Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Is French Parenting Better? No, It's Just Frencher.

Posit: Bad manners are good for you. 

Much has been made lately of Pamela Druckerman's recent book, Bringing Up Bebe, a collection of completely subjective and unsubstantiated anecdotes about how placid and polite French children are as compared to the wild hellions of the USA. People have been going nuts over this book. Less nuts than they did for the Tiger Mom's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but that's to be expected; the Chinese version of this story enumerates a series of humiliating battles that sound downright abusive to our gentle ears. The French version just scolds us for being crappy. Sorry. Crappé.

The Tiger Mom book I just wrinkled my nose at and moved on. I read The Joy Luck Club. Hell, at my last job I could peek over the top of my cubicle and see my pal Cindy, proud product of Tiger Parenting, who also went to an Ivy League school (a better one than mine, even). There we were, at the same crappé workplace, both avoiding college reunions because we were supposed to be better and brighter by now. I'm okay with not being so tiger-y. Besides, though I've seen the angry responses to Amy Chua's book all over the interwebs, I also live in San Francisco, where every neighborhood has its own Chinatown, and nobody -- nobody -- fawns over my kids like the Chinese grandparents I meet on every walk. So stuff it, Tiger Mom who wasn't even advocating for this approach in the first place.

But the French stuff worried me. I love good manners. One of the first things I noticed about my husband -- after his glorious mess of hair, tree-like height, hilariousness, and that other thing I shouldn't mention on a mommyblog -- was his gentle, unobtrusive Midwestern manners, still in place after twenty years' exile. He didn't even notice that he automatically walked on the correct side of the sidewalk. I swooned. Meanwhile, tell a nine-year-old today that he should "be a gentlemen and let ladies go first," and he'll treat you to a polemic on feminism and the gilded cage of chivalry. Just because they're right doesn't mean they're not annoying. I readjust to explain manners in a non-sexist way; I haven't succeeded yet.

Bottom line, my kids are annoying in restaurants, though I'm pretty good at getting them under control. However, the online world being what it is, I know what many childless people think of even the best-behaved children, and have witnessed the sneering and judgment that goes on constantly even when a kid's meltdown is entirely age-appropriate and developmentally necessary. I know, frig those a-holes, but whatever, I can feel their glares burning into me when my kids do normal kid stuff. Should they be standing still, hands clasped, in two straight lines like Madeline?

Fortunately, I have French friends! At a rare evening out, I leaned across the table and quizzed my favorite one whose daughter spends summers in France and the rest of the year in Marin. It's true, she told me: her daughter eats leeks in France, mac and cheese here in the States. She behaves like a lady in France, like a hellion here in the States.

Why? "Because she can," my friend stated. "It's true, the demands on children in France are greater. Wherever you go, everyone has the same standard, and you stick to it because it's supported at every contact point." She really talks like that. She's a fancy business lady. "Here, it's different, so they are more free to act like themselves."

Oh, wait, what was that? Was she really saying that having worse manners is a good thing?

"Look what you grow up to be," she said. "Would you rather be restricted by society's rules, or bravely striking out to be an individual?"

Well, when you put it that way.

I'm not trying to say one way is better or worse. That's what Druckerman did, and it sold books but is a cynical and idiotic way to look at parenting. I'm saying, when things are different, there might be valid and positive reasons for their differences, and considering those differences in depth is more productive than just crapping on one or the other.

I have another friend who stopped bringing her daughter to rec center classes because she didn't like her being taught to docilely line up and follow a teacher's orders blindly. She hated that rote passivity. Of course, she'll encourage her daughter to behave in school up to a point, but she also recognizes that as adults, as long as we're wearing pants and not punching anyone, our society values and requires brave individual thinking. Not to get rich. But to be a good person.

It all reminds me of when I first moved to the west coast and thought "this whole place was settled by cowboys!" and longed for the stuffiness of my home, which was settled by a bunch of Puritans bent on being holier than everbody else. I had to laugh at myself. I suppose it's the same thing for Europeans: America was settled by a bunch of lunatics, and here we are, 400 years later, still acting out.

So okay. American kids might not have perfect manners, but mine will have the best ones I can muster in the circumstances. And in the meantime they'll benefit from those other imperfections, the ones that make people move here in the first place. I'm okay with that, too. 

And as for eating leeks, my friend said that her mom has an astounding garden, and that eating food that came from the ground is part of her daughter's daily experience. Freshness and earthiness are a pretty stellar combination. And it's true -- when we get our CSA deliveries, the girls will demand broccoli right out of the bag, because they can tell from the almost-spicy, almost sweet crunch that they were picked that morning. (Well, all they can tell is that it tastes good; I fill in that information myself. It'd be better if they could see it for themselves, but in a parallel balancing act of cost and benefit analysis, I elect to stay here in the teeming urban center that is Bernal Heights.)

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