Tuesday, October 2, 2012

French lessons: Bringing Up Bebe review

As an American, I am used to our culture's tendency to deride the French, as no doubt you are too. This is perhaps part of the intrigue behind the book Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman. "The French are wise parents?" the average American may ask. Putting stereotypes aside, I would have to agree with Amy Chua, author of the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, quoted on the back of Bringing Up Bebe's book jacket, who states that "parents of all cultures should be able to learn from one another."

At 8-and-a-half-months old Natalie feels more like a toddler and less like a baby. I will happily learn from anyone as I try to figure out how to really be a parent -- up until this point I felt like my title has been "sustainer of life" more so than parent. Now the real parenting begins. For some visual imagery, this...

...is now Natalie's favorite face. I think I have my work cut out for me.

I got through Druckerman's book super quickly, perhaps due to a looming book club/library due date deadline, but also thanks to Druckerman's conversational writing style and compelling observations. Ultimately, I agree with her assessment, based on her examples, that French parents on the whole seem to know what they're doing. I'm also happy to see that we are well on our way to establishing some good habits with Natalie even though there are some newly arising parenting conundrums. I'll try to employ some of these French principles as we move into these uncharted waters.

It is important to note that it's futile to compare cultures in an apples-to-apples type of way, particularly American and French. The French, after all, have a national maternity leave system and government-subsidized childcare, among other differences. So, I've left out those elements of French parenting that are virtually unattainable in American culture and tried to focus instead on what we can control.

At the heart of French parenting are a couple main ideas: delaying gratification and developing independence. You'll see these at work in most of the items listed below. Additionally, the concept of the "cadre" -- or framework -- is central to French parenting philosophy. Essentially parents raise their children to develop within a framework that French parents will admit is really strict in some areas and fairly laid back in others. The idea is to decide what really matters -- politeness, for example -- and not focus one's energy on small infractions, or "betises."

Here are some more specific ideas I took away from Druckerman's book:

1) "The Pause" -- French babies are on the whole amazingly good sleepers. They "do their nights" (aka truly sleep through the night for at least eight or nine hours...not the American version of six hours of continuous sleep) between six-weeks old and four-months old. A baby who isn't yet sleeping through the night in France by four months is considered late. To help babies achieve this milestone, many French parents, knowingly or not, use "The Pause" to determine whether to enter the baby's room. This means after a baby makes an initial noise they wait about five minutes to determine if the baby is truly awake. They understand that babies go through sleep cycles that last roughly two hours and the babies have a tendency to make lots of little noises or cries throughout the night. Many of these noises do not require a response from the parents because the baby is not truly awake. Druckerman quotes French pediatrician Michel Cohen who writes, "'parents who were a little less responsive to late-night fussing always had kids who were good sleepers, while the jumpy folks had kids who would wake up repeatedly at night'" (45).

My reflection: I can definitely relate to this concept, and we've been employing "The Pause" with Natalie ever since she was about a month old. Perhaps "The Pause" does partly help explain why she's such a good sleeper.

2) The French children's meal plan -- We all know that French women don't get fat, right? Well, apparently their children don't either, and it makes sense given the meal plan that virtually every child beyond the liquid-only diet stage consumes. French babies and children eat four times a day -- three meals and one snack, known as the gouter. The protein-heavy meal of the day occurs at lunch. At the maternelle -- France's free public preschool available for children starting at three-years old -- children are served a four-course lunch that includes, you know, a cheese course. The gouter, or afternoon snack, is almost universally served at 4 p.m. after school and often involves a sweet, such as cookies or cake, that parents have made together with their children. French children are discouraged from being picky eaters by eating foods of the same textures and flavors as adults from a young age. It's not OK for French children to subsist on an all mac-n-cheese diet.  

My reflection: There's no way I'm baking daily or even weekly, but I do like the idea of not giving kids food merely as a way to placate them. Constant snacking, an unfortunate American invention, also seems like an easy way to gain weight. Also, I think I'll be using the cheese course concept with Natalie, as in "eat your cheese after you've eaten your veggies." She loves cheese (hooray!) but I've made the mistake of setting cheese out with her main course and sides, and she has been on the edge of throwing a tantrum until she gets the cheese. Cheese course it is! I am hoping that Natalie won't be a picky eater thanks to efforts to introduce her to lots of foods, but I fear the toddler years could do us in.

