Red, white, and nouveau: What we’re keeping, what we’ve tossed

If you’re even a tepid follower of this blog, you’ll recall that we have approached parenting with a French twist (har har) and I was going to detail our experiences along the way. My point in doing so was to see if those who have experienced French parenting firsthand–expats, spouses of French people, families who have lived in France but aren’t French–and lived to write about it could create second-generation French parenting disciples: People who are only going on what others have written and done to guide them toward a similar outcome. People like us.

And then you’ll notice that after a few posts about eating and bedtimes, I haven’t written anything else about the Red, white, and nouveau experiment. Here’s why: Very quickly we realized that “French parenting” is just a label that sums up “how we would do things anyway” so our Red, white and nouveau experiment has turned out not to be so much an experiment as daily life. And who blogs about that? šŸ˜‰

Allow me then to answer the “is it possible to create French parenting disciples?” question: Yes.

Allow me next to outline a few of the high points of French parenting that we have found to be particularly resonant in our lives and a few aspects of the French frame of mind (le frame du mind?) that we have willingly tossed:

1. KEEP: Variety in food exposure.
The little oyster eats just about anything you put in front of her (or the dog…) She’s always happy to try new foods and that’s the point of food exposure, giving things a fair shake. She’ll try anything, most things please her, and I get misty with pride every time. If she never meets a kids’ menu, I’ll consider my work here done.

2. TOSS: Expecting small people to behave like large people.
The French emphasis on training children to fit into an adult world is a worthy one. But let’s get real: The impulse control on little kids is nil and we can either pretend they are mini-adults and treat them as such to universal frustration, or we can realize that they are small people who are still developing and cut them some slack. This is her home, too, and it’s not fair to make her feel like a guest or a criminal when she’s living life the way she knows how. No sense in making everyone sad and miserable when an heirloom shatters in the name of unfair expectations.

3. KEEP: Sleep expectations.
The oyster is a great sleeper. Sleep is a skill. Skills must be taught. We taught her this skill. The oyster is a great sleeper.

4. TOSS: Conformity.
I’d love it if my daughter was the cool kid who was also the nice kid who was also the talented kid who was also the smart kid. Who can sing folk. The French system is focused on building–or, if we’re being cynical, wrestling into submission–good citizens. Fine for them. But that’s not the American way and this is one of those times I’ll beat the drum of the American way. I don’t know yet what my daughter is good at or what her interests are but I’m not about to cut her off at the knees before she can find out. No state-based preschools for us, thanks, and if my child prefers to do her art project with finger paint and some dental floss instead of a neat-and-tidy glue stick and paint brush, so be it.

5. KEEP: Our marriage as our priority.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard about a couple having a kid and the mom turning into a she-beast to the point that her husband sleeps in another room because Junior is now her main, only, and all-consuming priority, I would have bought the domain for this blog by now. The husband and I made vows to one another, not to our children, and we have decided that our marriage comes first. When our marriage is the priority, everyone in the house benefits.

6. TOSS: Curtailed praise.
This is kind of a gray area for us. While I totally agree and practice the French bent toward not throwing a party when your kid uses a fork (for the fortieth time), I do find that cheering her on while she’s learning something new and while she’sĀ  getting used to using a new skill doesn’t cost me anything, helps her out, and no, I don’t think it will make her a “praise addict” in the future. Plus, if you’ve seen the length of my daughter’s legs, you’d know that stepping up stairs is no mean feat and worthy of some cheering.

7. KEEP: The cold shoulder.
Actually I don’t think this is what the French call it, but it’s the same principle. Now and then the little oyster will shriek obnoxiously about something for no good reason and I ignore her, especially if we’re at home. Why? Because she doesn’t need anything from me and learning early that attention can and should be gained in other ways is priceless.

Kids are kids and as such shouldn’t rule the world or our lives but as such, can’t be reasonably expected to act like grown ups with any amount of success. One job of a parent is to prepare another person for the adult world, and we are finding that the best way to do that is by helping her develop skills she’s ready for now and can use always.

And so we end our Red, white and nouveau parenting experiment. Like I said, this is pretty much how we’re doing it anyway, but calling it French parenting every now and then lets me recommend with gusto one of my favorite books, Bringing Up Bebe. Read it, enjoy it, and then raise your kids in a way that jives with your personalities and household. But seriously, try eschewing the kids’ menu next time you’re out, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

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Tiger mother

tiger mom

Typically I would read a book, have an opinion on it, and post it quickly in the Books are our friends section of this blog. And for the record, I don’t post every book I read because that would be tedious and a decent number of the books I read right now are chick lit which is generally good reading (I recommend anything by Hester Browne if one needs a solid beach read!) but not generally worth reviewing, even so briefly as I do.

