Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bringing Up Bebe

Having traveled a lot throughout Europe before I was married, I was intrigued by the idea of this book: how French parenting compares with American parenting.  Ex-patriot American write Pamela Duckerman has written a very readable, enjoyable book:
Duckerman lives in Paris with her British husband.  Although much of her book is anecdotal, the differences between how Parisians raise small children and Americans do is startling. Here are some highlights:

-  French living rooms and kitchens rarely have any toys in them; all the toys and "baby stuff" is kept in the child's room.  If the child does bring a toy into the public area of the house, it is returned to their room when they are done playing with it.  By contrast, our living room frequently is covered with toys.  All of my parent friends, as well as myself, constantly bemoan the excessive quantity of toys we have in our homes.  Yet, despite years of hating and complaining about the toy clutter, it continues.
-  French babies generally sleep through the night within the first 2 or 3 months of life.
-  French women are calm, discreet, and extremely decisive.  They would never jokingly call themselves "neurotic" or brag about the "chaos" in their life.  If they have any self doubt, it is kept completely hidden.
-  When a newborn cries at night, French parents do not immediately rush to the baby.  Instead, they do the "pause."  If you wait a few minutes, the baby will often return to sleep.  If the baby does not return to sleep in a few minutes, then the parents respond to them.  The babies learn from birth that someone will not immediately come to their aid if they make a tiny noise.  They also learn to be patient for a few minutes.
-  Little babies need to play by themselves some, to learn that they can be alone from time to time and do not always need to be on "mama's hip."  The mother needs time to herself to freshen up, do her make-up, etc.
- Duckerman frequently sees what Americans would call a miracle: small children playing quietly by themselves while the adults in the room have a cup of coffee, a piece of pie, and a calm, peaceful adult conversation.  For an hour!  The mothers tell the children "attend," which is French for "wait."  They do not say "stop" or "quiet" to their kids. 
- In America we act like it is acceptable for small children to have no self control.  We excuse the behavior.  French parents train their children in self control from birth.  Life is more pleasant for everyone if children are capable of waiting.
-  French parents do not teach their children distraction techniques (like playing with a portable video game).  Instead, they give their children lots of opportunities to practice waiting - from birth.
-  French families generally bake every weekend, teaching their children how to do it.  Duckerman was at a Parisian friend's house.  While she and her friend had a calm conversation, the Parisian woman's three year old daughter sat at the kitchen table.  The child (unassisted) mixed cake batter from scratch, measuring all the ingredients, lined a muffin tin with cupcake wrappers, then filled the cupcake wrappers with batter.  She did this by herself, without making a mess.  My kids are 7 and 5 and I cannot comprehend either one of them doing any of that by themselves.  I have never even considered allowing them to try to make a cake even from a boxed cake mix.  I don't even let my 5 year old pour a bowl of cereal for herself. 
- All French meals include at least three courses: a starter (usually a cold salad), a main course, and a dessert (usually cheese or fruit).  Everyone eats breakfast (8 a.m.), lunch (noon) and dinner (8 p.m.).  Dinner is so late that children can also eat a mid-afternoon snack at 4 p.m.  Kids cannot eat at other times than these schedule.  People almost never eat "on the run" or in the car.  All kids eat the same thing the adults eat, although food may be pureed or chopped up for really small children.
-  When a child tries to interrupt her mother, the French mother calmly and firmly says "Just wait two minutes, I am in the middle of talking." 
- Mealtimes are totally fixed; kids never go to the refrigerator and help themselves to a snack.  Parents in France do not carry little bags of Cheerios, fruit snacks, etc. in their purse to give kids a snack whenever and wherever the child seems hungry.
- Only an American mother will joke "maybe in five years we can have a complete conversation." 
- French parents are not competitive with the children and obsessed with getting them to meet certain milestones as soon as possible, bragging about it to everyone.
- Duckerman's infant daughter's room is filled with Baby Einstein DVD's, alphabet flashcards, and tons of toys designed to develop cognitive functioning.  Her Parisian friends with infant children have a set of blocks and a teddy bear for their children.
- French parents talk to their infants, at a few months old, like they understand what they are being told.  There is no baby talk.
- Duckerman sends her child to a preschool.  A typical menu for toddlers includes four courses: (1) hearts of palm and tomato salad, (2) sliced turkey with rice in a Provencal cream sauce, (3) St. Nectaire cheese with a baguette, and (4) fresh kiwi.  Duckerman is in such disbelief at the menu that she actually sits into a lunch at the day care center and watches the three and four year olds dine like this.  Apparently the teacher at the day care presents each food to the children, describing it, and boasting about it.  The children must try everything, with good manners.  The quantity of how much they eat is never discussed.  If the child only eats one bite, that is fine.  But, French children are regularly exposed to a wide variety of foods from a young age.  Because they are not allowed to snack at all, the children are hungrier during meals. 
