On Grief, Joy, and Football

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I have never been a huge follower of football. My number one sport has always been basketball, both playing and watching, and baseball is a close second for watching and enjoying. I have always felt a certain tension that exists within football between its inherent violence and unparalleled beauty. And today as we learn more about CTE, my enjoyment of football has a tarnish to it.

However, for as long as I can remember, I have been an Iowa Hawkeyes football fan. The Hawkeyes’ performance during the last three decades that I have been alive can best be described as dark-and-dreary punctuated with points of greatness and light. The last truly great season was 1985 when I was just three years old, when Chuck Long barely missed out on the Heisman and Iowa was ranked no. 1 in the country for the first half of the season. They were Big 10 champs that year, but ended up losing in the Rose Bowl to UCLA. There have been a few other great seasons, such as 2002 and 2009. I distinctly remember 20 years ago watching our unranked Hawks dismantle the 20th-ranked Washington Huskies in the Sun Bowl and feeling so proud I wrote about it all over my 7th-grade English journal.

Well, this year has been another point of greatness and light, certainly the greatest season I have ever witnessed. To my astonishment, I have watched every minute of every game. I’ve watched as the players, none of whom are big stars, have gelled together and become a true team under the leadership of cool-as-a-cucumber QB C.J. Beathard. And this past weekend I was privileged to join 15 others in a trip to Indianapolis to watch our guys take on Michigan State in the Big 10 Championship. We tailgated for four hours, got revved up with the pep band and cheerleaders at the pep rally, and then headed over to the stadium to watch the warm-ups. At the coin toss, my sister noted the difference between the stances of the two teams and I snapped a picture to remember the moment:

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This picture exemplifies to me how the Hawkeyes have carried themselves all season long.

For a while during the game it seemed that we could win, but the Spartans outlasted us. We put up a mighty fight, and Beathard showed his potential for greatness with a towering, perfectly-pitched pass to Tevaun Smith for an 85-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. 45,000 Iowa fans nearly tore the roof off Lucas Oil Stadium. As the Hawkeyes left the field, arms locked together, they received perhaps one of the loudest ovations ever for a losing college football team.

That night, none of us slept well. Since then I have not been able to shake the feeling of grief over the loss. As I reflect on why this game has affected me so much physically and emotionally, it occurred to me that the grief has several sources. Grief for the disappointment that Coach Ferentz, Beathard and the team must have felt and still feel. (I know what it feels like to have an amazing season and then to lose in a key game – it happened to me in my senior year of basketball. It still stings to this day.) Grief that we don’t get to see this unlikely team in the College Football Playoff this year. And perhaps most of all, grief that I didn’t get to celebrate a victory in person with my family and friends and thousands of other fans, and watch our favorite team hold up another trophy.

But I also know that the experience this weekend brought me much joy. Why is tailgating in the cold for hours, playing cornhole and tossing a football with strangers, and eating chili and brats and drinking Modelos so FUN? Why is sitting/standing in a covered stadium for five hours, shaking uncontrollably at times, and feeling like my head was about to explode from all the tension so pleasurable? I think there are many reasons for why this is, but the one that stands out to me is that we were all there for one purpose – to root for our team. If I had had a similar experience at a fall fair, it may have brought some pleasure, but not at the same gut-wrenching, soul-stirring level. We all had one thing in common. We were there to cheer on the Hawkeyes, and watching them play in person brought us great joy.

As I reflect on my experience further, I realize I am truly inspired by this team. Hearing them talk about being “family” may sound cheesy, but in truth it does make them a better football team, even though they don’t have the star power of other teams. It makes me want to be a better team player in all areas of my life – work, family, church – although I need much grace in all those areas. Watching Beathard play through his injury and talk about the importance of his team over his own individual performance (unlike certain other Big 10 players have done this season, whom I will not mention here) makes me not want to complain about setbacks in my own life. I never anticipated that I would learn so much about grief, joy, and togetherness from the Hawkeyes this year. On to the Rose Bowl!

Evil is futile

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sugarbarons.jpgI’ve just finished The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War by Matthew Parker. I highly recommend it for a very readable history of the sugar business in the Caribbean and how it contributed to the rise of the British empire.

