Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
by Pamela Druckerman
So, there's not a drop of French in my Irish green blood (though clearly I'm not Irish enough since I don't drink and I only have two kids) but I've always been a Francophile. They were one of our founding peoples, after all, and I followed in my Dad's footsteps by majoring in French at University, and teaching Core French for the first few years of my career.
That's why my interest was piqued when my Mom mentioned to me that she had seen publicity for a book about French parenting that reminded her a lot of my style. (I think this stems from the fact that I get frustrated when I am telling her a story and my children interrupt, wanting her attention...and she allows it! I think they should have to be patient while the adults are speaking. However, my father says I had my turn 30 years ago when I was the kid who got her attention and he had to wait.)
I'm going to quote Pamela Druckerman's "Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting" so much that I am probably pushing the boundaries of copyright, but it's all in the name of enthusing over the content (which I found extremely witty and well-written). Never before have I used this many sticky notes on a book, especially for the purposes of a blog review, but so many things hit home for me (and not always because they reflected my style).
The comparisons being made in the book are between French and American parents, and while we often extol the ways we are different from our neighbours to the south, generally speaking the "American" profile Druckerman shares applies to a lot of the "Canadian" parents and children I know.
I've split the quotations/references (pink) into categories, with my own opinions mixed in. See which nationality best fits your parenting style.
"...the French have managed to be involved without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there's no need to feel guilty about this." (p. 7)
What? Aren't all mothers "supposed to" feel guilty? I've actually had fleeting moments of feeling guilty because I don't innately feel guilty (about having a job, using babysitters, etc.)
"French mothers don't valorize this guilt. To the contrary, they consider it unhealthy and unpleasant, and they try to banish it." (p. 146)
"I've never seen a French mother climb a jungle gym, go down a slide with her child, or sit on a seesaw" and for the most part "French parents park themselves on the perimeter of the playground or the sandbox and chat with one another." (p. 129)
Now, I don't want to promote some extreme goal of never playing with one's children. However, I refuse to be my daughters' dusk-til-dawn entertainment. If I'm on a "playdate", I like to chat with the other mom(s), not spend the entire time in a multi-generational Littlest Pet Shop escapade.
Despite the fact that apparently my mother has always thought that what children have to say is worth interrupting adult conversation (of course it was, when I was the child, but not now when I'm the adult attempting to converse!) my brother and I were actually raised to entertain ourselves. Let me be clear: we spent tons and tons of time with our parents: taking trips, running errands, baking, or just hanging out in the living room, the kids playing as the adults read or did work. We got help with homework, putting a too-tight dress on Barbie, or following a tricky step in Lego construction. However, our parents weren't usually part of the play. While some may think it's selfish or unnatural (Wouldn't you prefer to play princesses than get your report cards finished/laundry done/blog? Uh, actually, no) I think it benefits the children as much as the parents. I repeat, I'm not saying never. I just think I "play" with my kids less than typical American moms do.
French parents also don't overschedule their children (or therefore, themselves). Kids are usually involved in some lessons or activities, but the reigning philosophy is that sometimes they just have to play. (And sometimes parents have their own things to do that aren't conducive to six hours per week, per child, of hockey.) There were four weeks last Spring when Frannie's stepdance, soccer and swimming all overlapped (for only a combined total of 1 hour and 45 minutes per week) but I still felt like a crazy (not to mention hypocritical) helicopter mom. We are extremely lucky that my parents have taken the girls to swimming lessons and public skating times during the workday, which takes the pressure off us. If we had to work it into our schedules, some of our girls' activities just wouldn't be happening.
"In France, giving birth without an epidural isn't called 'natural' childbirth. It's called 'giving birth without an epidural'". (Depending on the hospital, anywhere from 87 to 99% of French women have epidurals.)
"In France, the way you give birth doesn't situate you within a value system or define the sort of parent you'll be. It is, for the most part, a way of getting your baby safely from your uterus into your arms." (p. 30)
I had epidurals with both births. "Would you like to try soaking in the bath for a while instead?" "No thanks. Drugs please. Now."
Referring to Americans: "We all know that our breastfeeding 'number' is a concrete way to compete with one another. A mother's score is reduced if she mixes in formula, relies too heavily on a breast-milk pump, or actually breast-feeds for too long (at which point she starts to seem like a crazed hippie)."
Apparently in France this is not at all the case. Fewer moms breast-feed (which I'm not saying is a good thing; they seem eerily nonchalant about health-related research) and very few judge other mothers on this all-important-in-America "number" (which I am saying is a good thing. A very good thing.)
The majority of French parents recognize the importance of not jumping on your sleeping baby at the first sign of fussing. (p. 45) Druckerman refers to this wait time as "la pause". Parents who do this seem to have better sleepers than those who respond at the first whimper. (This is not the same as crying it out, which is a whole other issue).
