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No bowing down before Bebe

American journalist Pamela Druckerman’s fascinating look at how the French bring up their children shows that putting adults first is better for everyone – the kids included.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Books

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I recently rediscovered the handwritten record of the first months of my son’s life. No, it’s not reminiscences of his babyhood, just page after page of columns recording every feed, burp and diaper change. The detail is astounding. Between 9.03pm and 9.37pm on Thursday 19 December 2002, he nursed on my right side, burped twice then followed up with an ‘explosive’ bowel movement. Two days later, at 3:45pm, he was ‘fussy’. On Thursday 15 January, the comment by the 11.49 diaper change reads ‘bright green!’

I hardly know what to think about this. What wisdom did I imagine might come from this morbid accounting of my son’s digestion? My only consolation is knowing I wasn’t alone. All the other new mothers I knew were doing the same thing. Incredibly, it seemed completely normal at the time. And this is the problem with parenting culture: it’s very hard to see it clearly when you’re in the thick of it. Sometimes it’s only with time and distance that we can really be objective.

There’s nothing like moving to a foreign country for distance. Pamela Druckerman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, has been living in Paris with her husband, British sports writer Simon Kuper, since 2004. Her new book, Bringing Up Bébé (published as French Children Don’t Throw Food in the UK), is ostensibly about the way the French raise their children. But it’s just as much about the way we raise our own.

The idea for the book came from Druckerman’s personal experience of pregnancy and parenthood in Paris. Like most American mothers-to-be, she greeted the news of her pregnancy by swilling prenatal vitamins and spending hours reading about the risks of high heels and Halloween candy on the American BabyCenter website. She flabbergasted waiters by demanding to know if the Parmesan on her pasta was pasteurised and dutifully contemplated each course of her meal asking, as the authors of What to Expect When You’re Expecting suggest, ‘will this bite benefit my baby?’. Meanwhile, pregnant French women ate normally, bought frivolous sexy underwear and enjoyed the occasional glass of champagne. After their daughter was born, Druckerman and her husband endured nine sleep-deprived months while their French friends’ babies slept through the night by four months. None of this seemed particularly remarkable at the time.

It was only later that the penny finally dropped, when she and her husband decided to take their little family for a mini seaside holiday a few hours outside Paris. Unfortunately, restaurant meals with their daughter were ‘their own circle of hell’. ‘Bean’, as Druckerman refers to her, squirmed, spilled salt, opened sugar packets and distributed calamari around the table. The desperate couple took turns, one wolfing down bites of fish while the other wrangled with Bean. It was then, in the midst of the chaos, that Druckerman noticed the French families. Children her daughter’s age sat contentedly in their highchairs eating the same food as everyone else. There was no whining, no shrieking. The kids looked happy. The parents look relaxed. How could this be? The more she looked at the French families on the holiday and back in Paris, the more she noticed some ‘invisible civilising force’. It meant children could hear ‘no’ without collapsing, mothers could talk on the phone without being interrupted and parents seemed… calmer, confident and in control. Most tantalising of all, their toddlers didn’t throw food. She vowed to find out what the French were doing and to start doing it with her own daughter.

Druckerman has written cross-cultural comparisons before. Her first book, Lust in Translation, looked at sex and infidelity. But as titillating as that topic was, nothing excites the Anglo-American imagination so much as parenting; Bringing Up Bébé is No8 on the New York Times best seller list as I write. We are obsessed with child-rearing. We spend millions on books, magazines and classes to help us be effective parents. When those efforts fail, we call in the sleep consultants or send our kids to Social Sklz classes to learn civilised behavior from the professionals. The picture Druckerman paints, of well-behaved children, eating artichokes and behaving in restaurants is, by comparison, practically parenting porn. No wonder her book is flying off the shelves. But this is more than just a readable romp through French parenting culture. It is a thoughtful reconsideration of the needs of children, the needs of parents and the mutual obligations between families and broader society.

The level of interest in parenting is one of the key things Druckerman identifies as being different for the French. It’s not that French parents don’t think about childrearing. On the contrary, they have magazines like Parent and Neuf Mois, books and websites just as we do. But they seem to take the advice in them with a grain of salt. One Parisian mother Druckerman talked to explained that parenting books are ‘useful to people who lack confidence’, but adds: ‘I don’t think you can raise a child while reading a book.’ There is also no equivalent to our warring parenting philosophies or Leach-vs-Ford guru-on-guru feuds. There is now an imperative to ‘research’ everything or to anticipate and eliminate every potential risk.

All in all, parenthood in France is quite a different experience. But why? One reason may be that everyone, parents and non-parents, agree on the basics. Druckerman describes how friends and even childless friends have stepped in at times of distress to set her daughter right, using little more than conviction and a few repetitions of the word, doucement (gently). Not only are there fairly uncontroversial standards of behaviour in public, adults are relaxed about the éducation of children.

Éducation, in the context of French parenting, has a very different connotation from the English word ‘education’. When the French talk about éducation, they mean it in the sense of upbringing. Bringing up children means inculcating the customs and behaviours that they need to learn to function in society. These assumptions are so deeply internalised that French parents don’t always have words to describe what they do.

This means that Druckerman spends a great deal of time figuring out what they are and sometimes even makes up her own terms for the process. ‘The Pause’ is the term she invented to describe the way that the French teach babies to sleep through the night by allowing infants to work through sleep disturbances for five to 10 minutes instead of rushing in to comfort them immediately and thus really waking them up. Other things she highlights include: teaching children to wait, to play independently, to appreciate a variety of foods, and how to interact with adults.

