A reflection on Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing Up Bébé”
Last summer one of my first posts here admired the seemingly hands-off style of 1970’s parenting. Go back and read if you like. Kitty Foreman’s hair shaking is priceless.
Turns out, what I really needed to do was go a little Parisian.
Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, came up on my “must read” radar a while ago. But the sample text suddenly resonated with me after a stream of needy children continually interrupted adult conversation while having friends over for dinner one night.
“When American families visit our home, the parents usually spend much of the time refereeing their kids’ spat, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build LEGO villages…When French friends visit, however, we grown-ups have coffee and the children play happily by themselves.”
Though we have and know some pretty awesome kids, I identified with those poor American parents, and inpulse-bought the book.
This text is by no means some kind of revolutionary parenting ‘bible’. It’s a narrative of the American author’s marriage, her move to Paris, and her outsider’s view of the stark contrast between French and American parenting strategies. There are many research references to illustrate the preferable outcomes of the former over the latter. In later editions there is an addendum that includes her list of 100 pointers. – Druckerman calls them “keys to french parenting”. I’d call them “mini kid philosophies”.
This book explores a different overall attitude towards children: Boiled down, you can trust that a child can do things. Things like teaching himself to connect sleep his sleep cycles (without the dreaded ‘crying it out’) and genuinely sleeping through the night at 3 months (this is a very standard milestone at 3 months in France.) Or politely greeting all adults – and in doing so, taking on the behavior of a mutually respected person in the social group. Or, imagine this: self-sufficiently playing alone or with other children, without a need for parent intervention or baggies of goldfish crackers. All you tired-eyed parents who are repeatedly interrupted by your child needing stuff while you try to cook or talk to other adults– are you fascinated yet? I was. I spent July trying to get grad class work done, while my children were in pay-attention-t0-me mode during most waking hours. I wish I’d read this little philosophy book before summer. Or, like, 9 years ago.
Intertwined with the concept that a child can fend for him or herself is the ideal of balance. In other words, the mother and father absolutely cannot lose themselves in the care of their children. The sacrifice-for-the-child valor that I’ve seen so many moms tote around like merit badges does not exist in the same way, in French culture. There is no humble-bragging that you survived quitting the job your were educated for so you could stay home, breastfeeding until age two, or functioning on crappy sleep because the co-sleeping child won’t stay out of your bed. These are not accepted truths of parenting in the French model. The happiness and prosperity of the entire family – the marriage of the parents being the core of this – is valued over the needs of the child. It probably sounds ungrateful and selfish to a lot of American mothers…
And I love that! The eating and the independent playing chapters made me want to wind back the clock and do things differently with my kids. However, we’re working on it now. Already this summer we’ve expanded the girls’ vegetable horizons . Hey family: E eats Brussels sprouts now, and there is no crying! Almost every other section had me saying out loud, to nobody, “Yes! What have I been saying!?!” Disclaimer: I’m going to quote Amy Poehler’s peace mantra of “Good for her, not for me”, but, here’s an example: In my family, kids are not welcome in our bed unless it is family hang-out or reading time. That is our bed, our sleeping and couple space, and we like it that way. Grown-ups time is sacred, even if it really is just “Netflix and Chill”.
Major points of “Bringing Up Bebe”’s message:
- Sleep: Babies are just little, rational people and can be helped along and taught. French babies sleep thought the night 7+ hours around 3 months old. Yes, that is what I said. This is because of a parenting instinct common in France, referred to as “The Pause”. It is not Ferber or any of the crying-it-out methods. That‘s viewed as a little distasteful.
- Breastfeeding: Nursing is encouraged in France. But, formula is viewed as pretty much a same-same alternative. (A couple American moms reading this just gasped. Meanwhile, I’m over here like, “Thank you God.”) If breastfeeding isn’t mechanically working out, or Mom went back to work (she did this earlier because of quality childcare, see below), or it was interfering with the overall happiness of the family – it stops. Studies linking breastfeeding to improved health and intellectual outcomes have been all but discredited and results attributed to other factors. French mommies know this (more than American moms, for sure) and proceed to feed formula and have bright, healthy kids. Imagine.
