Tag Archives: parenting

Why Are the Sexes Still Battling?

*Obligatory Structure Apology: This post covers the surface of two or three gender-related issues but doesn’t delve deeply into any of them. It flits from surface to surface without looking back and is more on the scatterbrained side of things than I hope my usual writings are. But consider it a free-write exercise or a stream-of-consciousness editorial. Faulkner got famous with that style.*

So, I wanna talk about The Gender Thing. Yes, capitalized. And it might get uncomfortable for you. It might even get uncomfortable for me. That’s okay. You can leave any time you want. I won’t mind. Promise. But if you decide to stay, put on your seatbelts and your thinking caps.

First and foremost, I have realized that the older I get, the more feminist I become. I’m not sure if this is a result of increased awareness, of some sort of defiant personal statement about my own situation in life, or just because feminism (or rather, gender equality, as I prefer to call it) actually does make more sense than any other alternative. Whatever the reason, as I have aged, my beliefs about women’s place in this world and how they ought to be treated have changed pretty dramatically. The world has come a long way too, even just since I’ve been alive, but not as far as it could come, and not as far as I have come.

Growing up, I actually had no concept of male dominance or gender inequality, or even gender roles. Mom and Dad both cooked. They both cleaned. They both mowed the lawn. They both drove the car. And they both worked full time. I do not have a single memory of my dad sitting on his butt while my mom did “women’s work,” nor do I remember my mom putting off yard work or car maintenance “until Dad got home.” When something needed to be done (with a few exceptions that I assumed – and rightly so, I think – were the result of procrastination/apathy more than gender-role assignment), whoever was around and able to do it, did it.

Parents make lots of mistakes raising their children, and my parents made plenty, I’m sure. (And I’m not just talking about the obvious injustices of not letting me go to the movies alone with my seventh-grade boyfriend, or revoked privileges when I broke a rule.) But one thing I had no idea my parents were doing right was The Gender Thing. Sometimes my dad made final decisions, and sometimes my mom made final decisions, and sometimes they both made final decisions. But nobody kept score (that I knew of), and neither one acted superior to the other.

My dad is ridiculously artistic, so he is the one who experimented on my hair when I was a kid. He gave me haircuts (using Scotch tape to adhere my bangs to my forehead and cutting straight across underneath the tape; early ’90s genius); he curled my hair using pink foam rollers; he braided it in tiny braids for me to sleep on overnight (I found out as a young adult that more well-off kids actually had plug-in devices to achieve the same effect); and he styled it into numerous variations of ponytails and pigtails. Once, on school picture day in fourth grade, he even gave me Farrah-Fawcett-feathered bangs. I was too young to appreciate it, and so were my classmates; I got made fun of mercilessly that day.

Growing up, though, I always got weird looks when people complimented me on what my mom had done with my hair and I told them it was my dad’s work. I wish I had understood then what I do now and been able to tell them, “There’s no such thing as a gender role at our house.” But I didn’t, so I just shrugged off their incredulous looks and instead replied, “Yeah. My dad is pretty cool.”

My parents told me the same thing all parents tell their kids when they’re young: You can be anything you want to be when you grow up. Yes, all parents say this to their children. Unfortunately, I don’t think all parents really mean it. But that’s a different blog post. My parents, however, totally meant it. And they never said anything to me about the limitations I might encounter because of my gender. Until I was about fifteen, my only career aspiration was veterinary science. But if, as a child, I had told my parents that what I wanted to do with my life was get a bachelor’s degree, work as an editor, buy a house at the age of 25, and stay unmarried, I am about 93% sure their response would’ve been: “Cool.” Because my parents believe in supporting my decisions. (Or at least, if they don’t believe that, they do a darn good job of pretending they do.  Come to think of it, they are both skilled actors…)

Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t believe that people can be or do whatever they want, and I have encountered some harsh instances of gender inequality in my life, most of them coming in the form of sexual harassment. For whatever reason, we live in a world ruled by men (you can’t argue that; it’s sociological fact); and, unfortunately, they often rule it with their penises.