All these assumptions and customs, taken together, form a framework or cadre that children must conform to. Some American commentators have referred to them as ‘strict’ but, as Druckerman points out, within these strict boundaries children often have more autonomy than their Anglo-American counterparts. So at meal times, for instance, children need not eat their vegetables but must taste them before deciding not to. Parents are firm on this point because they believe their children’s tastes will develop over time. It seems to work, children learn to eat a variety of foods – even veggies, and parents don’t need resort to ‘hiding them’ in other foods.

Anglo-Americans have assumptions about childrearing too. But whereas the French have a relatively well-defined set of ideas about what constitutes a good upbringing and what role parents should play in it, our ideas are the polar opposite. We tend to assume that, as parents, everything we do teaches our children something – even if we don’t intend it to. But it’s not just what we do that we have to worry about. There’s what everyone else does, too. Childrearing has become an open-ended, relentless exercise in managing our children’s experiences to produce good outcomes.

This means that something as simple as a trip to the playground poses a series of serious questions for parents. We can find ourselves wondering things like, ‘What message am I sending by ignoring my child while I have a cup of coffee with my friend? Should I make my child share – or not? Climb the big slide – or not?’ We worry about their relationships with their teacher and their peers. We don’t just look at it in terms of immediate consequences but over a lifetime, wondering if the combination of selfishness about sandbox toys coupled with a distracted care-giver will lead to their future success as a pediatric oncologist, a career in reality TV or a life in prison. Indeed, much of our parenting advice is actually about deciphering which experiences lead to which results.

This has important consequences that go a long way to explaining why Anglo-American parenting culture is so fraught relative to that of the French. If everything we do, or, more insidiously, everything we don’t do, matters, then after a while it becomes virtually impossible for parents to have a social life or interests that are not subject to the relentless demands of childrearing — not the needs of children per se, but childrearing.

This blurring of the lines between what parents want to do as adults, what they feel they need to do as parents and what children actually need makes parents uneasy and contributes to a broader sense of social discord. One example is the bizarre phenomenon of American parents showing up at adult-oriented venues like bars and high-end restaurants with toddlers and young children. It drives other adults crazy and has paradoxically resulted in a series of pre-emptive bans on children in venues like outdoor pubs where their presence might otherwise be acceptable.

French parents seem to have no qualms about excluding children from their adult social lives and regard our child-centered existence as a bit weird. Parents never stop having a social life that does not include the kids. This means the concept of a ‘date night’ doesn’t really make sense. When the American movie of that name came to France it was retitled ‘Crazy Night’; the humour of a suburban couple being chased by gangsters seems to have been overshadowed by the horror of the opening scene in which their children wake them by pouncing on their bed. Le Figaro described the children as ‘unbearable’.

One of Druckerman’s refrains thoughout the book is the emphasis the French place on maintaining a balance between the needs of different family members. This ability to impose boundaries around childrearing seems to lay the basis for a unified sense of adult authority. Because parents never cut their ties with other adults, it creates the basis for real solidarity between them.

Some American commentators have been defensive about this. Susannah Meadows, writing in the New York Times, complains: ‘During my extended visits to Paris, I’ve noticed… the French parents don’t set foot in the playgrounds. I, too, would have loved to have roosted outside the fence, sipping a café crème amid dapples of sunlight, but instead I’ve had to run around, a bodyguard to twin toddlers of my own, protecting them from all those unsupervised natives whose “blossoming” evidently means “violently shoving small kids down the slide”.’

Jen Singer, blogging at Mommasaid.net, scoffs: ‘Here’s the dirty little secret about their “superior” parenting philosophies: They’re not about kids. The so-called French parenting method seems to make life easier for parents who want to socialise.’ And Clare McHugh, writing in the Wall Street Journal, declares that while waving to the kids on the merry-go-round instead of reading a book may not look ‘cool… it sure does feel good’.

The funny thing is that this and many of the other things being associated with French parenting were once common practices among British and American parents, too. Druckerman’s vignette of mothers sitting outside the playground in Paris enjoying a coffee while their children play inside on their own would feel far more familiar to our parents and grandparents than the spectacle of today’s mums and dads following their children up the climbing frames, down the slides or micromanaging their sandbox disputes.

Rather than trying to find the secret of French childrearing, perhaps we should ask why our childrearing methods changed. It also may not be the case that childrearing in France is immune from the pressure that make it so problematic in other places. They may simply be better at preserving their traditions. Indeed, Druckerman points out that the French are very worried about the rise of what they call ‘child-king’ syndrome, in which parents lose their authority. It sounds familiar.

Of course, there are some things Druckerman observes that really are typically and delightfully French. Take, for instance, her visit to the menu-planning committee for the municipal creche where a typical day’s meal features a salad of shredded red cabbage and fromage blanc, white fish in dill sauce, and potatoes a l’anglaise followed by a cheese course and the importance of bonjour and au revoir.

I finished Bringing Up Bébé feeling the way I do after every visit to France, when, clutching a bottle of pastis, a jar of honey and a box of calissons, I vow to find some way to replicate the experience at home. This usually lasts all of half a day. Adopting the ‘French method of parenting’ outside the context of a supportive French culture would fail, too. It would be rather like Americans adopting the ‘British method of humour’. We might be able to break it down to a formula and write it in southern California, but the results probably wouldn’t be very funny.

Bringing Up Bébé is a thought-provoking, fun read, but like a holiday to an exotic place, sometimes it’s most enduring legacy is how it changes the way we look at home.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Topics Books

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