Sunday, February 05, 2012

Raising Johan and François

Miss Self-Important alerted me to something "combining amy chua with skinny frenchwomen," so I had to look, and before even knowing what it was, to kick myself for having not thought of it. What it is is another WSJ attack, by a Real Mom, on American parenting. (America being, let's be clear, defined as a caricatured version of Park Slope and Berkeley.) But this time, we're to emulate not Chinese moms, but French ones. There's even a video where the author, Pamela Druckerman, a woman who's been living in Frahnce for a decade, wears a beret, as if to announce that she knows this is a gimmick and has no intention of breaking character until the gimmick goes platinum.

(I defy anyone familiar with the RHONY not to look at the photo accompanying the article, with the three blond, baffled-looking kids in berets, and not immediately think of Alex and Simon, Johan and François, and the quest of one American woman and one Australian man to raise French children in New York. Druckerman's husband is British, close enough. Druckerman, however, has a background in comedy. She's in on the joke.)

This concept is of course all kinds of brilliant: a certain type of (book-buying) American women is preoccupied with parenting and with being more French. Why not combine the two?

Part of me knows, on some level, that my familiarity with France is one day going to have to be channeled into a book of this variety, one that takes the following for granted: Everything not America is Europe. All of Europe is France. France is Paris, and Paris is that bit of the city between the St. Germain Monoprix and the Bon Marché. That which wouldn't be readily observed by Americans on a five-day vacation can be assumed not to exist. My entry into this genre will be a parody take called "Why French Women Are Better Than You, You Vache: A Francophilic Guide to Self-Hatred," but this is but one parody manuscript of many in the works at WWPD Industries.

In all seriousness, some of what Druckerman says about French eating is true, in my experience, in France beyond Paris; in Belgium; possibly everywhere that isn't the U.S.. It's not true that picky eating is uniquely American and magically eliminated with "French" parenting, but the idea that there are specific times to eat, and beyond that, specific foods that can be eaten at specific times, is a place where Americans find ourselves the odd ones out. (It seems strange to The Europeans that if I happen to have baked something - brownies, lemon pound cake, whatever - I see this as a perfectly acceptable breakfast, and that if I'm hungry at 5pm, or 10, that's when I'll have dinner.)

While my Americanness in this area has never caused me any real problems,* I can see how, on a population level, limiting food in this way would have some tangible benefits (less obesity-related illness, more self-control, etc.). On the other hand, cultural rules like these strike me as being part of an exclusionary system more broadly, and if they happen to be useful in certain isolated ways, they serve to make newcomers and even not-so-newcomers feel unwelcome. And that's kind of the gist of the argument. Druckerman says that French parenting - not just eating - works better because everyone does things the same way - there aren't competing ideas of (or parenting books about) how to do things right. This is less stressful, she claims. Perhaps, but rigidly enforced homogeneity is plenty stressful for outsiders as well as dissenters.

And this is the flaw with the whole Be More French genre - Frenchwomen-as-in-rich-Parisians may look chic, but they're all dressed identically to one another. You can either bemoan the fact that everyone around you (in suburban NJ, to give a purely theoretical example) would be out-of-place at the organic market on Raspail, or you can be grateful for the diversity of options.

Oh, and are French children better-behaved? No. They are, however, more elegantly dressed. If there isn't "kid food" in France-as-in-posh-Paris, nor is there kid clothing. Tiny children are dressed like precious dolls from the nineteenth century, and then around early adolescence, boys and girls alike are dressed indistinguishably from their adult equivalents. For better or worse, they do not spend a decade or even so much as a week experimenting with hipster/goth/punk, etc. Thus the city's lack of neon hair dye. This parenting guide is going to be a bestseller in no time.

*I can't write about this without mentioning the "trough" incident - when I said to a group of European acquaintances from a bunch of different countries, who were discussing American versus European eating habits that me personally, I eat out of a trough... and met with knowing nods. Part of this was a language issue (sarcasm being a tough tone to convey, "trough" a bit agricultural), but I also think it struck those present that it was totally plausible that this was how I took my meals. I could provide so many more anecdotes along these lines, but I've long noticed that the idea that Americans are fat and lazy is so ingrained that they have essentially nothing to do with whether any particular American is either.

18 comments:

Britta said...