The title is a little misleading, though. The book started out exploring some of the geopolitics of the imperial powers and their fight for land and trade in that part of the world, but a whole lot of the book was actually an exploration of how slavery was integral to the rise and fall of the sugar barons and describes in explicit detail how the slaves were treated. Did you know that two-thirds of slaves in the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries were working on sugar plantations in the West Indies? The number of black slaves far outnumbered the number of white settlers. I don’t even want to remember some of the images that Parker extracted from people’s diaries about this whole situation. Sodom and Gomorrah, indeed.

But it also gave me a renewed appreciation for the fight to end the slave trade. How impossible it must have seemed to the abolitionists when they started out! It’s so hard for us to imagine today, but slavery was just accepted as part of the system, and if you challenged it – in other words, not just hoping for better treatment of slaves, improved conditions, etc. – but challenged the system at its very core, you were up against a brick wall. Once the trade was banished for good in 1807 (the bill in Parliament having been washed with Wilberforce’s tears), it forced the plantation owners to treat their existing slaves better. The slaves eventually started to rebel and take over, and finally in 1838 slavery was abolished throughout the empire.

The book also gave me a good sense of the futility of evil. Although sin’s effects live on in our broken world, evil people will fail in their efforts, whether in this life or the next. I wanted to share this excerpt from the book, about William Beckford of Fonthill, the last of the line of the Beckford family to live off their sugary fortune, and his last-ditch effort to leave a mark on the English landscape by building Fonthill Abbey. The Beckfords were notorious for for their brutal treatment of slaves and their extravagant lifestyle. It reminds me of the man in Jesus’ parable who builds bigger barns to house his treasure. It also reminds me of Citizen Kane languishing in Xanadu. Someone should make a movie about this.

“Fonthill Abbey was, like Jack Fuller’s sugar loaf, or the Draxes’ tower, a folly, but on a massively grand scale. Inside it was very uncomfortable and impractical. The kitchen was situated a huge distance from the oak parlour where Beckford took his meals. There were 18 bedrooms for the guests who seldom if ever came, only reachable by twisting staircases and corridors, and 13 were so small, poky and ill-ventilated as to be unusable. The whole structure was so cold and damp that 60 fires had to be kept burning, even in the summer.

“There was also something irredeemably fake and hollow about the whole thing. If anyone looked closely at the furniture, they could see that many of Beckford’s ‘James I’ coffers were obviously nothing of the kind…

“…The following year, he suddenly got bored with the whole enterprise, and put Fonthill and much of his collection of art and objets, including 20,000 books, up for public auction. This generated huge excitement and curiosity, with 72,000 copies of the contents brochure printed by Christie’s sold at a guinea each.

“The Times commented in reaction that Beckford’s collection marked him as ‘one of the very few possessors of great wealth who have honestly tried to spend it poetically.’ Essayist William Hazlitt was less complimentary, writing that Fonthill and its contents were ‘a desert of magnificence, a glittering waste of laborious idleness, a cathedral turned into a toy shop, an immense museum of all that is most curious and costly and at the same time most worthless…the only proof of taste he has shown in the collection is his getting rid of it.’

“…the proceeds of the sale, some £330,000, allowed Beckford to clear his debts – estimated at £145,000 – and to live out the rest of his days in idleness at a grand house in Bath. He kept his favourite paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, Bronzino, Holbein and Velasquez, as well as the portrait of his father by Reynolds and of himself by Romney. His whim in his latter years was to have the dinner table laid elaborately each day for a number of guests but to dine in a solitary state. He was having problems with his teeth and his bladder, and was steadily losing his Jamaican properties through Chancery suits to the Wildmans. When he died in 1844, lonely and eccentric, the unprecedented Beckford fortune built up by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, on the back of the labour of thousands of slaves under the burning Jamaican sky, had all been frittered away.”

Being an in-charge parent: two years on

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Two years ago, I published this post about the so-called French way of parenting, and how to me it seemed like common sense to exercise your authority as a parent, setting boundaries, teaching delayed gratification, and generally not letting your kids run the house. I wrote it in anticipation of our son being born in May 2012. A friend on Facebook suggested that I do a follow-up piece in two years to review how things have gone, and that suggestion has always stayed in the back of my mind. So here are my thoughts.