Anyway. The other week I found a copy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua at a Goodwill. It was $1 and I remembered that the book had fueled great controversy when it was first released not long ago, so I brought it home. For some reason I thought it would be more research-heavy, all “studies show” and stuff. It wasn’t, it was entirely anecdotal and a very quick and engaging read.

Like I said, the book caused a major flap when it came out but I wasn’t really paying attention then. I do remember that Today had Chua on to talk about the book when it was published and that generally speaking, Americans were aghast at the book and its author. Chua stood her ground, and I, as someone who tends to be skeptical if I’m not flat out rejecting something, figured I would largely be on Chua’s side.

Holy tiger mother, Batman. I kid you not, this was my face more than once:

insane shocked

As we’ve established on this blog and in person, if we’re real-life friends, I don’t generally agree with and therefore don’t generally practice typical American battery-powered here’s-a-prize-for-participating-and-oh-didn’t-you-do-so-great-everyone-is-a-winner parenting. The husband and I, by dint of our personalities and conscious decisions, lean toward the lessĀ child-worship and more whole-family-focused French way of doing things. On paper side by side with sweeping generalizations about American parents, our Francophile methods can look inflexible or callous. (They’re not either one by any means. Look closer.) But compared to Chua’s tiger mother methodology, we’re on track to run a veritable Pleasure Island over here.

I could go on for days about this book and I highly recommend it to anyone who, well, anyone. It’s quick and it sheds interesting light on cultural differences that I bet most of us have encountered in some form. One thing Chua insists is that all parents want to do what’s best for their children, “the Chinese just have a completely different idea of how to do that” and that’s where I disagree with her the most. Obviously she’s right, Chinese and Western parents do have a different view of how to do what’s best for our children but I think a more serious difference can be found in what we think is best for our children. Without understanding first what we believe is best for our kids, how we accomplish it is a moot point.

And also:

whaaaat

And now we eat

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One of the most noticeable differences between American children and French is their attitude toward food. In France, food is social and that fact is non-negotiable. It is enjoyed with others, it is savored, and it is good, at any age. We can’t always say the same here (drive thru, anyone?) and food here doesn’t have the widespread respect and intimate relationship it has with the people of France.

My first order of culinary business is introducing the little oyster to a wide variety of food. I talk to her about it while she eats it and make sure eating is a pleasant experience, not just a way to fill her belly. Since I don’t want her to think fruits and veggies come from clear tubs, I have been putting her food into ramekins each day so we both feel like classy ladies while she eats. Later, we’ll pick produce together and she can help in the kitchen, so she knows what things look like in their natural state.

Putting food into bowls just makes extra work, you might say. Not so, I reply. Since I’m not spending time scrubbing crusty spinach off the floor, rinsing her bowls and tucking them into the dishwasher is no trouble. Plus, she’ll eat off of dishes when she’s bigger and she won’t play with her food when she’s bigger, so I feel like time spent on one is a worthwhile investment while the other is just a mess.

Plus, look how pretty!

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I’m also committed to feeding her four scheduled meals a day, like they do in France. That takes the guesswork out of a day (for me) and gives her a routine. Kids thrive on routines. One mindset in France that Americans usually disagree with is that it’s ok to feel hungry between meals. Not go hungry, of course. France isn’t starving her children and neither am I. The oyster eats at 7 am, 11 am, 4 pm, 7 pm and not in between. I try hard not feed her early and I try hard not to make her wait. It’s only fair.

The pictures at the top and bottom of this post are where we are with tidy eating. I used to give her a spoon to hold while she was eating, to introduce her to the feel of the utensil like so many people (here) say to do. The only thing the spoon introduced was green beans to her hair, so I nixed that. I don’t get her out of her seat until she and her tray are both wiped. No leaving the table to make mom clean up after you!

But back to the actual food. I don’t want a picky eater. I want to be less of one myself. Going French with our food choices means trying a variety of food, taking time to prepare and enjoy food, eating mostly real food, and not obsessing about it.

A lot of American pediatricians and parents recommend starting a baby on rice cereal as his or her first “food.” Gross, I said to myself. I wouldn’t eat that, why should my daughter? It’s 21st century gruel. We decided to forgo the rice cereal. The little oyster’s first food was a traditional Dutch baby’s food–a mashed up banana with orange juice poured over it. We aren’t Dutch but we were at a Dutch friend’s house and she offered it. Why not? The little oyster (6 mos. old at the time) was a fan and that experience sealed my conviction–not only is rice cereal unnecessary as a first food for my baby, but what we think of as “adult food” will, prepared correctly, suit her just fine.

