Saturday, October 06, 2007

Il ne faut pas gemir

Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, tipped off by neoCath blogger Mark Shea, is in a tizzy about the latest French bestseller No Kids, about how awful your life will be with children:

Everywhere you look in France these days, you seem to see its cover: The words NO KID in English, followed by "40 Reasons for Not Having Children" in French. It is a huge bestseller. Her 40 reasons are often funny and personal ("Don't become a travelling feeding bottle," "don't adopt the idiot-language of children") sometimes bitter ("you will inevitably be disappointed with your child") and often designed to puncture the idealized notion of motherhood that poisons Western societies.
Michael Blowhard makes astute points in the comments about the failure to understand that this is the French version of humor. He links usefully to an earlier piece of his on French child-rearing concepts generally:

What I want to do here is to play anthropologist -- to highlight the fact that the usual cluster of American assumptions about how to raise and interact with kids is specific to America. For example: Many Americans assume that it's imperative to vacation someplace where the kids will be happy or "enriched." Traveling someplace the parents want to see while letting the kids contend ... Why, that would be selfish and unloving, and even worthy of condemnation.
Michael's blog entry was inspired by an article in the Toryg-- I mean, Telegraph, on French child-rearing methods:


A few days before that, sitting in a café near the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, which is unabashed baby central, with my (French) husband, I saw something even scarier. A tiny child, just walking, was trying to catch up with his chic and slender mother, who was furiously pushing the buggy deliberately too fast for the baby to get close to her. The child was crying frantically, red in the face and holding up his tiny arms begging her to carry him. There was no way he could catch her. And she knew it. "Non, non, non," she screeched in a high-pitched voice. She strolled ahead faster leaving the baby in the dust.
Well, follow the links and make of the French and Americans what you will. All I have to add is anecdotal data. My oldest has a French fencing coach, Maitre Jekyll-Hyde, who swings instantly from an indulgent, good-natured benevolence (for klutzy adult fencers, very young children, and beginning adolescents) to six feet of hard-nosed, shouting, abusive intimidation (for everyone whose check has cleared for the full year of fencing). Parents are horrified and indignant; the kids worship him and do everything they possible can to please him. They dislike having the other (gentle, encouraging, American) coach substituting: it's like Stockholm Syndrome. Maitre J-H doesn't believe in praise, so on the rare occasions that he mutters "Good footwork" or "Nice parry," the kids are in rapture for days. I've seen him with his own children: his tiny daughter is cosseted; his school-age son gets no slack. After years of trying and failing to break Offspring #1 of whining, Maitre did it in one go, with a steely look and "What ees thees voice! No whi-neeng! I do not want to hear that whi-neeng again!" There are days when I aspire to parent like Maitre.

Or maybe not. One interesting feature of the comboxes at all these posts was the quickness with which commenters, once past "What's wrong with these French?" go through "different cultures parent differently" to "the way we parent as Americans is deeply flawed," with the standard laments over how hard we push our children to succeed academically, and how we smother them with love and affection and inappropriately make them the centers of our lives. Now there may be some truth to both charges. But the former consistently fails to be backed up by data; if anything, American parents, compared to parents in countries where children seem to manage much better test scores in math and science, really don't push their children enough. And this complaint that we stress academics too much is old, so old that I worry about its link to traditional American anti-intellectualism and distrust of book-larnin'. But I will leave that point alone lest it devolve into meditations on unschooling.

The latter point, about centering our lives too much on our children, has easy targets in the attachment parenting and homeschooling movements, in which parents--particularly mothers--appear to sacrifice their freedom, careers, and adulthoods for the sake of the children. Now while I suspect that American society is not, in fact, infected with a need to sacrifice all For the Sake of the Children--as Exhibit A, think of how long it's been since anyone took that phrase seriously as a reason to forego or delay divorce--the concept certainly came to us from the nineteenth century Cult of Domesticity that took deep root in English Victorian society, and which keeps on feeding into homeschooling culture via the "Charlotte Mason method." Mrs. Mason's books, a summation of the century's cult of domesticity, are monuments to domesticity, and teach a philosophy of child-rearing which makes every act, gesture, and casual remark of the parent (chiefly mother) the seeds of the child's destiny.


[The] atmosphere in which the child inspires his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from his parents. Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence, every word of kindness and act of help, passes into the thought-environment, the very atmosphere which the child breathes; he does not think of these things, may never think of them, but all his life long they excite that 'vague appetency towards something' out of which most of his actions spring. Oh, the wonderful and dreadful presence of the little child in the midst! (Parents and Children, 1904)
Dreadful is the right word, I think.

The French may not be as emotive as we Americans, or as concerned about our children ending up in therapy, or "losing their love of learning" from too much academic pressure; but that doesn't mean our own ideas of child-rearing have to change to be more like some other culture's. If there's an American genius, it's the ability to sift through other cultures and take the parts we like, without apologizing unduly for our own. We aren't as harsh as French parents; we're not as soggy as the English Victorians; we're not as pushy as the Japanese. It's great to look to see what others are doing, especially for the occasional reality check (can I admit, with reference to Michael Blowhard's first linked article, that playing with small children bores me, too, and I suspect that it was less of an issue for parents when families were bigger?).

After all, I can't imagine the French reading Sears & Sears and deciding they have to be more like the Americans.

3 Comments:

Blogger Jennifer said...

Hi Sharon -
yes, the Charlotte Mason approach to parenting and schooling has some daunting aspects - how one earth can one parent (without the aid of those hired nurses of that day) do all that she says is optimal? floors me, most days. I'll just stick with my living books and loving on my kids.
Glad to have found you here, so I can visit with you during the week between park days...

6:49 AM  
Blogger Darwin said...

Good to see you back and posting!

My oldest has a French fencing coach, Maitre Jekyll-Hyde, who swings instantly from an indulgent, good-natured benevolence (for klutzy adult fencers, very young children, and beginning adolescents) to six feet of hard-nosed, shouting, abusive intimidation (for everyone whose check has cleared for the full year of fencing). Parents are horrified and indignant; the kids worship him and do everything they possible can to please him.

Fencing coaches must have some special knack for being characters. One of mine was an aging Jesuit who liked to have a foil in each and and switch hands without warning so that you'd be equally used to right and left handed opponents. (He could, of course, beat all of us with either hand.) During breaks he liked to opine on philosophy and quantum physics.

And then there was Ed, a 70+ year old chain smoker who sometimes smoked while fencing and would, whenever you did something particularly foolish, score a quick point and shout, "Oh, you're so nice! You give me presents!"

9:23 AM  
Blogger sophia said...

Yes, I agree. I do think we are very good at taking what works from other cultures. However, I do find myself vacillating between different styles that seem to be working well for other cultures or parents. Ms. Maitre J-H sometimes and Ms. Mason at others. It is probably in accordance with the time of the month. ;) I both cringe and love it at the same time when my kids have interactions with adults like Maitre J-H. I think it's good to have some of that, but not too much, either. I guess that's why they say it takes a village? ;)

7:31 AM  

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