From the time little boys are taught to pee standing up, they learn early on that their penises are powerful devices, able to be used for whatever purposes they can dream up. It’s why boys have peeing contests. It’s why the four-year-old I babysit once peed all over his bedroom. It’s why a young child a friend of mine used to babysit stood at the top of the stairwell in his family’s house and peed down to the bottom of it. It’s why men lord it over women that they can pee anywhere they want, any time they want, and we can’t. And it’s also why there’s so much phallic-shaped art in the world. Men get a kick out of drawing attention to their penises and what they can do. 

Contrarily, women are told that, because we have vaginas and because they sometimes bleed, that makes us unequal. After all, how can a woman who has wonky hormones once every month possibly be a good leader? Interesting logic, considering that male leader after male leader after male leader (including at least two beloved presidents of the United States) has proven that his hormonal tendencies are even more irregular – and often more frequent – than the average woman’s. At least with women, we can track it on the calendar and predict when hormones are going to get a little out of whack. With men, you never know.

It might be because a pretty girl makes eye contact from across the street. It might be because the wind blows a skirt up for a fraction of a second. It might be because a bra strap is showing (or at least, that’s what church camp said). Or heck, it might be because a guy stares at a blade of grass for too long and randomly springs an erection that has no discernible explanation. How often do men get erections? Healthy men, aged 25-50? At least once a day. I guarantee it.

Anyway, my point actually has nothing to do with who is better equipped to function in any given capacity, because people are equipped by natural or learned skills that have absolutely nothing to do with gender. So let’s not get further sidetracked by discussions of periods and erections. I guess my point is that this is a messed-up, completely broken world, and I’m pretty angry about the fact that I’ve experienced more than my fair share (if there is such a thing as a “fair share”) of sexual brokenness because of guys who thought they deserved to treat me and my body however they pleased, simply because my body exists, and because their penises communicated a desire to their brains.

And, honestly, I have wished in the past for those certain males to have something painful happen to their man parts. But that wouldn’t solve the larger problem, and anyway, in the interest of telling both sides of the story, there have been other instances when I’ve found myself in problematic situations and have made my own mistakes that I have had to take responsibility for. So I’m not pointing fingers at men or at women specifically.

am pointing fingers at the world in general. I don’t understand why it’s 2013 and the majority of women still earn lower salaries than men. Or why certain healthcare policies exclude or ignore women’s needs. Or why women compete with other women in any capacity other than pure athletics. Or why men still rape women (even their wives). Or why women still get cat-called or otherwise inappropriately addressed in public. I don’t understand it at all. And it makes me sad, and it makes me so angry.

But I’m grateful for the way I was raised as it regards gender roles (or the lack thereof, rather). And I’m grateful for the opportunity to be an aunt to a little girl whom I hope to teach early and often the truth about gender, and how that truth differs from what the world may try to tell her.

In some ways, feminism has been really good for this world, and in other ways it has simply made things more ridiculous, more difficult, more complicated. But my friend Karly articulated it well several days ago in a co-ed discussion about stay-at-home mothers. Feminism was originally about fighting for the right to choose, rather than the right to judge. If every person in this world was truly created equal, and if every person was truly created in the image of God, then terms like gender rolemisogyny, chauvinismfeminism, and sexism shouldn’t even exist.

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Filed under bloggy, experimental, irreverent, sentimental, stream of consciousness, writing exercises

Online Dating Is Not a Pit of Despair (Part 1 of 2)*

A few things have happened lately that have compelled the writing of this two-part post. The common denominator of those few things, however, is that I keep hearing horror stories centered around online dating, and my own experience does not quite match up with the stories I’ve heard, so I want to share a few things.

To begin, let me first shoo the hypocritical elephant out of the room (no, not Republicans; Republicans can stay, if they won’t get feisty). I’m talking about my own perceived hypocrisy about online dating. A lot of people have heard me verbally abuse the notion of online dating, spouting it as a venue for people who are insecure, lonely, and not good at social interaction. I’ve also talked about the superficiality of a connection made online and the impracticality of transitioning a relationship from online to in person. I’ve always ended my speeches with the concession that perhaps online dating works for some people but that, when I look into the future and see my own great love story playing out, online dating just does not have a role.

