The anticipation of being an in-charge parent

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.