Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What I Learned from the French

The plethora of "French Women Do Everything Better" books would have you believe that French women excel us in almost every realm of womanhood. From Bringing Up Bebe to French Kids Eat Everything and the classic French Women Don't Get Fat there is a certain trend toward doing everything French. And I have to admit, I'm somewhat fascinated by the trend. Not so much because I believe that French women do, in fact, do everything better then their North American counterparts, but because I find it refreshing to read about other cultures. Hearing how another culture does life, however imperfectly, can expose the flaws that we are blind to in our own culture.

As a Christian, I try to live life in a way that is pleasing to God, and to live in light of what the scriptures teach me about life and godliness. But sometimes the culture we live in can influence our practices without us even realizing it. Sometimes I think I'm doing things the best way or even the Christian way, but in reality, it is just the North American way.

When reading Bringing Up Bebe recently I was struck by the difference between French and North American parenting. According to the author, Pamela Druckerman, the French are not nearly as competitive as we are in terms of giving their kids an advantage in academics, sports, music or other activities. They however, think it is very important for their kids to develop self-control, delayed gratification and the ability to play creatively on their own. My understanding is that French mothers definitely do not hover, nor make every moment  a "teaching moment," rather kids need time to discover the world more naturally. Druckerman's time spent with French parents shed light on some of the pitfalls of North American parenting. Namely, our inability to let our children feel hungry, bored, frustrated or unhappy for even a moment without instantly jumping in and fixing it for them. And while I would rather raise my children here than any other place in the world, I thought she had some very insightful observations about us.

The Helicopter Mother

I have discovered, much to my shock and dismay, that I am officially a Helicopter Mother. My natural tendency is to hover over my kids, micromanage their days, and if I was physically able to, I would probably be teaching them something at every moment of every day. I know I'm not alone in this. A trip to the local play park confirms it. There are parents following their kids around narrating their every move or teaching them songs and rhymes while they play (usually very loudly so that everyone knows what a good parent they are.) It seems like I am constantly surrounded supermoms. Moms today are not expert in one or two areas of parenting, they are experts in eight, nine or ten areas of parenting. Whether it be breastfeeding, early potty training, baby yoga, baby sign language, mandarin for preschoolers, early reading, Baby Mozart, a whole foods diet or competitive sports for preschoolers, it seems to be very important to have your child excel their peers developmentally. To do adequately for your child is unacceptable. Excellence is what's required. There seems to be a competitive spirit that is cleverly masked as "just wanting what's best for your child."

Seeing some of these competitive and prideful attitudes in my own heart has really made me think about my priorities. I'm not sure I want to swing over to the camp of the 'free-range parents' (if you haven't heard of them go ahead and google it), but I don't want to remain in the 'helicopter' camp either.

A wise woman once counselled me, "There is something to be said for adequate. An adequate education, an adequately cleaned house, etc.." I think she may be on to something. What are we so afraid of? Why would it be so bad for our child to be merely average in some areas of their life (as they inevitably will be anyway.)


There are some things that I want to do really well. For example, I want to do the best job that I can spiritually mothering my children. I want them to know that there is one thing that is the most important thing in the world and that is Christ's love for them in the gospel. I want them to understand how the gospel transforms all of life. I want them to be what they were made to be. I want them to develop character that reflects the one who made them. Resilience, strength of character and love for God and others are all necessary to walk this path. They do not need to be little geniuses in one or two areas of their lives while being wildly unbalanced and unprepared for the rest of life.

I do realize that some children are given a special talent or ability that can be nurtured by their parents. Intelligence and special abilities can be glorifying to God. But something really twisted is happening in our culture. Parents seem to need their children to be special or gifted and are determined to accomplish this at all costs.

For the Christian woman, mothering is an important job, but it is not the most important thing in her life. First, she is a child of God. Second, she is her husband's lover, companion, friend and helper. Third, she is her children's mother.  And there are other things such as church, community, work and volunteering that come further down the list of priorities. If we find that all of our emotional energy is is being poured into mothering, we are in danger of becoming unbalanced. Perhaps we need to lower our aspirations for our kids in terms of academics, sports, hobbies, etc..

Mothers often feel pressure to produce excellence in their children, but it may be a mistake to assume this is good. Many of us are consumed with guilt or anxiety when other parents do more for their kids than we do for ours. We are afraid to slow down because our kids will be left behind. Little kids are feeling burned out before their life has really begun. I'm not sure the break-neck pace really makes them happier or more successful in the long run. I suppose it depends again on your definition of success. At the very least I think we need to be asking ourselves why we do what we do and not just assume that our (North American) way is the best way.

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