In some of these ways, I was wrong. In some ways, I was not. For instance, there are plenty of insecure, lonely, and socially handicapped people on online dating sites. But I can attest that there are plenty of normal, well-adjusted, even cool, people on there too. Hello, of course there are. I’m on there! I am currently taking my third stab at online dating, after being pretty secretive about the fact that I was doing it at all the first couple of times. I was always embarrassed to admit to people that I had an online dating profile. And I was pretty terrified by the idea of actually meeting in person a random stranger from a website. Furthermore, I always tell people that I crave a good how-we-met story, and “we met online” just doesn’t fit that bill for me.

So I never maintained my profiles for very long, maybe one or two months at a time, max, and I’ve only been on four dates total (this is over a span of three years since I created my first online profile, with long breaks in between while I pursued a year-long relationship in 2010 and another year-long relationship from 2011-2012; both were with people I met offline). I have never been willing to pay for online dating. As one girl put it when introducing me to her online boyfriend after telling me they met on Match.com, “I learned my lesson with the free sites. You get what you pay for.” I don’t know that I agree, but good for her. I’m glad she’s found someone.

But I’m no longer embarrassed about the fact that I participate in online dating. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily loud and proud, but it’s at least not a secret anymore. I realized, after getting “matched” with a couple of people I know in real life, that you can’t hide much of anything that’s on the internet. Besides that, it’s 2013. If people can shop for houses, groceries, pets, and cars online, why not life partners? Though I must say, I continue to perform all transactions related to the aforementioned examples IRL (that’s in real life, for those debating whether to check Urban Dictionary).

A lot of married people who found their mates before online dating became the norm like to express their pity for those who choose to participate in online dating. While that is annoying, it’s actually not all that different from all the married people who have – since the beginning of time, it seems – expressed pity for those who have not paired up yet. They disguise their pity as empathy, pretending to remember how terrible the dating scene was, and then they moon excessively about how wonderful having the right partner is, before moving on to the patronizing assurances that we’ll find “that special person” and that it will be “worth the wait.”

Ironically, most people who use the phrase worth the wait have no earthly idea what waiting really is, since they got married between the ages of 18 and 25 and likely began popping out babies shortly after that. For anyone reading who is married, just so you know, from now on, the only people I will take the worth the wait platitude from are people who got married at an age older than whatever age I happen to be at the time, or people who are divorced.

What is with this universal assumption that single people need pity? A lot of people like being single. Most of the time, the lifestyle does actually suit me better. Maybe there exist single people who wish desperately not to be single, but that’s not me, nor is it true of any of the single people I know who have earned my respect. Besides, one thing that’s guaranteed in life is change. I have been in love. And, even if I never get married, I believe that I will be in love again at some point in my life, whether that’s six months from now or thirty years (but God, if you’re reading, please don’t let it be thirty years).

The truth is, though, every time I get contemplative and consider how my life would have turned out if I’d gotten married at a certain age or to certain people I thought I couldn’t live without, I end up feeling grateful that I haven’t yet gotten married. The older I get, the more I learn about how difficult a journey marriage is, and I have not yet been mature enough, selfless enough, or wise enough to make taking those vows worth it – putting aside entirely the question of the “right” man; because I believe that my individual health is just as important as my partner being the right one for me. If I’m not a healthy person to begin with, then there’s no such thing as a “right” partner.

As for the feigned empathy and reminiscences from married men and women about how awful the dating scene was or is, here’s the thing: Dating is what you make it. I have always enjoyed dating, for my part, although my ideas about how it should go have certainly changed and evolved over time, along with my personality and worldviews in general.

A lot of people who are no longer in the dating scene talk about the exhaustion of all the game-playing, the mind tricks, and trying to present one’s best possible self at all times. Well, thinking about dating in that context is exhausting, I agree. However, the last time I played games with someone or wasn’t my authentic self was back in college, seven years ago. And honestly, it wasn’t exhausting back then. It was stupid, yes, and completely immature. But that’s what college students are. They don’t know any other way to be, and that’s fine. Dating in that way, in that context, might have been stupid – or maybe unsustainable is a better word – but it was also a lot of fun. There was definitely a point when it stopped being fun to be coy, or to wait for days on end for a boy to call, or to pretend that, of course, I always went to bed (and got back out of it) looking like a beauty queen. So I stopped doing it that way and moved on to different methods.