"(French parents) don't view being up half the night with an eight month old as a sign of parental commitment. They view it as a sign that the child has a sleep problem and the family is wildly out of balance." (p. 49)
"For the French, teaching a small baby to sleep isn't a self-serving strategy for lazy parents. It's a crucial first lesson for children in self-reliance and enjoying one's own company." (p. 51)
Frannie slept in our room for a total of one night, in the middle of which we decided that hearing her sigh every few minutes was not good for our sleep, and therefore our physical and mental health. She then moved to the nursery right across the hall, a path followed by her sister 26 months later. Oh, and I've written lots before about sleep training, but in case you're new, I'm in favour of it.
DISCIPLINE (appropriately called "Éducation")
Druckerman writes about the French use of "les gros yeux" ("the big eyes") to convey disapproval.
I burst out laughing when I read this, as I inherited "the Leahy look" from my mother, patented when she began her teaching career. The big eyes are always guaranteed to stop a student in his or her tracks. The technique seems to be slightly less effective with my own offspring.
Now before you think I am just some rabid fan of the entire French way, I have to admit right now there are a number of tenets Druckerman speaks of that I don't always follow:
"It's hard for me to imagine a world in which moms don't walk around with baggies of Goldfish and Cheerios in their purses to patch over the inevitable moments of angst." (p. 64) French kids eat regularly at 8, 12, 4, and 8...with no other snacks in between.
Yes, I am certainly guilty of being an active supporter of the snack-as-prevention/solution/distraction trick. We rarely make the drive to church without handing over a cheese string for the ride, just to ensure a somewhat peaceful service (although once the kids were off milk we made it clear to them that they would not be eating in church. And of course, once they make their First Communion, eating within an hour before receiving the Eucharist won't be allowed.)
"The reigning view in America seems to be that kids have finicky, limited palates, and that adults who venture beyond grilled cheese do so at their peril." (p. 198)
So, I fit right in with the Yanks here because I am one (North) American with a finicky, limited palate, and unfortunately I'm raising one of my daughters to be the same. We all eat the same meal, but whichever portions of it we choose. There's no short-order cook stuff going on chez Winn, but we never force the kids to eat. I need to take lessons from the French (and parenting/nutrition experts of other nationalities, including American and Canadian) about repeatedly offering a variety of foods. I know I'm not consistent about offering things I don't like, because I assume the girls won't like them either.
According to Druckerman, French moms arrive at the playground "fully coiffed and perfumed" in "high-heeled boots and skinny jeans" (p. 118)
Yeah, not so much.
My "next step" (sorry for the teacher jargon) after reading this book has to do with my girls' manners (which generally I think are pretty good. One of Maggie's first words was "Pardum?" and I find it so cute that I still haven't explicitly corrected her...and she'll be four next month).
What I would like to work on is the French emphasis of having children greet adults with hello and goodbye, using their names (Mr./Mrs./Ms.when appropriate) and making eye contact. It's always impressive to come across a child in the hall who says hello without prompting, and even more impressive when they are confident enough (I don't think it's an issue of being polite, but being well-practised) to reciprocate your questions: "Fine thanks, how are you?", "My weekend was great, thanks. Yours?" I was a fairly articulate kid but I don't think I ever had the confidence to do that.
As a total sidebar, I even learned a bit of French while reading the book: I never knew that twins are not referred to as identical and fraternal, rather "vrai" or "faux" ("true" or "false"!)
Now does everyone agree with what Druckerman refers to as "the wisdom of French parenting"? Of course not. Some claim that she presents too rosy a view of what happens in France; for example that the "discipline" is often heavier-handed than Druckerman portrays, and I certainly don't want to embrace that as my style. Our house is certainly affectionate, with no shortage of kisses, hugs and cuddles...but there had better be a darn good reason if you need them at 2 a.m.
You can check out some of the rebuttals here:
Bringing Up Bebe? No Thanks, I'd Rather Raise a Billionaire Erika Brown Ekiel
Are the French Really Better Parents? A Different View From France by Paige Bradley Frost
Well-known mom blogger Jen Singer, created this video response, but I disagree with her interpretation of the book that the French parent using "fear", or that Druckerman finds the French definitively "better"; it's just that they seem to have a style which differs from Americans and British, and if you want your kid to sleep, eat and behave better, you may be interested in some of their "wisdom". (And I never "feared" my parents, per se, but I certainly feared their disapproval or the natural consequences that I might face for infractions...and if that parenting style trains kids to grow up with respect, I'm all for it.)
To end on a personal note, I am actually very touched that my mother knows me well enough to understand my parenting style and recognize shades of it in this book. Reflecting on all of this four days after my father-in-law's funeral actually got me very nostalgic and teary. (To neutralize any sympathy you're feeling right now, you should know that I went through this emotional breakdown while lounging poolside in Mexico.)
So...thoughts? Are you an American Mom or a French Mom?