My son is now nearly 21 months old, so he’s not quite two, though as most parents know, the “terrible twos” tend to show up well before the second birthday. I can’t remember exactly when he started showing a “will,” but it was some time after the first six months. We’ve dealt with our fair share of tantrums and grumpiness. However, he is still very much a baby in many ways, and as we cannot yet reason verbally with him (except in very rudimentary ways – he has only just learned the words “wait” and “soon”), my analysis of this strange situation of being a parent is still in its…infancy. (Haha.)

First of all, I should mention that I have avoided reading parenting advice books and blogs, including the book I mentioned in the previous post, Bringing up BebeI’m not against those kinds of books in principle. It’s just that, if I find that I have any time to read, I’d just as soon be reading something by Marilynne Robinson or a book about the sugar barons of Barbados. Not kids. (Exception: I have actually read Parenting from the Inside Out which gives a lot of helpful insights into how to interact with your children based on recent research on brain development and human psychology. It’s excellent.)

But back to my old post. I talked about the idea of cadre, a word the French use to describe the non-physical boundaries they set for their children. These are, of course, often accompanied by the word “no.” And this brings me to my first thought: The word “no” is a beautiful thing. It is remarkable how early toddlers can learn the meaning of this word, and learn to say it themselves as well. It’s taken a lot of persistence from us, but our son is gradually learning the consequences of his actions if he ignores the “no.” And he is even starting to obey us! Right now, the consequences usually consist of something that will bring harm to him, like spilling milk all over his lap or burning his hand. We’re not using punitive discipline yet – all my instincts tell me it is pretty ineffective at this early of an age. And it’s important to say no in the most helpful context and spirit, not out of spite or general annoyance, but in a constructive way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use the word, and use it frequently. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results. Setting limits really does pay off, and we’re already seeing that in how he’s interacting with us, and with other adults. 

Let me now move swiftly to my next thought: The word “yes” is even more beautiful than “no,” and a lot more satisfying. When my son does anything from naming something correctly, to building something with his blocks, to saying “thank you” to his grandmother for giving him some fruit, I want to shout “yes!” from the rooftops. The freedom that comes in praising a young child is truly a rush. But of course I don’t just do it because it feels good. I do it because it’s important for him to hear, and to hear it over and over again. Now, this may change as he grows older, and how I respond to different things he does will become more complex. But right now, this is one of the most basic, helpful things I can do to encourage him.

Third: Parenting truly is the art of distraction. At least right now it is. The good thing about this age is that, even though the tantrums can be bad, it is not that hard to get him to focus on something else, like what’s going on outside the window or what’s inside the book on the couch. It gets him out of a rut that he might not be able to get out of on his own. It’s all about following up that “no” with some redirection to “why don’t you go and see what the postman is bringing to the door?” As he gets older, this will obviously become harder to do. But hey, I’ll write that piece when the time comes.

Fourth, and last: Always encourage the good, even if I don’t feel like it. If my son wants to finish off the bowl of green beans or wants me to read him a book while I’m in the middle of writing an email, I’m trying very hard to not say no to these kinds of requests. Obviously, if I’m doing something very urgent in that moment, I can’t always fulfil his desire. But if it’s something that falls in the “good” category (e.g., going outside as opposed to eating junk food), then if I can’t do it right in that moment, I tell him to wait and we’ll do it in a minute. Of course, he doesn’t really “get” waiting yet, but he is slowly coming to understand what it means. Persistence. Always persistence.

There is a strange freedom in trying to be an “in-charge” parent. Over and over again, I have been in situations where I’ve said to myself, “I’m the parent here. It’s up to me to decide what is going to happen.” And the wonderful thing is, it doesn’t always involve saying “no.” When my son wants to play with play-doh in the kitchen and I don’t feel like cleaning up the mess, I remind myself to “encourage the good” and let him do it anyway. Conversely, if he wants to play on the iPad before bed, I always say “no, it’s book time,” because I’m the one who sets his routine, and the iPad is not part of his pre-bedtime routine. And he loves books, so this is not a hard sell.

