Courageous Parenting: stepping away from the comparison wars

daring greatly - courageous parenting

A couple of days ago, I reviewed Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. It was an engaging and deeply challenging read, and I was so impacted that I decided to devote a couple more posts to discussing the contents.

Brown spends an entire chapter addressing Wholehearted parenting and has many wise and challenging things to say about our culture of comparison. This is one of those chapters where I just want to quote everything because all I’ll end up doing is paraphrase what she said and make a bad job of it. I managed to get it down to this one powerful message, that we can’t expect to teach our children how to become healthy adults if we can’t model it ourselves. No pressure or anything but she is so right of course.

 

“Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting. In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the ‘never enough’ culture, the question isn’t so much ‘are you parenting the right way?’ as it is ‘Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be? In other words, if we want our children to love and accept who they are, our job is to love and accept who we are. We can’t use fear, shame, blame, and judgment in our own lives if we want to raise courageous children. Compassion and connection – the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives – can only be learned if they are experienced. And our families are our first opportunities to experience these things.”

 

I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but here in the UK, competitive parenting often feels like a real battle and it has a hideous name, the ‘mummy wars’. And it is SO easy to fall prey to that way of thinking, to toe that black and white line of ‘my way is the best way’ and everybody else’s different parenting choice borders on child abuse. Yes, it can go that far language-wise in some corners of the internet. Breastfeeding vs formula feeding, attachment parenting vs controlled crying, dummies, how many crisps, is he walking yet, which pre-school, is their lunchbox healthy enough, are they getting enough sun, the list goes on. And on. We compare, we worry, we agonize over every little choice and hope our little precious babies will turn out ok despite the fact that we haven’t got a clue what we’re doing. It’s EXHAUSTING.

I hear that whilst we can’t help but observe other parents do their thing, this way of comparing and judging others is not quite as relentless in some other places as it is in the UK. Why this should be I have absolutely no idea but whatever the reason it’s not that British parents care more about their offspring than anywhere else in the world. The reality, of course, is that we all parent differently and there are (mostly) no rights nor wrongs, if this wonderful forum thread about parental practices from around the world is anything to go by (although, no car seats? I did judge a little. So what, sue me).

Being human and all, whilst I feel I know myself better and this has led to being far less concerned about other people’s opinions than I was in my early twenties, there are nonetheless times when I have to fight against making comparisons. We all have our insecurities and there are a few areas where I feel unsure or ‘less than’; from time to time, I will read something or see someone who seems to have it more together, or whose child appears to do better, and I will doubt myself. I can’t help it, and there’s not much that can be done about the actual experience of these emotions. I do however have a choice in how I respond within and without myself. Should I express those feelings or not, should I share my opinion, should I lean into the discomfort and question my motives; in all cases my response should be led by compassion rather than judgment, and it goes both ways. I should be compassionate and not judgmental towards myself and towards the object of my discomfort too.

This is just one of the many things I have taken out of Brown’s chapter on parenting. For more, do check out her book.

 

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French Parents Don’t Give in – A Book Review

French children don't throw food

A couple of years ago, when the book ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food‘ was published, I reviewed the accompanying Wall Street Journal article by the author Pamela Druckerman. I didn’t disagree with everything but I had a number of ‘issues’ and I had a bit of a rant. It turned out to be one of my most popular entries on the blog.

Unbeknown to me, she released a follow-up last year called ‘Bébé Day By Day‘ in the US and ‘French Parents Don’t Give In‘ in the UK, and when I stumbled upon it at the library last week, I just couldn’t resist and had to check it out.

And would you believe it, I actually quite liked it. It’s a quick read, with one entry per page and covering 10 aspects of parenting: pregnancy, babyhood, sleep, food, learning, patience, the cadre i.e parenting philosophy, motherhood, couple relationship and authority. I share some thoughts below on the entries I found most helpful, and the ones that set my teeth on edge.

