As a mom-to-be and current teacher, I’m always curious about best practices for children’s development. What should I keep doing, stop doing, or start doing to help my students (and now my future son) grow into productive, happy adults? Ultimately, I think the goal of any teacher or parent is that we help our students and children find the way to be able to live and thrive without our help.
My friend, Clarkbeast- parent, blogger, out-door enthusiast and teacher extraordinaire- and I frequently bemoan the ways that we see our culture stifling children’s self-reliance instead of bolstering it. One element we both agree that needs to be more purposefully present in children’s lives as a way to foster self-reliance is unstructured playtime. So much of what we’ve read, from Free Range Kids to Last Child in the Woods, exposes the importance of unstructured play, yet we live in a world where it is not unnatural for most children’s days to be scheduled from 6 am to 8 pm- filled with school, homework, and extra-curricular activities. Adults seem to worry that if children are not busy doing something, then they’re either going to be behind the rest of the kids when it comes to applying to college, or they’ll be getting into trouble. Clarkbeast recently shared this article with me, The Politics of Play, which I think can help quell the fears of helicopter-prone parents. One particularly moving quote stuck out for me:
The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience but independence. The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom. Most profoundly, the true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.
We fear the chaos, and so we try to control too much, when really, we should be helping our children practice being self-controlled.
My mom-to-be reading list so far has been comprised by books that friends have recommended to me, and many of them reiterate this same idea.
From Babywise by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam:
Most parents with an infant in the home tend not to think about this, yet, some monitored alone time provides critical opportunities for learning. By “alone” we do not mean leaving baby out of sight, but rather providing opportunities for him to investigate his world without being constantly entertained. (114)
And my most recent read, an enjoyable anthropologically-lensed narrative about an American raising her children in France, Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, revealed some of the major differences between French parenting and American parenting.
First, the “cadre.” The idea of the cadre is that French parents give their children a stiff framework outside of which they may not stray, but inside of which they enjoy enormous freedom. The cadre is a delicate balance- deciding early on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior, and then allowing children to find their own way within that framework. As a teacher, I like this idea. I try not to be too nit-picky about everything, but I let my students know what my expectations are (both for their behavior and for their learning) and then hold them accountable to those expectations. In American culture, I see parents and teachers both struggling with the balance a “cadre” requires. We tend to sway either towards the strict side, where every minor infraction deserves a punishment and yelling, or where children are given too much freedom early on–becoming little kings of their homes or classrooms–not willing to listen to any adult.
Second, according to Druckerman, in France the life of parents is not subordinate to the life of their child(ren). A mother is expected to be more than just a mother– she is encouraged to be a woman, a wife, a friend, and also a mother–preferably in that order:
In France, there’s an expression for mothers who spend all their free time schlepping their kids around: maman-taxi. This isn’t a compliment…. “You have to leave kids alone, they need to be a bit bored at home, they most have time to play.” (143)
In America, there seems to be this assumption that in order to be a good mother, you must subsume all of your needs for the whims and needs of your child. It’s expected that you will lose your figure, ignore your husband, lose touch with your friends, quit your job, and follow your child around at the playground praising his every step, in order to be a good mother. Frankly, that kind of expected sacrifice makes me wonder, why would any woman want to become a mother? The best model we can give our kids about self-reliance is to show how we are self-reliant and can take care of ourselves.
Third, the French trust in the child’s ability to understand social norms and to learn to cope with frustration from a very early age. In America, we expect that toddlers will be finicky eaters, incapable of sitting still at a restaurant or enjoying a dinner with the family. The French, however, seem to approach parenting with the idea that their children can understand social rules from a young age and that they can adapt to them:
The practical implications of believing that a baby or toddler understands what you say and can act on it are considerable. It means you can teach him to sleep through the night early on, to not barge into your room every morning, to sit properly at the table, to eat only at mealtimes, and to not interrupt his parents. You can expect him to accommodate–at least a little bit–what his parents need, too. (94)
I think that if we model and teach these expectations to our children early on, we can help them build their self-reliance. We don’t try to control the child, we teach the child to control himself.
It’s clear that giving kids a degree of independence, and stressing a kind of inner resilience and self-reliance, is a big part of French parenting. The French call this autonomie (autonomy). They generally aim to give children as much autonomy as they can handle. This includes physical autonomy, like the class trips. It also includes emotional separation, like letting them build their own self-esteem that doesn’t depend on praise from parents and other adults. (244)
I hope that when my son arrives, I will be able to remember the point of parenting: to make my child able to live without me as early as possible. The more my child can do for himself, the more I will empower him to live well in this world. Of course, I can help him build his self-reliance in a loving way, staying mindful of his needs, and praising him when he really does good work. But hopefully you’ll never see me on the playground, following my child with a camera, crazed-look in my eyes as I exclaim a running praise-filled narrative of my son’s every step: “You’re walking! Your’e climbing! You are such a good stepper! Wow! Look at you on those Monkey bars!”
Rather, I hope you see my son playing at the park, either by himself or with some friends, and me watching from a blanket in the shade where I’ve either got a book, a friend, or my husband keeping me company. It’s a play date for both of us: “Free Range” kids and “Free Range” parents. We’ll see what happens to these best of intentions…..