Book Review: Bringing up Bebe

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.

Book review: Expecting Better

I have read exactly one pregnancy book so far, and this was it. I’m a voracious reader, but on this topic I find myself reluctant to invest the money and time for a few reasons. Firstly, Google is a bit of a book killer in that it’s about a billion times easier to just search the one obscure thing I’m curious about at any given moment than to sift through a poorly organized index. Secondly, pregnancy information is both boring and disturbing in pretty much equal measure. More than anything though, the problem is that my reading preferences are pretty particular: I want books that tell me what I want to hear. I’m looking for corroboration here, people, not condemnation. I am a choir in desperate search of a preacher. And I want that nice preacher to tell me that it’s okay to dye my hair, eat tuna and drink the occasional beer.

So this book, subtitled: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong— and What You Really Need to Know, really appealed to me. As the author points out, just one or two weak studies can rapidly become “conventional wisdom” and this means that in some cases, the existing “rule” is wrong. In others, it isn’t a question of right or wrong but what is right for you and your pregnancy—like the ham sandwich example from the book that I frequently bore people with to illustrate this point. Avoiding ham (the deli meat kind) would lower your risk of listeria from about 1 in 8,333 to 1 in 8,255. Depending on how much you want to eat ham (me: a lot) and what your tolerance for risk is, you might say, “Why risk it?” or “Any risk is still a risk!” Or, if you’re me (ham girl) you would say, “meh, I’ll roll the dice on those odds.” Nobody’s right or wrong here – but having quantifiable information allows you to make a decision that feels right to you. Which I find infinitely more useful than the blanket recommendation to avoid all deli meats.

Hmm, what would make this post more of the promised book review and less of my typical ranting? Author credentials. Right-o then. Emily Oster is an economist – heavily trained in statistics but not a medical expert – who found many of the current pregnancy recommendations to be problematic in a number of ways. Upon first becoming pregnant, she set out to find evidence to support her own coffee habit (and was able to) and ended up writing a whole book about it. She sifted through a bunch of studies on popular topics, evaluated them and made her own judgments based on the “good studies”.

I found all of it fascinating and incredibly empowering. Not only because of the way it allowed me to ignore some of the conventional pregnancy “wisdom”, but also because it encouraged me to look more critically at all studies (and the journalistic reporting of such) on the whole. This is not a touchy-feely book to be sure, but some people have criticized it for having a blunt tone, even finding it confrontational—which I didn’t at all. Though I suppose if I were a doctor (she’s fairly critical of the medical system as it pertains to pregnancy and its patronizing treatment of women) or a public health policy-maker I would be pretty frustrated with having my authority undermined.

I particularly liked that she doesn’t give hard and fast recommendations, but lays out the information and helps you consider what might factor into your personal decision-making process. I also liked that she takes you from pre-conception through each trimester, all the way to labour and delivery, with topics relevant to each phase. I find myself referring back to it all the time. It doesn’t necessarily replace your doctor’s advice – but it does help you understand their recommendations and question them in an intelligent, informed way. If nothing else, it’s a refreshing break from the don’t-do-this, don’t-do-that just because I said so sort of advice that seems to go hand-in-hand with getting knocked up.

So then, 5 stars. Loved it. Do read.