“C’est pas possible.” When I lived in France, I heard this phrase countless times and in countless ways and it infuriated me. It was the rigidity of the answer that bristled. Of course it was possible. Creating gold from stone lead is impossible. Issuing a permit or opening a bank account is, in fact, very possible. You just didn’t want to do it! There’s always a workaround. There’s always an unexplored option or yet-to-be brainstormed compromise. Flexibility. There’s always a way.
Yet, after reading an excerptt (linked to on Facebook by a lovely writer friend) from Pamela Druckerman’s Bring up Bebe which appeared, Tiger Mother style, in The Wall Street Journal, the frustration with which I met this phrase has now been replaced by optimism. C’est pas possible might just become my new parenting mantra.
I’ve long been interested in the ways, varied and sundry, that parents of the world flout North American parenting advice, yet still, somehow, miraculously (if you’d believe the Searses and Weissbluths of the world) raise well adjusted, happy, functional adults. And, according to Druckerman, the French are doing just that, despite the manifest absence of whirring parental helicopter blades.
Druckerman describes the French notion of a cadre, or frame, which confines children within limits of acceptable behavior. What is outside that cadre is pas possible, and rigidly so. But inside, kids are free to do as they like. For French parents, a firm but polite Non! is what keeps their tots firmly within the cadre. A Non! delivered with authority keeps a child within the bounds of the sandbox while his mother chats, unperturbed, on a nearby bench.
French kids cry it out. They sleep all night, alone by age three moths. Their mothers don’t often breastfeed beyond six weeks. They are not pumped full of goldfish crackers and Cherrios. Yet, they are read to, doted on, and ferried to and from enriching lessons, but family life is not dictated by the needs and wants of the progeny.
Bottom line, it works. French parents love their kids, make them eat their vegetables and sit at the dinner table and their babies grow into adults and they turn out just fine.
Japanese kids, by contrast, seem to have no cadre at all. At least when they’re young. Recently I was with my daughter at a drop in play center, and she was on the receiving end of a pint-sized cuff. While my lizard brain responded defensively, my logical mind, for once, overrode the impulse to shoot dagger eyes at the kid and his mother. The mother of the offending tot did not make any showy displays of discipline; the wee boxer was not sidelined, or timed-out, or even scolded, really. Instead, she proffered an apologetic glance and bow, and then brought her kid to another part of the room. No biggie.
It was as if the mother felt that such behaviour was totally possible, in fact, it was inevitable. Kids will be kids, and part of that state of being means occasionally walloping other kids on the head.
In Japan, as I’ve written before, children are not expected to go to bed at a reasonable time. They sleep with their mothers beyond the age that would be acceptable to even the hippiest of North American hippies. Children run freely. Candy is administered liberally.
It’s not till much later that the cadre descends swiftly and suddenly, and, perhaps, claustrophobically on Japanese kids. A full, rigorous day in school is followed by an entire evening, and often weekend at juku, or cram school. Kids can’t be kids. They don’t get to play. And when they do get downtime, their faces are glued to all manner of electronic screens.
But. It works.
Bottom line, Japanese parents love their kids, let them eat candy, make them study hard, and their babies grow into adults and they turn out just fine.
So, it stands to reason, then, that a parent should not worry so much about what is right and instead do what’s right for them. Maybe for French parents, it’s more desirable to let a child cry it out so they might rest. Or maybe a sharp reproach that corrects a child who is impinging on carefully guarded adult time is what is right. For Japanese parents, perhaps it is right to bypass the hours-long struggle to cajole a sleepless babe to slumber and just keep the kid up till 11 pm. Maybe the value of avoiding whining pleas for candy is greater than the potential damage of tooth decay.
Which is where pas possible comes in. For the French, it’s pas possible to allow a child to run wild at dinner or be up multiple times during the night. For Japanese, it’s also pas possible to expect a one-year-old to sleep solo, let alone though the night.
It’s a mindset.
For me, it’s been exceedingly vexing that my kid climb my leg and whine and cry and scream and flail and throw her snot-encrusted body on the ground because I’m washing the dishes. But until now, it has still been possible. And it’s been equally possible (and equally infurating) that she be unable to entertain herself while I take five minutes to drink a coffee and write a grocery list. And you know what, I’m giving up my ambivalence about that. It’s now pas possible. And I don’t feel one wee bit badly.
Pas Possible. Polite but firm. Rigid. Still kind. But, pas possible.