I’ve written mostly about the parental impact on the child. But the truth is, the impact that becoming a parent has had on me is far more surprising and profound. That topic will have to wait for another post. (And I’ll need to write about something completely different in between, since I don’t want this to become a parenting blog!) Cheers!

An apology against efficiency

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I meant to write this post fast on the heels of my last one, but colds and more broken nights got in the way. Things are getting better now, the colds are pretty much gone and the nights are gradually improving. It’s Monday, the start of a new week, and while many of us are thinking of all the things we need to “get done” today and the rest of the week after a (hopefully) restful weekend, I am writing an apology against efficiency. (Maybe “apology” is too formal of a word for this rather informal post, but for lack of a better word…)

Efficiency is a prized skill in the Western world, and in other cultures as well. Think of how many job descriptions require someone who is “able to complete their work punctually and efficiently.” One definition of efficiency is “the accomplishment of or ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort.” So basically, it’s how well you can complete a task in the least amount of time possible, with the least amount of effort spent, but still do a good job.

Given the title of this post, it may surprise you that I am a big fan of efficiency. To me, efficiency and productivity go hand in hand. Efficiency gives a nice structure to the day-to-day grind and also helps us achieve long-term goals by chipping away at them bit by bit. How many of us don’t love crossing things off our never-ending to-do lists? And how many things in our lives just wouldn’t function properly if there wasn’t an efficient person, machine, or structure behind them? We all appreciate it when our little worlds operate like clockwork, and get pretty impatient when things go awry.

I spent 30 years trying to live life as efficiently as possible. Then I had a baby. And let me just say, efficiency does not come into play when you are taking care of a baby.

Yes, you can try to establish a routine. Yes, you do have to feed them and change them and put them down for sleep regularly. Yes, there are plenty of books and toys and doo-dads which are supposed to help you help them develop their little fertile minds. But ultimately each day is going to be just that little bit different. What “works” one day could completely fail the next. And if you are a big fan of efficiency like me, it can drive you a little crazy.

The funny thing is, we all start life as babies. Babies are just tiny humans, after all. And humans have unique personalities and temperaments. One day they can be really hungry and want to eat all the time, and the next day perhaps their appetite is not as large. One day they can be happy and content all day, and the next day they just won’t stop fussing.

ImageLet me give you an example from my experience. My son is a catnapper and has been since he was born. Occasionally he will sleep for more than one hour during the day, but it is rare. More often than not his naps are 45 minutes. For weeks and weeks I tried so many different things to get him to sleep longer. Put him to bed later. Put him to bed earlier. Change his diaper right before his nap. Move the feeding time closer to sleep time. Rock him back to sleep. Sometimes some of these things worked, but nothing ever worked consistently.

So I’ve given up the “battle.” If he decides to sleep longer, he will sleep longer. But if not, I have decided to stop fighting it. What I’ve learned as a new parent, is that the least stressful, most enjoyable thing is just to go with the flow. Babies are not machines or spreadsheets. You can’t type in an equation and poof! Magically the desired output will appear. It just does not work that way.

So why have I called this an apology against efficiency? I was struck the other day that we are taught from a young age to be efficient. We get plugged into the structure and routine of our families, we potty train, we learn to do things on our own like eat and tie our shoes. Then we get plugged into school where efficiency means that you are a good student. It’s almost like we are trained out of our baby-ish ways to become gradually more and more efficient, productive adults. And as I said earlier, I think this is mostly a good thing.

But as soon as you have children of your own, all your highfalutin habits and instincts of being efficient are brought down to earth again, and you are training someone else in the same way that you were trained, while having all your presuppositions about what real “productivity” is undermined. And I think this is a great thing to experience.

As humans, we are made in the image of a trinitarian God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in constant, perfect communion and trust. Each day I ask God to help me live this kind of relationship with my son. Not the kind that puts “something in” and expects “something out,” but a relationship of mutual trust that rests in the perfect love of God. If I’m putting efficiency above my baby’s need for me to just “be” with him and give him that extra smile, then something has gone very wrong. It’s a daily challenge, this undermining of my instincts. Most days I feel very satisfied if he goes right down to sleep, and then very frustrated if I have to spend extra time calming him down. But as my husband often says, it’s only time. And our time here on earth is meant to live in constant communion with God and each other, not to see how efficiently we can live it out. If life were primarily about efficiency, what kind of life would that be, anyway?

