How to raise a small human: Of British nannies, French mothers and practically perfect parenting

Julie Maclellan



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Anyone who knows me will know that when a good debate breaks out on a topic near and dear to my heart, I can’t resist putting in my two cents. So when a debate broke out today in one of my favourite Facebook groups, the New West Moms Group, I couldn’t stop myself from coming home and writing this post.

It all started because someone shared the widely read and by now rather notorious post by British nanny Emma Jenner on why modern parenting is in crisis. (If you haven’t read it, go ahead, give her another hit; it’s gone viral already, you can’t do any harm.) 

I won’t respond to her post point-by-point – that’s been done to death, and very well in some cases. (One of my favourites is here, should you wish to read it. And another here.)

But I do want to take it on for its overriding message – this rap-mothers-on-the-knuckles-with-criticism-about-everything-they’re-doing-wrong theme quite frankly makes me nuts. To me, it’s rather akin to the furor around Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé and all the associated yapping about how French women have it all figured out and North American mothers have missed the boat.

Just stop, stop, STOP the madness.

Enough with trying to make us – and by “us” I mean, broadly speaking, mothers who happen to hail from anywhere on the North American continent – believe that somehow the world is in crisis and we have caused it by committing the egregious sin of (gasp!) allowing our children to become TOO IMPORTANT TO US.


I get where it’s all coming from. Yes, we all hear about these so-called over-indulged children with their over-involved parents and this presumed generation of spoiled and entitled young folk entering the world with no clear understanding of the real world and how it all began when they were 14 months old because their mother (gasp!) made the egregious sin of ALLOWING THEM TO HAVE AN OPINION ABOUT WHAT COLOUR OF SIPPY CUP THEY WANTED TO USE. (Oh, the horror!).

I’m sure there are, in fact, such children. I just don’t in fact believe that they are nearly as common as the doomsayers would have us believe, nor that they are so very different from the generations of children who came before them. And, actually, I believe there have been some changes for the better in today’s kids – the children and teens I meet these days strike me as being more curious, more independent, more adventurous, more confident and all-around more sure of their place in the world than I ever remember kids being in the’70s. We may have lost out in some old-fashioned reckoning of what “manners” and “obedience” look like, but we’ve certainly gained in terms of raising a generation willing to think for themselves and question authority. (Yes, that’s a good quality – channelled correctly, it’s in fact an invaluable one in navigating today’s world.)

Besides, even if we are raising an entire generation of screwed-up children (not that I believe we are), I just don’t think the blame can be quite so neatly placed at the feet of parents who happen to choose a different approach than drill-sergeant-style, you’ll-do-it-my-way-because-I-said-so-and-I’m-the-mom parenting or the laissez-faire, arm’s-length, don’t-parent-too-much style.

You know, the funny thing is, before I ever had a child, I probably would have fallen squarely on the side of that nanny and maybe even had some strong ideas about how I would never fall victim to the whims of my bébé.

Then I had a kid and I came to an amazing realization.

My child is a person. A tiny person, yes, but a fully fledged, independent human being with a mind of her own and opinions of her own and emotions of her own – opinions and emotions that don’t always happen to correspond with my own. But you know what? Her opinions and emotions are no less valid than mine.

Radical, eh? She’s allowed to think for herself. In fact, I rather think it’s my job as her mother to help her learn to do that – and that can start in toddlerhood, when I can help her to learn to make decisions by, yes, letting her choose a sippy cup or a pair of socks, or putting together her own outfit for daycare (even if my morning routine takes three times as long because of it).

Do I let her do whatever she wants? Of course not. Does she need guidance and limits? Um, she’s not quite three years old. So I’m gonna go with, duh. Yes. So no, I won’t let her dictate everything in her life. And I won’t hand her candy just because she cries, or give her another video just because a tantrum threatens. (Again, duh. I get how easy it is to set poor precedents. I'm sure we all do. It's basic common sense.)

But does my daughter need to be treated with the respect due to each and every human being?

You betcha.

Which is where I have a big problem with the idea that the logical answer to every tantrum is to simply ignore it and walk away. That may, in fact, sometimes be the best approach. But when kids are young and just learning how to sort out emotions, “tantrums” are part of that process. And training them, in good sergeant-major style, not to tantrum for any reason whatsoever may well just end up sending the message that their emotions don’t matter and they should just quash their feelings – rather than learning to work through them and come out on the other side with a healthier understanding of what they’re feeling and how to deal with that feeling.

