You Are Old, Father William: On “A Cure For Hyper-Parenting”
It has come to my attention that French people are obsessed with Pamela Druckerman.
“She is so interested in us,” says one French person, who knows a lot of other French people. “She is more interested in my French identity than I am. She talks to all my children in English, trying to make them cry. They refuse to go along with her ridiculous promptings, remaining wryly serene. Afterwards she compliments them in our melodious, endangered language, making only occasional mistakes.” This woman, who asked that I identify her as “Madeline,” is just one of thousands of Parisians who have begun seeking out Druckerman in an effort to understand what makes them so mind-bogglingly spectacular, no matter what they do.
Druckerman is interested in the French because they are the best parents in the world. Even the Norwegians, who have survived (and even prospered) in a land infested with fjords and modern Prousts, are quick to describe themselves as “unspeakably moronic” in comparison to those baby whisperers from the warmer part of Europe. The City of Lights has become a contemporary mecca for those interested in their own totally subjective impressions of a foreign culture — and it seems that these days everyone’s caught “French parenting fever.” We are simply gaga for good, old-fashioned authoritarian domesticity, brought off with Continental elegance and style.
The following testimonial, written near the very epicenter of this ongoing cultural miracle, calls it vividly to our attention:
I did not take my eyes off my mother, I knew that when we were at the table, they would not let me stay during the entire dinner and that, in order not to annoy my father, Mama would not let me kiss her several times in front of the guests as though we were in my room. And so I promised myself that in the dining room, as they were beginning dinner and I felt the hour approaching, I would do everything I could do alone in advance of this kiss which would be so brief and furtive, choose with my eyes the place on her cheek that I would kiss, prepare my thoughts so as to be able, by means of this mental beginning of the kiss, to devote the whole of the minute Mama would grant me to feeling her cheek against my lips, as a painter who can obtain only short sittings prepares his palette and, guided by his notes, does in advance from memory everything for which he could if necessary manage without the presence of the model. But now before the dinner bell rang my grandfather had the unwitting brutality to say: “The boy looks tired, he ought to go up to bed. We’re dining late tonight anyway.” And my father, who was not as scrupulous as my grandmother and my mother about honoring treaties, said: “Yes, go on now, up to bed with you.” I tried to kiss Mama, at that moment we heard the dinner bell. “No, really, leave your mother alone, you’ve already said goodnight to each other as it is, these demonstrations are ridiculous. Go on now, upstairs!” And I had to leave without my viaticum; I had to climb each step of the staircase, as the popular expression has it, “against my heart,”24 climbing against my heart which wanted to go back to my mother because she had not, by kissing me, given it license to go with me.
Here we have the classic situation of the child — in this case, a young Marcel Proust — experiencing, as all children do, a youthful inclination towards slobbering, howling madness. Young Marcel wishes to rule tyrannically over his frazzled progenitors, extorting hideous quantities of kisses. He might well have succeeded, were it not for his grandfather, who intervenes firmly and with conviction, and sends the child to bed. Then the grandfather’s son takes up the theme, eager for starchy seconds, and shows Marcel that Father does indeed know how many times Baby has said goodnight to Mother already. Marcel is sent to bed; his protestations are useless. They are patently ridiculous. His grandfather and father usher him, unceremoniously, into the adult world of disappointments and compromises. It is sink or swim, and like all other French children, Marcel swims. Marcel has learned so much that even decades later, confining himself prudently to bed, and drinking only a single cup of coffee (so as not to become over-excited), he is able to describe the entire scene to us. Seeing it all feelingly, through Marcel’s eyes, we learn an invaluable lesson about the importance of being kissed no more than once per day. Though Proust wrote his masterpiece many years ago, we can still hear every note of the father’s exceptionally glottal starts, and stops, for such is the timeless power of an example that illuminates, suddenly and completely, the proper conduct of life.
There is good news on our side of the Channel, too: things weren’t always so bad for Anglophile parents. In his classic study of parenting, entitled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the English author Lewis Carroll described just the sort of outstanding child care that today’s “helicopter parents” eschew, to their detriment. There is a Duchess, for example, who infuses her nursery with vast quantities of pepper, and beats her baby whenever it sneezes. Unlike modern parents, who believe their child is special no matter what they do, the adults that Alice meets are all brave enough to disparage Alice, relentlessly, even when they are totally in the wrong. Nowadays, we are surrounded by “child kings,” but in the paradise of the Alice books, it is quite clear that Alice will always be merely a pawn, unless and until she learns to play by the rules.
Modern parents wear themselves out by running frantically at their childrens’ heels. Alice’s mentor, a languid Caterpillar, does just the reverse: he wears her out by having her recite poetry, and relaxes in the meantime. He does not explain why she should recite poetry; in fact, it is quite clear that nobody has ever explained anything of the sort to her, nor is anyone surprised when she spouts gibberish. Children are prone to all kinds of illusions. They will often claim, out of sheer willfulness, that adults are guilty of violence, vanity, dishonesty, and growing rounder instead of taller. They believe that adults have only two hobbies: living vicariously, and talking in a different voice at night than they do in the morning. Nobody knows why our egregious little tots form such opinions, or why they feel compelled to state them so loudly during tantrums. Regardless, the great thing about the French is that they do not care. Neither, for that matter, does Pamela Druckerman. She cares about you. She writes that you should “force yourself to observe the same nighttime rituals as your toddler: bath, book, bed.” She adds, “don’t beat yourself up for failing to achieve perfect work-life balance.” Instead, when you feel an “adult tantrum” coming on, “give yourself a timeout.”
The French, Druckerman points out, have paid national maternity leave, subsidized nannies, excellent state day care, and free universal preschool. We have none of these, as she herself adroitly observes. That may be true, but we do have what Druckerman calls “the sleeping cure.” It’s just like what our children do, when they snooze away the hours, except it’s much better, because we don’t have nightmares. Our children, the poor things, are of course quite susceptible to them. One has to smile, to think back on it, now. All of those sleepless nights, afraid something horrible was going to happen. I force myself to remember the Caterpillar’s advice about keeping my temper, but it’s difficult. Modern children have everything in the world handed to them. What is it, I wonder — pulling at my wrinkles with one hand, and returning my head to its most fetching angle — Gosh darn it, what is it that our children are so afraid of?