In the spirit of a friend’s blog, for this post I will depart from my normal rambling to share my thoughts on a book I was most anxious to read.
When word of Pamela Druckerman’s new book, Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, hit, I started literary drooling. I’m an admitted sucker for any parenting book comparing American families to other cultures (almost as much as I’m a sucker for all mommy-blogger rants about things like the value of stay-at-home-moms, or drama between Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney last week).
For example, in January, 2011, I was super-attuned to all media when Amy Chua released her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. And therefore a little disappointed when, during her interview with Diane Rehm on NPR, she seemed to back off her own argument. After I read her entire book, I realized the WSJ article that started it all was just a tease. Which is why I wait to weigh-in — not that my opinion will cause great waves of conversation — until after I’ve read the entire book, instead of during the media blitz when the book is first released. (Interestingly, Chua gave Druckerman’s book a rave review, of course featured on the back cover.)
I will admit: when I read the tease about French kids eating well-rounded meals including braised leeks (not chicken nuggets) and the mamas being able to enjoy their conversation and their coffee while their children happily played together without requiring adult intervention, I was intrigued.
Disclaimer: I don’t pretend that a book will solve my problems, just as I don’t believe any culture has it completely right. But I certainly am witness to every parent having his or her strengths, and if I can begin to harness a variety of those strengths, I may be able to better myself as a parent. It follows that the end result might be that our daughters become better people too.
But, I’ll be honest: I’m doing my best as a stay-at-home mama, but some days my best doesn’t feel nearly good enough.
I struggle with meal-times (ie, my oldest’s constant diet of plain pasta or Annie’s mac-n-cheese, some vegetables, most fruits, lots of milk, oh, and cheese sticks — let’s not forget those!), I sometimes repeat myself to the point that I despise and/or ignore my own incessant pleas, I yell when she runs toward the parking lot, not necessarily because I think she is going to get hit by a car, but mostly because I’m terrified she’s going to drag her nearest friend with her if she does. (That sounds cold, let me explain: I’m pretty sure my daughter will stop at the end of the sidewalk. But what if she stops, but her friend doesn’t? Ohhhh, the ‘what if’s’!) And, that being said, why can’t she just walk alongside me like her friend would walk alongside HER mama, if my girl wasn’t giving her girl CRAZY ideas?!
The French, apparently, raise their children to eat full meals, often served in courses, which Druckerman posits allows their children to not only be well-behaved during mealtimes, but also offers a variety of palatable food for their overall nutritional benefit. In terms of behavior, the French also expect their children to adhere to a few strict rules, like no hitting (the cadre) but then offer their children much independence when it comes to other decision-making. It’s still unclear if one’s child running into the parking lot would fall into the “cadre” or “independent” category, however (for me, at least).
Have I mentioned I sometimes carry my big girl upstairs to her room — whining and wailing, wrestling and flailing — for a time-out, all because she pulled a stunt when lunch was T-minus 10 and counting? Of course, I blame the fact that she was hungry. But maybe if I had a more scheduled lunch hour/routine (like the French) I could have prevented said meltdown.
Also, I have caught myself rushing over to grab an object out her hands, ironically saying, “We don’t take things out of people’s hands!” and then handing said object back to her friend/sister/cohort. (What?! In my defense, when two kids are pulling, pulling, PULLING on an object and I’m afraid one of them — again, most likely the other child — will be hurt, that’s when I’m most quick to step in.) French parents, apparently, are more likely to let kids resolve these types of struggles on their own terms. Though, again, I’m not sure where tug-of-warring with pointy objects falls.
What did I learn? To be honest, many of the book’s “teachable moments” I’ve already witnessed in my own experience, if not firsthand, then second. If I remember to explain things ahead of time, like in the car on the way to an outing or appointment, then often our conversation will resonate with her when the moment is ripe, and she will act accordingly. It’s much more effective to parent with a sixth sense, than to change a behavior in progress. (Especially at age 3 — and a half! — when it’s just so important for them to exert their independence. We poured three different cereals into her bowl this morning for breakfast.)
