Aug 29, 2019
I will admit, I read Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting prepared to hate it. Even the illustration on the cover of Pamela Druckerman’s controversial new parenting book rubbed me the wrong way. On the cover, an effortlessly chic and slender mom pushes a smugly smiling baby in a pram. They were just drawings, but they were definitely gloating.
Wanting to be part of the international conversation about the marvels of French parenting, I was compelled to read it anyway. Just like I was compelled to read the last buzz-worthy parenting book, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I found both horrifying yet strangely entertaining, mostly because it gave me flashbacks of my own strict upbringing.
While the Tiger Mother book read more like a cautionary tale against over-zealous parenting, Bringing Up Bebe is more like a sonnet celebrating the hands-off French approach of child-rearing. Not to be confused with a scientific study, Druckerman draws mainly from her own experiences and observations, and those of her friends, categorized as French-speaking and not French-speaking. She occasionally drops the names of child development heavy-hitters (like Piaget and Doltdo) and throws in a few statistics here and there, but mainly this is a telling of her personal journey as an American raising her three kids in a different culture.
So why has the name of this book crossed the lips of every American morning talk show host and been the subject of countless parenting articles and mommy blogs? I suppose it would be the sweeping generalization that Druckerman seems to make about American parenting: that all American mommies are “helicopter” parents who never let their kids out of their sights and spend each waking minute of the day accommodating their kids’ every whim, giving them a competitive edge, and shielding them from all potential physical and emotional stress. All at the cost of their personal appearance, their jobs, and at times their marriages. Do I know moms like this? Definitely. But I know more who are not.
Conversely, as we don’t buy Druckerman’s description of the quintessential American mother, we also don’t buy her version of the enviously thin, collected, never ever frazzled French maman. As connected as Druckerman might be in Paris, there’s no way she could have interviewed and observed a reasonable cross section of French families to confidently say that her book describes the French national norm.
So after reading the book in its entirety with the obligatory grain of salt, I have to say I did not find anything in this book outrageous or offensive to my American sensibilities. But I did not find any of her “wisdoms” particularly new or life-changing either. Here is what I got out of the book:
This is, of course, a very simplified summation, but that’s pretty much what the book boils down to. Druckerman proposes that French children are better behaved because of these basic “wisdom.”
Funny enough, I didn’t really have to read this book or go all the way to France to learn the “wisdom” for happy and self-composed kids. For me, the answer was a combination of common sense and Peace In Your Home (PIYH), an online parenting community that offers Redirecting Children’s Behavior (RCB) classes, webinars, resources, and that “village” to help you raise your children. The classes taught on the website reinforced a lot of what I already kind of instinctively knew, introduced some concepts that were brand new, and all in all improved the quality of my family life. As I read through Bringing Up Bebe, I kept recalling concepts I had already learned through PeaceInYourHome.com. And while I didn’t agree with everything that Druckerman said in the book, there was a lot that was aligned with the parenting style I was beginning to develop.
Druckerman spends the majority of Bringing Up Bebe talking about how French parents value their “adult” time—time they can use conversing with other adults, nurturing their relationships with their partners, and simply being the people they were before kids entered the picture. They value this time so much in fact, that because of it, they get their babies to start sleeping through the night by 3 months old; they have affordable “crèches” (daycares) for infants and toddlers, government-subsidized pre-schools, and force their kids to learn to entertain themselves. Quell horror, non? Actually this sounds like a pretty sweet deal. The difference is while American mothers may feel guilty about a little bit of “me” time, French moms view this as necessary to be a better parent. (It helps, though, that the whole country shares this same perspective and that the government actually helps fund daycares and preschools so moms can go back to work or do whatever they want to do with their day.)
Peace In Your Home not only agrees with the concept of Self-Care, but it is also often the first lesson taught in their classes. It is central to the PIYH parenting philosophy because when we don’t take care of our own needs, we are more prone to give in to our kids’ demands or more likely to scream at them to comply.
Parenting expert Susie Walton, winner of the San Diego Parent Educator of the Year Award and contributing Instructor at Peace In Your Home who has taught the RCB class for 21 years, often uses the example of the flight attendant advising passengers in case of an emergency. They always tell parents to put on their oxygen masks first before their child’s, because what good are you to your child if you are passed out next to them? Self-care is the same sort of thing: Take care of yourself first, so you can better care for your kids.
Whatever self-care means to you, whether it’s socializing with girlfriends, going for a run, taking a class, or even just getting yourself in the shower, you should make it a priority to go do that. It will make you a better parent in the end. The French would agree.
Furthermore, the world does not stop turning for French parents if their children cry, whimper, or whine. Sure, they attend to their children, but they do so on a different clock as American parents, according to Druckerman.
