At first glance it would seem the beginning of the title is so as the top bestsellers in the last 2 years have been books challenging the American way of child rearing; first it was Amy Chua raising not only eyebrows but abuse concerns with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, now it’s Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé an American living in Paris adjusting to life and culture there with her growing family. But once again the highlights have parents here up in arms about how we stupid American’s currently raise our kids. From scolding stay at home moms to scoffing at the so called “American” idea of putting your children first the latter claims to infuse parents with some common sense ideas a-la what parenting used to be in the 1960’s, 70’s here in the states, but spends much of its time tackling the sticky subject of diet, how they do it here, how they do it there. Reviewers quickly remark that the parenting philosophies are not about the kids, rather the parents, the latest would be guide focusing on how to give parents a social life, freeing parents from the guilt of having that life, having needs, doing things like going back to work. All well and good on the surface, unfortunately what it may end up doing is giving parents on both continents reasons to be selfish in the extreme, perpetuating the idea that parents should do less to raise the little beings they chose to put into the world, along with feeding negative stereotypes about both countries and cultures.
There is no denying Bringing up Bébé holds nuggets of wisdom especially for helicopter, overprotective parenting parents, neither is there any denying that articles in newspapers like the New York Times under titles like “Why French Mothers are Superior” seem to be designed to instigate not only debate but what one reviewer called xenophobic defensive mudslinging. However looking at the reviews, excerpts and comments from the author, few people should latch on to French parenting as something to emulate; aside from the lack of breast feeding, the lack of pregnancy guides and the enormous amounts of support given to French women by the state, some of which Druckerman acknowledges some not, we’ll return to those throughout the piece, first to be addressed is the French concept that being pregnant doesn’t change your life, babies don’t take over your life, that these little people come into our world we don’t structure ours around them. The author said it better of course noting she was disappointed being pregnant didn’t give her the liberty to eat cheesecake and bond with strangers, and that what guides were available advised keeping calm and getting on with your life, as opposed to “Anglophone parents who treat it as an independent research project.” The fact is being pregnant isn’t easy, it isn’t as simple as going on with your life like you weren’t; there are physical, hormonal changes to your body that lead to being more emotional, lead to cravings, lead to changes in food preferences. Fatigue and swollen ankles are not uncommon along with, at least American mothers to be feeling unattractive and similar to a beached whale, nearing the end of pregnancy, no matter how much or little they eat. Once the child does arrive and throughout the first 5 years of life there will be changes; newborns and infants can’t just assimilate into your life like mini versions of you. They have to be fed every 3 hours regardless of if this is an inconvenience to your social or work life. Children need you to spend time with them, love them, play with them, talking and reading to them can has been shown to have a profound benefit later in terms of education. When your child begins to crawl and then to walk you have to baby proof your home unless you want the risk of serious injury even death. They will have their own room likely; there will be toys and baby supplies throughout your house. It’s called welcome to parenthood; sadly the author projects an unsettling selfishness among French women with her funny anecdotes and dry wit.
