My Soapbox

The seemingly innocuous book French Twist on one American mother's venture into French parenting styles unexpectedly brought out a lot of strong personal sentiments.  I will say, the premise of the text is interesting, seeing how American and French culture is vastly different, and the transition from an American approach to a French one yielded very drastic changes in the behavior of this woman's children.  The problem I had was not from the main idea, but rather from her, and as a larger extension, traditional American attitudes on a range of topics that include children, parenting, education, and women's rights.  

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The author has two young girls that are four and six years old.  The four year old, as the mother states, is similar to the way she was as a child.  This translates into describing her daughter, in a letter to a babysitter in the following manner:

"If she goes to bed late or wakes up too early, I'm afraid you are screwed.  She becomes a raving maniac by the next afternoon...anyway she's a pain" (107).

A raving maniac.  Moving on.

At an earlier point she says something along the lines of "I love my children to death but like all mothers out there, sometimes I wish they weren't born." 

I think just about the worst thing a parent could say to a child is "I wish you were never born."  Like any other child, I had fights with my mom growing up, and I would say brash things I didn't mean like "I hate you" but I never, ever wished that she wasn't my mom.  (In these situations, my mom would retaliate that, if I didn't like her, I should go buy a new mom at K-Mart or even Walmart.  My response? "They don't sell good quality moms there."  Game Over.  We're both laughing now.)    

Yes, sometimes kids can be hard to deal with.  But no, that does not mean it's ok to even joke that they shouldn't have been born.  Especially when they're your kids.

Another problem I had was that she asserted that children are completely irrational.  I disagree with this on all sorts of levels.  Children, like any other person, have reasons for doing things and their reasons are rational. 

For example:

in a variation of the marshmallow experiment, researchers placed young children in a play room with old art supplies.  They told the children that if they waited and didn't use the art supplies for a few minutes, the researchers would bring in a brand new set of art supplies for them to play with.  They gave new supplies to half the children, and told the other half that they had run out.  Each child was then given a marshmallow and told that if they waited to eat it, they would get a second marshmallow.  The children who had received new art supplies were more likely to wait, and the children that hadn't were more likely to eat the marshmallow. 

The children sound pretty reasonable to me. 

The author does a marvelous job of contradicting herself later when she takes on a French approach that involves strict but reasonable rules, and emphasizes the importance an explanation of why the rules are in place.  If your children were irrational, the explanations would not do anything.

Parenting and Education

Before she adapts new French ways, the author is effectively worried that reprimanding her children for standing on the dining table, or giving them healthy foods instead of having them choose between french fries and green beans is stifling her children's creativity and independence.  But independent of what?  I don't see how good manners and having healthy children is synonymous with uncreative children that are highly dependent on...whatever it is they're not supposed to be dependent on.

I would also like to point out that parents shouldn't worry about creativity.  That tends to disappear through the standard school curriculum.  In tests where people of different ages - from kindergarteners to adults - participate in a creative exercise to see how many uses they can think of for a paperclip in a fixed amount of time, kindergarteners always perform the best, and adults the worst.  The less formal schooling you have, the more creative you are. 

Here are two more choice quotes:

Quote 1: [My daughter] prefers when we tell her, rather than she tell us, that she's doing great.  No doubt this is the result of being told throughout her entire life that she's amazing. I feel she needs endless approbation to do anything vaguely challenging (120).

This exact problem happens with school.  People think children need constant motivation to do challenging things, and that's why there are grades and rewards like stickers for good homework grades.  If a task is perceived as worthwhile for the sake of the task and not something like getting an A, people will work through the proposed challenge.  If it's not worthwhile, the task should be re-evaluated.

Quote 2: I don't want my kids thinking school is supposed to be fun.  It can be, and that's great. But there's work involved (213).

I was pretty much ready to throw down the book at this point.  I don't see why school shouldn't be fun.  In fact, I think school should be fun.  If the goal of schools is to foster a love learning, as I believe is the intention, then learning should be engaging and enjoyable, which means it should be fun.  I don't mean "let's have a pizza party everyday with balloons and confetti and bring in a teenager dressed like everyone's favorite Disney princess" fun.  I mean finding ways to make the curriculum relevant to students' and societies needs, in a way that makes them care about the topics and well-informed in crucial issues.  I think this can be accomplished through creative activities and teamwork in place of extensive memorization and an obsession with grades.  When I cared about the topics I learned in class, it was having fun, the mentally engaged "this is so interesting" kind of fun.  The "wow that reading was mind-blowing" kind of fun.  I do agree that there is work involved.  But the more you like it, the less it seems like work and you also work a lot harder and learn a lot more without even noticing. 

Quitters and Women's Rights

The author mentioned that in France, all working women are given a 100% paid maternity leave, along with other benefits.  She thinks all of this is really great, but says "there's nothing to be gained from wallowing in things we can't change" (100).  To which I would like to point out, government policies can be changed, and she's throwing her hands up to quit before she even considers working for change.

It's one thing to now wallow in things that actually can't be changed - that's a legitimate and healthy thing to do.  But if she really cared, she would do something about it.  I don't like the principle of giving up before you've even tried. 

I think the policy of maternity leave is an important one.  It ties into a larger philosophy I hold that companies should acknowledge that people have lives outside of work, and for some, that means having children.  When people sign a job contract, I doubt there's a section that says "I waive my right to have children while working at this job" but sometimes that's the reality (ie. women in academia).  The US has no national policy for paid maternity leave, and has the shortest duration, making it the worst place for maternity leave in the developed world.  (See for yourself here: Maternity Leaves Around the World).  Some people might think it's not fair to all the men out there, who can never get maternity leave because, well, they're men. I don't know if this is a common argument that people make against maternity leave, but I think it could be one.  I think eligible men should be granted maternity leave as well to help take care of the newborn.  Children have two parents and both of them should be a part of the child-rearing process.  As for paid maternity leave, babies are expensive, and it's not a free-for-all for the mothers and fathers that take time off of work to attend to the needs of their newborns.  This is a long way of saying, "Dear government and employers, please care about people beyond the monetary value you prescribe to them.  Thanks.  -Andrea"      

Final Notes

I had a few more book-specific issues that I felt deserved attention. 

1. Gratuitous use of French words.

Example: "Starting in the moment I first became a mother (and ending recently - merci, French ways!) [I was busy taking care of my kids all the time, etc. etc.]"

Comment: The French isn't adding anything.  It seems forced and overly-enthusiastic.

2. This is very French.

Example: "I am trying very hard to be less anxious and compulsive with my kids.  This is very French (and thus can be rewarded with a chocolate croissant if you, like me, swing that way)" (114).

Comment:  French people don't use food as rewards.  Making a chocolate croissant a reward is probably the least "very French" thing that could happen.

3. Inaccurate interpretation of self and of fellow Americans.

Example: "We as Americans are very comfortable trying new things - we are a nation of frontierspeople, after all..." (220).

Comment:  My interpretation of the above comment was that she thinks Americans are pioneers of great new things. I would argue Americans are just as opposed to change as anyone else, and much more 'conservative' (not through political party association, but as a whole) than most Americans would like to think.  See Maternity Leave


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