Ok, so, on the eating, I agree that as adults we can (and it is culturally acceptable to) pretty much eat whatever we want wherever we want, but maybe this is part of the "I was raised stealth European in the US and didn't realize it," I'm curious as to what child is allowed to do so? I would have totally eaten chocolate cake for breakfast if allowed to do so, or snacked all day and not eaten meals, but none of that was allowed. There were totally breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods, that had to be eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and snacking was very limited. I remember telling my mother I was hungry some indeterminate time before dinner, and her explaining that that was the point: that one ought to be hungry before dinner, so then would want to eat dinner. Conversely, it was expected that you were to consume a satisfactory quantity of food at meal times, and if you refused to eat dinner and then were hungry half an hour later, then too bad. (My parents were not total taskmasters or even necessarily that strict and wouldn't let us starve, but they didn't want to encourage the habit of not eating dinner and then wanting to eat something later on.) It wasn't like snacks were never allowed, or that there weren't foods available, snacking just wasn't a thing, unless it was "snack time." Likewise, we ate plenty of sweets, except we ate them at "dessert time" not whenever we felt like it. Maybe I'm totally off base, but I assumed this was how most children were raised, pretty much all around the world.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

There are many ways to go about eating, and the 'eat if you're hungry, don't if you're not' method also has adherents, and does not, in theory, make a person fat and/or unhealthy. Nor does allowing any food to be eaten at any time. If more flexibility means having last night's stirfry leftovers for breakfast instead of a muffin, it might even be healthier.

A system like the French/European/Britta's Childhood one is a convenient shortcut to the desired outcome, namely eating a balanced diet and not too much or too little. And on the level of populations, the fact that anything can be eaten at any time and in any setting in the States, but not in, say, France, probably explains a lot. But it would also seem that without artificially imposing a food culture in which 7:30 (not 7, not 8) is dinner, the same result could be achieved. For adults.

For kids, I completely agree with you that this is, or should be, how it goes in American families as well, because anything else is too complicated. Dinner with the family, you eat what there is, etc.

I think the difference the author's referring to is in part something about pickiness (and there I'm not convinced - I know a lot of Europeans, and they don't "enjoy" all foods) but also something about the (evidently recent, and after our time) requirement that kids be provided with snacks continuously throughout the day. There was nothing "European" about my upbringing, but I would have breakfast, lunch, after-school (mass-produced - this was before yuppies' kids were expected to have anything artisanal) candy bar, dinner. But if continuous eating is now a thing, it makes sense that a book offering a glamorous (Frahnce!) alternative would do well.

Andrew Stevens said...

Current fashionable thinking for toddlers in the pediatric medicine community is that they do best on several small meals a day rather than the three larger meals a day model. Whether this is true or false, it has had a large effect on modern parents of toddlers.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

I think the point of the "French" way is that there isn't this constant, science-based updating on what's best. (Thus also, if more problematically, the at first startling sight, in even wealthy parts of Paris, of cigarettes dangling over strollers.) With something like meals, though, it's likely that next week, "fashionable thinking" in the States will be that toddlers should eat just once a day, or who knows. This approach is saying, fashions change.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sure. I have no idea what the science even is behind it, if any. I was just pointing out for Britta's benefit that, for toddlers anyway, there genuinely has been a cultural shift in the U.S. for a significant number of parents, if not an outright majority.

PG said...

Both the French (predictably) and the American (less so) models of parenting seemed to be defined not only by class but also by race/ ethnicity. I think the American model can be somewhat alienating for "outsiders" as well. I definitely had friends growing up who thought it was weird that I didn't live on chicken nuggets and fish sticks; that we didn't have any dessert available for breakfast (most of the time, not even anything they deemed sufficiently sweet for dessert); that I liked almost all vegetables, etc.

Anything, even what looks like heterogeneity, can be turned by children into a enforceable norm. What the adults administering the American model thought or said, I don't know -- I'd have to ask my mom, I suppose.

Also, isn't the Parc Slope post about how French children are generally well-behaved and the park is the one place they're living young and wild and free? If that were the norm in the U.S., I think most people would have fewer complaints about ill-behaved children. I mean, parks also have dogs, sometimes off their leashes. Clearly they're not spaces meant for people who want to avoid small slobbery critters.

Phoebe said...

PG,

It doesn't matter for this genre that America is heterogeneous. The only "Americans" who are being referenced are wealthy, white, yuppie-ish, etc. "We" care that our kids go to Harvard, but also that they're well-rounded and eat organic. They, in turn, are being compared not with all the French, but with rich white Parisians.

And yes, you got me - they misbehave, but only in particular spaces meant for that, making them precisely the angels the author claims.

Britta said...

