What Are We Afraid Of?

There’s been a lot of chatter these past few days about France and French parenting.  If we are to believe the hype of the day, the French do EVERYTHING better than we do — they’re thinner, more stylish, more cultured, they feed their children better, and they apparently RAISE their children better.  It’s hard to feel adequate as a schlumpy, tired, working parent in middle-class America, when you’ve got this kind of cultural warfare yapping at you from the airwaves…especially when it comes down to a night where one child is streaking naked around the house to avoid his pajamas, the other is so busy telling you for the hundredth time about something or other that happened at school that he can’t manage to get a leg into his pants without falling over, and in the midst of the chaos, the phone is ringing and you’re trying to make sure the kitchen is clean and the toys are picked up and put away.  (At least, sort of away.)

Ahem.  Not that I speak from experience or anything.

It’s not that I think we have nothing to learn from the French, or from most other cultures, to be certain.  I’m constantly impressed by the viewpoints and school lunch menus on Karen le Billon’s blog, which seems to be one of the clearest examples of how a French mindset can positively impact the care and feeding of an American family.  As with anything in life, I’m sure that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and it’s not so much that the French are better than us at EVERYTHING as it is that their ways of parenting and feeding are so much in contrast to ours that it’s hard for us to distinguish what our own strengths are.  If French children all seemed to be growing up into unproductive, disaffected adults, we might not be concerned one way or the other; but in fact, since we seem to have no substantive proof that the French are turning out a nation of deadbeat ingrates, we’re rushing to dissect just HOW it is that their parents are so apparently successful with them.  Of course, in the process, we may be missing the fact that many American children are ALSO not turning out to be deadbeat ingrates…but one thing America is NOT good at, I’m afraid, is introspection.  We’re more into competition than that.

At any rate, I got to thinking about this whole French parenting thing, and what it seems to come down to — as many bloggers have reasonably pointed out — is that the thing that works well in raising children, whether they are French, American, Bulgarian, or otherwise, is consistency of expectations and boundaries.  As my 8-year-old self might have said…Duh.  But there you have it, and if I further distill the issue to its bare bones, I guess a good summation of all the jargon seems to be that French Parents Don’t Take Crap From Kids.

That’s no surprise, and it’s not exclusive to the French — there are lots of parents the world over who manage not to put up with an excessive amount of nonsense from their offspring.  I’d like to think that J. and I are among them (though sometimes, I question myself, particularly when P. is finger-painting with peanut butter on the television).  But one place where I DO see a major difference between us and the French, if all the reports are to be believed, is in how they handle feeding and mealtimes.  And it’s not just that they’re often feeding their kids higher-quality food, or that they’re eating smaller portions, or eating more routinely as families and spending longer at the table.  It’s that the table is no exception to the French commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Pull Merde on Thy Parents.”

As I look around me, I see a nation of people who are woefully, painfully concerned about how they ought to approach feeding their children — not just what to feed them and when, but how to deal with the mealtime behaviors that inevitably come up when you’re raising children.  Small people are not born with developed palates, and they’re not born knowing how to approach the task of eating, especially in the context of an actual socialized meal.  There are books, blogs, webinars, social media channels, and parenting courses devoted to how we should approach our little non-eaters.  And so much of the wisdom here in America isn’t centered around the one goal we’d all like our kids to attain — the joy of eating.  No, we don’t teach to the test on this one.  Instead, we tend to talk about kids and eating in terms of the things we DON’T want to have happening.  We focus on the FEARS.

Here’s just a short list of the things we appear to be mortally afraid of:
Food allergies
Extreme pickiness
Unacceptable public eating behavior
Eating disorders
A lifelong negative relationship with some/most/all foods

I could continue, but you see my point.  Instead of thinking about what we DO want to achieve at the table with our kids, we’re thinking about all the things we DON’T want.  I think most of us have realized, as we’ve raised our children, that parenting by simply trying to prevent undesirable outcomes only gets you so far.  At some point, you’ve got to figure out how to get the POSITIVE outcome — not just how to keep Little Billy from running out in the street, but how to help Little Billy achieve the self-control, reasoning skills, and respect for safety to make good decisions for himself even when you’re not around to drag him back from the brink of death by the cross straps on his Osh Kosh B’Goshes.

