Hops and Skips

Recommended Read | Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman

Because I spend most of the school year reading middle school books, I was pumped for some me-time reading during Winter Break. I filled up my Kindle, and then we got to this farmhouse in upstate New York and my Kindle was abandoned because I found a treasure trove of…parenting books. Parenting books. Never would I consider myself even remotely interested in anything of the sort, but here was this magical collection on worldly, international, cross-cultural parenting belonging to a complete stranger! I then spent our three farmhouse days devouring a book called Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.

The author, Pamela Druckerman, lives in Paris with her English husband and her (now) three children. A nightmare restaurant episode with her difficult 18-month-old first-born led to a mind-blowing observation that…French kids don’t act like this; they generally seem calmer, quiet, in better control of themselves. She began to wonder if the “givens” that we Americans assume about having a baby or small child (that they have short attention spans, are picky eaters, cause infinite sleepless nights) are, in fact, entirely American. Thus inspired, she embarked upon this observational and research-driven project to identify the parenting norms of her adopted country.

So when I say I devoured this book, I mean I read it voraciously, quoted “interesting tidbits” continuously to my increasingly disinterested family members, and only contained myself from making ledger notes because it wasn’t my own personal copy. (You better believe I ordered my own copy, to arrive just in time for our arrival back home.) I have since heavily flagged pages with post-it tabs and taken copious notes in a separate notebook on the fascinating facts and findings I want to remember, but I will not bore you with all those details. Instead, I’ll share a few quotes that stuck out (and of course I underlined).

“They don’t treat pregnancy like an independent research project.”
Basically, from the beginning, the experience of preparing for and having a kid is treated with an overall mindset of c h i l l. The hospitals literally give new parents a how-to guide to caring for a baby, which illustrates how there’s sort of a universal, accepted way of going about it. There’s no real debate over parenting styles (helicopter? free-range? attachment???). It seems a chicken vs. egg scenario—are they chill because they reject those debates, or do they reject them because they’re so chill?? But regardless, this seems a refreshing, magical mindset, because mom judgment is real and toxic and such an obnoxious waste of time. This chill mindset is ultimately reflected in all phases and aspects of parenting, and I definitely need and appreciate this constant reminder.

“Babies understand everything.”
There’s a parenting guru named Francoise Dolto (basically the French Dr. Spock, whose ideas still dominate modern parenting theories) that contends even infants are rational and understand language as soon as they’re born. Essentially this is saying: don’t treat kids like they’re inferior. They’re capable of understanding and learning much earlier than often given credit for, but will only do so if given the chance. For the most part, French babies sleep through the night between two and six months. Why? Because parents let them figure out how to sleep for themselves (aka: don’t immediately run to them if they cry out in the middle of the night). French kids rarely snack (no constant snacks from mom’s purse to prevent a meltdown). Why? Because they are given opportunity to experience frustration and learn how to deal with it on their own. It’s not a case of ignoring your child’s needs; it’s giving them explanations (important!) on why their needs can’t be met immediately and teaching them to cope in the meantime. “Give your baby a chance to learn,” is a very important guiding principle.

“What’s most pleasant for us parents is also best for children.”
It seems a given in our American culture that parenting comes with sacrifice, and while that’s true, the French seem to reject the idea that it’s all sacrifice and especially that there should be any guilt involved. “The dominant social message is that while being a parent is very important, it shouldn’t subsume one’s other roles,” which basically translates to the idea that, “Kids need to understand the world doesn’t revolve around them” Maybe this goes back to that whole parenting style thing I first mentioned, but I like this theory that keeps kids and parents on a more equal playing field. Experience has shown me how many riled-up mommy message board critics will decry “not putting your kid first” (you had a glass of wine while pregnant? THINK OF YOUR CHILD!), but dude, how do those people survive parenting with no regard to their own needs???

What I liked about this book is how transparent the author is with her own experiences, inadequacies, biases, etc. She doesn’t tout the French way as the “right” way. She points out certain deficiencies (by our standard) of the “French way” (waaaay less gender equality, enormous social pressure to maintain a certain physicality, an inconceivable rejection of scientific data supporting breastfeeding). And she also recognizes certain advantages their society offers that are unavailable to us across the pond (more vacation days, national paid maternity leave, subsidized early child care, free universal preschool, numerous tax credits/payments). These differences are not small and cause huge differences in the parenting experience. She recognizes, and addresses, these realities. But I also love how she backs up her claims with data and research, so it’s not just a book of blanket assumptions or observations.

When I briefly looked this book up on Goodreads, I was immediately entertained by the number of scathingly defensive reviews I read from (presumably) other moms. And I just felt that was entirely missing the point of this book, yet also giving credence to the claim that American moms make this whole experience unnecessarily stressful! What I took from this book is this—there are a lot of ways to be a parent and raise a child; what works for some, won’t work for others; and you won’t agree with every theory or belief you read or see. However, it’s a fluid process, and we can learn a lot from other experiences. It’s worth keeping our eyes and ears open, because we may find new ways to enrich our own lives.

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