After wading through a couple very earnest books on adoption and parent-child attachment, what fun to come across Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. I love this book!
It makes the French seem utterly sensible in their approach to children, and shows how nutty American kid culture has gotten.
What’s striking is that French parents insist to Druckerman that they don’t have a “parenting philosophy” at all. Partly this is because French culture seems more unified than ours—it’s the points of cultural agreement that don’t seem to us like culture, simply reality.
But juxtaposed with her American assumptions, French parents are very different. They assume babies and young children have considerable ability to be “wise”: to wait for rewards, refrain from interrupting, participate in family meals and other events without taking over or causing havoc. They believe children can get on the same eating cycle with the adults (with the addition of one snack at 4 or 4:30 pm). And the kids do!
They expect more from kids than we do, setting some very strong limits. Yet within those structures, they give the children much more freedom than ours have. Paradoxically, while being “stricter” than us about behavior and food, they seem less uptight, worried, and controlling than we do.
Perhaps the biggest difference Druckerman describes is “the pause” that French parents use to assess how the baby’s doing, before jumping into action. While it’s a difference of sometimes just seconds, the results are huge. American parents, jumping on every baby need, insert themselves into baby’s every act, and reinforce dependence in our little ones. We believe they need us for absolutely everything. We believe we’re better, more virtuous parents if we can’t sleep for months, if our whole lives are disrupted by the demands of the baby.
On the other hand, French parents have the belief that babies have more resilience and capability. A baby may briefly fuss but can settle herself back to sleep, or find a new activity to do, without adult intervention. A small child can learn to redirect, play on her own, take care of herself. They don’t have huge “cry it out” nights where they leave the baby to its own devices, and they don’t ignore an infant that’s upset. But by being a bit more willing to let the baby solve problems for himself, they subtly help him build up his own independence.
“Bebe” suggests that French parents believe “having the self-control to be calmly present, rather than anxious, irritable, and demanding, is what allows kids to have fun.” Doesn’t that sound dreamy?
The book paints a picture of expecting, delivering, and parenting—of a life and culture—that’s more relaxed, more sure of itself, more willing to value pleasure. There’s not the focus on horror stories and worst case possibilities we have. Yet French childbirth outcomes are significantly better than ours.
And where Druckerman looks into what scientific experts think, they often sound quite French:
Sleep researchers, like French parents, believe that beginning very early on parents should play an active role in teaching their babies to sleep well. They say it’s possible to begin teaching a healthy baby to sleep through the night when he’s just a few weeks old, without the baby ever “crying it out.”
Now, I’m not prepared to go the full beret. There are aspects of French culture that I find stiff and obnoxious, and our value on independent achievement is a nice thing. Also, I don’t really think Jerry Lewis is a genius.
But in terms of the day-to-day living, I’ve long thought we Americans are way too focused on pushing ourselves, working too much, and making things harder than we need to. This book is convincing me that with a few small adjustments, our quality of family life can be significantly better, with more enjoyment and way less drama. It’s worth a try, oui?