The other infuriating thing about being pitied by married people for the stage of life I’m in (that is, partnerless) is the implication that I don’t have a choice in the matter. But don’t I have a choice? Haven’t I chosen not to continue certain relationships with certain people? Haven’t I initiated breakup conversations, and haven’t I told men that I’m just not interested in pursuing something deeper? Of course I have! Not getting married is a choice I have made, just as it’s a choice others have made to get married. And my worldview has evolved so much as to be able to believe that there is something very holy and pure and committed about my choice. I don’t mean holy and pure and committed in a convent or abbey sense. Because I’m not a nun, and I’m not committed to lifelong celibacy, though I deeply respect those who are. There is a discipline and purpose there that God did not instill in me.

But I am committed to respecting myself and the identity God continues to shape in me, and part of that respect is reflected in my decision not to get married to someone who isn’t a good fit. I am committed to loving and respecting myself to such an extent that I am not willing to get married based on a fluttery feeling or a fantasy involving a future mortgage and a baseball-themed nursery. Although, I admit, a baseball-themed nursery does sound amazing. It may surprise many, but I can’t even agree to marry someone who wants to don a superhero costume and travel the world with me, fighting crimes committed against grammar, in both French and English; yet, again, that does sound enticing.

But no. My dreams about marriage are different. They have changed. And I certainly hope they are more mature than they once were. When I dream about marriage now, a mortgage, a puppy, a career, offspring, growing old together – these are not the things I dream about anymore. I already have a mortgage, and I love my house – my home. I got a puppy 7 years ago, and he’s turned into my best companion. I am honing my career; I’m entering my fifth year as an editor and am continually mapping mental strategies for advancement and professional growth. I have not given birth or raised a child, but I am an honorary aunt to two wonderful young boys who make my heart burst with love, and I’m newly a biological aunt to the most beautiful baby girl I’ve ever laid eyes on; I’m learning about and getting to practice parenting vicariously through my friends, and seeing the Marvin family line carried on through my brother. As for growing old, I’m doing that too, albeit slowly, and I’m doing it surrounded by people I love. Besides, the longer it takes me to find a life partner, the more opportunity I have to gather stories for him so we’ll never run out of things to talk about! I am a walking, breathing testimony to the possibility of experiencing some of life’s greatest milestones without a shadow.

What I do dream about for a future partner has become more complex. Do you know the saying about marriage? Men marry women because they expect they’ll never change. Women marry men because they expect to be able to change them. Both end up disappointed. Or something like that. Remember that saying? Well, I dream about finding someone I can accept at the stage of life he’s at when I meet him, and can still imagine loving and accepting him two years (and many more) later, when all his cute habits are suddenly annoying, and even though he remains in the stage of life he was in when we met. I dream about finding someone who falls in love with me for my values and worldviews but understands after two years that the person I have become, though changed, is still a person worth loving and striving to understand.

I dream about finding someone who has ambitions and goals and motivations of his own, separate and distinct from mine. I dream about finding someone who understands the idea of sacrifice in terms of both/and rather than either/or. I dream about finding a man who is happy, self-sufficient, and productive without me…and yet greets me as if the only thing he’s been doing with his life since the last time he saw me was waiting to see me again.

I dream about finding someone who can control his tongue, thereby teaching me by example how to control mine (I’m talking about words here, not sex…in case there was any confusion about that). Although, while we’re on the subject of sex, I dream of passion too; raw, uncontained, unconditional, unapologetic, unashamed passion.

I dream of egalitarianism, mutual respect, mutual sacrifice – but a score that nobody keeps track of. (Side story: Once, I got a boyfriend tickets to see one of his favorite bands live. About three months later, he did the same for me, and I asked him flat out if he was doing it to keep things “even” between us. He said no, and I believed him [and still do]. But I dream of a relationship where a question such as that doesn’t even cross my mind.)

I don’t know. Maybe my list isn’t as mature as I’d like to think. Maybe those desires aren’t as complex and evolved as I tell myself they are. But those are, for all intents and purposes, the things I have learned I am looking for in a life partnership. And I have learned that I want them by being in relationships that had them, and by being in relationships that explicitly lacked them. I have convinced myself at various times that certain of those could be ignored, forgotten, left off the list. And yet, when it came down to it – pull the trigger and make the best of what’s there, or break up and move on – I’ve always moved on.