What ends up happening — in some cases, not all — is that we’re so concerned about the possible negative consequences of screwing up our feeding strategies with our kids that we take a lot of unnecessary merde from them.  I know this isn’t likely to be a popular position; I realize that there are hundreds, nay, thousands of extremely well-educated experts in the field of childhood nutrition and feeding whose advice you’re more likely to take than mine.  But let me offer just a small, cautionary tale.

P., like most young children, has been a lukewarm and sometimes downright resistant eater for much of his life.  He was never a kid with much of an appetite; he’s more of an “eat to live” child, while L. the gourmand probably falls closer to the “live to eat” line.  And for the first two and a half years of his life, J. and I tried everything we thought we ought to do to help P. become a more confident and consistent eater.  With proper timidity, concerned about screwing up his lifelong relationship to food and/or gaining a good short-term result that would backfire in the long term, we tried everything from being creative, to making mealtimes extra-fun, to letting him help us shop and cook, to offering options, to pretending we didn’t much care what (or if) he ate.  The only thing we didn’t try — because it goes against all of our beliefs about family mealtimes — was letting him have something other than what the family was eating.  No short order cooks in our house.

But still P.’s eating didn’t improve much, and it got to the point where he was not only not making mealtimes pleasant for anyone, but he was also waking up in the middle of the night hungry and cranky.  By the next morning, he’d still be cranky, plus tired, plus ravenous, and he’d go off to school a little more tired and hungry and cranky than he needed to be, and…it never ended.  I was starting to feel my patience shredding, and J. was about as moody at dinnertime as I think I’ve ever seen him, simply because he wanted his God-given right to a warm meal without constant lollygagging, forkplay, and general shenanigans from P.  Something had to give.

Enter my mother, who, at her home one night, leveled my unwilling dinner-eater with THE LOOK and said, “P., in this house, you are expected to eat.  You will sit there, and you will eat, and I will tell you when you may get down.”

Now, “sit there,” we’d tried.  “We’ll tell you when to get down” had also been tried.  But ordering him to EAT?  It…it goes against everything the experts tell you to do.  Wouldn’t it damage his relationship to food?  Make him more defiant?  Exacerbate his pickiness?

A French parent would, by now, have dumped a vat of bechamel over my dithering American head and gotten the child eating frogs’ legs or something, I’m sure.  A French parent probably would have known that P. would respond just as he did — by eating.  And with some ups and downs, but basically consistent improvement, he has continued to do just that for over a month now.  Eat.

It wasn’t that he had some major food aversion or selectivity — I knew that, anyway.  We’d been that road with L. and his sensory stuff, and P. showed none of that; he didn’t even ever show a strong dislike for many things, as I reflect on it.  He has always been a child who would eat most things if he was in the mood to oblige you, and eat nothing, no matter what it was, if he didn’t feel like being accommodating.  It wasn’t that he was struggling to eat or needed hand-holding or encouragement to try new things or anything of the sort.  In short, it wasn’t a FOOD issue at all.

It was a behavior issue.  And by allowing fear to rule us, by being so concerned that we’d get the FEEDING thing wrong, we unwittingly became P.’s pawns in a controlling little toddler scheme, and unconsciously reinforced some very undesirable behavior that we are now having to devote ourselves fully to undoing.

We didn’t have to worry that by laying down the law and expecting him to just EAT already, we’d mess up his relationship to food; far more damaging, at least in my eyes, was the mess we’d allowed to occur in our family relationship.  Once P. realized that there would be a consequence — a behavioral consequence — for not at least attempting a few bites of his food each evening, he became a totally changed eater.  Enthusiastic?  Not yet.  But happy enough, and engaged enough, and well-nourished?  Yes.  It’s amazing what just a few little tablespoons of food at dinnertime can do.

His sleep has improved.  His attitude has improved.  Everything’s just a little better since we took a stand and went old-school on our little maniac.  And I have to look back and ask myself, and all of us…What were we afraid of?

