A month or two ago, a good friend (Caroline!) recommended I read Pamela Druckerman’s book, Bringing Up Bébé. I had just moved to Toulouse and had mentioned I’d been reading a few books regarding French culture, which I’d enjoyed. She said this would be worthwhile, even if I don’t have kids (I do not) or am not quite ready to plan for my own children. I have to agree – I found the book to be quite entertaining, thought-provoking, and easy to read. Overall, I’d recommend this book to anyone who is (1) living in France, (2) thinking of having kids/has kids, (3) pregnant, or (4) looking for a light read. Druckerman, however, does get a little smug as the book progresses (her neuroses seemed to pick up, too), and I felt her ideas started to get repetitive toward the end. I would’ve been better if she’d shaved off about 50-100 pages (most what was at the end), as it had already been covered in earlier chapters and seemed to move further from “journalism/study” to more about the state of her marriage and personal life. I guess I prefer the objective observer tone with an anecdote/personal reference here and there.
With all that said, though, I did enjoy the book. In fact, I’ve discussed it over lunch with a friend from my French class (who has two children and LOVED it), brought it up with my mother, my mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, my mother-in-law’s friends, Jim (obviously), my sister-in-law, and even a few of Jim’s coworkers here. It’s interesting because the way it’s written there’s such a (seemingly) stark difference between how American and French children are raised and the dynamic between children and their parents/adults in each society.
The book starts off with a glossary of french parenting terms (which she uses throughout the book), most of which she learned through talking with experts and lots of French parents. I found the below to best explain French parenting:
“cadre (kah-druh) – frame, or framework. A visual image that describes the French parenting ideal: setting firm limits for children, but giving them tremendous freedom within those limits.
complicité (kohm-plee-see-tay) – complicity. The mutual understanding that French parents and caregivers try to develop with children, beginning from birth. Complicité implies that even small babies are rational beings, with whom adults can have reciprocal, respectful relationships.
éducation (eh-doo-cah-see-ohn) – upbringing. The way that French parents raise their kids.
sage (sah-je) – wise and calm. This describes a child who is in control of himself or absorbed in an activity. Instead of saying ‘be good,’ French parents say ‘be sage.'”
I rather like the idea that French parenting is not thought of as a parent/child relationship (per-say), but as an education. Everything is an opportunity for French parents to teach their children, whether it’s manners (bonjour, au revoir, etc.), eating (try everything), to be sage, rational, to follow the framework (but still experience things for themselves/be independent/curious), or even that it’s OK to sometimes be a little naughty. I grew up with a cadre and éducation, but I’m really fascinated with the emphasis that seems to be placed on all of these by nearly an entire society. It’s refreshing.
Another definition I think rings true throughout the book is the concept of équilibre (below). When a French baby is born, that baby is expected to recognize it is part of a family unit. It is not the most important part nor unimportant. It’s expected the baby/child will eat what and when the adults eat, sleep throughout the night, go on trips without the parents, etc. and the parents will continue to live their adult lives. Being parents will not overtake their role of husband/wife, coworker, daughter/son, etc. To me, this seemed like one of the largest differences (that I’ve observed as a woman with no children) between Americans and the French.
“équilibre (eh-key-lee-bruh) – balance. Not letting any one part of life – including being a parent – overwhelm the other parts.”
There were a number of chapters I found particularly interesting including, “Chapter 3: doing her nights” and “Chapter 4: wait!,” both focus on the idea of équilibre and éducation, highlighting many French children are “doing their nights” or “sleeping through the night” anywhere from after six weeks to four months. This seems remarkable given that her own experience and American investigations proved over a year or so. This is explained because of something called, “la pause.” Essentially, it’s the concept of allowing your baby to learn to self-soothe. So, if he/she is crying in the middle of the night, pause for about five minutes before entering to see if he/she will self soothe (apparently a lot of the time they cry because they woke themselves up and after five minutes will typically go back to sleep). If they don’t self-soothe after five minutes, something else might be happening. This starts to touch on Chapter 4 regarding feeding the child. It’s important to pause and not necessarily feed the baby each time he/she cries, as you might be training/educating the baby to eat in the middle of the night, thus perpetuating the problem of them not sleeping. There’s also a bit about how French babies intuitively know their parents need to sleep, but that seems a bit like bunk.