Pregnancy

French mothers eat sushi (sometimes): people have this idea that nothing will keep a French person away from their food and drink, even pregnancy. But that’s not actually true. French women are as aware of the risks of catching Listeria and Toxoplasmosis as British women are (and drinking and smoking are big no-nos). More so even, I’d say, as they get regularly tested for toxoplasmosis throughout their pregnancy, whereas it’s all left to chance in the UK. So similar food restriction recommendations are in place, with the knowledge that contamination is rare so sushi, and prawns and the like, need not be treated as if they were radioactive. This is good news considering the number of times I forgot that I ought not to have pepperoni on my pizza…

Epidurals aren’t evil: no they’re not, but Ms Druckerman forgets to mention something very important here. In France, pregnancy and birth are in the main highly medicalised processes. Think about the difference between the UK and US versions of One Born Every Minute. In the UK, you see lots of women giving birth and walking through the pain with just gas and air. In the US version, everyone has an epidural. It’s the same in France. Most women are monitored to within an inch of their life. Unless you are intent on a natural birth and you go out of your way to find a local birthing centre (which is by no means guaranteed) and fight tooth and nail for the kind of birth you want, it will be expected that you will just have a heavily medicalised hospital birth. So of course epidurals aren’t evil. But they are the norm in France, and doctors are gods among men so this is a bit misleading.

Babyhood

Formula isn’t poison: breast is best but formula isn’t evil and most people who’ve had it are healthy, blah blah blah. How many times have I heard this. I hate this rhetoric so, so much and it’s especially ironic when you think that breastfeeding isn’t the norm in France at all. And you know what, I agree. Formula isn’t poison, and there should absolutely be no guilt attached to whichever way you choose to feed your baby. But using highly emotive words like ‘poison’ is not helpful to anyone on either side of the fence on this issue and it causes a great deal of damage to the conversation. Misinformation about breastfeeding really annoys me, especially when we are talking about health, because whilst it is absolutely true that formula is the next best thing after breast milk, it is also as ‘like breast milk’ as the moon is close to the earth, close enough I guess but also thousands of miles away. And breast is best is not a good argument, breast is not best, it is normal. Rant over, I am moving on.

Sleep

Argh, argh argh, there is so much to dislike about this chapter! The myth of the baby who sleeps through at 3 months, ‘tell baby it’s bedtime. Explain that the whole family needs rest.’ AAAAARRRGH!

I do like the idea of practicing ‘La Pause’ however i.e not rushing to pick up the baby as soon as it stirs. Sometimes picking them up is the thing that wakes them up.

Food

Unsurprisingly, I liked everything in that chapter, probably because most of the suggestions already feature in our house. One did stand out to me, about giving just one snack a day in the afternoon. In the UK, you tend to have a snack time in the morning as well, and I find myself offering food to Little Girl far more often than that. I wonder if it is possible to cut back by keeping a routine of an early lunch around 11.30 am and a restorative snack around 4 pm. In typical French fashion, my girls don’t often eat a separate dinner to us adults in the evening, and they certainly do not eat it at 5 pm (which is still afternoon as far as I’m concerned). We eat between 6.30 pm and 7.15 pm and so a decent snack can go a long way.

Learning, Patience, The Cadre, Motherhood and Authority

All five sections were full of interesting and positive suggestions: not becoming a praise addict; teaching children not to interrupt; slowing down response time so they will learn patience;  learning to cope with frustration as a crucial life skill; explaining the reason behind the rule (also known as treating your children like the intelligent people they most likely are); not becoming a ‘taxi-parent’. All great stuff, but very common-sense and it made me wonder what sort of culture the author is addressing. Not the one I am a part of it seems, but one where overbearing helicopter parents say yes to all of their children’s demands.