You can decide how much in terms of if you go back to work or when, providing possess financial and job security, you can get baby on a schedule as soon as possible and you can feel free to go and do things guilt free, but having a baby does change your life. Second in deconstructing “French parenting” is a serious lack of practicality in all ideas plucked from the book La Pause, for example, waiting 10- 15 minutes when a baby cries to see if they can sooth themselves, done on babies as young as 6 weeks. Ok parenting for dummies- babies 0-3 months need food every 2-4 hours; further, parents of newborns don’t get enough sleep to begin with the last thing they are going to do, particularly in the middle of the night, is listen to the child for 10-15 minutes, when the crying likely woke them up in the first place. Not to mention in that time they could have heated and administered at least half a bottle, maybe the whole thing, could have executed a diaper change and already be back in bed. Additionally babies 0-3 months possibly up to 6 months only cry when they need something food, change of diaper, are experiencing gas or are sick; they are not doing it for attention, cuddle time. Countering both the French and Druckerman’s assertions La Pause is an early start to teaching patience, forging the insanity of beginning any such lesson at 6 weeks, 3 months or in any active way before age 2, what you may actually be giving your child is an early road to an attachment disorder because the child becomes unsure if or when their basic needs will be met, because they have no concept of time. Or hasn’t Ms. Druckerman, at least, ever heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; Maslow who incidentally was and is not American. Sadly this fits in with French mothers who do not breast feed, seem to want no part of the bond found there and apparently treat their children mild neglect. In contrast the editor of American Baby Magazine, often contributor to CBS News Up to the Minute, advises parents of those 0-12 months go to a baby when they cry promoting it teaches the child someone is there, their needs will be met. Tips for getting baby to sleep through the night include establishing a routine and when baby is up during the night discourages talking, excessive interaction, being sure to discourage baby play, again seeing they don’t have a concept of night and day. On top of that babies do learn patients commiserate to common circumstances and age level because they have to wait for the parent to discern what is needed and make the bottle, go get a diaper. Special circumstances also exist, a baby suffering from colic; I myself was premature and didn’t sleep through the night until I was 6 months old when my mother began putting baby cereal in my nighttime bottle. Before that I cried a lot, doctors thought I had colic, reduced my food, only making it worse. What was the problem, I was hungry; once that was corrected I slept. Researchers have also found babies who sleep through the night later, were more intelligent; something to think about, rather than the vibe of I won’t get up with my kid because I don’t want to.
Similar to the La Pause teaches patients nonsense is the notion that French kids don’t throw food. To say that a French child has never thrown food is ridiculous and of course not the point; at issue is the American vs. French reaction according to both the author and reviewers, that we will see it as an age appropriate tactile expression if a child throws Cheerios at the wall, where a French parents will authoritatively instruct them that’s not how to behave at the dinner table. Unfortunately the above depiction is inaccurate from the American side anyway; while we may see it as a normal part of 2 year old behavior, we will reprimand the child by saying no or otherwise admonishing them. What we will not do is have an internal meltdown about the breech of social etiquette, or resent our child for committing it then say our admonishments with such so called authority as to have the child scared into wetting themselves, so anxiety ridden as to cry for 20 minutes or genuinely be afraid of us in all the wrong ways, implications of the French framework for parenting. Something missed on both sides of it is why young children throw food, usually because they are finished eating, it was left in front of them too long and they begin to play in it. Speaking of small children, toddler age children, no they don’t snack all day, food is only used to “pacify” when kids are hungry. French observers are seeing 2 things here; one they are seeing many families on many different schedules doing snack time when it works for their children, B they are seeing parents feeding toddlers who eat more times a day because they can eat less at a time therefore get hungry more often. Returning to the patience concept; unlike the author who assumed it was simply a part of temperament, most American parents do understand it is something that can and should be taught. However instead of this sitting quietly through 4 course lunches, babbling quietly in a high chair while parents sip coffee or read the paper, not melting down in parks vs. a derogatory portrait of American kids who squirm and cry waiting for food, expect to be let down, we anticipate our children will act like children taking them to kid friendly places, recognizing a tired, hungry or over stimulated child as a cue to adjust our plans not just their behavior, providing rules, expectations according to age level not a larger social norm adhered to by adults. Relatedly we have different expectations for different age children; we expect more out of a 4 year old than a 2 year old, more from a 7 year old and so on. Yet it’s what French parents do to obtain those results that have many parents here up in arms. Even Druckerman takes issue with the heavy use of corporal punishment; commenters on reviews who have raised children at least partially dislike the use of humiliation and fear enacted to elicit excellent behavior.
