I managed to read not one, but two, baby-related books while on vacation in Hawaii a few weeks ago. In my usual self-serving fashion, they were both books that I felt fairly certain would bolster rather than challenge my pre-existing views on child-rearing. Particularly this first one up for review in which an American mom living in Paris (Pamela Druckerman) notices differences in the way the Parisienne moms were raising their kids compared to the way she and her American friends were doing it.
Specifically, she wonders things like: Why didn’t my French friends ever need to rush off the phone because their kids were demanding something? Why hadn’t their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had? Why didn’t French children throw food? And why weren’t their parents shouting? Why do so many French babies start sleeping through the night at two or three months old? Why didn’t French children require constant attention from adults and seemed capable of hearing the word “no” without collapsing?
For those who remember my earlier post, Do I have to? you’ll know these kinds of questions about parenting are right up my alley.
While this book is more witty observation than “how-to” manual, there’s a lot of practical advice to glean from the anecdotes, research tidbits and philosophical musings on feeding/eating, sleep, routine, discipline, play, manners and general behavioural expectations. But what was most appealing to me was just the overarching viewpoint of the “French way”, which boils down to the elegantly simple premise that when we become parents, our own (and other adults’) needs should remain at least as important as our child’s. It is from this singular belief that every other principle of French parenting flows…adults make the rules, adult time is important, adults are unapologetic about saying “no” or “that’s enough” to curb bratty behaviour, kids learn to be patient…in other words, parents refuse to create a world that revolves around the whims and urges of pint-sized tyrants at the expense of parental happiness.
It seems reasonable enough, but it really does buck the “more you suffer for your children, the more you must care” mentality that often seems to define the modern approach to parenting. For the French, parenting is just one part of life, rather than an all-consuming, anxiety-ridden project where a mom’s sacrifices and “achievements” are documented on social media for all to admire (or judge).
The other empowering theme within the book is that kids, even babies, are inherently rational and therefore can be taught to behave (for the most part – yes, tantrums happen) rationally. She posits that where North American parents tend to ascribe their child’s problematic behaviour to “uncontrollable” elements of their personality or character (who hasn’t heard the mom of a toddler terror say something like, “she’s just so strong-willed / spirited / precocious / gifted”) French parents think that behaviour is learned—and it’s the parents’ job to educate, firmly and consistently. It’s not about “crushing their spirit”, it’s about realizing that letting your three-year-old tear open a bag of flour in the grocery store (yeah I JUST saw this) isn’t actually doing their creative or spiritual development any favours. The French actually believe that kids blossom best within limits, and that it’s reassuring for them to know that an adult is steering the ship. With that comes something else that I truly believe: that when you treat kids as if they can control themselves – as if they are rational and responsible enough to handle it – they will tend to prove you right. Conversely, if you treat them as if they are uncontrollable beasts – well, don’t be surprised when they act like it.
Anyways, LOTS of good nuggets in this book, some of which I will probably cover at greater length in other posts including “le cadre” (framework) and “le pause” (waiting/patience).
For now…who would appreciate this book? I’d say that you have to be confident (or willing to learn how to be) in your ability to be in charge, while also willing to largely back off and let your child be. Those might seem like contradictory approaches, but the gist of it is learning how to establish very firm guidelines on a few major things and then being pretty relaxed about a lot of other things.