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:
Unacceptable public eating behavior
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?