Bringing Up Bébé

I finished this fantastic book a few weeks ago and I’m obsessed with it.

A quick, easy and fun read, it discusses some major cultural differences between parenting in France and the United States. The author Pamela Druckerman, an American freelance journalist living in Paris, was inspired to research French parenting after she noticed how happy and well-behaved French children were at a restaurant on holiday in comparison to her own 18 month-old daughter.

For reasons I have trouble understanding, this book is actually a bit controversial. Its author wrote an article several years ago about how she gave her husband a threesome for his 40th birthday. According to some reviews I skimmed, this makes her a bad parent. One commenter actually pointed out how inappropriate it was that her kids could someday read this article. This practically makes me howl with laughter because I always thought that discovering embarrassing information about your parent’s sex life was a rite of passage every young adult needs to live through, like learning to drive, or your first funeral. You find your parent’s porn collection/lingerie/lube, etc, you throw up a bit in your mouth, you move on with your life. Druckerman asked the publisher of the article (Marie Claire magazine) to take it off their website temporarily so it wouldn’t affect sales of her book. It’s back online already and it’s really not that shocking.

People (well, Americans), are also objecting to the book because (as far as I can tell), they hate the French and are so blindly patriotic, they take offense at the very notion that there might be another way of thinking about things.

I’ve also read some reviews that say the book is a lot of nonsense because most French parents they know are actually quite abusive. Druckerman addresses this stereotype. She also points out that her observations were mostly of middle-class urban families, and that French families are helped a great deal by their subsidized daycare and health-care systems.

What attracted me to Bringing Up Bebe in the first place was the idea that in France, parents teach children to adapt to the adult world, not the other way around.

This is key. It has always bothered me tremendously that in American culture, parenthood is viewed as the end of your life. The end of having a good night’s sleep, the end of enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend, the end of independence, the end of enjoying the music you like or any activities in which you used to take part. I always thought, “WHY?” Does it have to be that way for everybody? Do we have to COMPLETELY lose ourselves if we want to raise kids?
A favorite quote: …”Yet the French manage to be involved without being obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there’s no reason to feel guilty about this.”

A key difference between French and American parenting lies in our obsession with pushing our children to acquire specific skills while the French teach their children (from a very early age) patience and self-discovery. There is a big emphasis in teaching children to deal with frustration and allowing them to “awaken” to the world around them.

One of Bringing Up Bebe’s many great anecdotes involves the author bringing her daughter to a field for a picnic on Bastille Day. Druckerman brings along a stack of books and a bag of toys. She spends the entire afternoon entertaining her daughter, trying to push her development. The French woman on the blanket next to Druckerman has an adult conversation with a friend while her daughter calmly and happily rolls around in the grass and plays with the one toy that was brought on the outing.

Another important difference involves food. French kids eat pretty much the same foods as adults. There are no “kids” menus at restaurants. Druckerman’s daughter attends a crèche; a subsidized daycare that takes babies as young as three months. Each crèche has its own chef who prepares a varied menu of gourmet-sounding meals for the children. The meals are prepared differently for each level of the children’s development, but the children are exposed to a wide variety of flavors at an early age. Also, while most American babies’ first exposure to solid foods is usually rice cereal, the French start their babies off on puréed vegetables.

In response to reader questions, Druckerman posted a sample menu on her blog:

As you can see, it looks fabulous! Especially in comparison to the garbage being fed to American kids in most Head Start programs.

According to Druckerman, the French start teaching their children patience as young babies by doing one very simple thing: “The Pause.” What’s that? When your baby cries, you wait a few minutes before going to them. You give them a chance to soothe themselves.

The French apparently also teach their babies patience by nudging them toward a sort of national meal schedule consisting of feedings at 8:00a.m, noon, 4:00p.m, and 8:00p.m.

A few more important points that really resonate with me:
– The French believe that even babies are rational human beings and need to be calmly spoken to.
– They emphasize politeness by insisting that their children not only say “please” and “thank you”, but “hello” and “goodbye.”
– Discipline is maintained by keeping boundaries in what is referred to as a “cadre”- a frame or framework for expectations of behavior. This is harder to explain and every family has their non-negotiable behaviors, but the main point is that those non-negotiables are clear. Parents aren’t wishy-washy. Druckerman recounts people coaching her on how to say “no” to her daughter with more authority.
– French children are not constantly showered with praise for every little thing they say or do. If they speak well and say something interesting, they will be praised accordingly.
– French mothers feel just as guilty about going back to work as Americans but they refuse to wallow in their guilt. They say “There’s no such thing as a perfect mother” and enjoy a glass of wine.

After reading all of this, I realize that my husband and I have already been doing “The Pause.” At first it was 30 seconds, now we wait 5 minutes or so. Since my husband insists on keeping the baby monitor on even though the baby’s room is right across the hall from us, I can hear baby as soon as he is awake. And when we don’t pause, when we jump out of bed and run across the hall the instant we hear him wail, we always find a sleeping baby in the crib.

I have more trouble trying to get the baby onto a more forgiving feeding schedule. Right now (at 10 weeks old), it seems like he’s too young to take enough at each feeding to keep him going. The book doesn’t give a lot of specific information about how this schedule is accomplished. One friend of Druckerman’s explains that when her baby fussed at 10:30, she would just sing to her, wear her in a sling, or go for a walk to distract her until 12:00. But it seems that most babies are on this schedule by 4 months, so I have some time to try to get him there.

I tried a few weeks ago to stretch out my baby’s feedings and didn’t have much success. He could be distracted for about 30-45 minutes and not much more than that! But I realized the other day that we had done only 6 feedings instead of 8, so it looks like he is putting himself on a better schedule with only a little bit of nudging from me. As I sit and type this on my phone, baby is starting to wake up from a nap in his swing. He last ate 3 hours ago and I want him to wait one more hour. He’s calm now but I know he will start fussing soon. I am pretty confident that I will be able to change his diaper, sing a bit and distract him with his mobile in order to stretch out that hour.

But back to the book. I said I’m obsessed and I’m not kidding. This book and its principles are coloring my worldview and slowly changing my day to day frustrations. I was starting to get stressed out looking at the lists of developmental milestones in What to Expect the a first Year. I was finding myself forcing my baby’s tiny fingers around the handle of a rattle, willing him to realize he can use his hands to grab things.
But the more I think about the lessons in Bringing Up Bebe, the more I think I really just want my baby to be happy. He will grab a rattle when he’s ready. He will say consonants when he’s ready. But I want him to be able to handle frustration, to be content to amuse himself instead of needing constant stimulation and entertainment.
I want him to be able to wait to eat only at mealtimes instead of requiring constant snacks. I want him to eat what my husband and I eat instead of demanding plain rice or noodles.

I’m already having a hard time keeping my big mouth shut when I meet other moms and see how terribly their toddlers are behaving. It’s upsetting that the bad behaviors were really taught by the parents’ misguided best intentions. By making themselves constantly available so that their children can feel loved, they are teaching them to be insufferable narcissists. By giving their children constant praise to try to increase their confidence, parents are teaching their kids to expect constant praise and to be upset when they don’t get it.
I can only try to do my best with my own family and keep my opinionated mouth shut.

Read this book! It’s really good and it will change your life!


3 thoughts on “Bringing Up Bébé

  1. Pingback: Schedules? « babiesandstuff

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