Next is the French children don’t shun vegetables and that picky eaters are made not born declaration; wrong. Just because you put food into a purée at preschool doesn’t mean a child will eat it, more importantly like it. Neither does it mean it will develop their palate any more than age will anyway. And let’s not forget at least one French school lunch lady fries the broccoli. Opposite of the French assumption that American’s don’t feed their children vegetables, we do strained peas, carrot mush and so forth are staples in the baby food aisles, but like any kid, if they don’t like it, they will spit it out. A majority of the problem comparing French and American diets is what most French persons consider normal, regular, basic food is gourmet to us, something you would pay top dollar for in an upscale restaurant. In dealing with kids, we don’t just slap things on their plates and expect them to devour foods, that to them, look like worms or something you literally fished out of the toilet. The former a common kid comment regarding spaghetti or dishes with noodles, the latter a perhaps primal view of foods slathered with gravy or types of stew. Nor do all or even a majority of parents cook separate meals for children and adults; though American parents, apparently unlike French parents, are not above presenting food in a kid friendly fashion, letting them make faces on a plate with their vegetables, putting cheese on veggies, serving a particular item a certain way because that’s the only way they’ll eat it, giving small children raw vegetables with dip like ranch dressing, because kids that age like finger food. Most insist a child take 2 bites of something new, then will let it go because it’s either an exotic food or an introduction to that food. As for picky eaters, yes you can create them but many times they are just that way; my friend has 3 children and only her middle child is picky. He will eat only what he likes from his plate and leave the rest period; whereas the older brother will eat anything not nailed down and the younger toddler only throws food when there is a lack of variety. Those looking for proof positive food debates, veggie wars and the like are not just American; consider that the French government has placed taxes on soda, limited mayonnaise and cream sauces in school lunches while outright banning Katsup, determined to make foods that do not require it. Yet according to a Nightline investigation French children are no so easily swayed; one teen taking the outlaw condiment offered him saying it gave the meat he was consuming taste.
Discussing manners and other social graces, the mandatory saying hello and goodbye to everyone they meet along with please and thank you where appropriate one person remarking none of this “can you say hello Tyler,” insinuates that this teaches children the world doesn’t revolve around them, keeps them from appearing to be insular little weirdoes; another said putting children first makes kids unable to function as adults without constant pats on the back from an employer and when something goes wrong crumpling into needy wrecks, the latter observations coming from reviews/commenters. Once more fact is compelled to disagree. We teach our children not to talk to strangers for their own safety, to avoid being abducted, abused, murdered or horrifically all 3; a parent stating “can you say hello Tyler” serves to both remind the child of their manners and signal to the child it is ok to talk to this stranger, not a flimsy cajoling to get them to say something. And on an American street, in a large city, if you tried to say hello to everyone they would be looked at as developmentally delayed, autistic or mentally unstable. Lack of saying please and thank you could be laziness on the parent’s part, indicate their own selfishness, but again could be a survival skill as these days in America manners in certain situations can make you a target for con artists, bullies, a whole host of unscrupulous persons. Obvious is that French society, as viewed in the book, makes no room for shy children who aren’t without manners but are afraid, giving off the perception if a French child failed to say hello, the parent could stand there using their authority, that parenting tone we all know only on steroids, not to shout but rather bark at the child until they wet themselves, apologize profusely for the applauding behavior and lecture the soiled child all the way home. Another very wrong way parenting becomes about the parent rather than the child. Completely disregarded in this lens of teaching manners is the age of the child 2-3 year olds developmentally are prone to both separation anxiety and stranger anxiety; returning to my friends 3 kids, the oldest recently turned 7 and he is just now getting to where he will greet people without fear.
