Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


A Book Recommendation for Parents

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
By Pamela Druckerman

Ah, if only I'd read this last summer or fall, sometime before my five-month-old was born, because I'm quite drawn to many of the ideas.  Some I'd already claimed as my own* before encountering the book, some were vague notions that have now been articulated and solidified for me, and some still feel rather surprising and foreign.  I'm not one to unquestioningly adopt any model--parenting, leadership, eating, or what you will--without tweaking it and making it my own, but I believe considering and practicing these ideas will make me a more effective parent.

"Model" seems the best word I can think of to describe what Druckerman is presenting; it's an examination of parenting, but not presented as a formula or handbook as many others are--part memoir, part sociological comparison, part research, it's her investigation into the cultural framework from which French parents operate, as understood through her American lens.  Druckerman found herself an accidental, reluctant expatriate by way of marriage (to an Englishman) in Paris in her mid-thirties, feeling like her three young children were wildly out of control, loud, and difficult compared to their peers.  Her experience as a parent seemed drastically different--and much less successful--than the French parents she saw all around her.  So she decided to make a study of them to see what practices she could imitate, and in doing so she learned she first had to come to understand an entirely different mindset for thinking about parents and children.

At the heart of that framework is the idea that children are fully aware, rational, capable humans from birth as deserving of respect and equal treatment as any adult, and that the role of parents is to help them grow into their autonomy through polite teaching within a frame of firm limits.  Children are taught to manage themselves, respect the needs of parents, and integrate into adult society as quickly and seamlessly as possible.  That sounds simple enough when summarized, but of course there is much more to it--and its differences from the predominant American approaches--than might be expected.  Druckerman's explorations are revelatory, and her writing is engaging and entertaining.  I expect anyone who works with or spends time around children--parent or not--would enjoy reading this simply for its insights, and many would find it more than a little helpful.

For those interested in a deeper introduction to the book, I've captured images of two short bits to peruse.  The first is Druckerman's "glossary of French parenting terms" at the front of the book.  Concepts that are particularly core and show up throughout are cadre, creche, equilibre, and sage, though all are important for understanding the mindset (click to enlarge):
To see how these ideas play out, consider the French approach to food as illustrated by the scene that follows.  Most parents, as part of maintaining their equilibre, start their children at creche before their first birthdays.  There they are given meals no different than the ones adults consume  (multiple courses and all) and are expected to eat together, sitting at tables, with polite behavior and good manners (sage).  Here is how those meals are planned:
Earlier in the book, in the chapter on creches, Druckerman writes: 
I have trouble imagining two-year-olds sitting through a meal like this, so the creche lets me sit in on lunch one Wednesday, when Bean is home with a babysitter.  I'm stunned when I realize how my daughter eats lunch most days.  I sit quietly with my reporter's notebook while her classmates assemble in groups of four at square toddler-sized tables.  One of her teachers wheels up a cart filled with covered serving plates and bread wrapped in plastic to keep it fresh.  There's a teacher at each table.

First, the teacher uncovers and displays each dish.  The starter is a bright-red tomato salad in vinaigrette.  "This is followed by le poisson," she says, to approving glances, as she displays a flaky white fish in a light butter sauce and a side dish of peas, carrots, and onions.  Next she previews the cheese course: "Today it's le bleu," she says, showing the kids a crumbly blue cheese.  Then she shows them dessert: whole apples, which she'll slice at the table.

The food looks simple, fresh, and appetizing.  Except for the melamine plates, the bite-sized pieces, and the fact that some of the diners have to be prodded to say "merci," I might be in a high-end restaurant.
The scene seems impossible from an American perspective, but it's the everyday experience in France.  Druckerman's book explains how they make it happen.


*For example, compare the definition of the foundational, ubiquitous concept of the cadre--frame, or framework.  A visual image that describes the French parenting ideal: setting firm limits for children, but giving them tremendous freedom within those limits--to something I've previously written on this blog (and have believed since at least my undergrad years as an education major):
In some ways I liken it to another metaphor I've heard and find helpful, one for discipline when working with children and students.  The young will always test authority figures for boundaries.  Most obviously, they push back and rebel when the boundaries are too tight and severe.  But they also--though they'd never admit it--are testing to make sure there actually are boundaries because total freedom feels too much like lack of security or concern.  So it's important to find the right place for the boundaries that is not too close and not too far.  For the metaphor, think of the boundaries as a circular fence.  If they cross the fence, they need consequences so they know the fence is actually there and it will stop them from wandering afar and getting lost.  The fence needs to be a firm barrier.  But, as long as they stay within the boundaries, then they are free to wander and play without constraints.  Too often, what kids experience is not a clearly defined fence but random posts here and there, some too close and some too far, and they don't know how to negotiate the terrain.  Instead, they need to know where totally unacceptable is and as long as they don't cross that point they have nothing to worry about and can do as they please.


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