For instance, when a baby cries, a French mother would not go to the baby immediately and pick him up. The French mother would use what she calls “le pause”: she would watch the baby for a bit and see if he could figure out how to soothe himself back to sleep on his own before intervening. “Le pause” carries on into the toddler years and well into the rest of the childhood. When a kid whines or cries, a French mom doesn’t just drop what she is doing or abandon her present conversation to see what the matter is. Unless there is an obvious emergency happening, she’d just… give it a minute. This teaches the kids to wait for their turn and to have a bit of patience.
I had to laugh out loud when I read this bit about “le pause” because Peace In Your Home also teaches parents to hit their “pause button” before reacting. This helps mom or dad regroup and figure out the best way to handle any given situation. And in that pause, the kids are given a space of time to figure things out for themselves.
In Bringing Up Bebe, Druckerman posits that the French are very strict about certain things like mealtimes and social etiquette.
On food, French children are to eat at strict mealtimes and one 4 o’clock snack time only—not whenever they get a hankering for cheerios or fruit roll-ups. (Apparently, this goes for babies and grown-ups as well.) And kids eat what the adults eat. French moms don’t have to make a separate meal just for kids. If mom and dad are eating Coq au Van for dinner, then that’s what the kiddos are eating too, not dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.
Walton has to give it to the French on the subject of food. “There’s so much junk in a grocery store that’s marketed as ‘kid food.’ But what is kid food?” she asks. “Kid food should be healthy and tasty, just like adult food. Moms don’t have to kill themselves to make whole separate meals for kids. If there’s at least one thing on their plate you know they’ll like, children will eat what the grown-ups do. And, if the snacks parents provide their kids are healthy, then they don’t have to think so much about how much of it they are eating.”
Socially, the French are big on manners, says Druckerman. Saying bonjour to others is “an acknowledgment of their humanity.” But no matter where you live and what the social etiquette is, kids learn by example. French children know to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you because they hear their parents say it all the time. For them, it would be odd not to say these things to others.
To build those manners in American children, they just need to see and hear the adults in their lives using these same manners as well. Peace In Your Home promotes modeling as the best teaching tool of all. Speaking to each other respectfully, being sensitive to each other’s needs, even taking care of ourselves is best taught by modeling.
According to Bringing Up Bebe, French children are treated like little adults, capable of reasoning and understanding adult conversation. Parents are even encouraged to talk to their babies about sleeping through the night– the idea being that if you are attuned to your baby’s needs, your baby will be attuned to your needs.
From a young age, French children are left to play on their own to “awaken” to the world, and experience natural consequences with minimal adult interference. They are encouraged to build up their own autonomy and sense of self. French parents do not hover over playgrounds narrating their child’s every move, cheering maniacally every time their child comes down the slide. (In fact, on praise, Druckerman finds the French surprisingly stingy with it.) While in English, we would say “be good”, the French would say, “be sage” which means to be wise and calm.
Again, Peace In Your Home has some version of all these ideas that are more suited to the American palate but come from more or less the same concept. For instance, talking to children like the capable human beings they are is always encouraged. Whether it is win-win negotiation, getting to the bottom of what the goal is behind misbehavior, or including even very young children in family meetings, PIYH promotes an exchange of ideas between parent and child. (In France, it would not be as much as an exchange as it would be the parent telling the child how it’s going to go down, according to Druckerman.)
Whether or not you agree with her, Druckerman has succeeded in getting American society to re-examine the way we bring up our kids. I’m not outraged nor do I feel “called out” by her book because (and I’m reluctant to admit this) I agree with a lot of it.
Druckerman describes the French ideal as “genuinely listening to my kids but not feeling that I must bend to their wills.” I don’t think this is an exclusively French ideal. I think this would be the goal for most parents on any continent.
Walton, who is also the founder of Indigo Village, concedes that there are many children in America who are growing up over-protected, ill-mannered, and entitled. This would be largely because of the stereotypical American parent described in this book. But there are other issues American children face, like poverty, crime, and violence, which is a set of problems borne of a different kind of ineffective parent—the absent one. To blame all of America’s problems on indulgent or over-zealous parenting would be a bit myopic.
One last important cultural difference that Druckerman points out between French and American parenting is that American parents are bombarded with so many different types of parenting philosophies. We are often given mixed messages about what constitutes a good parent. In France, there are no competing philosophies because the way kids are raised there today is the way that kids have always been raised.
Well, we Americans do love having choices—that much is true. So do kids. And I have a hunch that most people (even French ones) would prefer choices over strict long-standing rules. As long as I have a choice here, I’m going to choose the best parts of what I can glean from Bringing Up Bebe and what I can learn from PeaceInYourHome.com.
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