“Shut up and get the f..ck out!,” a Russian woman shouted, startling the entire beach in Antibes, France. The words actually sounded much harsher in Russian, verging on obscene, even though all the commotion was about getting her three or four-year-old son out of the sea. As no reaction was forthcoming, after a few more screams she violently grabbed her kid (who, too, had started crying hysterically at that point) by the arm and dragged him out of the water.
It was a steamy Saturday afternoon at the end of June. The beach was crowded, but the rest of the vacationers, most of them locals, somehow managed to refrain from raising their voices at their offspring. The French, in fact, stared at the desperate mother in disbelief. I wasn't shocked, just slightly embarrassed by the scene, knowing that such outbursts were unfortunately an essential part of the Russian parenting culture.
Not so in France, it seems. Not long ago I came across a curious book titled “Bringing Up Bebe” by an American journalist Pamela Druckerman, who had lived in Paris with her husband and kids for many years. A mother of three, she noticed the striking differences in the ways modern middle class French and American parents treat their children starting from birth, and how more disciplined, obedient and yet impressively self-sufficient most Gallic kids are compared to their little peers across the Atlantic.
“After having a baby in France, I noticed that French kids sleep through the night by the time they are two months old, play quietly while their mothers chat, and don't throw tantrums. Family life in France is generally much calmer than in America. French mothers don't radiate that mix of fatigue, worry, and on-the-vergeness that's bursting out of many American moms I know – myself included,” Druckerman confessed in a recent interview to Marie Claire USA magazine.
She also noted that most French moms didn't abandon their social lives after childbirth, especially since many prefer feeding babies “adult food” and baby formula as soon as possible to breastfeeding. Most didn't rearrange their schedules to fit the baby's needs, following the guilt-free approach that “evenings are for adults,” and as the children grew a bit older, never overprotected or “hyper-parented” them. If the latter misbehave, they would always exert the authoritative and non-negotiable “C'est moi qui décide.” But nothing harsher than that.
The book topped the New York Times bestselling list, landing on the frontline of the ongoing parenting debate spurred by Time magazine's controversial cover several months ago, featuring an attractive young mother breastfeeding a boy who looked at least five years old. That issue's cover story tackled the pros and cons of “attachment parenting,” a philosophy that is quite widespread in America today. Pioneered by the renowned doctors and authors of the bestselling 1992 “Baby Book” Bill and Martha Sears, it encourages the maximum and most intimate contact between a child and a mother. The longer the latter breastfeeds, co-sleeps and carries her baby in her arms or in a sling, the healthier her child is going to be both physically and emotionally, the authors believe.
Minding that incident at the French beach, I wondered which type of parenting culture prevails in today’s Russia. I believe that my generation is a product of a rather dogmatized and predominantly strict, if not severe, Soviet upbringing. It included being forced to eat, regular punishments, both verbal and physical, and a control of sorts. “Your opinion counts the least” was a phrase routinely pronounced by parents in the household where I grew up and, as my research shows, in many others.
It seems to me that a good deal of today’s young Russian mothers, especially those who hadn’t been exposed to Western influences, practice a similar parenting approach, but with doubled overprotection and excessive self-sacrifice. Many, I’ve noticed, demonstrate somewhat neurotic contradictory behavior, spoiling and abusing their offspring at the same time. I have often observed bouts of uncontrolled behavior both in mothers and children in Russia, similar to what the “Bringing Up Bebe” author had witnessed in American families. Some of the causes could be a lack of self-confidence caused by the mother’s own experiences as a child, or that “on-the-vergeness” Pamela Druckerman points out in her book, resulting from exhaustive “hyper-parenting.”
Being a parent is challenging by all means, and I am, of course, in no position to judge. It often happens that when having families of our own, those of us who had been traumatized back when we were little strive to overwrite the script, trying to do the opposite of what our parents did and to provide what we had lacked as kids, sometimes going overboard.
Still, I think the solution might lie somewhere in the middle. Avoiding extremes, trusting our instincts, respecting the needs of each particular child while not ignoring the ones of our own, overlooking any kind of dogma… Nothing too new – it was Doctor Benjamin Spock who had expressed in his 1946 “Baby and Child” bestseller the thought that could also be the motto of 21st century parenting, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.