The most annoying Grandma in the world

Happened to be staying at our condo resort in Napili Bay last month. No matter where she was or what she (or her 18-month-ish grandson) was doing, her mouth did not stop moving. I first encountered her at the pool, where the soundtrack went something like this:

“Oh look, daddy’s swimming!…swim daddy swim, kick, kick kick!…do you want to swim? We’ll swim after a snack…just like daddy’s swimming…see him swimming in the pool?…there’s the pool…look at the water in the pool….daddy’s swimming in the water in the pool!…let’s have some yogurt…strawberry yogurt…yum, yummy yogurt, strawberry yogurt…spoon, we eat yogurt with a spoon..mmm mmm mmm…look at the birdie by the pool, look there’s a birdie…birdies fly!…” and on and on….and on she went. And everywhere I saw them (beach, grass, restaurant, lanai) a similar scene was playing out.

After half an hour or so of this ceaseless running commentary, I was screaming on the inside for her to shut the fuck up (and I swear, I swear that the poor shell-shocked, overstimulated kid was too).

In a serendipitous twist, this all went down while I was reading Bringing Up Bebe, and within a day or two I stumbled across a section that described exactly what I kept seeing this woman doing (and have seen lots of other parents do to a lesser extent)  – but previously lacked the terminology to describe: narrated play.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“…I’m stunned by what I see at a playground in New York City. It’s a special toddler area with a low-rise slide and some bouncy animals, separated from the rest of the park by a high metal gate. The playground is designed for toddlers to safely climb around and fall. A few nannies are sitting French-style on benches around the perimeter, chatting and watching their charges play.

Then a white, upper-middle-class mother walks in with her toddler. She follows him around the miniature equipment, while keeping up a nonstop monologue. “Do you want to go on the froggy, Caleb? Do you want to go on the swing?”

Caleb ignores these questions. He evidently plans to just bumble around. But his mother tracks him, continuing to narrate his every move. “You’re stepping, Caleb!” she says at one point.

I assume that Caleb just landed a particularly zealous mother. But then the next upper-middle-class woman walks through the gate, pushing a blond toddler in a black T-shirt. She immediately begins narrating all of her child’s actions too. When the boy wanders over to the gate to stare out at the lawn, the mother evidently decides this isn’t stimulating enough. She rushes over and holds him upside down.

“You’re upside down!” she shouts. Moments later, she lifts up her shirt to offer the boy a nip of milk. “We came to the park! We came to the park!” she chirps while he’s drinking.

This scene keeps repeating itself with other moms and their kids. After about an hour I can predict with total accuracy whether a mother is going to do this “narrated play” simply by the price of her handbag. What’s most surprising to me is that these mothers aren’t ashamed of how batty they sound. They’re not whispering their commentaries, they’re broadcasting them.

When I describe this scene to Michel Cohen, the French pediatrician in New York, he knows immediately what I’m talking about. He says these mothers are speaking loudly to flaunt what good parents they are. The practice of narrated play is so common that Cohen included a section in his parenting book called Stimulation, which essentially tells mothers to cut it out. “Periods of playing and laughing should alternate naturally with periods of peace and quiet,” Cohen writes. “You don’t have to talk, sing or entertain constantly.”

Whatever your view on whether this intensive supervision is good for kids, it seems to make child care less pleasant for mothers [footnote to a 2009 study]. Just watching it is exhausting…”

Exhausting indeed. Does it make child care less pleasant for mothers? It completely would for me, and it’s absolutely obnoxious from a bystander’s perspective…so why was she doing it? I’m not convinced that there is an upper middle class tendency or that it’s to flaunt what good parents they are…it seems like they might be doing it just because they think they’re supposed to. Like it’s a way of confirming that they are actively involved, squeezing every “teachable moment” into their kid’s day and being present (perhaps so they don’t end up being publicly skewered à la that ridiculously judgy and guilt-inducing Dear Mom on the iPhone thing that exploded all over my Facebook newsfeed a couple years ago.)

My main objection (other than how annoying it is to people around you) is that it feels like it steps all over the kid’s play time. It’s invasive. Doesn’t your kid deserve a little space to just be, without having to be the subject of a (very boring) documentary?