A big issue to be taken to task in the book is the parenting as a life, goal, project to the exclusion of all else, regardless of whether or not the author admits she’s writing to a middle class, upper middle class audience where these things are a choice, she forgets parents put these pressures on themselves; it’s what they feel they need to do to rise their child properly, what their responsibility is since they chose to have a child. It is why some parents stay at home, don’t go out a lot and feel guilty for taking time to themselves, not the trap of the mommy cult via the local co-op, not society pressuring them, not what too many parenting guides advise them to do. Further Druckerman may sidestep this but a French woman raising children in America did not talking about the lack of help here vs. in her native country. It is much easier to have a date night with dad or go back to work full time, something one reviewer jokingly put forth would lead to less therapy for the child, if you can find a sitter to watch them either in a family member or quality babysitters for hire, with the possibility of an in home nanny, when daycare is free and mandatory by the time your child reaches age 3. It’s much more of a possibility when you can financially afford to go out to a nice dinner, rent a hotel room for the weekend, when you get government stipends just for having children. Contrary to popular belief, many moms do go back to work once their child turns 5 and enters kindergarten, based on wanting that bond or not being willing to trust just anyone with their child. Moms with more than one child here probably don’t go back to work if there is a husband getting a paycheck due to the fortune saved in childcare fees, all things virtually eliminated by the French system. Similarly in France they can get by with a misogynistic society where woman still do the majority of housework and childrearing in the presence of all the state support; on that same note, it is far less likely women there will resent their husbands because they don’t need their help as much with household duties, child managing because they have other help. Bringing us back to the crux of American parenting the anxiety ridden frenzy with which some parents raise their kids, you are a lot less frazzled when you know you’ll have a job to go back to, when you can drop your child off at daycare and have time to yourself. French people also work less, none of these 18 hour days in high octane careers; it doesn’t take 2 incomes to live comfortably, so of course they have better relationships on the whole, with their kids their spouse.
And not everyone disagreeing with French parenting or parenting a-la Druckerman is in a neurotic lather inevitably talking about the French history of military capitulation; several comments on magazine and newspaper reviews are from Americans having raised children in France who found children were one way around their parents, completely different in the absence of them. Parents who are all for independent play but don’t see the pushing, shoving, no man’s land of the typical French playground as healthy. Others having done everything from been on planes with both countries children to a worker at the London museum surprisingly said American kids were far better behaved, better to be around; the museum worker stating he doesn’t know how many times fire alarms and safety procedures were suddenly put into practice because from French kid lit a toilet paper role on fire. Still additional savvy parents say that the time to talk about parenting is not mid project indicating parents shouldn’t boast too much until your child is grown, out of your house and independent. Continuing, make no mistake, American kids do grow up; older kids don’t throw food unless they really are trying to begin a food fight, older children don’t run around restaurants causing mayhem and being loud, learn not to interrupt adults, master sleeping in their own beds, eat food considered adult and turn out generally ok, mostly by the time they enter school. Meaning that perhaps the squirminess and impatience comes from age not parenting style; one reviewer of the book mentioned a Swiss psychologist quoted often by Druckerman in Bringing up Bébé, when explaining stages of development often gets asked “the American question”: how can we speed these stages up? While the reviewer used it in terms of the comparison of French parenting and Chinese tiger moms, I will endeavor to use it another way. While American parents want to speed up development for competitive edge and Chinese, Asian parents seek academic or musical perfection, it appears French parents are trying to accelerate their children’s social growth it terms of patients and manners. As if the goal was turning out more people cold, aloof, rude to everyone who isn’t your nationality or doesn’t meet your personal standards; falling into a cliché or not, that’s how many of the French are seen.
At the end of the day American defensiveness toward parenting is good, skepticism is good; personally I love what one commenter said: no one can make you inferior without your permission. The one thing American parents can improve on is owning their parenting, owning how they raise their kids. I’m happy to see parents and their neurotic xenophobic mudslinging because it proves another falsity in the book, a so called ambivalence about who should be in charge parent or child; here American parents prove they know exactly who- them and hell hath no fury like a parent who is having their parenting unduly questioned. What we carefully consider is how to best be in charge of our children as a significant number don’t believe in spanking or hitting a child for any reason, many grew up in homes with lots of shouting so forgo that too, we all want to avoid the dictator esque home, instead preferring to give our kids choices where they can have them. Likewise parenting is an individual process involving an innumerable amount of factors including how many children you have, the temperament of both you, your spouse and the children, your values, what you hold most important and techniques however permissive, lack, unconventional that lead to the desired behavioral outcome. Remember too, barring abuse and neglect, there is no right or wrong in parenting, no matter how many dirty looks you get, no matter what people may say about your kids and no matter how many parenting guides try to peddle common sense at us.