- French children can regularly tell the difference between Brie, Camembert, and other cheeses by the age of three or four.  My five year old will only eat cheddar cheese.  One time I attempted to give her some sliced Swiss cheese.  She balked and I have never attempted again.  I have never even considered presenting a soft cheese to my children, or any of the more "exotic" cheeses to my kids.  The preschool menu described above is a better meal then I typically eat. 
- Duckerman drops her child off at day care wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a ponytail.  The French mothers wear high heeled boots, a designer dress, and perfume.  Their hair is coiffed and they are wearing make-up.
- American mothers practice "narrated play" with their children.  At the playground, the American mother will say "Look at the slide.  It is blue.  You can climb up the ladder.  Now you can sit down.  Weee!  You can slide down!  Wasn't that fun?  Look at the seesaw.  It goes up and down.  Let's walk over to it.  See the tree next to it.  It has leaves on it.  You can sit on the seesaw."  The American mother will escort and guide their child throughout the entire playground.  A French mother will sit (in her designer dress and high heels) on a bench next to the playground and chat with a friend or read a book.  The French mother trusts that a child will learn to navigate the playground by themselves.  I have been guilty of this before, thinking I need to "engage" with my children as much as possible.  Duckerman points out that if we engage with our children 24/7, then we never get to engage with other adults, or with ourselves.
- Every single person in France, children and adults, say "bon jour" when they arrive somewhere.  It is common courtesy.  In America we allow children to play and ignore adults who enter our homes.  If Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is on TV, an American child can keep watching it even when a visitor enters the room.  We do not expect small children to have good manners. 
- French parents take week long vacations without their children a few times a year.  In America we are lucky if we get a monthly "date night."  French parents scoff at the term "date night" because they have them several times a week.
- French mothers do not even consider that their husbands will do half the work.  It is not a standard they even think may occur.  So, they are not frustrated when it doesn't happen and they do not fight with their husbands about who does laundry.
- French parents never ask their children "what do you want to eat?"  Everyone eats the same thing, from carrots in vinaigrette to roasted pork.  There are no children's menus.  The kids must taste everything and eat whatever they want from what is presented to them.  Mealtimes are very calm.  Other than a taste, kids are not forced to eat something they do not want to eat.  They simply do not eat if they choose not to eat what is presented to them.  In America, we have set the precedent that children can eat macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, French fries, and applesauce instead of what everyone else eats.  We make separate meals for our children.  We cater what we make to what they are willing to eat. 
- French parents rarely yell at their children.  When they do, they resort to surgical strikes instead of constant carpet bombing.
- French parents really push autonomy with their kids.  Kindergarten classes go on week-long field trips (overnight with teachers, not parents).  This teaches the children that they can be OK without a parent with them all the time.
- Birthday parties are drop-offs for children from age three on.  In America, we regularly have all the parents remain at every birthday party, even for kids much older.
- Watching what her friends do, Duckerman starts to serve her small children meals in courses.  She learns that it works well, because she can serve the "less desirable" foods as the starter course while the child is hungrier and while she is preparing the rest of the meal.  For example, she will serve cut up fruit for breakfast.  While the child is eating that, she will prepare toast or oatmeal.  For dinner, she will serve a cucumber salad for the child to eat first.  Once that is mostly eaten, she will serve the main course.  Therefore, the child has to eat a good bit of vegetables before presented with a meat and starch.
- French parents never offer an alternative food to a rejected food.  If the child will not eat broccoli, then he does not get another vegetable to replace it.
- Making kids learn to wait from a young age is a way to make them deal with frustration.  Everyone, especially small children, have a "now mentality."  My girls seem incredibly impatient.  Catherine wants to show me her painting now, not in five minutes.  Sabrina wants some juice and a snack now, not in two hours at dinner time.  When I do not respond instantly, they scream.  I am, unfortunately, guilty of the same behavior back at them.  When I ask them to do something, I expect & demand immediate reactions.  As a result, none of us are able to wait very well.  We all want instant responses to everything.  Catherine has very little toleration for frustration.  If things do not go exactly as she wants it to, she will react negatively rather than calmly work through her frustration.  We have been talking a lot about frustrating situations and how to address them. 

I loved this book.  The cynic in me wonders how accurate the differences are and how much of the stories are merely anecdotes.  I really wonder if these "techniques" actually work.  But, the book made me think about my parenting and encourage me to try some different methods, which may work with my kids. 

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