No, every child isn’t like P., and I’m not suggesting we throw anything out with any bathwater.  If you’ve got a feeding strategy that works for your kids and your family, then you should absolutely stick with it.  If you’ve got a kid who clearly has a larger problem — a sensory aversion, a physical difficulty with eating, something of that nature — then obviously, just laying down the law isn’t going to help and may, in fact, hurt.  But I can’t help but think we’re maybe not the ONLY people in the world who are raising an eater like P.; and I can’t help but wonder how many eaters like P. there are in France — my guess would be not many.  So unless we want to believe that a) the French are raising a bunch of disordered/dysfunctional eaters (not likely); or b) the French are allowing children to decide that they’re not going to eat what they’re served (we’ve got evidence to the contrary on that, haven’t we?); then we have to make room for the third possibility, which is that simply refusing to tolerate any purely BEHAVIORAL eating issue, coupled with providing consistently good and healthy food and a pleasant family mealtime routine, can turn out just as competent an eater in the long run as treating the issue with kid gloves.

Maybe it’s just me.  And maybe I’m going to get a lot of hate mail now.  But it seems to me that, at least in my house, we were ruled by our fear of getting it wrong for so long that we forgot all the ways in which setting expectations can be good and right.  We were being different parents at the table than we were away from the table, and that kind of inconsistency didn’t do much to yield results for us.  So tell me.  What, really, are we so afraid of?

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14 Responses to What Are We Afraid Of?

  1. mtjacobsen says:

    Great post and food for thought. But from what I’ve read in the research most parents pressure their kids to eat than not. According to a 2007 study published in Appetite, 85% of 142 families interviewed said they try to get their child to eat more at mealtime with bribing, reasoning etc. So while parents like you are afraid to pressure, many are using tactics that really don’t work. But parents should never feel scared to try different things and it’s always good to set the expectation for eating. Also, considering a child’s food preferences and providing food they like without catering is important. I think once you understand WHY kids eat the way they do along with their nutritional needs, it’s easier to decide the best way to feed them. I TOTALLY agree that fear does not belong at the kitchen table! We discuss all of these feeding topics at the Facebook Fearless Feeding Community http://www.facebook.com/fearlessfeeding Join us!

  2. Fleur says:

    I think it is also good to have some degree of skepticism when we are comparing what we might do as Americans to what persons in other cultures might do. I think it is also important not to jump on a bandwagon, but to try to investigate beyond what someone selling a book might want to tell us.

    Here is a story about school cafeterias in France where in some cities the children of the unemployed are denied access. If one is going to talk about the French system, talk about the whole system, just not the parts you like.


    • Agreed. And I think I should clarify: I wasn’t trying to glorify the book, which I haven’t read, nor say that this is the be-all and end-all of parenting or anything of the sort. I was only trying to point out, using the recent discourse about French vs. American parenting that the release of this particular book seems to have inspired, that sometimes taking a cue from another way of approaching a problem can help illuminate something that is of use. Thanks for sharing that link.

      • Fleur says:

        I didn’t word my previous comment exactly as I had intended. I meant to say that for those who are writing books(and hope to profit) about the culture of France, I’d like to see them explore the good and the bad. I’ll have to wait and see, but I’m not so sure I’ll see that.

        My other misgiving would be(and i hope I am wrong) is that I’m not so sure that American parents fall into one neat category, and I dislike broad stereotypes.

  3. Karen Frenchy says:

    As a French woman, living in the USA (TX), married to an American man (he would prefer me saying “Texan”) and mother of a 5 YO daughter (and another one on the way), I have to admit I am quite curious about Pamela Druckerman’s book: not because she might “praise” the French parenting (okay, I singing “Cocorico !” inside of me a little bit ^_^) but I like to know the view of a foreigner (here American) on French society, to “check” if it traditional stereotypes are still alive (smoking and skinny mothers more preoccupied about their designer outfits than kids, unfaithful fathers etc… -_-) or if there’s really something different.

    I might be biased, being French for sure, but I didn’t raise my kid in France = only in Texas… oh wait, my daughter goes to 100% French speaking preschool but her school mates are French, Americans, Colombians, Egyptians, Vietnamese so a lot of different cultures and approaches regarding parenting.

