I just finished reading Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. I found it really interesting and tore through it in just a couple of days. I like that it's written sort of like a memoir, so it doesn't have that preachy tone that a lot of parenting books have. It's not really a parenting book, anyway. It's more like an observation of the French way of parenting. She brings to light a lot of things about French culture that I never knew. For instance, they have a very high quality child care system that is subsidized by the government. This obviously plays a huge role in women's decision of whether or not to go back to work after having a baby. Knowing that child care is of superb quality (all the caregivers are carefully selected and highly trained) and doesn't cost money, means that staying at home with a child beyond the first year is nearly unheard of in France. Also, it's apparently very uncommon for French women to breastfeed. I find this very strange. And there's a very famous French parenting "expert" who believed that babies, from birth, can understand language, that they know what you're saying to them. That, in my opinion, is ridiculous (though I do believe babies pick up on and understand our tone of voice and our general state of mind or disposition). But the most interesting parts of the book are in the deeper, more fundamental differences between French and American parenting. Here are some things I took away from the book.
1. We American parents are overwhelmed by two things: guilt and fear. We feel guilty if our children experience any frustration or disappointment and go to great lengths to make sure that they don't. We feel guilty for saying no to our children. We feel guilty if we read a magazine while they play in the sandbox instead of getting in the sandbox with them. We feel guilty if we decide not to breastfeed. We feel guilty for going back to work. We feel guilty for staying at home and not working. We feel guilty if our child has few toys and less elaborate birthday parties than the other children. You get the picture. Also, we're consumed by fear (this is an issue throughout our culture, not just in parenthood). We're afraid of germs, of putting our babies to sleep on their tummies, of causing allergies or autism, of letting our toddlers go down the slide alone, of not getting them involved enough in extracurriculars, of their not getting into the right and preschool and then not learning fractions soon enough and not getting into a good college and ultimately ending up poor and lonely because of it. Fear consumes us and makes us totally nutso.
2. We Americans seem to have a really hard time doing things simply because it's enjoyable to do them. This is something she briefly mentions in the book, but I've come across this in other places as well. We eat for our health, not just because eating is enjoyable. Same with exercise. We push our kids to learn to read so that they can compete and excel in college, not because reading is enjoyable. This carries over into our parenting in ways that have negative effects, not just on children, but on family life in general. Parents have a hard time justifying enjoyment for themselves and also tend to think everything their child is doing must serve a purpose. Listening to classical music is good for baby's IQ. Stacking toys help develop motor skills. Puzzles are great for cognitive thinking and problem solving. Art and music help children excel in math and science. Why can't we just relax and let them paint or listen to music because it's enjoyable to do those things? The author also notes that French couples find the American idea of "date night" for parents very strange. They think this implies that romance is something separate from daily life and needs to be scheduled as such. They also think this implies that American parents have no time for each other unless they schedule such an evening. This, in the French way of thinking, is a very unbalanced way to live.
3. We have little faith in the abilities of children. I think I did a post on this once before. French parents apparently really stress autonomy in children from a very young age. They see it as a critical part of their development and also recognize that their children's independence has a huge impact on daily family life and on marriage. If you constantly have to do everything for your children (including entertaining them), the children are the center of family life, which is exhausting for both you and them. I think, though, that many parents really believe that they have to do everything for their children, that four year olds are not capable of dressing themselves or using scissors. This is a problem. It frustrates the child and wears out the parents. The author of the book tells a story of her five year old daughter preparing breakfast for the family because her mother was sick in bed. The author (who is American) is stunned by her daughter's abilities and notes that had she raised her children in America she may never have discovered that she was so capable at such a young age. I think our fear plays into this, too. I think our fear that the five year old might burn herself or cut herself has in time convinced us that she inevitably will burn or cut herself.
4. French parents create strict boundaries and then leave their kids alone. This is one of the major points of the book. French parents have very clear rules about certain things but also allow their children a lot of freedom. They also stress the importance of teaching kids to entertain themselves and to deal with frustration and disappointment. Many American parents view playpens as too confining for a child, but the French think of this as necessary to the child and the parent. With a playpen (or another safe play environment), the child can be left to play alone from a very young age and this also gives parents an opportunity to do other things like prepare dinner, read a book, or have adult conversation with a friend (without guilt). The strict behavioral boundaries work very much like a playpen. The parents sets up certain boundaries, but the child is pretty much free to do whatever she wants within those boundaries. For example, during dinner, it is common for French children to be required to at least try every dish on their plate and to sit at the table throughout the meal, but they are rarely coerced into eating more of something they don't want or don't like. So, the boundaries are clear: try everything once and participate in meal time. But they also have the freedom to choose not to eat any more than one bite of peas or anything else on their plate. This freedom and mutual respect supposedly encourages children to decide to eat on their own (I bet it works). Also, in France there is one fixed snack time, generally observed by everyone. French children do not snack all day like American children. If a child goes to the candy store and chooses a treat, she knows that she can't eat it until snack time (around 4pm). But, during snack time, a child can decide to have a big fat piece of chocolate cake if he wants. He has that freedom, because it's the only snack of the day. This kind of structure makes life much easier for parents, I imagine. Everything is so clear and finite, you're not having to constantly evaluate every tiny situation, like trying to remember all the snacks your child has had and wondering if chocolate cake is okay at this point in the day. One other example seemed really great to me: A French mother explained that her children only have juice at breakfast. This way, when a child asks for juice at 2pm, you can simply say, "No, we only have juice at breakfast," instead of trying to explain why you don't want her to have more juice because it's full of sugar and you think she's already had enough juice today. Makes sense, right? Having these simple and clear rules in place and then allowing the kids freedom within those boundaries, seems to make everyone happier and more relaxed.
The general point of the book is that parents are in charge and children should not be the center of everything, but that children should also be allowed freedom and choice and should be respected as separate, rational beings by the parents and other adults. And, stressing that the parent is in charge and the children don't control everything is what's best not just for the parents, but for the children as well. It helps them understand what is expected of them and to learn to deal with their frustration, disappointment, and even boredom. And, the whole family is happier for it. Many American parents feel that their lives are totally and completely upended after having a child and confess to never going out or having adult conversation, feeling exhausted most of the time, and having little or no sex life. No wonder so many young people feel so wary about having children. The French say it doesn't (and shouldn't) have to be like this! Raising children should be enjoyable and fulfilling and being a parent should not completely overwhelm every other aspect of life. We must find the balance. Anyway, it's a good read, even if you're not a parent!