Since we started solids regularly last month, the oyster has tasted 23 different foods. I always have a little sample of what she’s eating so we can talk about it. We were both surprised at how tart a banana-and-plum mixture was. Having tried it, I understood her face when she had a bite. We were also surprised at the earthy taste of mashed peas, but not unpleasantly so. Wanting to teach the oyster to eat well and enjoy food is helpful in training myself not to say “eww” when a taste or texture is unexpected. I’m getting as much out of this as she is.

I think we’re off to a good start. Habits form early and I’d rather get her used to good ones like trying and enjoying new things, sticking around for clean up after a meal, requiring very little clean up after a meal, finding ways beyond “good” or “bad” to describe what we’re eating. To my delight, taking away her spoon and discouraging food play hasn’t crushed her spirit or stunted her creativity as so many American parents are afraid will happen. If she doesn’t get into college because I didn’t let her paint with squash puree, we’ll talk then.

We’re not after perfection here. We’re practicing good habits and building good practices. We’re training.Ā  Most meals are great and some are work. The other day I thought we were cruising right along when the husband asked, right before the oyster’s bedtime, what was up her nose. Carrot was up her nose, that’s what. Ooops. So yes, some days are cleaner than others but isn’t that life?

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Red, white and nouveau: Our next adventure

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She’s ready to jump in. Just look at her, ready to go.

 

I haven’t posted reviews of the other ones I’ve read, but I am a big fan of the recent wave of books on French parenting. Fun fact: The French don’t have a word for parenting the way we Americans do. It’s just life but now you have kids, from what I gather. It’s definitely not an industry (you know how I feel about the baby industry) and it’s hardly the obsession it is here.

I like that. No, I love it. Je l’adore, one might say.

And so while we start to wrap up the Frugal Oyster Budget, I’ve decided on a new mission. All of these books (Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bebe; Catherine Crawford’s French Twist; and Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything, to name a few) are written firsthand. All of the authors have some French connection. Druckerman lives in France and has for some years. Crawford is surrounded by French ex-pats in her trendy New York neighborhood. Le Billon is married to a Frenchman and spent a year there on an oft-questioned whim.

I have none of those things. That’s why this will be fun.

The Frugal Oyster undertaking was/is designed to keep costs down, keep sanity intact, keep piles of unnecessary crap out of our house, and keep our focus on the big picture in our family life. Surprise surprise, those goals line up nicely with the French approach to raising kids. So why end things after 21 months of budget-focused bliss?

This week I’m reading Le Billon’s book, the one about French eating. The subtitle is “How our family moved to France, cured picky eating, banned snacking, and discovered 10 simple rules for raising happy, healthy eaters.” Happy, healthy eaters? I’ll take those, thanks. In fact, I could stand to be a happier, healthier eater myself, so why not jump in and bring the whole family along?

And so, with Le Billon, Druckerman, and Crawford paving the way with firsthand experience, I’ll find out if their examples, experiences, and their books are sufficient to make an acolyte. A second generation French-inspired parent, if you will.

The little oyster is eating solid (that’s a loose term) food now and I don’t want her to grow up only tasting bananas and pears. I don’t want to raise a kid who thinks French fries are a vegetable. I want my family not to revolve around the kids. I want my family to enjoy food, together. I want to be a woman who is a wife and a mom and a writer, not a mom who happens to write during naps, if she’s not scraping food off the walls. None of that, thank you. Non, merci.

I think this will be fun. I also think it will be hard, since nearly everything about parenting is culturally influenced and this is the United States, not France. But I’m not particularly impressed with what my generation is doing with kids and I know mostly Americans, so I’m painting with very broad brushstrokes here when I say I don’t really like the way Americans are raising kids lately. I know perfectly well that French children and French parents aren’t perfect and Americans don’t get everything wrong, so please keep the righteous indignation in check.

Still, there is a distinct divide between the two parenting cultures and I think the other guys get it right more often; and I think they get it right more often because the French tend to think holistically (has my child been introduced to a variety of healthy foods?) while Americans address child rearing on a micro level (did my child eat enough omega-3s tonight at dinner?) Writ large, I think the difference is that the French see parenting as an art while Americans see parenting as a science. In science you have only right and wrong answers and getting the wrong ones can stress you out and make you feel like a failure, stupid and lame. In art you have basic guiding principles and interpretation, the combination of which makes the artist and the art.

So let’s try it. Going French in America’s Capital City. Rockin’ le free world. First order of business is training the oyster from the start to be a willing and tidy eater of all foods because that’s what the French expect of their kids and that scraping things off the walls? Yeah, I’m not doing that. Non, merci.