    From what I have seen, there are big cultural differences between the US and France = way of life, view on government involvement, economy and education. I am not saying this system is better than another but articles and reviewers keep saying how French people have the easy way with government helping and free education. Well, people tend to forget that French baby daycares (creches) and preschool (ecoles maternelles) are not magically free. French people pay A LOT of taxes (21.2% VAT on almost everything including food, almost $2.6 a liter of gas which is about $9.62/gallon and salaries after monthly taxes are low) so the government can provide for French families and its citizen. This is the main debate at home with my husband complaining about the cost of child care, healthcare and more… Well, if we paid more taxes, we might get cheaper childcare… We cannot have it both, it is impossible.

    Okay, I stop venting ^_^

    Now, regarding your great post, I just love your French commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Pull Merde on Thy Parents.” I should print it and frame it because this is the rule at home (same when we were growing up ;))

    And I think that’s the key ! As you said, “But it seems to me that, at least in my house, we were ruled by our fear of getting it wrong for so long that we forgot all the ways in which setting expectations can be good and right. We were being different parents at the table than we were away from the table, and that kind of inconsistency didn’t do much to yield results for us.”

    In America (it’s coming to France also), there’s this unhealthy competition between parents, especially mothers: who’s the best mother ever? And I find myself caught in this nonsense (birthday parties ?) … there’s no best mothers, no best way. There are only mothers and fathers who try to raise their kids, the best they can with what they have (time, money etc…). I don’t want to compare too much between American and French families but for the American families I know, the parents tend to be more friends (behaviour, food, activities) with their kids than parents/guide… I know, it’s not conclusive and I’m not claiming it is, it’s just what I’ve noticed among my daughter’s friends. I really think people are afraid of saying NO and being firm (doesn’t mean being a tyrant)

    I won’t say the way of raising my daughter is better that my neighbour’s but it worked and is still working for us (hoping our 2nd child will be as easy going as our oldest) and that’s what matters, using my French experience as a child and what the American culture offered me = taking best of both worlds (which I call common sense ^_^)

    Sorry for the loooooong post which may be a bit off topic

    • Thanks for chiming in! It’s good, I think, to hear from people who have both sides of the cultural perspective. And you’re absolutely correct that it’s a big “grass is greener” thing, and a big competition thing, for American parents. It’s very hard for us to give ourselves credit for all the things we do well, and it’s very hard for us to believe in ourselves as parents — that’s of course a generalization, but I think it’s more prevalent in our particular society than not.
      For me, remembering that the parenting style that works for us away from the table might also be useful to us during mealtimes was helpful. That’s really all I meant to say with this post, though I couldn’t resist drawing the parallel to the cultural debate.

  4. Rachael Warrington says:

    A voice of sanity. Thank you. I also have two picky eaters. And I was so afraid of doing it wrong and damaging their “relationship” with food, that I did it wrong and damaged their relationship with food. So now 20 years later I have three teenagers and only one eats healthy and comfortable. My oldest is overweight and I worry about it all the time. He eats fast food, he is 20 and he uses his own money. My middle child is 18 and a very picky eater. She does have sensory aversions. She can taste tiny changes in food, pick out a cooked sliver of onion with hawk eyes. She eats no veggies, non! and very little fruit. The taste of the texture become huge issues. But with that said she has lost 40 lbs and looks amazing.
    So in our communal fear we have failed. Lets remember we are the parents and we can only do the best we can, but letting fear rule our parenting is a sure way to mess it up.
    Great Post!

    • Thanks, Rachael! It sounds like your middle child is doing her best, given her sensory aversions (that is SO tough. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone!). She, and you, have a lot to be proud of if she’s managed to get to a healthier weight and take good care of herself despite her dietary limitations.
      And you’re absolutely correct that fearing the outcome is a terrible way to raise kids. We’re all doing the best we can to achieve good outcomes; we need to focus on those positives and keep our eyes on the goals we have, not the worries we’re hiding from our kids.

  5. It’s so interesting that this book is making the rounds, and the article I’m about to post is not. I think what’s truly American about our response is the tendency to see the grass as greener on the other side, to see a system only when it’s successful.

