Friday, September 28, 2012

Book Review Friday: French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon

If you are an American family, chances are you have picked up some bad food habits along the way of daily life.  Let's face it...our culture is not geared towards good, healthy, balanced food habits and if you are trying to do it right, you're facing an uphill battle.  It's easy to forget about some simple basic rules.  In our family, we struggle with eating enough of our meals at the table (although I will say, we almost always eat dinner at the table together as a family).  We have all three developed some truly terrible table manners over time.  Our table is often piled with papers and clutter which we push out of the way to eat.  And we gobble up our meals way too fast.  We forget to stop and truly savor our food.  Finally, some of the shorter members of our family (who shall remain nameless...cough, Burrito) are a bit picky in their food choices.

When I saw French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon on the "Grab and Go" shelf at my local library, I was intrigued.  I've long been interested in the eating habits of the French.  They manage to eat a balanced diet without all the guilt and self-hated that food causes in the United States.  They eat real food, delicious food.  They eat butter!  They eat chocolate!  And a lot of other weird stuff, to be honest.  But they love food and they stay healthy.  We could use a bit of that in America, eh?

The rules (principles) are enumerated on the back of the book and unpacked throughout the chapters.  Le Billon's husband is French and she is Canadian.  After they decide to take a year to move to France, Le Billon shares her family's journey toward better eating habits.  She is alternatively irritated with the rigid ways (and superior attitude) of the French and intrigued by how they do really seem to know what they are talking about when it comes to food.  Along the way, she gently nudges American and Canadian parents toward good habits.  She isn't rigid or judgmental herself...just honest about her family's journey and ultimately very compelling in convincing the reader to take on some new food habits.  Her chatty but informative style makes the reading very approachable.

Several of the rules were particularly helpful for me.  For example: "Kids eat what adults eat."  How many of us as parents have become "short order cooks"?  Junior is picky and would never eat that, so we make something different for Junior (Kraft Mac and Cheese, anyone?).  When Le Billon moved to France, she was amazed at the complex foods that were served to the children for school lunches.  Endives and pate and fine cheeses and fish and beets.  Would your kids eat that stuff?  But when kids are not given another option, it's amazing what they can come to enjoy!  French parents don't make a big deal out of it if a child refuses a meal.  They simply remove the dish and don't offer any substitutes.  Pretty soon the kid gets hungry enough to start eating.  Of course, it helps that it is like this everywhere in French culture.  At school and home and friends' homes.  Kids aren't babied, so they learn to enjoy all kinds of food.  The culture itself is helping parents meet their goals.  Admittedly, it is much harder to do this in America.  But we can still stop making it easy for kids to be picky eaters.  We may not have control over every place our kids go, but we do have control over our own home.

Another rule that was very helpful to me was the "no snacking" rule.  French adults rarely snack but children may have a snack at 4 PM and then usually a later dinner.  This is the only snack of the day, however.  Like you, I always travel with a snack in my purse.  We get in the car and my daughter starts immediately whining that she is hungry, even if she has just eaten!  But can all this grazing and snacking really be creating good food habits for the future?  And as Le Billon points out, a child who snacks on crackers and cookies and less healthy food all day won't be as hungry for the main meals of the day in which more healthy food is served.  So she recommends cutting the snack down to just one a day.  And she also recommends that the snack be something really appetizing and delicious to the kids, but healthy as well.  As I contemplated this rule, I realized that I was doing things like providing my daughter a snack during church services (supposedly to keep her quiet) even though fellowship hour immediately followed the service...with a huge snack available.  So, I cut out the church time snack and so far things are going fine!  (I realized after reading this book that a friend of mine from Europe never provides her daughter a snack or even toys for church.  She is just expected to sit and behave.  Wow!  And she does!)

One of the most key rules was that "Eating is joyful."  How often do we forget this in America, with our calorie counting and our guilt over one piece of chocolate cake?  How often do we stuff massive amounts of food down, without even tasting or savoring or enjoying it?  I love the balance found in this rule.  After all, food is a tremendous gift of God.  He didn't have to make it so flavorful and varied and colorful and amazing.  It could have all tasted like porridge.  But He gave us tremendous beauty and variety.  When God gives a gift, it behooves us to sit down and appreciate it.  The French may not (mostly) be doing this for a religious reason, but those of us who are Christians can.  We can savor food, enjoy variety, enjoy real foods (not just manufactured ones) and give thanks to the Creator of all!  This is what is missing in most of the diet plans out there: the joy of food.  When you enjoy food and give thanks to God for it instead of fear it, it changes your perspective.  You don't have to eat as much because you are taking the time to savor it.  And you don't have to be afraid of food either.  Or make an idol of it.

