News of the World

I’ve had the great pleasure of receiving letters from moms and dads from around the world, reflecting on Bringing Up Bébé/French Children Don’t Throw Food, sharing their own experiences, and even asking me for parenting tips (weird, given how parentally challenged I am in the book). I’ve posted some of these letters and other comments here: Below is a letter from a mother in Atlanta whose ideas I found thought provoking – and not just because she invites me to dinner. I don’t agree with everything she writes (serrated knife!) but I was intrigued by the parallels she draws with Montessori and what she says about spats between siblings. She’s given me permission to post it:

“I have just devoured your book and I don’t feel guilty about all my time reading and not attending to my children…. I think I’m “modeling” the pleasure of reading!  Every page I turned I wanted to shout “That’s me! I do that!” I am born an raised in Atlanta, Georgia and have no French heritage or influences, but I swear I fit your perception of French parenting philosophy to a T!  I would love to invite your family to come visit us the next time you are in Atlanta…. your kids can eat off of real plates in my dining room just like my kids do.  I only pull out those ridiculous sippy cups when my friends INSIST that their child will spill with a regular glass.  We aren’t “fancy” at all, we just use common sense that we will all enjoy a meal better off of china and sitting down talking rather than off of plastic with the tv on in the background.  In 5 years, there have only been 2 broken dishes.

I constantly have had to defend my parenting style to my friends who are ALL overprotective.  My neighbors scoff at me and literally follow my children around the playground to hold their hands or catch them if they fall since I am always on the sidelines watching… it baffles me… why on earth would I mind if my child falls from a slide?  They have a lot of bruises but have never broken a bone yet.  Consequently my children have always had much better gross motor skills and balance than all of their friends simply because I have allowed them practice in developing their own body awareness.

Most of my parenting skills have come from a Montessori style philosophy.  Do you realize how much of your book mirrors Montessori?  I was really surprised you didn’t mention it, they are so very similar.  Montessori preaches to respect the child by giving very clear and definitive boundaries and letting them have freedom within those boundaries.  “Betises” are not morally wrong, but there is simply appropriate behavior that is expected in exchange for freedoms. The verbage typically goes like this “Oh, by banging on the counter you are showing me that you are not yet ready to use that hammer appropriately.  When you are ready to use it to hammer a nail, then let me know and you may have it back.”  From the age of 2, my children would say “that is not ap-pwo-pweate” when their friends would act up.  I never intervene when the kids are having a spat: “Mommy,  she took that toy from me.” “Oh what a bummer, I know you love that toy, you should definitely go talk to her about that problem.”  Why on earth do all my friends have to talk on behalf of their children to solve their problems?  My girlfriends roll their eyes at me when I intentionally “ignore” regular childhood disagreements, then they get up (interrupting our adult/mommy play-date time) and walk over to get the toy back on their child’s behalf.  That’s so crazy!  How will their children ever learn to problem solve if not given the opportunity to even have a problem?

Montessori also includes an emphasis on “meaningful work.”  My 4 and 5 year old daughters can load and unload the dishwasher all by themselves, as well as start their own laundry.  It is such a simple thing to teach and they take such pride in meaningful work.  And of course they have been cooking with me since before they could walk.  I simply can’t imagine having to do all the household chores myself, that is neither fair nor possible.  Your description of the doctor’s office when you apologized to your child for having to get a shot cracked me up.  I never apologize for vaccines either, to the contrary my 3 year old actually says “thank you” to the nurse giving the shot because we know the vaccines are to keep us healthy.  My children hate shots, however, we aren’t going to make a fuss or apologize for them either.  The nurses are in awe when my little tiny child sits up and watches the shot giving without having to be physically held down as is the normal practice for a toddler.  Also, I remember having to defend myself when I took my 2 year old into the doctor’s office for a cut on her hand.  They interrogated me about why her Montessori preschool would allow a 2 year old a serrated knife.  I was shocked at their disapproval… of course she needed the serrated knife, how else would she cut an orange for snack?  The butter knife is for the banana, but orange rinds require something much sharper.  Of course, she hasn’t cut herself again, she learned her lesson and all it required was some Neosporin and bandaid.

I also practiced the “pause” when they were newborns, and I never ever rocked them to sleep.  I will not rob them of the chance to be confident and self assured, and they just can’t gain that without having me back off.  Starting at age 3, my children have been flown out to Seattle (which feels like across an ocean from Atlanta) each summer to spend 7-10  days with their grandparents.  They cherish that time and they are so proud of having their own adventures independent from mommy and daddy.

I really think most of my parenting philosophy comes from Montessori, but my husband unknowingly planted the seed for this long before we got pregnant.  Right after we got engaged I made a comment about how now he and I were each other’s priority until we had kids.  He was taken aback and made it very clear that our marriage would always take priority over our (then future) children.  With that in mind, we were happy to get babysitters while they were very young so that we could have adult time away.  We simply must have a strong marriage in order to give our best to our children.

I am now expecting a third little girl due in October, and your book has joyfully and humorously reinforced my parenting intuitions.  Thank you so much for your research and humility in your storytelling.  Seriously, I’d love to invite you into our home and into our Montessori preschool.”

8 Responses to News of the World

  1. Charlotte April 16, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    Hello, Bonjour,

    I’m a french mum (2 daughters) living in London and I’ve just finished your book… many friends told me about it, asking me questions although they haven’t read it yet so I decided to “me faire mon propre avis”.

    I’ve laughed, I’ve recognised some of my English and American friends and most of all I recognise myself 100 % or at least the idea I have about “education”.