Perhaps that is the part that married people pity – the moving on part. But the way I see it, cutting ties and moving on is no harder on the heart than choosing to persevere through a sh*t marital situation. Pardon my language, but that’s the only appropriate word for the kind of situation I’m talking about. Because marriage breaks hearts too, just in different ways.

Is having to break up with someone worse or more painful than suspecting and confirming a cheating spouse? Is being broken up with worse or more painful than an emotionally distant spouse who refuses to have a meaningful conversation? Is ending a dating relationship worse or more painful than trying to reason with, accept, or even merely tolerate a mentally ill spouse? Is being alone worse or more painful than the constant effort of trying to love, be patient with, speak kindly to a depressed and unmotivated spouse?

I know these aren’t the only stories written in marriage. But neither are they the only stories written in dating. My point is that marriage is what people make it, and so is dating. Both can be terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experiences. Or, they can be fun, passionate, uplifting, and exciting experiences. The choice is ours, and I’ve made my choices, and they’ve been intentional.

That doesn’t mean I don’t still dream about the more superficial aspects of life partnership, though. Of course I do. I dream of someone who speaks French to me, someone who wants to go SCUBA diving with me, someone who loves public transportation as much as I do, someone who is as devoted to grammar as I am, someone who wants to travel to different baseball stadiums around the country, someone who wants puppies, puppies, and more puppies, someone who does my dishes and lets me mow the lawn, and, of course – the supreme nonnegotiable – someone who doesn’t have to be begged, cajoled, or persuaded to grow a freaking beard!

Until I find someone, I’m happy to wait, and to date – online or otherwise – in the meantime.

*I will write Part 2 about the actual mechanics of online dating.

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Filed under bloggy, irreverent, sentimental

The Wisdom of French Parenting -OR- Americans Are Doing It Wrong. Again.

I just finished a fascinating book on parenting called Bringing up Bébé, written by journalist Pamela Druckerman. I was drawn to this book for more than one reason, none of them having to do with parenting. First, I appreciated the title’s reference to one of my favorite movies (thanks to my dad’s influence) from when I was a kid. Second, the use of the French word for baby and the book’s subtitle, One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, both appealed to the Francophile in me. Third, anything that suggests that Americans might be wrong is attractive to me.

This book has not been received favorably by all American audiences, a result that is not surprising in the least. After all, no one likes to be told they’re wrong. And Druckerman is subtly and politely but quite firmly doing just that. I appreciate this book because it doesn’t let American parents get away with the pat excuses of, “He’s a child; what do you expect?” or, “They call them terrible twos for a reason.” (I don’t think they do call them that in France, likely because they aren’t terrible.) Unfortunately, I think this book will do what many of the best sermons, speeches, and exhortations throughout history have done: enrage those who need to hear its message the most, therefore disabling their ability to receive it; and be endorsed by those who need to hear it least – people who already practice (and see the positive results of) the suggestions contained within.

Without going into too much detail about why this book should be read by everyone, parents or not, or why the French truly are superior, at least in some ways, I’ll just summarize Druckerman’s main conclusion, which is – to oversimplify it – that American parents are overindulgent and allow their children to rule over them, while French parents have found a way to balance authoritarianism with allowing their children the freedom to express themselves and be who they are. She uses a lot of research and various observed examples to back up her findings, mainly focusing on sleep rhythms, eating habits, and behavioral/discipline patterns.

The part I resonated with most was an underlying thread running through the entire book; an idea that one of the main differences between the French and Americans is that French people view their children as legitimate human beings, capable of knowing and learning and conforming to rhythms from the time they leave the womb, whereas a large portion of American parents tend to coddle and suffocate their children because they view them as too young, immature, inexperienced, etc., to learn or decide anything for themselves; which, of course, becomes a vicious cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that, because American children are coddled and suffocated, they often are too immature and inexperienced to think, learn, or decide for themselves.

