greater than a responsibility for her - not something she owes me (behaviorally or in her life choices or politics or philosophy). Easy to say. I hope I'll be able to remember it since a lot of parenting that I don't admire seems to stem from the inherent insistence on possession in the parent-child relationship. In lots of ways, I feel lucky having been able to parent Marguerite since ownership has been extracted and I still have to care and mind her in a similar role. I think I will use my relationship with her as a reference point quite often as a way to stay fair in my interactions with 'my own' kids.

I also fully intend to strap this child on my back or front and travel during my time off of work (paid!). I figure I would be crazy not to. People tell me I am delirious and all I will want to do is stay home near a crib. Nuts. Seems to me that a newborn is a pretty good travel companion.

Ooooh...and on another subject entirely (but equally fascinating when it comes to raising young humans), read this on my friend Aralena's blog.

11 comments:

Marnie said...

Coming from two different parenting/cultural backgrounds, you guys might be in for some very interesting "discussion" as your little one grows. My husband and I found we had to regularly nut things out regarding our different parenting styles and we came from two different families living in the same state!

I've heard some interesting stories about the behaviour of french children from some french immigrants we have befriended, who moved out here because they didn't want to raise their children
en france. They love it here (Australia) as they say it's much more relaxed, but everyone has their own take on things of course. I do think there are too many parents today that allow their children too much freedom and reign over what goes on in their household. And I read an interesting article recently regarding a new breed of young adults in therapy who had great childhoods and loved their parents but their parents did too much for them (didn't encourage independence) and protected them from disappointment and failure, hence as adults they can't cope with the workload and general unfairness of life. Getting a balance in your parenting takes some clear thinking and strong commitment to see it through I think, as it's not easy. Kids want it to be easy and will fight you for it on every little battleground they can, especially when they have friends who are allowed to do as they please. That's my experience anyway. Parenting is the toughest job on the planet. Anyone who says otherwise has never raised a teenager (especially teenage girls!), but there are the many shining moments where the effort and sacrifice seems like a privilege when you can see these incredible human beings taking shape.

Interesting points about possession. My youngest daughter is adopted and her birth mother (unlike how I believe the system works in the US) is still very involved with her and us. I realised the very first time She stayed with us when our daughter was 3 months old, that I was going to have to let go of the need to possess in order to function fully in this, admittedly, strange parenting triangle. But I came to realise, because I already had older children - that there are no limits on love. Because my daughters love and need my husband does not mean they love me any less. There is no need for comparisons or ownership over a particular amount or type of love.

Our adopted daughter is growing up knowing she has "two mums", as she puts it. Me and her birth mother. We have different roles, and that is always respected, just as you have with Marguerite, but T can certainly love us equally and ultimately she will benefit from it - hopefully. So far, so good. SO while you may not feel you are allowed to label your feelings towards her as maternal, they certainly are. And one day when she's an adult she will realise and appreciate it. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. : )

P.S. Sorry for the novel.

Emilie said...

Love the novel, Marnie. So thoughtful and interesting.

Julie said...

Totally agree about the amicable nature of newborns as travel companions - especially when there are no car seats involved (planes are perfect). Please come to Bloomington. Not as exotic as other locations, but still pretty awesome. I already know your baby will love the parrot at the Farmer's Market.

On another note, I do think this is a really fascinating discussion. It is always useful as a parent to come up against other values in a way that make me examine my own. A nice read-able book about this is Our Babies, Ourselves written by a biological anthropologist who examines the way biology and culture interact in newborns. Interesting stuff.

Emilie said...

Bloomington (and that swaying parrot) is high on my list, Jude. Coming.

Anne said...

When you have a newborn, you will figure it out. You will know what you can do and what you can't all the while working hard to forge your own path. It seems to me that your parents did a pretty good job with you. Have confidence and don't overthink it.

Aralena said...

How I wish you were nearby so we could delve into this in person. I think your baby is blessed to have such an intelligent, thoughtful mama who is already reflecting on topics like these.

Just this morning JB and I had a "passionate discussion" about when to move Jacques out of Montessori and into public French school. The two things I retained from his arguments are: being perceived as different in public school is a risk for Jacques; Americans (esp. Californians) aren't facing harsh reality with their "everyone is beautiful in their own way" discourse.

Where do you draw the line between respecting different parenting styles and protecting your offspring from archaic, narrow-minded attitudes? (Zing!)

Jill said...

More and more I feel that a parent's need to have their children comply is not so much from a sense of possession (I completely understand that my children are not really mine), and not even so much about what other's may think (although that is a big temptation in our society) but mostly from fear and a sense of self protection on the part of the parent. I'll explain a bit...

As a parent, you give so much of yourself emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, to the raising of your children because of the sheer necessity of taking care of their needs, and teaching the child to function in the world. Also, and even more so because you love that child with a deep love that can only be understood when you have and are responsible for "your own" children.

Often as a parent I feel scared or worried that my children will do something i.e. make choices that will hurt themselves, or cause them unhappiness, or behave in a way that will cause them to be unaccepted by others etc, etc. As a parent you often feel desperate to protect your children from all of this because their happiness so often 'feels' like your happiness, and you don't want unhappiness for yourself or your child.

I completely realize that this is selfish and unreasonable in so many ways, but it's incredibly difficult to separate your feelings from that of your children's. I try hard to do it, and to make my happiness separate from theirs, but when my children suffer, I suffer. End of story.

I've realized more and more as my children grow that so much of my need for them to comply comes from a place of anxiety, worry, and a desire to protect myself from suffering. Also from a healthy portion of extremely powerful, mama bear type, parental love that is hard to even describe.

One thing I know for sure, your baby is one lucky girl. She will have all the love she could ever need or want. I can't wait until she enters the world!

Jill said...

Oh BTW...on the subject of traveling with baby...I say go for it! I know you'll have the stamina, mind frame, and temperament for it and I'm jealous of that!

Anonymous said...

I just read an interesting read on a similar topic called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." In it, the tiger mother (a Chinese woman) begins by stressing that the Chinese way of rearing children is best. She berates what she terms 'western' parents for being too lax on children.
It is hard to know where that line is- having been raised by very loving parents myself. I feel that my life is successful, but it is a different kind of successful than many others have.
I guess what you ultimately value as a person will define how you raise your child. Is their happiness the most important value? Or is achievement more important? Or something else all together. The Chinese mother said happiness is never even a consideration in her day to day life. Culture is quite a factor in parenthood. So interesting.

- Melissa (Miller) Dredge

Sietske said...

Talking about Chinese Tiger Mommies, these days it is “Why French Parents Are Superior.”
http://healthland.time.com/2012/02/08/53112/

Rebekah V. said...

Reading a book about this very thing (differences between French and American parenting) called "Bringing up Bebe" by Pamela Druckerman. Been thinking of you and wondering what your reactions would be to her observations. She is an american in paris. So you have that shared experience. Perhaps you might want to read it?

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