Sunday, August 5, 2012

{Book Report} Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

As soon as I finished Bringing Up Bebe, I handed it off to Jon to read. Unfortunately, he did not get very far before we had to return it to the library. I think we may need to buy our own copy!

I don't seek out a lot of parenting books but I was really interested in this one, based on all the coverage I was reading on the interwebs. I really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it to any expecting or new mother. It was engaging, entertaining, educational, and easy to read. And best yet, it left me feeling empowered about my expectations for myself and our family, and about my ability to help us all meet those expectations.

As an American married to a Brit, living in Paris when their children were born, Druckerman set out to investigate the differences between the French and American approaches to parenting. She noticed that the French families all around her seemed much calmer and more relaxed, with much more well-behaved children than she was used to. She wanted to know what French parents were doing so differently to raise such pleasant, polite, self-sufficient little children compared to the high-maintenance, low-compliance, tantrum throwing, "kids' meal" eating terrors that Americans have come to believe are the norm.

Despite the fact that author is a self-confessed "neurotic" New Yorker, I thought the book had a refreshingly calm and reassuring tone overall. I think this is because the ultimate, underlying message is that parenting is pretty straightforward at the core. Having lived in Paris (for just three months, without children), I enjoyed Druckerman's anecdotes about living there and raising children while immersed in another culture (there was a GREAT quote about living in Paris, but I forgot to copy it before I took it back). But I was primarily interested in learning how the French parent their children, and if I should be taking any lessons.

It turns out, I thoroughly agree with the traditional French parenting philosophies, and I don't think this is just because I'm a Francophile in general. In fact, it seems the French and I disagree in only three areas of parenting; breastfeeding (I say, definitely do it if you can), swimming (should be learned earlier than age six), and reading (ditto).

The book has plenty of insights into French parents' expectations of their children and the many ways they teach and help their children to meet these expectations, but what struck me the most was how the social structure in France is generally so much more conducive to child-rearing than in America. This is largely due to some wonderful national programs, but also because the entire country and culture seems to have the same expectations of each other and their children. Everyone was raised similarly and is raising their kids similarly. There are a few key shared values, and there isn't a huge hodgepodge mish-mash of a-la-carte eating/sleeping/discipline philosophies causing conflicts at home and in schools and playgrounds. The French can generally expect that their parents and in-laws will agree with and uphold their parenting methods, and that their childcare provider and child's teachers are maintaining consistency as well, because everyone is on the same page.

I didn't intend to read this just because I'm expecting another bebe, but it was interesting to compare the French parenting methods to what we've been doing with Alice as we look forward to doing it all again. We've been sort of winging it with Alice, in general, and it turns out that what we've come up with is not too far from what the French are doing. In that regard, it was good to get a little validation that we've stumbled pretty near the right track, and to have it laid out in a more explicit road map that we can follow a little more confidently for the next one.

I practiced le pause with Alice when she was an infant, waiting a few minutes before reacting when she started to cry to assess the situation and learn about what and how she was communicating with me. I think a similar idea was mentioned in one of the books I read on infant sleep theories, but it just seemed natural to me. I was interested to read that it is such a natural part of French parents' techniques that they weren't even aware that they were doing it. It's just what everyone does there. Druckerman finally had to connect the dots and point it out to them, and came up with a name for the technique.

I think le pause is a hugely helpful piece of advice for new parents, especially here in America where everyone seems to have a different opinion and we've definitely lost our shared, organic knowledge of raising babies. I also think le pause is the reason that Alice started sleeping through the night so soon (or was, as they say en Francais, "doing her nights"). I think le pause definitely helped her learn to self-soothe and is a big part of why she can put herself to sleep now. She doesn't dilly dally at bedtime, she wants to get right in her bed and is happy to be left alone to read herself to sleep. And she never wakes me in the night, unless she's teething. I call that a success. And I should also note that I personally don't think I would have been so successful with le pause if I'd not had a video monitor. It is amazingly helpful to be able to watch your baby without them knowing, and without having to rush in as soon as they start crying.

Delayed gratification is another huge tenet of French parenting. French children learn to wait until their parents are ready to listen to them or able to help them. They learn to wait to eat at mealtimes instead of snacking all day. They learn to engage themselves otherwise instead of needing to be constantly distracted by snacks and electronic devices. They learn to deal with small doses of frustration and disappointment instead of throwing tantrums. Delayed gratification has shown to be a huge factor in academic success and emotional well-being. I don't think this is a concept that is highly valued or explicitly taught in America, and I'm sure you can think of plenty of unpleasant examples of how that manifests in our society. I think le pause naturally translates into delayed gratification lessons. At least, it has with us, unintentionally. Knowing what kids are capable of, and knowing that they are able to rise to your expectations, helps to establish intentional goals and guidelines. I'm really proud of the way Alice is able to amuse and distract herself, and deal with frustrations and I want to make sure we continue to teach those lessons and value that skill.

I was interested to read how the French raise young kids with sophisticated palates, who aren't confined to a handful of "kids' meal" foods, but eat the same dishes as their parents at mealtimes. Basically, French kids eat like adults from the very beginning because French adults don't assume that their children have limited tastes, and they don't stunt their children's culinary development by limiting what they are offered. I've read other studies and articles on how the French introduce solid food, and the volume and variety of vegetables that they offer in the first month of solid food has a huge impact on shaping their children's tastes and their future of healthy eating. I'm already trying to incorporate some of the structure and techniques that Druckerman highlights in her book, and I'm definitely going to do lots of things differently in the second round. French Kids Eat Everything is next on my list, for even more insight!

There were a lot of other really interesting insights on the way the French view and maintain the balance between the family relationships, and they way French children are taught and allowed and expected to be independent. I loved learning about the philosophies and practices in the educational system, beginning with the infant care. I think there are lots of important lessons that American parents should listen to, talk about, and think about implementing here. I think there are lots of signs that the "choose your own adventure" approach to parenting techniques isn't working well for everyone. I am happy to listen to years of shared wisdom and success, rather than trying to sort through the celebrity doctor or "expert" trend du jour. I just wish I had some French parent friends to look to for advice and support!

Have you read Bringing Up Bebe yet? If you haven't, here are some more reviews to pique your interest! Was there anything that surprised you, or that you didn't agree with? Are you already parenting like the French, or are you inspired to take some French lessons? Let's discuss!

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