Parenting's no longer fun: bringing up bébé to be picky AND tiresome

Mar 11, 2012 by

LEARNING TO WAIT patiently until meal time and getting good and hungry, as French children learn to do makes everything taste good. - photo of a French potluck by Anna Migeon

American moms find being around their own children twice as disagreeable as French mothers do, research shows.

We Americans would rather do housework than tend our own little darlings, according to Pamela Druckerman, in her recent Wall Street Journal article “Why French Parents are Superior.”  Druckerman is also the author of the just-out Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.

To rub more salt in our American parenting misery, I will add that just because we are self-sacrificially wretched for the sake of our children is no guarantee we’re doing a good job as parents. It may mean just the opposite.

We American parents would do well to remember that how we feel dealing with our kids is probably about how other people will feel dealing with them, now and later, just without the parental affection.

There’s a cycle I observe of American kids who are both picky eaters and badly behaved at the table; it seems to come as a package deal. It’s the opposite of the cycle we can see with French kids. As Druckerman describes, they eat and they behave. The American cycle is bad for kids and bad for anybody around them. How can we break the cycle?

Out of control while over-controlled

Marlena’s kids screamed like banshees, unchallenged, for what they wanted. They also snacked, unrestricted, on junk food all day long. But when it came time for dinner, Mom hovered, micro managed and pressured them over every bite, while they resisted.

“Two bites of fish before you can have another tomato,” she’d say, or “Three bites of meat before you can have your dessert,” or “You have to clean your plate before you can leave the table.”  The parents managed to ride the pendulum from over-parenting to under-parenting and back, all in the course of a meal. No one was enjoying themselves much.

The kids were resistant to good food because of the parents’ relentless urging to eat it, not to mention they weren’t hungry, due to snacking on bad food all day.  They were generally eating and doing whatever they felt like doing, or n’importe quoi, just as the French so often accuse American kids of doing, according to Druckerman.

Two Sides to the Same Dysfunctional Coin

This nonchalance where we should be strict, and arm-twisting where we should give children freedom, seem to come in one package like two sides of the same coin or the poles on a magnet. It’s a chain reaction. One part unravels and the rest tends to follow.  Parenting isn’t much fun for these parents, I notice.

Children who become used to getting whatever they want and accustomed to having those around them drop everything to serve them tend to become nobody’s favorite classmate, co-worker or family member. Children who get to eat junk food while being pushed to eat what their parents want them to eat generally eat pretty poorly. Two sides of the same coin again. More general lack of joy.

Yet, if we reverse the negative and positive charges, it can all work beautifully. The pattern of bad eating and bad behavior can be overturned by insisting on agreeable behavior at the table, which is enforced by restricting access to food if they misbehave, which is in turn reinforced by hunger that is caused by lack of random snacking.  The appetite, like a mighty river, is going to flow, but it doesn’t have to be the master. It can be directed to be your servant, and your children’s servant, by giving freedom within bounds, and no freedom outside of bounds.

I know how brutal it sounds, but it can and should all be done sweetly and gently, yet firmly: for the children’s sakes and for the sake of all those who must be around those children, including those children’s parents. What’s good for them is good for us.


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