Tag Archives: Parenting Without Borders

i’d say he’s average

I could see the penalty shoot out, but only just. Five balls in the back of the net and you win a prize! My two sons were standing in line, waiting, kicking up the dirt together in anticipation. It was the older one I couldn’t bear to watch. If I looked closely, I knew what I would find: determination etched into his face like warpaint. Desperation too. I would remember the times in the past he had crumpled under the inability to meet his own towering standards. I would get that queasy feeling in my gut, the one he of my four kids stirs up most regularly. This child, my first child, has never taken failure lightly.

And fail he did. Not a single shot in. At seven and a half, he was able to hold it together long enough to find me and stuff his face into my armpit before starting to cry. We walked away from the field slowly, closely, which somehow made getting to the heart of the matter easier. ‘I’m rubbish at football!’ he said, between sobs, a declaration but maybe in some small way a question. Could his mother, by the sheer power of her answer, make him better at something than he really was? ‘It was hard,’ I conceded, ‘the goalie was big.’ ‘Yeah, but Gabe scored twice.’ We are well past the age when they are oblivious to how their strengths and weaknesses stack up against their friends’.

‘Keep practicing,’ I offer, but the kid practices all the time. He’s out in the back garden after school kicking the ball around for hours, some nights I have to drag him inside flailing in protest. Effort is not the missing ingredient. Talent very well might be. ‘You’re not going to be good at everything,’ I say, and he hiccups a little though he’s heard these words before. It’s a standard line in our house, something I tell my kids almost as often as I cheer them on. And I cheer them on a lot.

The truth is that I don’t know how good Oliver is at football. Other things he does are more quantifiable to me. I know, for instance, at what level he reads. I know that when he was younger he was spectacularly bad at drawing. I know that he can sing sweetly and in tune and that he can’t run very fast for his age. I don’t know how good he is at football, but I can make an educated guess. I’d say he’s average.

The dreaded ‘a’ word. The ugly step-sister of that other ‘a’ word, the one thrown around in playgroups and parks with a frequency that belies its meaning: ‘advanced.’ Or if not advanced, then at least above average. It feels like every other child I know has been described to me as advanced or above average in some respect. Sure enough, a handful of them are. But the rest? The bell curve of life tells us they can’t be. The issue is not the kids, who are no doubt each uniquely wonderful (I mean that). It’s the moms and the dads and the stunning lack of objectivity that seems to go hand in hand with parenting these days.

We start out exaggerating wildly about them when they are tiny - ‘The cutest baby in the whole world!‘ - because we think the pitch of our language should match the ferocity of our love. Then they become toddlers and we see everywhere in their ordinary achievements signs of genius because we are bewitched by the magic of milestones. Finally they go to school where teachers and testing and teams reveal they aren’t as perfectly well-rounded as we imagined, but we continue to applaud them indiscriminately just the same. This time because we are convinced it is the way to re-boost their self-assurance. It’s an American phenomenon, this party of praise, says Christine Gross-Loh in Parenting Without Borders. It’s also a relatively recent one.

I wasn’t raised like that. If telling it like it is were an Olympic sport, my mom would medal in it. Her matter-of-factness didn’t always make me feel warm and gooey, but it did give me a realistic perspective on myself. It helped me to appreciate what I was actually good at. And it encouraged me to work damn hard at what I wasn’t. I never felt like my mom supported me any less in her candor: she was my biggest advocate. What I felt, rather, is that she saw me more for who I was and grounded me, as a result, in that vision.

Which is what I hope to do for my own children. Being honest with them about their deficits as well as their gifts is a choice, personal and deliberate. I can’t watch my kid miss five out of five penalty shots and think he did a ‘Great job!’. I won’t tell him he did, either. I don’t want him to expect success around every corner just because he turns it. What I want for him is to learn how to find enjoyment in the things he loves but doesn’t excel at. To grow as a person by striving for what doesn’t come naturally. Most of all what I want for him is to see himself clearly and to take pride in the picture nonetheless.

True confidence stems as much from self-awareness as it does from self-esteem.

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This post is part of a ‘blogging carnival’ about cultural attitudes toward self-esteem and praise, inspired by the book Parenting Without Borders. Read the other participants’ thoughts at the links below:


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food, glorious food

We had a French family over for brunch one Sunday morning not too long ago. The father was a colleague of my husband’s, visiting Scotland from Paris on an academic stint. The children, a girl and a boy, were 10 and 7. Secretly, I was excited to see for myself what would happen at the table. The notion that French kids don’t throw their food, that their palates are broad and distinguished, that they hardly snack, is floating around almost everywhere in the parenting ether these days. Thanks to Pamela Druckerman’s wonderfully enlightening books on the subject, it is becoming something of a cliche.