As far as food goes, it seems French kids sit through entire meals at restaurants and eat them without external stimulation and without parents having to chase their kids around the table. Druckerman attributes this to a couple things: the French only feed their kids at meal time, and one afternoon snack; while if you follow me around, you’ll notice my bulging mom bag full of healthy snacks for my kids to enjoy every couple hours. By the time it’s meal-time, in other words, French kids are hungry and interested in eating a full meal. Druckerman admits this is easier to affect in France without the peer-pressure of playground snacking. Personally, I would like to see more scheduled wholesome meals and less snacking for my kids. But I think I’m not certain I can affect that change now, at ages 3 (and a half!) and almost 18 months. Maybe in a year.
Also, in France, kids are exposed to a variety of food from a very early age at their government-sponsored daycares (called creches) where the mid-day meal is served in courses, first raw/cold vegetables, then a protein like fish, then a cheese. This is, of course, what all the best parenting books recommend — pureeing your own meal to expose your kids to a variety of vegetables and fruits, sauces and spices, rather than cook a separate meal for your children. Personally, I diverged from this ideal with my oldest sometime around age 2, when her diet started mimicking that of any Kids’ Menu in American restaurants — peanut butter, chicken fingers, grilled cheese — even though we rarely eat out and typically avoid the kids’ menu when we do. Honestly, I attribute it to snacking throughout the day — the kids and I both get accustomed to “finger food.” (Sigh. Another reason to reduce the snacking.)
Our family does enjoy some similarities to French child-rearing. First, we encourage patience. One of the first signs I taught our babies (behind the food favs — more, eat, drink, milk — and the manners favs — please, thank you) was the sign for “wait.” Even before I was juggling two kids, I wanted our daughter/s to know I heard and understood the request, but I was not immediately able to fulfill it. I think our girls do a good job of understanding we are not at their beck and call, though they certainly test our own patience at times.
One way Druckerman attributes the patience factor in young French children is by having a set snack-time every day (4:30 p.m.) when they often indulge in something delicious, typically either baked goodies or chocolate. Mothers bake every weekend with their children, using measuring tools their little hands can grasp (like yogurt cups), but the children do not sample the batter or beg for a cookie as soon as they’re out of the oven. Instead, they know they will be enjoying their creation at 4:30 that afternoon. (Sure, like all children, they sometimes require a reminder. But it’s in the form of a gentle and loving, yet stern, comment from their parents, and the children acknowledge … and OBEY!)
In terms of manners, the French apparently insist their children not only say “please” and “thank you,” but also address every adult they encounter with “bonjour” and “adieu” — and if I had written this blog post in its entirety BEFORE returning the book to the library, you would know why.
Druckerman referenced two major philosophies that seem to influence French child-rearing. The first I was privileged to spend an entire semester studying shortly before I was pregnant with our first child: Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I won’t copy my papers into this post, but I do recommend checking it out, especially if you focus on your child’s knowledge based on personal experience.
(My apologies: The other primary influence was a woman whose name I cannot remember — there was a hold on the book at the library. I believe this particular lady’s books, however, though commonly found on every French parent’s bookshelves, were not translated into English.)
Some things I personally disagree with: nearly nationwide use of epidurals during childbirth, not encouraging or supporting breastfeeding, most moms returning to work within three months of their baby’s birth. Though with the wonderful way the creches were set up for the children, there was certainly more incentive for women to return to the workforce.
One thing I love, though, is how French mothers seem to retain their own identities beyond being a mother — something I’ve personally struggled with. As one reader put it, “You don’t stop being a woman when you become a mother!” This seems to carry over professionally, as well as in terms of the parents still being a “couple.” For example, there are no two-hour bedtime routines getting more milk, giving one more kiss, or reading one more story — the kids know it’s not only their bedtime, but also their parents’ “adult time,” and that’s the end of it.
In short, I definitely consider this book worth the read, and yes, also worthy of the purchase. (I’ll edit this post once I make mine.) Druckerman retains not only an unbiased journalistic approach to her endeavor, but also her sense of humor. Which of course is ultimately what every parent needs, no matter which continent you’re on.