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!

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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.

The Social Animal

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Those of you who know me well, know that I have been a big fan of David Brooks since the end of 2001 – that’s coming up on ten solid years of fandom. Let me give you a little history.

David Brooks, signing my copy of On Paradise Drive in 2005

I was introduced to Brooks in my first semester at Covenant College where, in Dr. Green’s Christian Mind class, we read his excellent Atlantic Monthly article, “The Organization Kid.” It was a simultaneously bracing and humorous commentary on an undercurrent in American society that everyone knew was there but no one wanted to really talk about, or at least without equivocating: the misguided desire to create perfect adults out of perfect children in the incessant drive for material success and prestige.

I was hooked. I quickly began to take advantage of my dad’s Atlantic subscription and voraciously read his monthly column, plus my regular visits to Aunt Collyn’s allowed me to read his Weekly Standard articles – this was before the era of consuming all articles on the internet. I even tried to watch him every Friday night on PBS Newshour, if I had access to a TV, just to see what he had to say about that week in politics. It seemed there was no aspect of American society he couldn’t comment on, and comment on knowledgeably, with a healthy dose of wit.

In 2003 he came out with his first book, Bobos in Paradise, just in time for my parents to give it to me for my birthday. It quickly became one of my favorite books, and Brooks managed to turn “bobo” into a household word, even an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. Bobo is short for bohemian-bourgeois – a new class of Americans, he argues, that try to meld conventional bourgeois values of upwardly mobile careers, polo shirts and middle-class sublimity with counter-cultural bohemian values of multiculturalism, organic food and ridiculously expensive eco-shower-heads. It was a brilliant read.

In 2004 I was doing an internship in Washington, D.C. and got to attend an invitation-only event where he was speaking at the White House. Not only did I get to meet my writing hero, but I even got my copy of Bobos signed and my picture taken. Exciting stuff for a college junior. Later that summer and onwards I went to different book signings, including ones for his second (not as successful, but still very good) book, On Paradise Drive, which told the story of future-focused life in the new American exurbs.

OK, by now you’re thinking: “When does Anna’s stalkerdom stop? Make it stop!” Don’t worry, it ended in 2005 – two years after Brooks began his full-time stint as columnist for the New York Times. I was surprised when he got that gig, but now it makes perfect sense. After all, he is labeled “every liberal’s favorite conservative.” And now, apparently, the White House phones him regularly to ask if they should be “worried.” That is how influential his column has become.

Six years and many columns later, he has finally come out with a much-anticipated new book: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. This one is quite a departure from his previous two. What it loses in humor (and I was disappointed by the lack of this), it gains in the maturation of his social scientific understanding. His previous two books were works of “comic sociology” (his phrase), but this one is a culmination of all his reading into works of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and the unconscious mind.

Quite heady stuff, and because of that I am not going to attempt an all-encompassing review of the book. Part of the problem is – and given my admiration of Brooks, I hesitate to write this – I am not entirely sure what the central point of the book is, except to say that modern science, economics and management principles are not sufficient in determining what causes and motivates human behavior. Less measurable things such as connection, relationships, culture, emotion and the human unconscious are just as, if not more, important. If that is all that politicians get out of this book (and apparently, “they” are reading it all over Westminster), then that can only be a good thing!

I did just want to pick up on a few elements in the book, and point out a few missing elements which others have picked up on as well.

Firstly, Brooks points out the lack of connection between material well-being and happiness, something that has been documented in many recent studies:

(p 196) Living standards in the United States have risen dramatically over the past fifty years. But this has produced no measurable uptick in happiness. On the other hand, the United States has become a much more unequal society. This inequality doesn’t seem to have reduced national happiness either, even among the poor.

Winning the lottery produces a short-term jolt of happiness, but the long-term effects are invisible. The happiness gain you get from moving from poor to middle class is greater than the gain you get moving from middle to upper class; the happiness curve flattens out…People who place tremendous emphasis on material well-being tend to be less happy than people who don’t.

So what is it that brings happiness? Brooks would argue that it’s a complex web of things which doesn’t exclude material well-being, but includes things such as secure human relationships, magnanimity, living with a purpose beyond self-service, and moral commitments. (Eat that, Ayn Rand.)

But what’s unique about Brooks’s argument is that he puts “emotion and unconscious intuition at the center of moral life, not reason.” Moral knowledge is not just about “manning up” and doing what’s right based on rationality and logic. Here he talks about rationalist v. intuitionist assumptions:

(p. 282) [The intuitionist account] stresses moral reflexes, alongside individual choice; it emphasizes the role perception plays in moral decision making, before logical deduction. In the intuitionist view, the primary struggle is not between reason and the passions. Instead, the crucial contest is within…the unconscious-mind sphere itself. This view starts with the observation that we all are born with deep selfish drives – a drive to take what we can, to magnify our status, to appear superior to others, to exercise power over others, to satisfy lusts. These drives warp perception…The unconscious has to first dehumanize the victim and change the way he is seen.”