3) Francoise Dolto's philosophy -- This psychoanalyst/pediatrician is revered by many French parents. Her core principles of child rearing stem from her emphasis on children as rational beings who can be reasoned with from infancy. (One reason some French parents believe their babies almost universally sleep through the night by four months? That's around the time moms start heading back to work, and the moms rationalize with their babies, "Mom needs sleep for work," so babies start sleeping. Right.)  

My reflection: I do like the idea of talking to babies like they are adults, or at least little adults. I hate "baby talk." I find myself doing it at times, but I always try to stop as quickly as the realization sets in. I see Natalie's face light up, and she sometimes looks at me sideways, when I explain to her what's going on. It's not that I think she's really understanding me, but I like to think we're moving in that direction.

4) French children say bonjour -- Once they learn to speak, French toddlers are expected to say hello and goodbye (in addition to please and thank you) to all adult visitors. The idea here is that children are part of the relationship. The mother and father saying hello does not exempt the child from saying hello. According to Druckerman, this seems to be ingrained in French culture, as it's considered offensive to not say hello to a sales clerk before asking a question or to the barista before placing an order. The French parents Druckerman spoke to acknowledge that their youngest children's "bonjours" may not be sincere, but they hope the repetition will eventually bring out the sincerity (155).  

My reflection: I love this aspect of the culture. It brings humanity to everyone, especially the children. It holds them accountable.

5) Adult time -- Children are taught that there are not the center of the universe by parents observing the daily ritual of "adult time" -- from bedtime until morning, children are expected to stay in their room. As Druckerman writes, French parents "treat 'adult time' not as an occasional, hard-won privilege, but a basic human need" (187). This is why it's not unusual for French children to spend 10 days or two weeks with their grandparents or why children as young as four-years old take week-long class trips.  

My reflection: I relish adult time. When Natalie is awake she is my absolute focus, but at night Matt and I need time to ourselves. Although I don't think we're at the level of taking a two-week vacation without her, I am seriously contemplating celebrating her first birthday by taking a little parents-only weekend.

6) Authoritative parenting: "It's me who decides" and "no" -- I remember learning in AP Psychology that authoritative parents (versus authoritarian parents) have the most well-adjusted kids. Apparently the French read my psych textbook, too. They rely on a firm "no" to help set limits for their children and are willing to back up their authority by reminding children that they make the decisions, not the children.  

My reflection: Absolutely kids need firm limits. I am finding myself already telling Natalie "no" when she tries to get into something dangerous or tries to yell to get her point across (a point that was clear before any yelling ensued). Having dogs has at least helped me develop a firm "no." Saying "no" seems like the easy part, though. It'll be how to follow up after the "no" that I'll constantly need to work on.

7) Autonomy -- Ultimately, French parents want their children to learn to be autonomous. They don't want to micromanage their kids by hovering, helicoptering or otherwise controlling. To this end French parents encourage independent play. Not only does teaching a child to be content playing by himself or herself relieve some pressure on the parent to be constantly entertaining the child, it also helps the child develop creativity, problem-solving skills and, in the long term, autonomy. Druckerman frequently conjures the image of French parents at a playground, mostly on the sidelines, chatting among themselves, contrasted with American parents at a Brooklyn playground narrating every single thing the kid is doing in a (competitive) effort to develop early language.  

My reflection: I thoroughly enjoy playing with Natalie, reading to her, taking her to nursery rhyme sessions at the library, and all other shared activities that fill our days. I look forward to the day when she can climb around on a playground and I'll do some of it with her. But I also believe it's important for her to play alone some each day, whether in her crib or on the floor. I enjoy moments to myself and moments of silence; no doubt she does, too. I've even noticed sometimes if I go into her nursery too soon after she's woken up from a nap she'll often cry -- almost as if I'm interrupting her time to herself -- but she doesn't cry when I enter several minutes after she's woken up. Instead, on these occasions, I'm greeted with a smile and sometimes a giggle or an intense happy flailing of arms.

There are definitely elements of French parenting I disagree with, but those are not nearly as compelling of a discussion, so I'll spare you the details. The point for me is that no single book -- or culture, for that matter -- has all the answers. As I move from "sustainer of life" to "parent" I'm hoping this book will help me as I develop a parenting philosophy of my own.


  1. I want to wait and comment about the book after I have read it - but can I comment on how incredibly adorable Natalie is?! Is she not the most perfect mix of both parents?? I see both of you reflected in this beauty - and I cannot wait to see her (and also, you and Matt) again!

    1. Awww, thanks Dawn! Despite her weird facial expressions these days, she does remain cute. Miss you guys a lot too.