The main time I witness this is when American adults (parents or otherwise) speak to children. Regardless of the child’s age – whether teenager, adolescent, grade schooler, toddler, or baby – many adults have gotten the idea that children must be talked down to, patronized, and condescended. Many parents wonder why their teens rebel and disrespect them and act out; my supposition is that a lot of times it has to do with the teens not feeling respected themselves. Unfortunately, most parents don’t wonder anymore why their toddlers and young children throw regular temper tantrums for no apparent reason. Rather than delve into why, they’ve simply come to accept and expect that this is part of raising small children. They assume that young children have no rationalization skills, so why even bother trying to ask why they’re having a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store? It’s better to bribe him or shove some food in his mouth so he’ll shut up and stop embarrassing them, right?

The thing that has probably become my biggest pet peeve when watching adults interact with children is the way they talk to them. Adults assume a certain (low) level of understanding, and when communicating with children, one can witness adults intentionally bringing themselves down to this perceived level. Not all adults do this, mind you. The best and most respected teachers out there – the ones who get the most results from their most “troubled” students – understand the danger of doing this. And some really awesome parents understand it too. But not the majority of the ones I’ve witnessed and observed in my almost 28 years on this earth.

The most intelligent, well-behaved, and articulate children I have met in my life have been children whose parents have never spoken to them like they were halflings. Even from before the time they could understand language and words, these children were spoken to like normal human beings, just the way you and I might speak to each other right now. I have said before that I completely abhor the fact that people speak to children the same way they speak to animals. They change their tone of voice (it immediately becomes high pitched); they start using words they would never use in adult conversations (like boo-boo, teetee, and bwankie); and they talk down to the child (instead of validating what the child has to say, they ask the condescending question, “Oh, really?” which immediately communicates disbelief; or, they over-validate what the child has to say, acting as if this imaginary tale of fantastic proportions involving superheroes and mythical creatures is absolutely, 100% true, when the child very well knows that it is not true and is just trying to have a bit of fun).

Yes, children develop at different paces, and yes, their logical reasoning skills and general grasps of syntax and vocabulary are much lower than (most) adults’, but this does not make them stupid. It means they are at a different place on the developmental journey, and that should not be occasion for condescension from adults. We should not expect children to deliver well-constructed debates or impressively articulated demands from the time they are first able to speak, but we should always encourage them toward attempting to articulate themselves and rationalize their own thoughts. Patronizing them by deigning to lower ourselves to their level sends two messages: 1) I am not worth as much; 2) I have no reason to improve myself.

I have actually babysat upper-grade-school children who knew how to speak and pronounce words properly but still talked like babies. Why? Because they were allowed to and saw no reason to quit. After all, if they continue to act like babies, their parents are going to keep treating them like babies, no matter how old they get. And what child wants the royal infant treatment to stop? Infants have it made! All they have to do is make a single peep, and adults are at their beck and call, ready to carry out their every whim. My theory on why parents let this continue is that they don’t want their children to grow up too quickly because, as we all know, it does happen too fast. When I encounter this type of child in a babysitting experience, I typically refuse to acknowledge the request (whether it be for more pwetzels or a huggy-poo before bed) until they speak to me as properly as I know they can. I admit, some of my disgust for this behavior is rooted in my love of language and grammar. But I also believe that children should be challenged and empowered to mature and grow up, not stay whining little bwats.

Something Druckerman touches on in her book is the high level of importance the French place on children learning to say not only please and thank you (which are the universal magic words of American culture) but also hello and goodbye. American children are not generally asked to greet anyone upon arrival and departure, and this sends them the message that their greetings are not important to us as adults. It reinforces the implication that they are just accessories, mandatory accoutrements parents are forced to lug around, less important beings than anyone who is more than two feet taller than them. French children, on the other hand, learn quickly and early on that everyone is worth being acknowledged, including themselves.