Play, by definition, is activity that is self-chosen, self-directed and done for no reward other than its own pleasure. But of course, there are other long-term rewards (that the kids aren’t aware of) as they learn to explore, observe, discover, interact with the natural and social world and “make believe”. Until we adults ruin it by trying to verbalize, intellectualize and ascribe meaning. My mom used to say that play is a child’s job. I think that’s true, but I’d also argue that they don’t need a manager, performance review or agenda in order to be successful.

It’s so sad to me that letting your kids play freely without butting in is so rare nowadays that we had to invent special terms for it – like “free range parenting” or “self-directed playtime”. It’s even sadder when it starts in baby or toddlerhood. And sadder still when it interferes with my peaceful Maui pool time when I’m pregnant and can’t even make a fun drinking game of it.

Book Review: Bringing up Bebe

I managed to read not one, but two, baby-related books while on vacation in Hawaii a few weeks ago. In my usual self-serving fashion, they were both books that I felt fairly certain would bolster rather than challenge my pre-existing views on child-rearing. Particularly this first one up for review in which an American mom living in Paris (Pamela Druckerman) notices differences in the way the Parisienne moms were raising their kids compared to the way she and her American friends were doing it.

Specifically, she wonders things like: Why didn’t my French friends ever need to rush off the phone because their kids were demanding something? Why hadn’t their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had? Why didn’t French children throw food? And why weren’t their parents shouting? Why do so many French babies start sleeping through the night at two or three months old? Why didn’t French children require constant attention from adults and seemed capable of hearing the word “no” without collapsing?

 For those who remember my earlier post, Do I have to? you’ll know these kinds of questions about parenting are right up my alley.

While this book is more witty observation than “how-to” manual, there’s a lot of practical advice to glean from the anecdotes, research tidbits and philosophical musings on feeding/eating, sleep, routine, discipline, play, manners and general behavioural expectations. But what was most appealing to me was just the overarching viewpoint of the “French way”, which boils down to the elegantly simple premise that when we become parents, our own (and other adults’) needs should remain at least as important as our child’s. It is from this singular belief that every other principle of French parenting flows…adults make the rules, adult time is important, adults are unapologetic about saying “no” or “that’s enough” to curb bratty behaviour, kids learn to be patient…in other words, parents refuse to create a world that revolves around the whims and urges of pint-sized tyrants at the expense of parental happiness.

It seems reasonable enough, but it really does buck the “more you suffer for your children, the more you must care” mentality that often seems to define the modern approach to parenting. For the French, parenting is just one part of life, rather than an all-consuming, anxiety-ridden project where a mom’s sacrifices and “achievements” are documented on social media for all to admire (or judge).

The other empowering theme within the book is that kids, even babies, are inherently rational and therefore can be taught to behave (for the most part – yes, tantrums happen) rationally. She posits that where North American parents tend to ascribe their child’s problematic behaviour to “uncontrollable” elements of their personality or character (who hasn’t heard the mom of a toddler terror say something like, “she’s just so strong-willed / spirited / precocious / gifted”) French parents think that behaviour is learned—and it’s the parents’ job to educate, firmly and consistently. It’s not about “crushing their spirit”, it’s about realizing that letting your three-year-old tear open a bag of flour in the grocery store (yeah I JUST saw this) isn’t actually doing their creative or spiritual development any favours. The French actually believe that kids blossom best within limits, and that it’s reassuring for them to know that an adult is steering the ship. With that comes something else that I truly believe: that when you treat kids as if they can control themselves – as if they are rational and responsible enough to handle it – they will tend to prove you right. Conversely, if you treat them as if they are uncontrollable beasts – well, don’t be surprised when they act like it.

Anyways, LOTS of good nuggets in this book, some of which I will probably cover at greater length in other posts including “le cadre” (framework) and “le pause” (waiting/patience).

For now…who would appreciate this book? I’d say that you have to be confident (or willing to learn how to be) in your ability to be in charge, while also willing to largely back off and let your child be. Those might seem like contradictory approaches, but the gist of it is learning how to establish very firm guidelines on a few major things and then being pretty relaxed about a lot of other things.