Your Relationship (Adult time)

Your baby doesn’t replace your partner: this is SO TRUE. I remember reading a thread on a parenting forum where the question asked was who do you love the most in your house, your children or your partner. The overwhelming majority said their children were their whole world and if one had to give, it would have to be their partner. I was astonished. I don’t understand this at all. I think it is especially important to take care of your relationship with your partner and to carve out time for it. My children are absolutely not my priority all of the time, and this does not mean that they are neglected in any way. When your children grow up and leave, what then? Do you want to spend the rest of your life with a stranger? I don’t love my children in the same way that I love my husband, and I don’t see why I can’t have both.

Fathers are a separate species: now, this one led to an actual ‘WTF, Pamela Druckerman?’ moment from me. The whole entry is so condescending to men and implies that parenting haplessness is to be expected from them. I don’t even have the words to say how much I think this is a lot of bull. Well, I do, but I’ve already written too much so we are going to Let It Go. For now.

Conclusion

On the whole, this is nevertheless a little book I can recommend to parents. It is a flawed but entertaining read. ‘French parenting’ is still really NOT a thing in my opinion and the book (probably both books but I still haven’t read the first) should not be read as you would an expert parenting book. Ms Druckerman is open about the backlash she got after the first book was released in her introduction and she admits it herself, she is not a parenting expert but a journalist, and these are her observations as a parent. Also, there are recipes at the end of the book, of the type that Parisian nurseries offer to their charges. Read and be amazed.

Life With Two Kids

Life has been crazy over here chez la Frog. Pregnancy did its usual thing of taking over my brain space so that there was no room left for anything other than ‘and the next day… And the one after… And the one after that…’. Not that anything terribly wrong happened, just the usual horrors of acid reflux, low iron and the June heat but I just couldn’t focus long on anything, couldn’t settle to think, all my energies were spent cooking up that baby and doing life with a nearly 2 year-old.

And now of course there are two! So my brain is just as struggly as before when it comes to multi-tasking and thinking.

Little Girl is now a big girl, she turned 2 a month and a half ago and is lovely and exasperating in equal measures (thanks for spreading all that lovely flour on the floor darling; love you xx).

Luciole is 10 weeks, and what a lovely baby she is. Much easier than her sister at the same age, in that she doesn’t cry at night. I know, I’m embarrassed to admit it because I know it’s so rare but it’s true. She wakes up to eat but doesn’t cry. We’re co-sleeping so I feel/hear her all the same but it turns night feeds into a dream. I am so much better rested than I was with her sister, despite having had as rough a birth this time as the first time, that I now realise how unwell I really was in the first couple of months with Little Girl. Anyway… It’s all in the past now and I am enjoying this new stage of life. The trickiest thing really is not having four arms. Even with Luciole in the sling, I am not quite tall enough to be able to easily multi-task. I can’t bend down properly, let alone cook, do the washing-up or whatever else you’re supposed to be free to do if you carry your baby in a sling. I can’t do it! So I sit down a lot, and hold the baby, and play with Little Girl. These early days are so precious and fleeting that it seems a shame to spend them cleaning – although I do do some of that too, and cook, and change an awful lot of nappies, just not as often as I probably should – if you come visit, the house is just more likely to look like a bomb site than a stately home, that’s all!.

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The two sisters getting to know each other

A week of new things

Parenting has a strange rhythm. Sometimes nothing happens for ages and then you get weeks like the last one when lots of interesting things happen all at once.