Its my new parenting mantra.
Watch out, kid.
Late afternoon, as school lets out, children pour into the streets, lithe and exuberant. They are unburdened by the texts they must read, the exercises that must be completed, and the kana to be memorized, the heavy load carried by their blue and red leather packs will be ignored until after their okashi.
They all carry the same backpacks. Red for girls. Blue for boys. Subtle differences can be spotted, if you look closely: this one is a pinker shade of red; this cheaply constructed, ignoble in it’s vinyl exterior; this one crafted of the finest leather, whispering of luxury expense, and doting grandparents. But they’re essentially all the same. Same shape. Same size. Same. Same. Same.
I asked my friend, a mother to a gaggle of Japanese-born foreigners, if the backpacks were a requirement, a uniform of sorts. “Not really,” she replied. “But what if they wanted, like, a Thomas The Tank Engine school bag, or something? What about individuality? What about personal expression? What about fostering a sense of uniqueness,” I challenged. “You just wouldn't do that. It’s not really done. And anyway, my kids are all blond. I wouldn’t want my them to stand out more than they already do.”
Japan is a nation of ingroups and outgroups. Its a place where belonging, and conforming are more important than in any other country which I have ever visited. Japanese wear uniforms their whole lives. At birth, babies are dressed alike, in a kimono provided by the hospital. They enter kindergarten with white shirts and blue shorts, knee socks and blazers. By high school they’re in mao suits or plaid skirts, all sporting the same hair cut --straight black hair, bangs, low pigtails. By adult hood the uniform is less obvious, no less important. Spiky orange hair, fussed over endlessly, and flashy suits for too-cool-for-school young men who hope to emulate red-light district pimps. Sensible dark suits, sensible blue shirts, sensible striped ties for salary men. Perfectly quaffed housewives, in perfectly matched skirts and twinsets, LV bags on the crock of their arms. Young women in the same floral romper, the same pot-pie hat, the same chambray shirt. Belonging is important. Sameness evokes acceptance.
Stella is just starting to notice difference, I mean, for what I can deduce based on gestures and the odd utterance of ammmm!!! (cat). Last week at breakfast, she was mesmerized by a group of caucasian children pictured in a German magazine. She kept pointing to her hair and then stroking her own, as if to say, “Look! they’re like me.”
I don’t know when, exactly, children start to become aware of ingroups and outgroups, of difference, of race, of cultural vairances. I don’t know, really, if my child feels left out, if somehow she is, already, at the tender age of one-and-a-half, having a minority experience, longing for role-models who look “like her”, feeling the prick of isolation and exclusion, or if her heart aches, even if only slightly, for feeling different. I have no wise words to offer here, no thoughtful conclusions. I just wonder, and hope that she feels good. (Wise words and thoughtful conclusions would be greatly appreciated from you, though).
If she wants one, though, I’ll probably buy her a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack.
If I were to ask you if I could bring Stella to a grown-up party, would you shoot me eye daggers and mind-punch me right in the kisser? Apparently, you would, if you are a reader of and commenter on NYT’s Motherlode.
KJ Dell’Antonia posted about a timely parenting quandary: to bring or not to bring one’s 18 month old child to a fancy adult New Years Eve party in the wake of a canceled babysitter. A Motherlode reader was invited to a party in a fancy resturant. At the last moment her babysitter canceled, and so she called the host and asked if she might bring her child. Dell’Antonia threw the query out to her audience: was the mother of the 18 month old rude to ask? And how should the host respond?
My initial reaction upon reading this post was to think, of course the mother was not rude. In fact she responded appropriately, asking, rather than just assuming her child would be welcomed. And the duty of a host is to accommodate one’s guests graciously. Thus, the doors should be open widely, even to unexpected pint-sized revelers. Nearly every single commenter disagreed with me.
The vigor and vehemence of the commenters collective and universal abhorrence of children at grown-up events shocked me. I thought back to my own childhood, and the adult parties I went to. I reflected on the numerous times I’ve seen small kids here in Aisa out well beyond bedtime. I thought about kids running wild through the halls of five star hotels in China. And all that left me wondering, are we living in an era and a culture of pediaphobia?