How the iPad saved me from the baby blues

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I promise not to turn this blog into a parenting blog. Goodness, there are more than enough of those. However, there are a couple of topics that I want to write about that just happen to be related to my experience as a new parent. This one’s about the baby blues. The next one is going to be an apology against efficiency. (You’ll just have to read the next one to discover what I mean.)

I was going to title this post “How the iPad saved me from postpartum depression” but decided that was a little strong. I didn’t want to belittle people who have actually experienced postpartum (or in the UK, postnatal) depression by suggesting that an Apple product will cure it. “Gee, just get on Twitter and you’ll snap out of it!” Nope, that would come across as pretty trite, and quite wrong.

However, having just had a baby four months ago, I totally understand how mothers can get depressed. Feelings of inadequacy and like you’ll never get your “old life” back overwhelm you not long after the birth of a baby. For most mothers, this is known as the “baby blues” and is caused by a number of factors, not least that your hormones have gone to another planet and reappeared as micro-aliens. But for 10-15% of mothers, the feelings continue on and lead to depression.

I certainly experienced the baby blues. In fact, I distinctly remember when I felt I’d hit the bottom of the barrel. I’d gotten over the adrenalin rush of the days after the birth. My baby boy was 12 days old, my mom had just come to help out for about 10 days and we’d gone to the countryside to have a little more space for a while and get away from the busy-ness of London. My husband had stayed in London for a night as he had a meeting to attend, so it was just me, my mom and the baby. That night, the washing machine wasn’t working and we were having trouble getting the stovetop to work so we could cook dinner. I needed a break so Mom took the baby out in the Baby Bjorn for a walk while I tried to nap on the couch. England was experiencing a rare warm spell, and the window was wide open, allowing a boisterous fly to come in the house and keep me from my slumber. Frustrated, I shooed it out the window and then tried to close the window, but in the process I somehow maneuvered the window out of its sill. That was it. I called my husband, tears welling up, and asked him to instruct me how to fix the window (we were at his parents’ house while they were away). I had to send him pictures of it before we finally figured it out. By that time my mom had returned, the baby was hungry and the nap was no longer an option. Feelings of frustration, tiredness and thoughts of “this will never end” rushed over me. I remember thinking, if I was going to get depressed, it’s going to start now.

But thankfully, that didn’t happen. I had a lot going for me. My pregnancy, labor and birth went remarkably well. I had a great send-off from work and was showered with gifts. I had almost three weeks of maternity leave before the baby arrived, time which I had to myself to do projects, go on walks, and do lots of reading and napping. In the early weeks, my husband was doing all the shopping, cooking and cleaning and bringing me food and drinks of water. My in-laws had taken us home from the hospital and helped us get groceries. They let us stay in their beautiful house for two weeks by ourselves. My mom had come all the way from New York solely to help me out. I had friends and fellow church members visit, bearing gifts and offerings of food. People sent us cards. I took the advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps” and never refused offers of help. We have an easy baby who never had colic and is generally content between meals and naps.

And yet…nothing can prepare you for what that first month is like. The constant feeding, the broken nights. I often compared it to an endless camping trip, where you never really get enough sleep, and even the sleep you get isn’t very deep. (We also had the windows constantly open to let cool air in at night, which contributed strongly to the camping feeling.) So often I had to just tell myself to “power through” because that was the only option. And hold on to what every parent friend told me, that “it gets easier.” (Which it does, it really, really does.) New parents need to know about this phase so that they are aware of it when it hits them – it’s a topic that needs to be discussed more.

But this brings me to the ultimate point of this post. I got an iPad for my 30th birthday this year, from my dear husband. And I think if I didn’t have it, my blues would have been much, much worse.

The iPad was my perfect companion during those hour-long feeding sessions in the early days. It sat nestled on my lap while I scrolled through articles from the Atlantic and my favorite New York Times columnists. I kept up with the world through Twitter. I joined in discussions on Facebook. I snapped photos of the baby and posted them on Instagram. I propped the iPad up on a stool to watch programs on BBC iPlayer or to FaceTime with my sisters and parents. I played games that I could manage with one hand. I frantically searched baby websites for answers to my zillions of questions. Anywhere the internet would take me, I was whisked away from the endless cycle of feed, change, sleep and could engage my mind in so many different ways.

