Monday, May 2, 2011

But I'm an Earth Mother Type (a long post, mostly about parenting)

So I had the pleasure of spending a short bit of time with a charming femme d'un certain age at an art show this weekend. She was a jewelry maker originally from France and she had great style. We chatted a lot and I took mental notes on her to report here. She wore glasses and strong eye makeup with a definite bohemian vibe. She sported her own unique jewelry and flowing clothes in neutral, subdued colors. Her hair was a long blunt cut with bangs (and the women debating Ines de la Fressange's style guide on the Yahoo French Chic group will be interested to note that this was not a gal who appeared to wash her hair on anything even closely resembling a daily basis). Mostly I noticed the forthright way she spoke- confident, vivacious and also a keen listener.

We began talking because I had my three-year-old with me and talk tends to go to those who spill the most ice cream and giggle most loudly. Mine is a spirited kid and she told me hers were too. She said that when her son was young, the teachers at his (US) schools would chide her that he didn't "respond well to social pressure."" That a teacher of small children in our educational system would find fault with that quality doesn't surprise me; it was her delight in it that suprised me greatly.

I've had German, Greek and Italian acquaintances with young children but I haven't known any French parents that I can think of. But one thing I have read repeatedly is that French parenting is all about training children to respond to social pressure.

Charming petite Parisienne in her natural habitat, 2004

An essay I read recently (yes, I'm talking about this book again - there was a lot to chew on in its pages!) looks at French parenting and its differences with "Anglo-saxon" style childrearing. The writer is Janine di Giovanni. Like part of me, she is Italian-American. Unlike any of me, she appears to be a glamorous award-winning international journalist who is married to a frenchman.

Watching a crying child exhaust himself trailing behind his chic, slender (and unrelentingly quick-stepping) mother in Luxembourg Gardens, she writes,

'Well that kid will be in therapy for the rest of his life.'

I joke about these things but it's not altogether funny, One of the toughest things I have had to get used to in an otherwise idyllic Paris is the huge gap between Anglo-Saxon (or Italian American in my case) parenting and parenting French-style. The French are certainly stricter. They shout more. They slap more. And they enforce manners.

As a result, you find beautifully brought-up children, and many of my French friends who are parents will argue endlessly that instilling discipline and setting boundaries is the way to show the utmost love.

All true. Kids need boundaries and they need to be civilized for their own good. But Di Giovanni writes that, despite the fact that French children are better behaved than their American counterparts,

the hippie earth mother part of me still wonders about originality, creativity, and freethinking. (There is no such thing as an earth mother here; it is simply not chic.)

I'm an un-chic earth mother type. I wonder a lot about these things too. And this process of parenting a young child as he moves into a sprited third year on Planet Earth is a challenge: to transmit knowledge and instill manners and social savvy while respecting the dignity and liberty of this small person -- without slaps and without shaming -- is often difficult.

Free-range American kid in his natural habitat, Sea Ranch CA 2010
How to negotiate the goal of teaching boundaries with the reality of sharing space and a life with small children? How to "train" them well without treating them like lesser beings? After trial and error I have come to a philosophy of trying to approach mine as I would someone who is as worthy of respect as I am but who lacks the life experience to navigate life without help. I see myself as a combination translator, tutor and concierge, if you will. And he is, so far, a really great kid. But it's true you never know how well you've taught your children until they are grown.


  1. A translator, tutor and concierge! Well, that's a lovely way to put it! I like that respectful view on parenting!

  2. Why, thank you, B! I'll let you know how it turns out in about 16 years :)


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