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Is parenting differently from the norm necessarily a bad thing?

We raise our children, ideally, to think for themselves. Don’t be a lemming, we tell them. Don’t jump off the cliff just because everyone else is doing it. Yet when it comes to parenting, can running the other way cause more problems for our kids – and us, as parents – than the proverbial cliff-jump?

When I was growing up, my family was hopelessly different. Divorce boom be darned, I was the only kid I knew whose parents were divorced. Ever. In any of the towns we ever lived in. That’s another way in which we were always different: We moved around. We didn’t change towns at a military pace, but at an academic one. By the time I reached high school, I had lived in five different towns as my mother sought her undergraduate degree, her master’s, her Ph.D, and then different teaching jobs. Wherever we were, though, it seemed no one else had this experience. By the time I reached high school, my friends had all lived in our small college town their entire lives. Most of their parents, also professors, had opted to wait until they had tenure to make babies.

But it wasn’t just big-picture stuff that made us different. It was also the small, intimate details of life. My parents drank wine with dinner every night (they offered it to me as a teenager, but I hated the taste). It was a ritualistic event. Every member of the family was required to be present. If a school activity interfered with dinner, then that wasn’t an activity for me. Dinner trumped all. And speaking of intimate, there was the nudity. My mother explained that our bodies were natural and we should be comfortable with them, so she wouldn’t close her bedroom door when she was getting dressed. Then there were the dogs. We viewed them as family members, their needs ranked eequally with my sister’s and mine. If we could have taken them to restaurants for our weekly family dinners out, surely we would have. All these differences made me extremely self-conscious. What if a friend happened to be over when my mother was changing? And the wine. Oh, the wine. It was illegal for me to drink wine! What if the police found out that my parents offered it to me and arrested us all? As a child, “different” was practically a four-letter word.

Flash-forward to college, when I arrived, sans baggage lost by the airline, in Strasbourg, France, for a year-long study abroad program. Exhaustion and the inability to change out of my smelly traveling clothes didn’t dull the excitement I felt when, only hours after arriving, France already felt like home. I called my mother and breathlessly told her that I’d finally figured out where we fit in. (I’m not sure she understood my enthusiasm, “fitting in” never having been a priority of hers.) As the hours turned to weeks and months, the similarities mounted. Here, dogs ate in restaurants – at one caf’ I frequented, a German shepherd even got his own chair! Bare breasts graced billboards, families treated meals as sacred, and they surely drank wine at every one. Gradually, I began to see my own upbringing not as four-letter-word “different,” but rather as European – a good thing, if an inexplicable one.

Though I’d forgotten about that moment of epiphany in France, it resurfaced when I read Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman. The book, in which veteran American journalist Druckerman explores French approaches to parenting and compares them to American ones, is sure to be a bestseller if it isn’t already. I couldn’t put it down. It’s both a page-turner and a valuable resource for parents looking for techniques to counteract what’s come to be known as “helicopter parenting,” with its over-involvement and resulting “child kings,” a translation of a French term Druckerman defines as “an excessively demanding child who is constantly the center of his parents’ attention and who can’t cope with frustration.”

 

Many of the techniques Druckerman outlines have that “aha!” brilliant quality. Have firm boundaries for kids, she recommends, but allow them as much freedom as possible within those boundaries. For instance, one French mother chooses what clothes her daughter wears when they go out, no arguments allowed. But at home, the little girl can wear whatever she wants – even a summer shirt in wintertime. Another technique: Assume that infants understand everything, and speak to them accordingly. One experienced nanny explains that to teach a baby to sleep through the night, she speaks to him, “You tell him that, if he wakes up once, you’re going to give him his pacifier once. But after that, you’re not going to get up. It’s time to sleep.”

My husband (an American I met during that study abroad experience) and I now have two children, a toddler and a newborn, and I now realize that we have unintentionally adopted certain French habits in our own home. We eat together at the table every night. (For now, the baby looks on from his bassinet, which we bring into the dining room.) Although our budget regrettably prevents us from drinking wine every night, we treat this time together as inviolable – if the phone rings during dinner, the caller can leave a message.

So many of Druckerman’s ideas seemed strangely familiar, though at first I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t have much exposure to families with young kids the year I lived in France. But the more I read, the more I realized that the features of French parenting Druckerman champions in her book – “la pause,” “adult time,” and respecting my own non-parenting identity – sound suspiciously like my mother’s approach.

My mother isn’t French. She hadn’t even been to France until visiting me over Christmas during that study abroad. So I don’t know where the common ground is coming from. I do know that she always insisted on adults-only time when my sister and I were growing up. She doesn’t feel the least bit guilty that she stopped nursing both of us after only a few weeks, when adverse circumstances made it difficult. And she was critical in that annoying, “I’m keeping my mouth shut” way about how I handled my first son’s nights. I nursed him at least once – usually twice – in the middle of the night, every night, until he was 18 months old and magically figured out how to make it through all by himself.

So why is it so hard to give my mom credit for these parenting ideas? Is it just easier to take advice from a book than from my own mother? I think it might be a little more complicated than that.

My husband told me recently about a study he read on spanking children. The upshot was that spanking can be worse for white kids than for black kids. Racist? It sure sounds like it. But the researchers who looked at the issue found that the effect of spanking came down to the community’s perspective on the practice. In the white community studied, spanking was an extreme, nearly taboo form of punishment. Children who were spanked at home felt ashamed of the act of being spanked – not just of their misbehavior. Yet in the black community studied, spanking was accepted as a normal, reasonable form of punishment. Everyone was spanked now and then, so it wasn’t such a big deal. I expect those kids still didn’t enjoy it, but they were spared the broader, deeper shame that comes from a social taboo.

My mother only spanked me once. And back then it wasn’t so uncommon, so I didn’t experience it as a stigma. Yet those French-style parenting tactics that she employed and still advises go against the norm to such a degree that they, too, bear a status bordering on stigma. In my group, parents don’t let their babies cry, not even for a 5- or 10-minute-long “pause.” Mothers take pride in fully giving themselves over to the children, accepting that they will recover their own selves after the children are grown. I’ll confess that I even take a sort of pride in my firstborn’s delay in sleeping through the night. When I say, “He didn’t sleep through the night until he was 18 months old,” I establish to all the other mothers in earshot that I am a devoted mother. They are, I hope deep down, duly impressed. Yet some things, I realize now, we already do differently than most of our friends. My toddler’s pre-school teachers seem charmed by the fact that he spends more time eating lunch that any of the other children, sitting calmly at the table until he has finished, instead of jumping up to find a new toy after only a bite or two. Will his peers be equally charmed, or might they tease him? Will being different make him as self-conscious as it made me?

But now there’s this book. I’m so excited: Might it signify a change in the tide, a turn in parenting trends toward taking back a bit of identity for ourselves? Toward expecting our children to fit into our homes, our sleeping schedules, our social schedules, rather than remodeling them all around the children? If the tide is really moving away from self-sacrificing mothers and toward a more balanced model of child- and self-care, I’ll be able to take pride in leaving the kids with my husband for an afternoon, in hiring a babysitter so my husband and I can go out to dinner, and even helping our youngest learn to sleep longer. If the stigma of parenting this way lifts, I may tell my friends when my youngest one sleeps through the night. I might even call my mother and share the good news.

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