Monday, February 27, 2012

How NOT to Raise Bébé

When a friend recently told me that there is a big hoopla in America about a new book (Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman) that praises French parenting, I couldn't believe my ears.

I can understand how someone might praise the French for many things, including an efficient health care system, many helpful social services, and we mustn't forget their great cheese, to name just a few, but parenting? Non. Non. Non. At least, mostly non. I was raised by a French mother (and a German father) on a tropical island, have lived in France for 11 years, am married to a Frenchman, and am a stay-at-home mom raising our five-year-old son.

I love living in France, but one of the things that makes me cringe, is the way many parents raise their children. The way they hem them in so much that they have no room to breathe.

France is the land of the philosopher Descartes of "I think, therefore I am" fame. France is a country filled with thinkers; people living mostly in their heads. And because this is a land of thinkers, it has been decided (by whom, I don't know), that children are supposed to be adults, albeit tiny ones, no matter their age nor their developmental capacities. They are supposed to act and behave according to the same rules and regulations that are in place for the grown-ups.

And just as the children follow a set of rules and regulations, so do the mothers. Most French mothers follow a well-worn path. You go to work (feminists fought for you to have this right and being a stay-at-home mom is medieval), you have a baby, nurse for a proud two months (if at all), at which time you stop nursing, put your child in daycare or with a nanny and you go back to work, with a lot of your income going to childcare, since it is not only not entirely free as is often claimed, but sometimes quite expensive. In the evening, you pick up your child, feed it, bathe it, put it to bed, often as quickly as you can, so that you can have your adult time. And as early as six months (some even three months), you go away for a weekend with your husband (or partner - many French couples are unwed) to rekindle the flame, while the child stays with a grandparent.

It is normal to follow this path, and most French women I know, don't even consider questioning how it's done (Those who do, cringe as much as I). These women are simply built this way. And I can see why the author of the book, an American living in Paris, might envy that.

But what the envy seems to miss -- or perhaps chooses to ignore -- is that even French moms and dads get frazzled. Even French children have tantrums. And big ones, in the equally big supermarkets à la Walmart. Even French parents yell at their children. And a lot. And loudly. And by yelling things such as, "You are mean" or "You are evil" (yes EVIL) for the slightest disturbances, such as at a toddler who doesn't want to share his new birthday present.

The parent rules in France with an iron fist. If the child speaks her needs or desires, she is systematically dismissed. I've seen it again and again and again. As a matter of fact, the child generally has no say, period, regardless of whether she is four or 14.

A lot of French parenting is fear-based and what-other-people-think-based. During a recent visit to the pharmacy, my five-year-old tried to climb up on a low ledge next to the counter.

The pharmacist looked at him and said, "Get down from there." I thought she was asking him to get down, because she was worried about my son breaking the ledge, which in my book is a perfectly valid request, but instead, she added, "You are going to fall." Sigh.

Going to fall. I hear that one a lot. Don't do that, you are going to fall. Don't climb up that tiny step, you are going to fall. Don't try to follow your dreams, you are going to fall. Going to fall. Going to fall.

Instead of showing a child how to do it safely, within his capacities, French parenting is almost always about, "DON'T!" And not just "don't" to keep the child safe, but "don't" because "I am worried about what other people are thinking of me," because you know that they are judging you harshly.

Just yesterday, while my husband, my son, his friend Leo, Leo's mom, and I were at a local park, a toddler came over and touched Leo's bicycle. The small, wooden bike fell over gently, and didn't get damaged. Because I knew what was coming, before the toddler's mother had a chance to say anything, I told her the bike was fine, that it was nothing to worry about and that her child was welcome to touch the bike if he wanted to.

Unfortunately, my words and my smile didn't have the desired effect. The mother simultaneously apologized profusely to me, almost genuflecting, as she scolded her child rather harshly. Probably with reason, because someone else would have harrumphed and glared at her for letting her child toddle over to touch the bike. What stress! I know. I live it often.

Another aspect of "DON'T" is, 'I don't want to be bothered." That is the flip-side of French parenting. On one hand, the child is systematically micro-managed, stifled and suffocated, and on the other hand, the child is pushed to play by himself...certainly not for the sake of the child, but because the parents want their adult-time. And not just a little time. A lot of time. As much of their own time as they possibly can.

It is almost as if parents and children live side-by-side, not with each other. Yes they spend time together. Yes they eat together, and rather tasty morsels at that. Yes they go on vacation together (the French have at least five weeks a year). And yet, somehow, looking from the outside in, there seems to be a distance between the adult and the child.

I wonder where this comes from. I ask around me and I don't get any answers. But I do sometimes see cracks in the veneer. On occasion, I hear mothers saying that they wish they could stay at home with their kids, but they don't, because they need to earn money or because a woman has earned the right to work. When I tell these women that they do have a choice, that we have made that choice, they reject the idea.

They have decided they don't have a choice and so they must grin, bear it, and put it out of their minds. They leave their two-month-olds in daycare and proceed to live their adult lives alongside their child or children. They shut off their emotions and do it the way it is supposed to be done.

Hmmm...I wonder where they learned that from?

Even author Pamela Druckerman has her concerns, "...I'm not even sure that I like living [in France]. I certainly don't want my kids growing up to become sniffy Parisians."

If you are a somewhat logical person, wouldn't you deduce that French adults become this way because of French parenting?