I was amused to read Jemina Lewis' recent piece in The Telegraph citing Australian parenting psychologist Steve Biddulph. Biddulph, who's also the author of numerous best-sellers, offers a fundamental piece of advice: A glass of wine a day can make you a more relaxed -- and thus a better - parent. The idea is that the strain of being a perfect parent is enough to make you a bad parent -- or drive you toward some truly wicked vice that might land you in a twelve-step program. If you remember that you're a grown-up and have a life -- and that this life should be filled with simple adult pleasures -- you'll be a more fulfilled parent. And that's good for your kids.
Ms. Lewis finds this sage advice "so joyously unmodern" and "generous-spirited" that she "automatically trusts everything" Mr. Biddulph writes -- a high compliment considering she's read countless garden variety parenting books, some of which were "hopelessly otherworldly --or at any rate, Californian." As a native Californian, I feel her pain. As a dual Franco-American citizen who lived over ten years in Paris (where not drinking a daily glass of wine is considered a Crime Against the State), I couldn't help but wonder why we Anglo Saxons take so long to embrace what Europeans have known ever since the Gauls invented the wine barrel.
In fact, there's nothing "unmodern" about Biddulph's advice. It's common sense in nearly every culture but our own. There is, by the way, a lot of other common sense parenting wisdom for the taking in Europe. Like the notion, for starters, that Kids are Not King (and if you treat them like Kings, they become tyrants). Or that boundaries are good. Or that it's handy to teach your children how to sit civilly at a dinner table and properly use cutlery before they're twenty-one. Or that if you baby-proof your house too pervasively, it might end up looking like a psych ward (at least that's what my French neighbor said when she stepped into my Parisian apartment after I had my son). That having a little glass of wine should be considered "generous-spirited" is also a sad testament to the somewhat grinding utilitarian imperatives of parenting in Anglo-Saxon culture.
When I was living in Paris making babies (among other things), I enjoyed a regular glass of wine -- a French ritual on par with picking up a morning latte at Starbucks and a collectively relished adult pleasure that took the edge off the stressful and often (let's call a spade a spade) nerve-racking job of parenting. When I returned to the States, I was surprised at how grown up pleasures, sex and wine-drinking among them, were subordinated by the demands of parenting. Wine drinking in particular was the subject of baffling contradictory debates. Depending on what you read, a daily glass of wine could increase your blood pressure or lower it (merci resveratrol), turn you into a boozer or a bon vivant, lift your spirits or lead you down the path of parenting perdition. It was also "Mommy's little helper," a vice that shared an appellation with barbituates, to be consumed with caution, preferably in the dark away from the kids. The French could only shake their heads in consternation.
Of course, no one's advocating drinking half a bottle of wine and getting stupidly drunk, or that you should start drinking right after you've dropped little Brittany or Max off to school. Even the French are too sober for that. And clearly Biddulph is excluding those who have an addiction problem. Biddulph is simply suggesting that if you're a happy grown-up, you might be better equipped to prime your kids to become the same. And that it's okay -- even therapeutic -- to have joy and pleasure in life, even if it's your own personal pleasure, savored in moderation, and not shared with the kids.
I tried to incorporate this basic European parenting tenant in my life when I relocated back to the States. One day, I stumbled on a book called "The Three Martini Playdate" by Christie Mellor. It's a funny ode to reclaiming and enjoying the perks of adult life while raising well-adjusted kids. It even has a martini recipe for kids to make for their parents. "Teach your youngster to say 'Cheers' at an early age," Mellor writes, "and he will be on the road to a successful social life!"
I'm sure there are people out there who might take Ms. Mellor's words at face-value and presume she's advocating pre-pubescent alcoholism. I'm sorry for those humor-challenged individuals. To everyone else who needs a little break from the trials and tribulations of parenting, spare yourself the how-to manuals, pour yourself a nice glass of Bordeaux, and then get on the homework patrol.