I have been making an effort to help create a mood at our table for dinner too.  The French get out the tablecloth and the whole works.  I'm not sure I can manage that just yet, but I do try to clear the table thoroughly (as often as I can!), to remove any plastic cups and use glass (classing it up a bit!), and to create a space for us all to enjoy and look forward to our meals.  I'm working on this.  One day, I even fixed a lovely lunch for my husband at the table (instead of us scarfing down lunch when we get a chance on the couch or in the easy chair).  We had a wonderful conversation together and both felt re-energized for the rest of the day.  My daughter and I have stopped turning on cartoons for lunch and have been sitting at the table and eating together.  This has really improved our attitudes toward each other and given us some wonderful conversations.

Ultimately, Le Billon and her husband decide that the French way of life is too rigid and even judgmental for them to continue living there indefinitely.  I appreciated the honesty about this.  It is all too easy for outsiders to glamorize a culture and pretend it has no flaws.  Le Billon takes from the French culture what she can, applauds it, learns from it, but also adapts it to her own family's needs.  I learned a lot from reading her book and was inspired to eat healthier and enjoy family and food more.  It was just the shot in the arm that I needed.  I think that every parent would benefit from reading this book (as would those who are not parents but are looking for a more balanced approach to food in their own lives).  Le Billon closes her book with a few recipes she has made for her kids--simple but also challenging foods.

4.5 stars.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Book Review Friday: Quiet--The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

I feel like I've been on a crusade for years to educate people about introverts (otherwise known as "my people!").  As Susan Cain points out in her excellent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, it's an extrovert's world out there in America--even though introverts make up 33-50 % of it (depending on which study you follow).  Cain writes, "We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal--the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight."  Speaking from experience, I can say that it's tough to be an introvert in the loud, boisterous world of the United States and I constantly have to explain to people what the word really means.

A lot of people still believe that introverts are "people haters."  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Cain writes, "Probably the most common--and damaging--misunderstanding about personality type is that introverts are antisocial and extroverts are pro-social.  But...neither formulation is correct; introverts and extroverts are differently social."  With their capacity to bring focus and depth to relationships, introverts make great friends.  They might be slow to warm up at first, but once they commit, they commit!  At work, they might not have the loudest voice, but they are usually the most prepared people in the room and have carefully thought out their ideas from multiple angles.  But it's easy to dismiss introverts, because they are quiet and slow to draw attention to themselves.  There are times when loud and gregarious is what is needed in a situation.  But we already know that.  Extroverts are already revered in our culture.  It's high time to recognize there is also a time for "quiet strength" (also the title of a biography about Rosa Parks).  And that's just what Susan Cain's book does.

Cain traces the origins of the Extrovert Ideal in America and fascinatingly contrasts it with Asian countries and cultures which have more of an Introvert Ideal.  It's fascinating to think about how cultural standards figure in such matters as politics, particularly as we look ahead to our Presidential election in November.  From observation, it seems to me that both President Obama and Governor Romney exhibit some pretty classic introvert traits.  Is this a weakness?  Or could it, in certain ways, be a strength?  Cain makes the observation that "people followed Moses because his words were thoughtful, not because he spoke them well."