One need only to look towards the intolerance with which children are welcomed onto airplanes for further evidence in support of this hypothesis. Our culture is rife with parental judgment and competition, as well as with parental anxiety. We criticize, sometimes inwardly, sometimes overtly and viciously, parents whose choices are not in line with our own child rearing practices. We disdain and mock big kids in strollers. We curse our children for their wakefulness. Still we invest exorbitant amounts of time, and often money, in baby betterment projects, and are always vigilantly on guard, observing our children for any sign of delay, deficiency, or some sort of diagnosable problem, be it simple as tongue tie or complex as Autism.
The culture of parenting hums along at the low-level frequency of anxiety. We worry that our kids will misbehave, that they’ll not sleep properly, that people will judge our parenting, that there will be something wrong with our kids, that we’ll do something wrong with our kids. We’re frightened of them, their mess, their demands, and what they might say about us. So we want to keep the kids contained in kindergartens and Chuck E. Cheeses’, and the hell outta grown up parties.
I wonder what exactly the impetuous to all of this is? Is it the aging, child-free (and thereby sticky, screamy mess-free), baby boomers, with their grasp still hanging on firmly on the tiller of popular culture who are driving this? Is it a backlash against the fetishizing of motherhood? The tabloids celebrating celebrity bumps and celebrity babies? Is it just because we’re selfish and don’t like to be distracted from our drunken revelry by some kid who may or may not be crying?
If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them. Because really, what the what, people???
The doors open, and we walk into the subway car. Quiet and staid in the florescent light, passengers are engrossed in their mobile phones. The screenless examine at their hands, wordlessly, careful not to catch, accidentally, a stranger’s eye. The train pulls out of the station, and we sit down. Stella looks around, catches sight of a middle-aged lady across the car, then flashes a smile and a shy wave. The lady doesn’t see at first. Stella persists. And then the lady looks up and smiles, welcoming engagement. We’re foreigners. We can break the rules. Stella hops down off the bench, ventures into the aisle, no further than the reach of my arm will allow. The lady hides behind her hands, then peaks through, BA! Stella smiles brightly. The lady offers a hand. Stella grabs it, and is lifted up onto the bench beside the stranger. She sits there a moment, and then comes back to me as we pull into the next station.
We hear the cacophony of children before we see them. Its 2:30. Kindergarten has let out for the day, and the park is full of little ones in white shirts and blue shorts, brightly capped heads darting around the playground. The mothers are gathered together under a tree, gossiping I think. A group of children run up, demanding candy, and they’re off again, mouths full of sweets. A young mother in heals and full make-up keeps half an eye on her baby, not quite waking yet, but crawling expertly. He scrabbles up a rope net on a play structure, unassisted. He’s not even one. A group of girls, barefoot in the cool afternoon, gather at the bottom of a slide. They bound halfway up before losing momentum and tumbling down again. Boys stand at the top of the slide, waiting. They negotiate, shrieking a little. And then slide down. There are no collisions. No parents hover.
Early morning, on the way to daycare. Uniformed children, yellow caps and blue leather backpacks walk together on the sidewalk. They are, perhaps, six years old. Then suddenly they’re racing towards the post, clambering to be the first to press the button. They wait. The light changes. They cross the street. There are no adults to usher them across.
I asked my pediatrician about his impressions of America. He completed a fellowship at Harvard Medical School, and spent two and a half years in Boston. He told me, “I am a pediatrician, I love babies. When I see one on the street, I smile.” It’s true. When we walk through the curtain and into his office, his face opens, almost to the point of a silent laugh. He told me of american parents, and how they would shrink away from him, shielding their babies from the smiling gaze of a stranger. Worried. Stranger danger. “But I’m not a bad man! I’m just a pediatrician!” he told me.
Kids run free in Japan. They go to bed with tiredness, not with the clock. They play well out of hovering range. They walk to school alone. Candy is offered liberally. They ride in the car in the front seat. Sometimes even on their mother’s lap. They don’t wear helmets. There does not seem to be a low-grade paranoia humming through the air. That paranoia, absent here, governs all parental decisions back at home in North America.
I feed my daughter whole grains, everything homemade, but I let her share a a piece chocolate with me. And a sip of my iced latte, if she asks nicely. I strap her helmet on, even just for a ride around the block. She rides in a car seat, facing backwards, because its safer. But I’ll leave her alone in the sandbox for a moment while I get her bucket. And I’ll happily let a stranger on the train pick her up or pinch her cheek. She loves the attention.
There is much that I find frustrating about living in Japan, and much that makes my blood boil. Yet, even on doomiest of dark days I can always see that Japan is a wonderful place for little children. And parenting here has clipped my helicopter wings. If ever so slightly.