Brooks is (possibly intentionally) borrowing from the Pauline and Augustinian doctrine of original sin when he uses the phrase “we are all born with deep selfish drives.” Brooks, perhaps because of his Jewish background, has no problem with the idea of human depravity. However, he believes it’s possible to overcome this drive by stepping outside of oneself for redemption – here he describes the protagonist Erica’s reaction to her one-night-stand affair, in a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like soliloquy:

(p. 293) In the weeks after, when she thought about the episode [of having the affair], she became newly aware that it really was possible to become a stranger to yourself, that you always have to be on the lookout, and to find some vantage point from which you can try to observe yourself from the outside. She told herself a story about herself. It was the story of drift and redemption – of a woman who’d slid off her path inadvertently and who needed anchors to connect her to what was true and admirable. She needed to change her life, to find a church, to find some community group and a cause, and above all, to improve her marriage, to tether herself to a set of moral commitments.”

Well, here we come to some of the things that are missing from this book. The book takes us through the entire lives of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica. They end up getting married, but they don’t have children, and they have very little interaction with organized religion. Lacking these two things, they live a lifestyle which is still in the minority in modern American society– maybe they would have fit better in France? Erica has some interaction with her extended family, but throughout the whole book the sense is that they have no real roots. They each pursue their individual dreams and their marriage suffers as a result. How is this “the happiest story you’ll ever read”? Maybe Brooks is trying to be ironic, showing that we don’t always act on what we know and believe to be true? I’m not sure. I found the narrative of these two people strange and prefer his old style of creating different characters for different scenarios (my favorite is the couple in On Paradise Drive who buy a grill from Home Depot – read it yourself for some real entertainment).

But this, while not unimportant, is a relatively minor gripe. The book is full of fascinating insights and ideas. One of the most intriguing concepts he writes about is “limerence”:

(p. 208) As we go through our days, the mind generates anticipatory patterns, based on the working models stored inside it. Often there’s tension between the inner models and the outer world. So we try to come up with concepts that will help us understand the world, or changes in behavior that will help us live in harmony with it. When we grasp some situation, or master some task, there’s a surge of pleasure. It’s not living in perpetual harmony that produces the surge. If that were so, we’d be happy living on the beach all our lives. It’s the moment when some tension is erased. So a happy life has its recurring set of rhythms: difficulty to harmony, difficult to harmony. And it is all propelled by the desire for limerence, the desire for the moment when the inner and outer patterns mesh…

(p. 213) The longing for limerence doesn’t automatically produce perfect romances or easy global harmony. We spend large parts of our lives trying to get others to accept our patterns – and trying to resist this sort of mental hegemony from others. On a broader scale, people don’t just connect; they compete to connect. We compete against one another to win the prestige and respect and attention that will help us bond with one another. We seek to surpass one another in earning one another’s approval. That’s the logic of our complicated game.

This is very true – we really do “compete to connect” with one another. I know I do. We want to be the best we can be in the eyes of other people, but to do that we not only have to be perceived as better than other people, we have to be perceived as better than the very person whose admiration we long for. This is an insidious form of depravity.

One can’t help but notice that the character of Harold is written from the perspective of David Brooks himself – I mean, he loves big ideas and works for a think tank. Harold’s dying thoughts at the end of the book are a sort of ode to the unconscious:

(p. 373) Harold tried and failed to see into the tangle of connections, the unconscious region, which he came to think of as the Big Shaggy. The only proper attitude toward this region was wonder, gratitude, awe, and humility. Some people think they are the dictators of their own life. Some believe the self is an inert wooden ship to be steered by a captain at the helm. But Harold had come to see that his conscious self – the voice in his head – was more a servant than a master. It emerged from the hidden kingdom and existed to nourish, edit, restrain, attend, refine, and deepen the soul within.

It’s almost scary to think that our conscious thoughts could be servants to our unconscious self, a self that seems so hidden to us. However, the research that has come out in the past few decades has shed some light on this part of our brains, and Brooks does a solid job of bringing it together into one very readable, if ambitious, book.

For those of you still reading, below is a great example of why I love David Brooks’s writing – a description of Harold’s high-school English teacher:

(p. 79) When Harold met her, she was in her late twenties and teaching English. She listened to Feist, Yael Naim, and the Arcade Fire. She read Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen. She was addicted to hand sanitizer and Diet Coke. She wore her hair too long and too natural, to show she wasn’t on the job interview/law associate career track. She loved scarves and wrote letters longhand…

Before long she became matchmaker. She decided it was her role in life to look deep into her students’ souls, diagnose their core longing, and then match that person with the piece of middlebrow literature that would uniquely change his life. She would stop her students in the hallway, and she would press a book into their hands, and with a trembling voice she would tell him, “You are not alone!”

It had never occurred to many of these kids that they were alone. But Ms. Taylor, perhaps overgeneralizing from her own life, assumed that behind every cheerleader, behind every band member, behind every merit scholar there was a life of quiet desperation.

And so she offered books as salvation. She saw books as a way to escape isolation and feel communion with Those Who Feel. “This book saved my life,” she would tell her students, one by one, in hushed whispers after class. She would invite them into the church of those who are redeemed by high-school reading lists.

Lovely.