This kept me sane at times when I felt like I could go a little crazy. I was continually reminded that there was a world outside my little home (it’s amazing how quickly you can forget this fact). And any time company came, I put the iPad away.

So there you have it. Fathers-to-be, go out and get your wife an iPad. It’s an investment you won’t regret.

Back to the future

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Sometime in the next month or so, I will be giving birth to our first child, a son. It’s uncertain when this will happen, and we have to be ready at any moment. No matter how much we plan, anything could happen on the day. There are a lot of unknowns about the whole situation, a fact which undermines my fierce planning instincts, heavily influenced by our hyper-organised, “fail to plan, plan to fail” culture.

But I still have faith that the event will occur, and that the result will be a healthy baby and the enlargement of our family. I have faith that this will be our future.

Many people in today’s society claim it is possible to live without a faith, and some go even further and argue that people who follow religions are irrational because they believe in things that no one can see.

But there is one thing that everyone believes in, but cannot see – that’s the future. We all believe it will happen, don’t we? And most of us have a fairly complete picture of what it will look like. Western culture is particularly future-oriented, but even non-Western cultures that have a cyclical view of time still believe that history will carry on and that what we do now has consequences for the future. We study, work, save, try to stay healthy, and even bear children to ensure our futures are secure.

As Christians, we look back in time to see our future, which goes beyond the present life. We look at the acts of Christ two millennia ago – his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. And we can do this because of the promises we find in the Bible and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

“For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight.”

– 2 Corinthians 5:4- 7

Easter is a good time to reflect on the promises of God which were made in ancient times, and which carry on for today and for a time that we do not yet see. Christ came once before, but he is surely coming again, and we will live with him. That’s a future we can put our faith in.

This article originally appeared in themedianet.org 

The anticipation of being an in-charge parent

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From what I remember as a kid, we always had three meals a day plus a snack straight after school. That was it. We weren’t allowed to rummage through the fridge or snack cupboard at will. Sweets and desserts usually came on special occasions and weekends when we were allowed such pleasures.

One of our family rules was that we were allowed soft drinks only on Sunday nights with our popcorn. Because it was so special, I always looked forward to it.

Life was quite regimented until my sisters and I started doing after-school sports starting at age 11, and the schedules got out of whack. We started having dinner at funny times, bought our own snacks at school (including the occasional soft drink), made our own lunches, and even rifled through the fridge after a late basketball game. Even so, these increasingly independent activities were within the boundaries of what our parents gave us.

I distinctly remember turning 18 and venturing out on my own, thinking: “Wow, I can pretty much eat whatever I want, whenever I want, and go wherever I want.” Like a mouse coming out to play when the cat’s away, I tiptoed into that reality, often looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching until I embraced it with full gusto. By the time I was a college student I never gave it a second thought. But for the first 18 years of my life, the structure my parents bestowed on me was my reality.

You often hear adults reflecting on their childhoods, saying: “I just assumed every family was like mine.” That was certainly true for me.

So you can imagine my surprise (and to some extent, admiration) as a nine-year-old when I went to a sleep over at a friend’s house to finish a school project. As we were approaching the cashier to purchase supplies for our project, my friend’s mom bought us each a Coke. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. As I wasn’t accustomed to drinking Coke on a whim in an afternoon, it took me a while to drink it. Suddenly we were at her house, and her mom was standing over me offering another soft drink. Whereas most kids would have swiftly accepted, I blurted out: “But I haven’t even finished the first!” (Of course, I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity and I quickly downed it so I could start on the fresh one.) That experience was a real eye-opener for me that all families were certainly not like mine. I couldn’t believe her mother would allow three girls to hype up on sugar before an evening of school work and sleeping.

I don’t want to pick on that one family too much – maybe it was a one-off. But my story is testament to an unalterable truth of my growing-up years: my parents were always the ones in charge. And that, I think, is the fundamental question in all families: who is in charge here, the kids or the parents?