    “Laying down the law” has truly dangerous implications. This article is making the rounds simultaneously, but because it’s not as palatable, it hasn’t gone very public: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-autism-advocate/201112/judge-hear-request-ban-film-about-autism If the French are such good, kind, firm caregivers – why do they allow disabled people to be treated this way?

    • Fleur says:

      I’ve seen this film mentioned elsewhere. I’d agree with you about the “grass being greener.”

    • Hi Michele,
      I’ve seen things about that film before, actually, and thanks for sharing the link. However, I would like to say that the reason I did NOT include this, or any one of a number of other potentially negative pieces about French culture, in this post, is that I wasn’t trying to do an in-depth study of France or the entirety of the family culture in France. My only intention was to use the current discussion about particular aspects of parenting in both societies as a way to talk about something that’s been going on in my own home.
      As the mother of a child with special needs, I hope you realize that I don’t take the idea of mistreating children and families dealing with autism lightly; nor do I think perpetuating outdated stereotypes about the causes and appropriate treatments for any disability is a good and healthy way of moving forward. But that’s an entirely different post. I don’t think the misguided and certainly heartbreaking approach to autism that is described in this article falls under the category of “laying down the law” in terms of setting firm and consistent boundaries for our typically developing children — I see them as two very separate issues. Also, you ask why, if the French are such good caregivers, do they allow disabled people to be treated this way? My answer: I can’t speak for an entire culture’s take on autism, but I can say that it is possible for people to overall have some distinct successes as parents, or in any area of life, while being quite mistaken and dangerously inept in others. I don’t think I would want to make the mistake of holding the average French parent responsible for an entire medical and educational system in France that may be supporting this outmoded and ineffective means of “treating” autism, any more than I would want someone else in the world to hold the average American parent responsible for the entire social system here that supports some of the atrocities our own country harbors.

  6. Jamie says:

    Here’s what I’ve noticed in working with thousands of parents. We’re afraid of doing it wrong. All of it. Modern parents have a notion that there is a right formula for raising kids and somehow none of us got the memo. So parents try this and that and this and that and actually end up being fairly frantic overall, emotionally speaking. Which of course, leads children to go a little bonkers.

    I was actually going to write to TLT about this. I’ve been thinking a lot about this picky eater thing. We love our children’s individuality and yet we don’t allow for their own genetic makeup. Or that fact that WE ACTUALLY HAVE VERY LITTLE CONTROL. The best you can do is consistently lay out your values (and vegetables). But guess what? Kids from wonderful homes end up on drugs. Kids with great parents ending up being murderers. And kids who have veggie loving parents may reject vegetables. I think we are all afraid that we don’t have as much control as we’d like to think. Which is true and terrifying.

    Another thing I think contributes to the fear is that we’ve become a generation of blaming each other as parents. If your kid is a picky eater, clearly you messed it up along the way. In my mom’s generation if you had “special” kid, oh well. That was that. Nowadays you’d actually be asked by your peers: Oh, did you vaccinate? Mm. Oh. You didn’t exclusively breastfeed? Hm. Oh. We attack each other and pounce on what’s wrong or how the parents effed it up and made it so.

    But sometimes s**t happens. And you don’t get to control your kid…well at least not his inner workings. Yes, I think American parents need to be setting MUCH stronger boundaries and taking way less merde from their kids. But I also think we need to remember there is no magic formula.

    • Jennifer says:

      I agree with you, Jamie. I keep trying to write all of the things I want to say about this and not being able to contain it to a reply of a reasonable length (and focus.) I’m so glad that you said it all.

    • All true, Jamie. You’re especially right about the continual drama of competitive parenting. And of course s**t happens, and you can’t have control over your kid’s eventual palate and inner workings. Spot-on.
      There IS no magic formula. But I think my point was maybe that we need to start looking more closely at the places where we COULD take a bit less merde from our kids, and where we MIGHT be able to regain some sort of authority over their actions (without crushing their spirits) — letting the chips fall where they may. P. may never like sweet potatoes and may grow up hating fish, but in the interim, I can actually set aside a lot of the baggage I let myself develop about feeding him and take a good deal less of his shenanigans in the interest of getting him to actually EAT.

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