    As you can imagine, I struggle in London to avoid giving snack to my kids and after 2 years at home I’m relieved to be back to work !!
    Anyway, be an expatriate is a wonderful experience, “une belle lecon de tolerance”.

    Merci encore pour votre livre.
    Amicalement / Kind regards

  2. Sally Millard May 3, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    I too enjoyed the book very much. One of the themes that seems to emerge from the book is that French society has a much stronger sense of tradition and conformity. As a result there seems to be less confusion about the rules of adult society, giving parents a clearer idea of what they are bringing their children up into. This also seems to mean that parents are not alone in bringing their children up, but that this task is shared by other adults with whom they have contact. If the rules of what is and is not acceptable in adult society are very clear, then all adults can feel confident in explaining to all children the behaviour that is expected of them, and parents are not left isolated.

    In this sense, I am not sure that the French parenting you describe can be compared to Montessori parenting. I have some sympathy with the Montessori attitude towards the importance of independent play for children, particularly around allowing them to take risks. But from what I have read about Montessori, it is very much a ‘child-centered’ parenting technique, with advice given on how to re-organise your home to make it the right kind of environment for children to develop and learn. In this sense, Montessori fits in with ‘parental determinism’ and the ‘child-king’ syndrome.

    Montessori represents yet another parenting ‘technique’ that parents can adopt. The plethora of such parenting styles and techniques seems to bring confusion and anxieties to parents in the US and UK, as you describe so well in your book. But as you also describe, parenting manuals exist in French society too, but are taken less seriously by French parents.

    My questions are these – is it possible to have a strong sense of adult authority and solidarity without a strong sense of tradition and social conformity? Is the social conformity that you describe necessary or desirable? Can we have adult authority without social conformity?

    • Tricia M August 11, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

      Hi Sally,
      Hmmm… interesting questions about authority without social conformity. I’d love to hear Pamela’s answer on that.

      But, I have to tell you that I think you have a gross misunderstanding of Montessori philosophy. A solid Montessori classroom or home environment would never tolerate the child-king syndrome. The Montessori environment is one of the most rigid and structured education environments I’ve ever seen (I’m an education consultant and have observed and studied a large variety of school models.) The rules are firm and unwavering and are entirely adult-directed rules. The timing and subject matter is the part that “follows the child.” For example, the teacher observes the child to determine when the child is ready to learn their multiplication tables. Then when the child has the interest and ability, the multiplication is taught. Then the child can struggle with that lesson independently or with a friend or a teacher for as short or as long of a time as he needs to to fully understand it. Most of the materials are self correcting so that the child can work independently at their own pace. However, the lesson itself is highly structured and there are very definite rules on how to do the work. A child is not even allowed to touch a classroom material unless they have had a lesson on that material from the teacher first. Amazingly, even 2 year olds obey this firm rule and show the self restraint to only “play” with the materials that they have been shown how to use.

      In the home environment, we have rearranged our house Montessori-style to accommodate the child’s ability to learn self-sufficiency which results in the opposite of the child-king syndrome. For example, anything my child could need is at a lower level so that they may take responsibility for themselves rather than demanding that an adult do for them. They can reach all the utensils, plates, glasses, etc so that they are responsible for setting the table and clearing the table. There are stools everywhere. Dustpans, brooms, and cleaning supplies are abundant in the lower cabinets so that they may clean their own spills. Toys are in very neat bins, out of the way of the adult living space, and children are directed (Montessori style) to put away one toy/game before they take out another. Kids love that sense of order and they are happy to see how they can fit into our adult household… chores are everyday expected customs rather than a trick or task that deserves a reward.

      Back to your interesting question about how to have adult authority without social conformity… one of the reasons why the Montessori classroom runs so smoothly, is because of the social conformity and the multi-age groupings. If a 3 year old leaves a mess in the snack area, a 5 year old in the same class is very likely to notice and then on their own respectfully go and show the 2 year old where the (child-sized) dustpan is located. The younger children new to the classroom are quick to catch on to the well established traditions and unwritten rules of the environment. In order to maintain authority, the teacher “only” needs to create an organized structured environment and then can almost sit back and watch how happily young children are eager to learn and follow the social conformity. I’ve seen parents of multiple children run an efficient household this way too. Put a do-able consistent system in place (home, school, or work) and people of all ages are often eager and relieved to fall into step with the rules.

  3. Anu May 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    Ha, this post and the bit about serrated knives reminded of my own years in a Montessori school (in India). We too were given serrated knives at a very young age — I think around 3 years old, and I remember cutting carrots and cucumber sticks into little pieces and seasoning them with salt, pepper and lime juice very fondly. I don’t think it was all that dangerous honestly! The knives weren’t really capable of doing too much damage.

  4. Crystal October 31, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    I suspect the knife in question is blunt-tipped or the the serrated vegetable chopper as shown on this site:

    Loved these posts, and I loved the book.

  5. Marni November 6, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    I too kept thinking, “This is what I do!!!” when I was reading “Bringing up Bebe”. I am reading it for the second time now due to my insecurities of being so unlike my English Canadian neighbours. I feel like I am a minority, which is difficult for me because I want to please the other mothers… Can you recommend any books that talk about the Montessori method? That might be nice for me to read as well. 🙂

  6. Adobe Montessori November 20, 2012 at 4:18 am #

    “Meaningful work” is such an important part of any montessori program. I find it wonderful that your daughters at such a young age are able to accomplish so much. I commend you on your parenting abilities! Well done.


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