In America, it’s almost as if parenting is a competition, served with a side of self-doubt and a heaping helping of guilt and shame. At least, that is the reality media and the internet portray. It’s all “give birth naturally or you’re a monster” and “breast is best you formula-feeding demon” and “if you stay at home you’re terrible” and “if you work you’re terrible” and “if you send your kids to public school you don’t love them” and “pick a parenting style from this list of 10 options and prove to everyone else just how wrong their approach is,” and so on and so on.
This confusing mania is a great way to sell parenting books and direct lots of traffic to websites. The parenting advice industry, (much like it’s self-doubt stoking cousin, the diet industry) is thriving in the United States. It is a huge collection of conflicting information, advice premised on this idea that you can shape your kids into something better than your neighbor, and an unspoken rule that if you don’t devote your entire being to raising these humans, then you’re not a good parent.
Self sacrifice. Guilt. Shame. Sleeplessness. Stress. These have become badges of honor in American parenting society.
Add this to the stress U.S. parents (particularly working moms) face due to lacking societal support for childrearing, and it’s a wonder anyone has kids. How will you afford maternity leave? How will you keep breastfeeding when you go back to work? How will you manage the high cost of childcare? How will you keep your child healthy and what will you do if they need high cost healthcare? Can you afford to pay for education if you don’t trust public schools? It goes on. I wonder if the Mommy Wars above were invented to distract from these very real issues. #conspiracytheory
Well, there is another way.
This past week, in a moment of boredom, I logged onto my Audible account and found a little gem I had downloaded that addresses the badges of honor, highlights how poorly the U.S. supports parents, and provides real motivation for finding parental serenity.
I wish I had read it sooner.
Pamela Druckerman’s book, Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, is a breath of “calm the fuck down” fresh air. It points out the most obvious neuroses in American parenting, and offers alternatives that, on the whole, just make sense (BTW, there’s also a “Cliff’s Notes” version, which is included in the book I link to above, but can also be purchased separately – Bebe Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting).
The main premise of the book is this: an American woman in France notices that French kids eat everything and don’t throw food. Temper tantrums are rare, and kids are polite, well-behaved and happy. Babies sleep through the night as early as six weeks old, and their mothers manage to look like they don’t have children: sexy, relaxed, and fashionable. She decides to figure out just how all of this is possible.
It’s not lost on me that she has totally taken advantage of the American guilt-induced parenting industry boom to make a few bucks, but I would say that if you’re looking for parenting advice, Pamela Druckerman deserves more of your bucks than most. Primarily, her book helps you to feel like who you are, and what you need, is as important as the wants and needs of your children. In fact, French parents think making children the center of their universe is as detrimental to their kids’ health and happiness as parental guilt is to their own. So just stop it already!
Here are a few of the key takeaways I started implementing even before I finished reading it:
- The Pause: French parents have a good scientific understanding of the rhythm of sleep, which involves cycles. When a baby makes noise, it is often because they are between cycles and don’t yet know how to quietly move from one to another. Picking them up without pausing may wake them up unnecessarily. The Pause gives a baby the chance to self-soothe, and leads to them quickly learning to sleep through the night. Which, of course, gives parents much-needed rest. In France, it is rare to find children older than 3 or 4 months old that don’t sleep through the night.
- Wait: As children grow older, the Pause is modified to teach children patience. Whether telling a child to wait rather than interrupt their parents’ conversations, or to wait until a set 4:00 snack time or even dinner to have a treat they just bought, Druckerman posits that this “educacion” in patience explains why French children don’t have temper tantrums, which Americans assume are just “part of being a toddler.” They have learned to self-soothe and are accustomed to not getting what they want whenever they want it. Of course, there are babies that take longer to sleep through the night, and there are some temper tantrums in France, but the Pause/Wait is definitely worth trying.
- Tiny Humans: The Pause works because the French also assume that, from the day they are born, children are capable of learning important life skills, understanding what they’re being asked to do, knowing right from wrong, and having self-restraint. All they need is steady, consistent guidance – from BIRTH. In France, parents explain to their children what they are going to do before they do it (I’m going to change your diaper, I’m going to put you down, etc.), why they should not do something, and what they should do instead (we do not pull books off the shelf as it makes a mess, let’s put them back gently). There are also no “child-friendly” foods in France. Children learn to eat what adults eat, from vegetables to blue cheese. Which makes for a much less complicated and less labor-intensive dinner time for parents, and much more adventurous kids!
- The Framework, or Cadre: Another reason French children misbehave less, is because they know what to expect. In France, the entire country observes a “rhythm” of life, and it is expected that children will fit into the rhythm of the family, rather than the other way around. French mothers feed their children on demand for the first several weeks, but they slowly start nudging them toward an established, and sacrosanct, rhythm of sleeping and mealtimes. Breakfast is at 8:00, lunch is at noon, “goutere” or snack time is at 4:00, and dinner is at 7:00. Bedtime is at 8:00 and you wake again at 7:00. This framework establishes expectations, and also teaches patience. A child experiences hunger, but knows that their need will be met at a set time – and they’re more likely to sit and eat their meal, and try new things, because they aren’t full from all the snacks they ate between meals. They can’t have sweets or snacks whenever they want, but they can have them at “goutere,” and thus they learn both patience, and the ability to enjoy foods in moderation. This one was a huge reminder for me: I have always talked about kids fitting into the family, instead of the family revolving around the kids, but in the first 9 months of our son’s life, I somehow slid into allowing his eating and sleeping schedule to dictate my schedule instead of the other way around. We have started nudging our way toward a set schedule, and this morning was perhaps the most calm, collected morning I’ve had since his arrival.
- Freedom, Awakening, and Discovery: With the framework of family life, French children are given a lot of freedom to make their own choices, and to develop at their own pace. French parents don’t oversee their children’s play time – they give them space and time alone. They are not enrolling two-year-olds in accelerated classes to learn to swim or read or play the violin, or finding preschools with accelerated curriculums. They are enrolling them in classes and preschools that do less “teaching,” and more “awakening and discovery.” Basically, babies and toddlers learn through play, and build important foundational skills, such as social interaction, emotional understanding, comfort in their bodies, and how to enjoy the delights the world has to offer and the present moment. As with “French Women Don’t Get Fat” (another common sense approach I highly recommend), pleasure is the goal. It is more important than achievement, and yet French kids rank higher than U.S. kids on many measures of achievement.
Perhaps the most important message of this book, is that the perfect mother does not exist. French women know that, and so, unlike many American moms I know, they don’t beat themselves up when they fall short of some perfect ideal. They know that the best mother is a happy, healthy, well-rested mother whose identity is not wrapped up in her children – she is, after all, still a woman, a worker, and a wife, and all of these parts of her are important.
Of course, France values and supports women who seek an identity outside the home in ways the U.S. does not: there is high quality government-run, regulated, and subsidized childcare because France acknowledges that women will work, and values their contributions to the economy. If you can’t get into one of these daycares (and the waiting lists are long), there is funding for part time childcare or an in-home nanny. Education is free and high quality. Healthcare is the same.
So yes, parenting in the U.S. is harder, and this book definitely points out the concrete ways our country is not supporting families. Dealing with all of that stuff is enough to stress about – why add guilt, shame, and all the jumping through hoops that comes with the mommy wars, and with sacrificing everything to revolve around, and dictate every moment of every day for, your children? In the end, that just creates little tyrants who are not happy, and parents who have lost themselves in the identities of their children.
I don’t want that. I want to arrive at baby’s 18th birthday with my identity and my marriage intact, and with a well-adjusted human in tow. I really think this book has some solid advice for getting there in one piece. Give it a read!