Saturday, January 16, 2010

Parenting from the other side of the planet

I thought about saying “from another planet altogether”. There are just moments when I wonder why the French seem so very different in terms of basic parenting guidelines. From the very beginning of my pregnancy it seemed the rules were different here. There were special things to watch out for that one wouldn’t even need to be careful about in the US (e.g. eating unpasteurized cheese). And even the list of things to bring to the hospital had terms that seemed more foreign than they should have been, like the famous gigoteuse, or sleeping sack. Apparently these little baby sleeping bags that strap around their shoulders are also becoming popular in the US, but they’re still very much a European custom at the moment.

When comparing the eating recommendations here with what US moms are doing, I saw yet more differences. Here once babies who are eating solids they often get yogurts after meals, whereas in the US it might be more a bottle of milk. It’s not really surprising considering how much the French love their dairy products. The yogurt aisle is huge here. And whereas my mom sends me all these fun finger foods for toddlers, I can’t find any ready-made stuff like that in my French supermarché. A look at the flavors of prepared baby food jars one can get here reveals some very French-style eating: leek and potato soup for babies, veal/rice/zucchini mix, ratatouille, vegetables and gruyere cheese soup, milk with pain au chocolat flavor. Yes, all that for babies! Back in the US I was tickled to see flavors like sweet potatoes, yellow squash, and pumpkin and banana mixed together.

But it seems that discipline may be the area where the Yanks and the Frenchies differ the most. At least depending on whom you ask. We are entering the dangerous time of tantrums and testing the parents at every opportunity with our little Juliette. She seems to be quite precocious for things like saying “no” and pouting when she doesn’t get her way. I’m a little reassured to know it’s this way with most babies her age. What’s harder is how to deal with it. As a first-time mom, of course, I seek advice. Folks from my mother-in-law’s generation say things like, ”Yell louder than her.” But after a bit of thought this seemed to be counterproductive. Wouldn’t she just yell again? Would she think the one who had the loudest voice could always win in life? I agree that babies pick up on tone of voice, but I don’t want to go hoarse after two hours of telling her “no”. And I don’t think that constant hand-slapping or spankings are the way either. I’d rather reserve this for a big no-no like running too close to the street. Too much physical discipline just conditions the child to this type of punishment and isn’t effective in the long run.

So I was relieved to hear my pediatrician say some similar things when I finally asked him how to deal with Tantrum Girl. Granted, he’s sort of a hippie doctor, but his advice was to ignore those tantrums and not “play” on her territory. Babies are trying to communicate with their parents but we must show them we don’t use this type of “talk”. Time-outs are good, too, he said. So now her playpen has become part time-out place, part toy chest for the mountain of stuff she’s accumulating. And as for the refusal to eat some things, he agreed that forcing was no good. The child’s becoming independent and the moment we try to force again, things can go sour. Of course, I’m sure all this advice comes with an unspoken “go with the flow and find a balance” clause.

The tough part is knowing what that balance is. Dr. Spock still hasn’t written the chapter telling parents “how to chill out”. I think I’ll suggest that for the next edition. Along with one on parenting in exotic places like France.


Chad said...

As an about to be parent, I can tell you this isn't just another country thing. People back here in the states are all over the map when it comes to discipline. I've been reading up as best I can, but I'm dreading having to do that in a year or so.

Crystal said...

if I ever decide to have a baby here in France, you will be my go-to girl! For the moment, all of it seems too terrifying, but I think you are doing an awesome job :)

Lindle said...

Someone once told me that--for a first-time parent--it's all hit and miss. Sometimes you do the right thing, and it just clicks. Then you try another strategy, and it flops big time. You have to have rules, consequences, and you have to be consistent. And the child will grow up knowing they can turn to you for comfort and guidance. They learn where you stand, so stand for something, and stand firm, and love generously.
I think you are giving Juliette the sweetest, kindest mommy, but one cannot be afraid to parent. They need you for protection, sometimes from themselves.
Buy earplugs. Crank up the music. Put her in the playpen, and walk away from the tantrum.

Jenenz said...

Be consistant with your message. Be firm when you say "yes" or "no" and stick with it. At this age, they are testing the waters of life and seeing what your reaction is, figuring out what behavior will work with mom and dad. Babies are smart! Their brains have the capacity to fill up with so many new things. We used time out with Elizabeth and was firm when we made a decision. We tried to not give mixed messages and made sure mom & dad & auntie were on the same page. When she gets older, you'll be able to introduce reasoning. But at this stage, it's simple stuff. It really is a learning process for both of you. You're doing a great job staying curious and loving juju. She has the best mom in the universe.