On, food, is the idea that toddlers (i.e. 2-4 year olds) needing to eat frequently all that new? I'd imagine all around the world, toddlers are fed different foods and on a different schedule than adults. In my comment I was referring more to children 6-12 or so, who IMO should be old enough to go several hours without absolutely needing to consume food. In terms of foods, it seems that class/ethnicity/regional variation would be greater in the US than in France, which would make it harder to generalize. Maybe actual national difference is tolerance for feeding your kids on demand whatever they want to eat?

On behavior...my siblings and I were in public, well behaved mini-adults pretty much past toddler-hood, and our parents frequently took us to 'adult' things. I guess we are as adults fairly quiet people with good concentration spans, but I don't know how my parents made that be the case. At home we certainly could be loud and bratty and throw tantrums and so on, so it's not like we were unusually good kids, we were just trained to act like it in public. I don't remember the actual training though, however I hope I can do so with my own children when the time comes.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

That's probably true re: toddlers (babies broadly defined) eating differently from adults around the world.

"Maybe actual national difference is tolerance for feeding your kids on demand whatever they want to eat?"

If that's the case, then something has changed in America quite recently. I don't know of anyone having this set-up within their family, any kid who could, ala Cartman from South Park, have his every whim attended to. And definitely the snack frequency thing is new - three meals and one afternoon snack a day strikes me as how kids were raised here as well, and not even that long ago.

And, from all your comments, your family sounds without fault! Given the amount of the blogosphere that consists of people complaining about their upbringings, it's refreshing to see that someone is satisfied.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't know - if you read the article, she's talking about her problems with an 18 month old in a restaurant and how well-behaved the French kids of the same age were. If, in fact, French 18 month olds are fed in the same way that American ones are, then this story is a complete non sequitur and doesn't make any sense.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

She's talking about teaching babies patience, not teaching babies to eat three meals a day. (Yes, the French toddlers were eating, but maybe just tasting the food, and maybe they ate again an hour later?) In principle, the tantrum-prevention would begin years before, for example, wine with dinner.

Andrew Stevens said...

From the article:

It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)

I have no idea whether she's accurate about French toddler eating habits or not, but she said it, not me.

Phoebe said...

There's a "mostly" giving a bunch of wiggle room there. Her main concern seems to be that Americans a) have "kid food," and b) allow for infinite snacking. It's the French kids and not toddlers who she insists eat only 4 times a day.

Andrew Stevens said...

The "mostly" is, I assume, referring to the one snack. Again, if she doesn't mean that French toddlers eat four times a day, that paragraph is a complete non sequitur and makes no sense. I have no idea whether the author thinks it is a good idea to feed toddlers four times a day or not, but that's what I'd infer from her piece.

PG said...

The idea that higher-class children are better behaved in public than poor kids is a pretty old one, at least in the U.S. There's a bit in a 1921 F. Scott Fitzgerald story, writing about the scene outside a Manhattan church:

"Around them delightedly danced the two thousand miraculously groomed children of the very rich, correctly cute and curled, shining like sparkling little jewels upon their mothers' fingers. Speaks the sentimentalist for the children of the poor? Ah, but the children of the rich, laundered, sweet-smelling, complexioned of the country, and, above all, with soft, in-door voices."

The "above all, with soft, in-door voices" comes to mind a lot when I hear children without even seeing them.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Yes, but the idea with this book is that these days, all the more so among the upper classes, American kids are loud and entitled. The set that once had cocktails and ignored its kids now sits down to an alcohol-free dinner with them and argues with them to make them eat their kale.

Britta said...

Phoebe,

Hahaha. My family certainly has many faults, I suppose I just brag about the good stuff on your blog. :P

Taken together, this stereotype doesn't seem to make much sense, but the cynical side of me would say you can write whatever you want, however incoherent, but as long as you claim it's how they do it in France (or maybe Italy), then people will buy it. Of course...maybe I don't know the right people, but are there enough people who 1) love Europe that much, but 2) have only the haziest idea actual Europe to the point they assume that everything there is automatically better than it is here?

Phoebe said...

Britta,

I don't think, unfortunately, that exposure to Europe changes things. American fashion writers, food writers, etc., who go to Europe all the time don't seem to become any less enchanted, and seem to have an uncanny ability to avoid seeing the fast foods, fat people, etc. If you're only on a quick trip to Paris, you're not going to realize that as delightful as the outdoor markets are, people actually shop in supermarkets, which often have rotting produce and always have tons of processed food... much like supermarkets in the States. But even expats can just see what they want to see.