Here, too, is where the age of the child matters a great deal: If an eight-year-old is throwing a fit because the pink cup is in the dishwasher, that’s probably a problem. But if an 18-month-old is throwing a fit for the same reason? Guess what, that’s a valid reaction from an 18-month-old, and it’s part of my job as a mom to help her figure out that whole thing.

And I happen to believe that from that 18-month-old who knows she’s loved and respected, who’s learning that her opinions are valid, that the people who care for her appreciate how she’s feeling, grows a child who is more secure in her own skin, more comfortable with her own emotions and more sure of her own self-worth – not in an “entitled” sense, but in the sense of believing that she matters and that she is a person worthy of respect.

Perhaps because my child happens to be a daughter, that message is oh-so-critical to me. With all the mixed messages my daughter is going to encounter in pop culture and advertising and society around her, I want her to head out into the world armed with a healthy sense of self – and I’m laying the foundations for that every single time I let her make a decision, and every time I help her to work through her own emotions (even if those emotions are being expressed in a tantrum).

As it happens, my daughter doesn’t tantrum much. The twos were not in fact terrible for us. (Threenager is just around the corner, so ask me again in a year.) Is that because of the way we parented? Or just because of her own nature? Probably more the latter than the former, but I like to hope our respect and empathy had something to do with it.

As far as I’m concerned, you can’t go too far wrong as parent if you keep that foundation of empathy and respect at the basis of every stage of your child’s life – with boundaries and guidance, of course, always appropriate to the age of the child in question.

Kids aren’t miniature adults, and they aren’t going to act like them. By all means, expect good behaviour, and politeness, and kindness, and courtesy – but don’t expect it to always look exactly like it would from an adult, and don’t expect it to always be accompanied by silence and stillness, either. Kids need the freedom to explore and push boundaries and test limits, because it’s part of figuring out how to navigate in the world.

Perhaps most critically, kids need to know it’s OK to not like the world sometimes – even if the reason they’re mad or sad or frustrated seems trivial to us.

And when you really shake your head at your kid’s ability to get upset about “nothing,” then try a little self-reflection. Consider how many times something irritates you, an adult human being with decades of experience at this living business, in the course of a day – especially if you’re tired or sick or hungry or stressed or otherwise at less than your best. Then ask yourself whether an alien from another planet (or indeed another adult human) might not think your irritations were pretty damn petty too. Like, who cares if the barista didn’t get the half-fat-no-foam directions right, or whether the guy in the red truck cut you off at that last light, or whether your boss spoke too sharply too you about a missed deadline. How do you deal with those days where you had a bunch of those irritations? You vent over wine with your friends, perhaps? Or let it out on social media? Think of those as adult “tantrums” and realize you’re not so different from your kid, really.

Which is to say, human. Flawed, imperfect and doing your best to navigate the world you’re in – just like that little person who makes you crazy sometimes.

So if I “give in” to my daughter too often for the liking of a British nanny, I won’t apologize for it. And if I make her too central a part of my existence and fail to achieve the perfect French air of standoffish serenity, I’m not sorry.

I am wrapped up in my child, and she is wrapped up in me. We are bound together by blood and by love, and no parenting expert or elegant Frenchwoman is going to convince me that my way of raising her is wrong.

Because here’s the thing: my way – our way – is just that. Our way.

Not some British nanny’s way or some French mother’s way or your way. Because my child is unique, and so is yours. What’s the best way to raise my daughter, in my household, may not be the best way for your child in yours. So if your parenting path happens to mirror that of a British nanny or a French mom, that’s awesome. If it’s working for you, and you’re raising healthy, happy, kind, more-or-less-well-adjusted children with no more insanity than usually comes with the territory of parenting – then good on you.

Just don’t ever try to convince me the world is in crisis because some of us are choosing a different path.

I have a sneaking suspicion that all of our kids – the ones being raised by caring, involved, loving parents – are gonna turn out OK, whether we subscribed to the tough-love, parent-centred school of parenting or the empathy-first, child-centred model, or something in between.

And as for that sippy cup? I’m guessing your kid will grow up OK regardless of whether you gave her the red one she demanded or whether you handed her a blue one and walked away while she cried it out.

And you? You’ll survive too. And the world will be just a little bit better because you were in it, and because you helped to raise another human being.

Good on ya, mamas.

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