True to form, the enfants joined us for a buffet of Serrano ham and assorted cheeses, goat and blue. They ate salad, they ate neatly and they perched politely at our under-sized table before returning to play by themselves in the next room. It was all a bit textbook, I have to admit. Equally textbook was what was transpiring on the other side of the kitchen. There, to round out the cultural divide, my two-year-old son had left his meal largely untouched. Instead, he was spitting milk methodically onto the tray of his highchair and licking it up. The slurping noises were hard to ignore. Our guests made a good show of not noticing.

Stereotypes are built up and then they are broken down just as quickly: my other two-year-old was sitting nicely in her highchair, doing essentially the toddler version of what the rest of us were. The twins are different in this respect. They were given the same food consistently since they started solids, but one of them has become pickier over time and one of them continues to eat everything. They were taught the same manners around the ‘table’, but one of them launches pasta like little rocket ships and one of them doesn’t. If the stereotypes are to be believed, one of them could have been brought up amidst the olive groves of Provence and the other in the heart of New York City. And yet, they both learned to eat in the selfsame kitchen in Glasgow.

My older sons follow a similar pattern, which means that I have two kids who eat widely and adventurously and two who are, let’s say, more circumspect. The reasons for this elude me. Having four children allows you to speculate wildly about determining factors. I can tell you, for instance, that the pair whom I dub the ‘good eaters’ - the ones who munch chargrilled squid and Tarka Daal and Caesar salad with gusto - are the fairer-haired of the lot. I can tell you that they are also the ones who sleep sounder, worry more and focus longer. I can tell you that, but I don’t seriously believe any of those things is responsible for the expanse of their taste buds.

So what is? This is the question I kept asking myself as I lapped up the chapter on global eating in Christine Gross-Loh’s illuminating book Parenting Without Borders. Gross-Loh discusses large-scale cultural differences in children’s food habits across several countries. The thrust is that not everyone eats as badly or as hyper-sensitively or as irreverently as Americans do. In France and Japan, for example, the kids partake in the same menu as the adults and there is a solemnity around the process of eating that is passed down from generation to generation. In places such as Sweden, children are given a lot of choice about what they eat and, consequently, make sensible ones.

I buy into the concept of a culturally acquired attitude toward food, to a degree. My cross-cultural children vary in the kinds of food they will eat happily and their willingness to try new things, but there is still a sense in which we have a shared relationship to the stuff. I’m just not sure how much it can be reduced to being American or being British. It feels, rather, more like an idiosyncratic mixture of personal influences, those practices from our pasts my husband and I have embraced and those we have rejected, mainly by instinct.

From my Jewish American roots comes the idea that food can be an expression of love and the binding agent of family celebrations; that ‘junk’ should be allowed in moderation so as not to cultivate excessive interest in it; that eating out is a pleasure, as is ordering in, and that there is no shame in not wanting to cook; that low blood sugar is serious business indeed. My husband’s family, on the other hand, is English and excessively mannered. We appreciate from them the idea that children should behave around the table, though we don’t allow formality to override enjoyment. Our kids relish my mother-in-law’s famous roast dinners and they like to don their aprons to help in its preparation. They snack a lot, which is an American phenomenon, but also a British one, where mid-morning (‘elevenses’) and mid-afternoon (‘tea time’) nibbles are a welcomed part of the schedule.

Our family’s eating habits, in other words, are a smorgasbord. The constant about them is that food both is and is not a big deal. We love it, we all love it. But we don’t stress about it. We have tendencies (bums on seats, plates to be cleared, the unfamiliar not snubbed outright, brown bread only, no artificial sweeteners), but they are not set in stone. The kids eat well on the whole (fish, vegetables, legumes, fruit, cheese), but they go to McDonald’s on occasion too (gasp!). There are times we sit properly at the table en famille; there are more when we eat quickly and separately, a means to an end. Dessert can be Reese’s peanut butter cups one night, yogurt and blueberries another. Yet another night it can be a bowl of cereal or a smoked salmon and cucumber sandwich. While individual days might not be perfect specimens of nutritiousness, the week usually balances out.

There are so many issues surrounding the raising of children that can drive a parent to distraction. In our house, food is not one of them. Some meals it is all about being fresh and home-cooked. Some meals it is ‘finish your pizza before you start your ice cream.’ We could be healthier, there is no doubt about that. But we could also have far more hang-ups about eating. The fact that we don’t is good enough for me.


This post is part of a ‘blogging carnival’ about cultural attitudes toward food, inspired by the book Parenting Without Borders. Read the other participants’ thoughts at the links below:


Filed under parenting