  • In her own room! Last week was half-term and we finally moved Little Girl to her own bedroom. I felt emotional about it for about two seconds, until I realised that I could now turn my bedside table lamp on and read in bed again without having to rely on the night-light alone. Wonderful! Less good is the fact that she is just not a very good sleeper. She will fall asleep on her own or with a bit of hand-holding at the start of the night but her 3am wake-ups are a bit more difficult and long-winded. I keep telling myself it is just a phase, but I do feel a bit tired after getting up three times in 20 minutes to settle her back down. So far she has only had one good night in there but most nights I give up after about half an hour in the early hours of the morning and bring her back to her little co-sleeper bed.
  • Fever! On Tuesday she had her first illness! I am not counting the thrush she was born with or the colds  or the nasty bogey eye she’s carried with her for 6 months because otherwise it sounds like she’s been ill all her life, which is not quite the case. So she started a fever on and off, possibly teething related or so I thought. Then on Wednesday the fever, still on and off, got particularly bad with a high of 38.7 degrees Celsius mid-morning. I still wasn’t really worried (at this stage I don’t know if I’m laid back or completely blasé about baby illnesses), concluded from reading her baby book that she wasn’t going to self-combust, gave her some Calpol and put a cold flannel on her head. Confirmation she wasn’t well (as if I needed more) came when I put her to bed in the evening and she was asleep as soon as her head hit the mattress. Still not worried.
  • Pancake Tasting! We celebrated Pancake Day as a family one day late and had some lovely ham, egg and cheese ones first. Someone explain to me the secret for cooking eggs without burning the pancake please! I ended up putting the whole thing under the grill and it worked to a fashion but I doubt that’s how professionals do it. We had loads of sweet pancakes after and that’s when our first case of Really Bad Parenting happened. Badgerman was sitting next to Little Girl on the sofa and whilst he wasn’t looking, she took the pancake out of his hand and stuffed it in her mouth, Nutella and all. The plan for giving her chocolate and other addictive substances was to wait until she was at least a year old but what the heck, 7 months it is! She can’t fight her genes, that’s what it is. I am hoping she will forget how yummy it tasted because I have no intention of giving her any more for a while. I hope she isn’t scarred for life at how mean her parents are to withhold such goodness from her.
  • Rash! Today, she has a rash on her back and the top of her head. I am told by reliable sources that it might be a post-viral rash informing me that Little Girl is well on the way to recovery after her nasty bout of fever so I Am Not Worried. I promise to go to the doctor’s if it’s not gone by Sunday.
  • And Finally! If it wasn’t enough, I elbowed Little Girl in the face earlier whilst trying to sit her back up. She wailed like a banshee and I felt like a very bad mummy.

Thank goodness it’s nearly the weekend! Apart from the fact that it’s my birthday on Sunday and turning 32 is feeling much worse than 30 and 31 ever did. I look back on those days when I could still say ‘At least I’m still young!’ with envy.

Nutella face
The Nutella Incident

French Parents, Food Throwing and Learning To Be Patient

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon this Wall Street Journal article entitled ‘Why French Parents are Superior’. It is an adapted extract from Pamela Druckerman’s recently published book ‘Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.’ The UK version is entitled ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food.’ I’ve not read the book but I thought I would comment on the article since it is readily available and free to boot.

I’ve got to confess, my first reaction upon reading the title to this article was annoyance. What sort of twisted mind thinks that insulting your readership by implying that they are bad parents is going to make them read the article with an unbiased mind? And please, stop dragging the French into it! With all the French-bashing that’s been going on in the US elections, as if the ability to speak French is the worst insult you can throw at someone (honestly, this type of playground politics in, well politics scare the hell out of me), we hardly need someone to tell American people that ‘aren’t the French dirty but they are the best parents in the world, nah nah nah’. It is ludicrous to call French parents superior, or any parenting style for that matter. It is insulting to the millions who have successfully raised their children using a different method.

Phew. I really had that rant brewing; it feels good to let it out a bit.

Now the article is not that bad once you have sufficiently recovered to read it objectively, and I’ll pick on some of her points in more detail below. But it does read like the author is making one massive generalisation out of a handful of test subjects. Some of her comments certainly made me think she was using the same tester group technique as the moisturising cream adverts, you know ‘’the best moisturising crème ever’ say 75% of 110 women asked’. Hardly a representative sample of society then.

“French toddlers were sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables. There was no shrieking or whining. And there was no debris around their tables.”