There’s also a couple chapters highlighting day care in France, which is called a crèche*: “Chapter 6: day care?” and “Chapter 12: you just have to taste it.” I need to preface this by saying I now want to attend a crèche to try their lunches. They sound amazing. I mean, they’ve got chefs (chefs!) who meet with a culinary director two months in advance to plan out the menus for these kids’ meals. They’re not repeating things, they’re constantly introducing new food. It all sounds amazing. I want to eat there and try ALL THE FOOD. Anyway, French day care sounds amazing. The care level is high and those working are quite experienced (maybe have been doing it for decades) and are working with the parents to promote the French éducation. According to this book, many French women go back to work after having a baby, and they’re able to do this because of the crèches. This is fascinating to me, as I know there are crèches here in Toulouse, but I see SO many women out during the day – Jim and I had assumed France was mostly a single income society (I’m a little happy to see that’s not the case). There’s also a very different attitude toward day cares in France versus the US, where day care has a bit more of a (general) negative connotation. In France families are dying to get into a crèche (also goes back to équilibre) and know the quality of care is high/good.
Outside of eating at a crèche, French children also have pretty broad palates, which is due to encouraging/educating their children on food. Children are expected to eat what is cooked and to try everything on their plate (they’re also given extensive foods to eat at the crèche). This, I find fascinating. I’ve definitely seen my fair share of children (and adults) who are picky eaters. But the French seem to take an interesting and different approach (I assume) to getting kids to eat their vegetables and/or different foods. It goes back, again, to éducation. French parents feel it is their role to teach the child how to eat and appreciate all types of foods/flavors.
“Ask your child to taste just one bite, then move on to the next course, the handbook suggests. The authors add that parents should never offer a different food to replace the rejected one. And they should react neutrally if the child won’t eat something. If you don’t react too much to his refusal, your child will truly abandon this behavior.”
Something else that jumped out at me, which I think is quite smart, relates to not abandoning a food. I think I have texture issues (I don’t like mushy textures like beans, bananas, some cooked squashes, etc.), and that could be a reason a kid doesn’t like a particular vegetable. The French recommend trying out different cooking methods of a vegetable each time you re-introduce it (steamed, baked, in parchment, grilled, plain, with sauce or seasoning) as well as talk to the child about why he/she does/doesn’t like what he/she is eating. The book suggests making a bit of a game out of it with questions like, “Do you think it’ll be crunchy?” or “What does this flavor remind you of?” or “What do you feel in your mouth?” I like the idea of really engaging the child and better understanding what it is that isn’t favored/liked. I hate stewed spinach, but I love raw spinach. I hate fried fish, but like all other cooking methods. I don’t like cooked squash, but I like it raw, etc. Seems like a good strategy.
*crèche (kresh) – a full-time French day-care center, subsidized and regulated by the government. Middle-class French parents generally prefer crèches to nannies or to group care in private homes.
I also enjoyed, “Chapter 13: it’s me who decides.” This one especially reminded me of my parents. When I was a child my mother would always remind me that she was the boss. So much so, that once when quite small my Aunt Jennifer was having a conversation with some of her friends about Bruce Springsteen, who she referred to via his nickname, “the boss.” I overheard this and interjected, “Oh no, Aunt Jennifer, my mother is the boss.” It would seem the French really aren’t any different. The cadre really allows the parents to be strict but also have boundaries.
“Education is a firm cadre, and inside is liberty. I really like that. I think the kid is reassured. He knows he can do what he wants, but some limits will always be there.”
The child understands the cadre and respects the parent as the parent respects the child (complicité). But if a child gets out of line, the parent will also use what the french refer to as “les gros yeux” or “the big eyes.” “The look of admonishment that French adults give children, signaling them to stop doing a bêtise (small act of naughtiness).” My parents did this, too. It was the look of, I’m serious.
In addition to parenting, there’s also a bit about marriage and gender roles, which is interesting, but not necessarily my favorite part of the book. I’d venture, even, to say a portion of the book I would’ve left out. Essentially, there’s an idea that French women have less of a perspective that gender roles will be more neutral, thus making them happier people and happier with their husbands whereas American women expect more help with the childrearing, housework, food preparation.
Now, on to my next book on French culture…taking recommendations…