An article has been circulating the halls of social media, entitled ‘Why French parents are superior‘, published in the Wall Street Journal. It’s by Pamela Druckerman, who has just authored Bringing up Bébé, the latest angle on the popular general topic of “why the French are better than everyone else at everything.” She’s an American living in France with small children, and the book is about the so-called “wisdom of French parenting” and what she has learned from the locals about parental authority and delayed gratification. She also mentions admiring the old three meals plus snack routine, as if it is a foreign idea.

I’m about to become a parent myself, so I’ve been thinking a lot about parenting. Like most people, I think about how I was raised and what principles I can apply to my own experience as a parent. I don’t pretend to have it all figured out – far from it. But my immediate reaction on reading her examples is: “Duh, this is all just common sense. How is this unique to the French?” I know parenting is not easy no matter what culture you live in. But surely as a parent you set routines from an early age and let them know who is in charge. You don’t tolerate tantrums, talking back, interrupting, or willful disobedience. You certainly don’t let kids rummage the fridge at will. Surely? And yet, I often see parents allowing these very things to happen.

In my long career of babysitting and nannying a wide range of ages from babies to pre-adolescents, spanning 12 years of my teens and early 20s, I often got kids who would make requests such as “Can I watch TV after bedtime?” or “Can I jump on the trampoline in the dark?” or “Can I feed the dog Fruit Loops?” (These are all fictional, FYI.) I would always say no, and get the classic response: “But my parents let me do it.” I would reply: “Well, then you can do it when your parents come home.” Probably half the time they were telling the truth. But for the evening at least, I was the one in charge, not the absent parents, and certainly not the kids.

Parents tend to think their kids are unique with special problems, and that parents who have seemingly always calm kids are just lucky. There’s a grain of truth in this strand of thinking (although I think it’s largely a Western one). But from what I’ve observed in my few decades on earth, it seems that most kids will respond to structure and routine and knowing that their parents are the ones in charge.

Over the years, these are all things I’ve overheard parents say:

“His baby/toddler/kid is so quiet and obedient. He’s one of the lucky (implication: few) ones.”

“You raised seven kids to be so well-behaved. How on earth did you do it?”

“How do you get your kids to do/not do…(fill in the blank with a hundred different things) – I just can’t seem to do it.”

First of all, probably none of these statements are absolutely true. The most well-behaved children will still do bad things, and even quiet babies will cry – that’s how they’re wired. But most likely what’s behind all of them are parents who are quietly in charge of their kids, even from the first few months of life.

I read with some amusement Druckerman’s story about her son Leo escaping the playground at every opportunity as soon as they arrived, and how she had to keep chasing him and bringing him back. Her French companion calmly advised her to say “no” with more conviction. After a few tries, Leo finally looked at her warily and headed back to entertain himself in the sandbox for the rest of the afternoon, totally un-traumatized and content to stay within the established boundaries (not just physical ones), or cadre as the French call it. My parents could probably correct me on this, but I know that if we had ever tried to escape the playground, we would have been in a heck of a lot of trouble. I don’t recall ever trying anything like this – it would have been pas possible as she writes in the article.

Interestingly, one aspect of childhood that Druckerman doesn’t address in the article (though she may in the book) is the role of other adults. I don’t at all know if this is something the French recognize more than others. But I do know that Western parents often feel guilty for not spending enough time with their kids, particularly when both parents are working. Of course, it’s really important that parents devote time to their kids, whether that’s having meals with them, reading to them or playing with them. But the people who populate the memories of my childhood go well beyond my parents – older siblings, grandparents, relatives, teachers, babysitters. All played an important role in my formation and transition to the adult world.

Of course not having my parents there would have left a huge hole. But I think parents who feel guilty about not paying enough attention to their kids can easily over-respond by just giving them what they want and feeling the need to constantly stimulate them without teaching them to play on their own (which apparently the French are quite good at), or trusting that other adults are also helping them to grow into maturity. As Druckerman says about the French: “They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this.”

I am sure this is an easy temptation to fall into, one that I will experience early and often. But I hope that my husband and I can get a good start on this parenting business – setting routines, providing freedom and stimulation within boundaries, and carrying on with our (albeit much-changed) adult lives without allowing the kids to take over. And if all of this is done in the context of love and trusting God and other adults who will play an important role, I believe it is possible.

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