In my own life, I have conducted a semi-sociological experiment on a favorite child of mine whom I babysit often. We’ll call him Cason because…well, that’s his name. I have known Cason since he was just over a year old. Considering he’s just a few months shy of four now, that obviously isn’t very long (though it is most of his life). But when I talk to and interact with Cason, I do my best not to talk down to him even though his speech capabilities have only in the last year begun to really develop. It can be difficult, at times, to overcome what feels like an instinctive way to talk to children, but it’s not instinct. This is one instance where we can definitively say nurture is winning the debate over nature. I was talked down to as a child (and sometimes am still talked down to as an adult in my late twenties). I grew up in an environment that taught by example that I should communicate with children in a louder voice, using a high-pitched tone, and with an exaggerated and insincere enthusiasm about everything. (By the way, kids can tell when you’re being insincere.)

At some point in my life, I started having encounters with children who seemed unusually intelligent for their ages, and by the time I met Cason, I realized – as a result of observing how his parents talk to him – that these smart, articulate, seemingly precocious children weren’t necessarily advanced for their age; they just seemed that way because they were so far ahead of other kids their age. Why? Because their parents talked to them like they were normal human beings.

So the first time I babysat Cason, I decided to try to emulate his parents’ way of communicating with him. At this point, he couldn’t yet talk. As young as he was, he of course cried when they left, especially since this was his first time to meet me, let alone be left alone with me. After they got out the door, I knelt on the floor next to him and explained what was going on, something to the effect of, “Your parents are going out for a little while, and I’m going to hang out with you while they’re gone. Then you’ll go to bed, and they’ll come back while you’re sleeping, and then you’ll see them first thing when you wake up in the morning.” I had no idea if he understood what I was saying, but he listened tearfully and silently to every word, as if he could understand and was trying to decide whether he could trust me. Then, after a couple of trial sniffles and big breaths, he smiled, held out his arms for me to pick him up, and didn’t cry the rest of the night.

Later that same night, he was running around and playing with his toys. I watched him from a couch with my laptop out. He came over and wanted to look at the computer, so I let him. His hands were sticky, though, so when he reached out to touch it, I told him, “No, please don’t touch that; your hands aren’t clean.” He withdrew his hand and toddled away to resume playing.

Now, it could be that luck was on my side that night and that I just had good timing. But I don’t think so. I think he understood me just fine, even if he couldn’t respond verbally. And ever since that night, I’ve done my best to keep copying his parents’ example and continue to talk to him like he’s a normal person. And, as I’ve watched him grow up, I’ve also watched him make extraordinary progress in his grasp of language, his articulation skills, and his communicative abilities. He speaks full sentences now and (with prompting and encouragement, at times) is able to explain coherently why he is upset about something or other, which is so much easier to deal with than screaming, kicking, punching, or biting. (He occasionally does still shout, but he’s come a long way, and he’s miles ahead of other kids his age, and even other kids who are older [whose parents I hope never ask me to babysit].)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge proponent of the nurture side of the debate. I think environment plays a much bigger role in development than genes do. The reason so many American children are brats is not that Americans are genetically bratty. It’s the mob mentality. It’s their environment. They are taught how to be brats, and they spend their time with a bunch of other brats, and they learn to be that way. If you don’t agree with me about nurture, look at adopted children. Look at military children. Or missionary kids, or other third-culture kids, such as Pamela Druckerman’s pack of Paris-born children who, genetically, are half American, half British. They’ve molded to their sage French environment and have themselves become sage.

I don’t know how J.R. and Jenny are managing to do such a non-American job with Cason (and Jack, Cason’s younger brother, who is no less awesome) in the extremely American culture they live in, but I am gonna stick around them when I have kids, or, if I’ve lost them back to the Great Northwest by that time, I’ll just have to move to France. By the way, I’m not saying that I’m a parenting expert or anything, or that I know any better than anyone else how to raise children. I don’t know the first thing about raising children. But I have spent the last couple of years learning how to talk to children, and that’s a step in the right direction, I think.

Not that you have to listen to me; I know every parent’s favorite advice expert is the childless single woman next door, but hey. I was called a baby whisperer recently, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. But seriously. Check out Bringing up Bébé if you have some time. Even if you’re not a parent, it’s really good. I promise. And I haven’t even begun to do its synopsis justice here. She’s got all sorts of statistical proof to back up her claim that France is kicking America’s butt in the raising-children department. Grab a copy from your library. Even if all you do is flip through it to find the italicized words and work on pronouncing them out loud in your best French accent. (Wait, what? Of course I didn’t do that.)

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