As a side note, Cain briefly references the problem of choosing pastors based on extroversion and charisma alone.  She writes, "evangelical churches often make extroversion a prerequisite for leadership, sometimes explicitly."  As a young pastor, I often felt pressure to change my basic personality and become more extroverted.  I could play at extroversion for a short time, but it left me exhausted long-term.  I wanted to spend hours in my office thinking through mission plans and curriculum and studying for sermons.  Trying to do youth work in the traditional way was exhausting.  I had never enjoyed or been good at the "rah-rah-rah!" youth activities when I was a youth!  What would magically make me good at these things now?  I did have a lot of interest in doing a youth ministry that was focused on discipleship and depth, so when I got the chance to revamp the confirmation program and introduce some really substantive material, I got super excited.  The structure of the program came me a great outlet to teach and get to know the kids in my class.  But water slides and sports games?  Those were tough to even contemplate.  In other areas of ministry, I found it hard to visit people and console them if I didn't know them well.  My words felt so generic and lifeless without a personal relationship with people in difficult circumstances.  And how could I know what would best comfort them unless I knew them?  But knowing people (really knowing them) takes time.  It doesn't happen overnight.  There are some great ways for introverts to lead in a church setting but it depends on a big part of the congregation understanding the differences in how God gifts each member of His body.

Cain wisely writes, "Bill Gates is never going to be Bill Clinton, no matter how he polishes his social skills, and Bill Clinton can never be Bill Gates, no matter how much time he spends alone with a computer.  We might call this the 'rubber band theory' of personality.  We are like rubber bands at rest.  We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much."  If I interview for a ministry position again, I think it would behoove me to explain my personality type and the "rubber band theory" to a call committee.  Cain writes that we can stretch ourselves far outside our comfort zone in a job successfully if we are doing it for deeply help values or goals.  However, if we do that much stretching, we must build in regular "restorative niches" so that we don't burn out.  These niches are quiet time apart from the demands of job and the stretching of our personalities.  These times must be guarded and protected.

The light bulb moment for me in reading Susan Cain's book is that introversion is not just where we get our energy (from lots of interaction with people or from time alone), but why we get our energy that way.  Extroverts have a high need for lots of stimulation.  They like being in noisier, busier environments.  They are the life of the party and need to be where the party is happening.  They like risks, too.  Having too little stimulation will de-energize them.  Introverts, on the other hand, need far less stimulation.  Not no stimulation; just less.  This means that introverts do indeed get lonely.  They need friends and socializing too.  They enjoy people.  They just need less of this stimulation than extroverts do.  And keep in mind, the stimulation is not only about people.  Busy, loud environments are great to extroverts.  Introverts quickly begin to feel overwhelmed in such places.  That's why open office plans can be so de-energizing for introverts, while extroverts might thrive on them.

As I was reading this book, I took a trip with my husband and Burrito to a busy family fun center, full of loud flashing video game machines, bouncy houses, laser tag, bright colors, and blaring sounds.  I sat down and watched my extroverted family members eating it up while I noticed my own reactions: overwhelmed, exhausted, overstimulated.  I felt like I needed a nap after our visit.  Had we gone instead to a playground where they might be plenty of children but perhaps another mom to chat with and focus on and lovely nature sounds, I think I would have enjoyed myself far more.  I stayed because I love my family and want them to have fun.  But it wasn't so very fun for me.

Within the same month, I went to a local church that has had great success attracting young families and young people, a church whose excellent teaching I have enjoyed on the radio.  Fresh from reading Quiet, however, I noticed that despite this church's excellent track record and focus on the Gospel, there were a few things that might be off-putting about the church to a more introverted group.  The music was so loud, it literally made my stomach hurt.  The loudness and over-stimulation were overwhelming and made it much harder for me to focus on the excellent Bible teaching that was being presented.  Could this be something for mega-churches to consider?  While they offer a chance for an introvert to "get lost in the crowd" and just focus in, sometimes the over-stimulation can get in the way of the message.  Could there perhaps be a middle ground where the extroverts feel sufficiently stimulated by the environment to stay focused while the introverts are not too overwhelmed?  Food for thought.

Overall, I found this book immensely helpful and informative in understanding my personality better and in being better able to explain it to others.  I found insights for how to use my personality in relationship with my extroverted family members and friends and to better understand where they are coming from.  There were insights for the workplace, for church, for marriage, for parenting, and for friendships.  Both extroverts and introverts would benefit from this book.

I have two areas of critique.  The first is that for those who interpret the Bible literally (as I do), the references to evolution in the development of the different personality types might be a bit annoying.  My advice: just ignore that part and take from the book what you can.  The second critique is that at times the book becomes bogged down in detailed and sometimes confusing research.  Don't give up on it, though.  There is a lot of good information here even in the midst of all the data.

4 stars out of 5.  Recommended.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Crown Publishers.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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