She’s definitely not met my daughter, who is mostly French and raised by me, who is 100% French. Of course kids drop, throw and splatter food. If they’re five years old and they’re still doing it I might start to worry but she clearly states these are toddlers. So I am not convinced.

“Why was it, for example, that in the hundreds of hours I’d clocked at French playgrounds, I’d never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum?”

Really? I mean, REALLY? This is weird. Does no one else think this is weird? Sometimes kids get cranky because they haven’t had a nap; maybe her timing for going to playgrounds wasn’t ideal. Also, my sister used to throw the mother of all temper tantrums all the time when she was little, shrieking, falling to the ground, going stiff as a plank of wood, the works. Oh dear, what does this say about my family? Were we French delinquents from an early age? Were we the exception that confirms the rule? All these questions…

“Why hadn’t their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had?”

I bet they cleaned their house just before she came over, like parents do, and that they had a wardrobe full of crap they stuffed in at the last minute – or a nanny. We don’t have a nanny in our house and every inch of living room floor is taken up by baby toys. And yes, we dash around with ten minutes to spare before our guests arrive to make the place look half-decent. Just don’t go upstairs or look in the cupboards.

One of my earliest memories is that of our small flat in Paris and the massive cardboard house my mum had made for us; it was pretty much a hand-made play pen and took over the whole living room. We also used to make castles with bed sheets using the living room furniture. You couldn’t walk anywhere. So again, Pamela Druckerman is not convincing me at this stage that she has anything to add to the parenting debate.

 “Yet the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this.”

The problem identified here is one that I have noticed before, although I don’t conclude that it is an American or British problem per se. There is a culture nowadays that says that the most important thing for parents to strive for is for their children to be ‘happy’. This often translates into meeting their demands by giving them things. Materialism and instant gratification are modern age issues probably born out of the relative high standard of living we find ourselves with. If this isn’t the case, how else do you explain the binge-buying that takes place at Christmas time?

The idea that our children may grow up to become more balanced able adults if they are not the centre of our universes is one that makes a lot of sense to me. I see my job as a mother to be that of an enabler. I wish to raise my child so that when she grows up, she is equipped with all the tools she needs to live a confident life in whatever shape this might take for her. To do this she needs to learn, amongst other things, how to deal with failure, how to discipline herself to do things she doesn’t like to do and how to be patient.

“One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep.”

Well, that’s not French, that’s Controlled Crying and parents are using this method the world over. I am personally not a fan, having found myself more comfortable with the attachment parenting ethos, but in any case her comment about babies sleeping through the night from two or three months is complete balls. Some will, some won’t and on the whole that’s down to the type of child you have, not the method you use. But I agree about learning to wait, just not when they are still babies and don’t have the ability to process this concept.

“Authority is one of the most impressive parts of French parenting—and perhaps the toughest one to master. Many French parents I meet have an easy, calm authority with their children that I can only envy. Their kids actually listen to them. French children aren’t constantly dashing off, talking back, or engaging in prolonged negotiations.”

She then goes on to describe an episode in a park where she practices using a stern voice to call her child over rather than dashing around to try to stop him from running off. I have actually seen this in action around France so whilst I still balk at this being a French thing rather than just a good parenting tip, she does have a point. Because I have seen this happen successfully, I feel that when the time comes I will know how to do it. So maybe, just maybe, she touches something true in that groups of people learn from observing each other. I learnt from my mother and from other French parents when I was growing up, so the tools I use now to parent are tinted by this experience. Are they therefore ‘French’?

Overall the parenting secrets she talks about are neither new nor are they only used by the French. But it is often the case that living in another culture intensifies your experience of everyday life in all sorts of strange ways and it highlights practices you would otherwise not notice. This may be why some of the things she mentions, which seem to be bog-standard common sense to me may have appeared ground-breaking to her. And some of it is very good advice. Just don’t be shocked if that’s not your experience when you go to France on holiday.