- Eating: From about 4 months old, baby food is not in jars, but is rather a ground-up version of whatever (vegetable-heavy) dinner Mom and Dad are having. Dinner is served in three courses, even at home, with veggies served first – when kids are most hungry. (They have one snack a day. Not one at every activity and in baggies in the car on the way there.) Kids are expected to try everything on their plate, but amounts are not designated and rewards for eating are out of the question. They just try it, and are are trusted to eat what will sustain them. Meals are not a power struggle, but an important and social time. Children are (ideally) included as respected members in a balanced conversation – not the center of attention when they finally try that piece of broccoli or they want to sing a song. Gadgets at restaurant tables are unheard of. (Thank you.)
- Snack: Snacktime is pretty standard, mid-late afternoon, and includes some junk food – possibly that the child helped bake him or herself. Food is not a reward or a distraction. Hunger is not usually offered as an explanation for cranky behavior. Because other meals are healthier (not chicken nuggets, pizza, burger, repeat), chocolate is seen as a wonderful snacktime item. Kids are sometimes given a bar of chocolate on a baguette – hot dam! Also, denying the existence of sugar is just stupid. (That last part is my own bit.)
- Social Skills: Children should greet everyone in a social setting, to take their place as a member of the group there (where they must act like it – no coloring on the walls or pulling out every tissue at friends’ houses). From Mommy’s friends to clerks at the store, kids greet other kids and adults, period.
- Learning: The “earlier is better” philosophy that prevails in America, so that kids can get an edge and defeat the competition – to get into the better preschool or score better on the standardized tests – isn’t nearly as present in France. Probably because preschool is a given and testing isn’t as big a deal. Kids are trusted to “get it” in their own time, many children not beginning to learn to read until age six. Likewise, the constant stream of activities and sports, intended to better the child and give them everything the parent didn’t have, isn’t as accepted either. If a mother who is basically a “mom taxi” is looked down upon as someone who has lost the balance in her life. (Hallelujah. If you’re complaining about your kids’ scheduled activities, why haven’t you de-scheduled some of them?) Having multiple kids in multiple activities is recognized as potentially harming the quality of family life, so it isn’t the standard way. (Can I get a ‘Hell YES’?)
- Go Play: Children are trusted to be able to entertain themselves and enjoy doing so. Family time exists pretty much daily and it is awesome. But Adult Time is not their time. Likewise, they do no need to hear that every drawing is ‘excellent’ and every dance step ‘the best ever’. All kinds of therapy bills come from this practice.
- Couple Time: *This one is my favorite* The quality of the relationship between Mom and Dad (or whoever) is the foundation of the family. The needs of the children do not trump the needs of the couple. No, really. There is little to no co-sleeping, because that bed is Mommy and Daddy’s space. “Bedtime” means kids stay in their rooms and eventually go to sleep, though generally they are allowed to play or read until they’re ready to sleep. Mommy and Daddy must have time to be themselves, as a couple, without kids interrupting. “Date night”, is not really a thing, because romance and sex are very highly valued in French culture, and the fact that the couple has couple time out & about and alone is a given. Mommy and Daddy probably don’t share parenting and household responsibilities equally, but there is a division of tasks, and appreciation for the other’s contributions is (hopefully) shown privately, and modeled for the kids.
- Childcare: The “creche” is state funded and almost every child goes. It is not the dreaded day care situation that stay at home moms detest in America. Workers are skilled, enjoy long-term job security, and are paid well. Even moms who do not work often send their toddlers to the creche, for everybody’s benefit. Mommy gets her groove back – getting to work out and see friends, in addition to having a career and contributing to the household – and baby gets social skills.
Can you tell I like this stuff? Now, I’m fully aware that this model is not solely a “French” thing. Some of these philosophies I’ve had for years, and I know friends who have executed them beautifully all along as well, in one department or another. I also know a lot of moms who would look at aspects of this and wonder why French women bother having kids at all, if they’re just going to put a bottle in their mouths and send them off to someone else’s care?
I guess the impressive aspects of this philosophy for me are balance and trust. In this country there seems to exist an unspoken social norm saying that major sacrifice for your children’s comfort and development is proof that you are a “good” parent – because childhood is fleeting and you have your whole life to talk to your friend on the phone uninterrupted for 20 minutes. I think that’s total crap. We are talking about 18+ years, here. Balance is the goal. Trust makes that happen. This is definitely a goal to work for, in my book. American levels of happiness are reported lower from parents than non-parents, and lower with the birth of each child, despite children supposedly being a major source of lifetime happiness. What’s missing? What can we do differently to feel less harried and stressed?
Maybe try a little Francais.
The book, again, is called Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman. (Her website is HERE.)