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?


tjamison said...

That was amazing Dya!!So many times I didn't know what to do when Martina was growing up; many people would give me advice that would contradict each other. The best I received was to do what feels right and that worked for both of us. You sound like a great mom!!

apicad said...

Dear Mama Dya,dear Mums,
As a French daughter, French woman, French Mum-to-be I thought I could probably give an insight on I feel about the education I received and the one I would probably be willing to pass on to my own children.
I think I am a quite happy grown up with a very good relationship with my parents despite some differents from time to time as any family. Differents we have as adults, and not as child vs parents.
I am extremely grateful to the way they raised me and my younger sister.
When I was a toddler, my Mum continued working while I was been taken care of by my grand parents. Day care was indeed too expensive and luckily my grand parents were close by. When my sister arrived, Mum stopped working, my Dad financial situation was better and they decided it was better for us to have a full time mum.
Despite the fact she was available all day, she often left us alone in our "park", a small crib where kids can stand up but not climb out. I remember spending quite some time there playing on my own while Mum was doing house work. She never carried us around in a sling.
After a couple of months of breastfeeding, we were introduced to regular hour meals and bedtimes. We were left alone crying for a bit until we fell asleep. Yes, they left us in a different bedroom, checking on us only when necessary. Crying was part of the process of getting asleep, Mum told me I used to cry for 10 min before falling asleep. They never took me out of bed or let me sleep in theirs.
As we grew up, our parents were taking us to visit places in the week end, playing games on sundays, taking music classes and having bedtime stories with Dad and doing homeworks and cake cooking, sewing with Mum. We shared plenty of family time but as equally "Me" time to read (when we knew how to) or play and invent our own games when not. Rules were rules, bedtime-meal-bath hours were strict but I never even once thought it was "unfair" or "unreasonable". I knew my parents were the one who protected and loved me and the ones who knew best.
My sister and I were both doing great in school, having good friends, having good laughs with our parents. As teens, the rules were still strict, I was slamming doors, my sister was arguing. We negociated and went through this difficult period quite uneventfully.
They gave us a secure "frame" to grow in. I turned out to be a thinker, reader, rule obeying, poetic dreamer kid when my sister became the contradiction loving- creative- sensitive being. 2 completely different persons, who had the choice to become who they were supposed to be, being educated the French way.
I have been slapped once or twice, my sister has been spanked a couple of times also. I remember some evenings where my sister was staying in front of her cold plate of food she didn't want to finish a couple of times. My parents always stood by their decisions. We both knew that trying to go over the rules will not work. For anyone who is not French, that may sounds harsh but I can assure you that most of us are happy adults willing to give the same education as the one we received.
I am expecting my first child. I wonder what kind of human being he is gonna turn up to be. The only thing I know is I want to give him all the tools he needs to be a well balanced, happy, able to interact with others the best way possible. I want to give him all the love I have in me, the chances to be curious, the will to be persistent, the strength to cope with frustrations, the freedom to think and discover by himself who he wants to be. My parents did just that with me, I will most likely follow their foosteps.
As you say tjamison, many people give contradictory advices, I intend to do what I feel right and it looks like the "French way" to me.

Lancrel said...

Hi, everyone.

I've read the messages before and here is a bit of my experience and opinion about the French parenting. First, I'am a french man, born in France, raised by French parents in the French countryside.
My experience is that my parents and I lived side-by-side. I shared so little with them. Most of the time, my brother and I were dealing on our own with things. If we had been trouble-makers or looking for troubles, our parents would have not been there to prevent us from being bad boys. And I have the feeling that I learnt very little from them. And I know that my brother thinks exactly the same. My parents love my brother and me. No question about it! They just did as much as they could.
I also experienced French parenting when I was a 23 years old handball coach for 12 years old kids (Handball is team sport popular in France.). I had the feeling that the parents of these kids were just relieved that someone else was taking care of their children... just as my parents did when I was a kid playing handball. Is it because the French are often expecting too much from the administration, from "l'Etat Providence"? Are the French parents expecting the teachers to raise their children for them?
With these kids, we went to Germany to play against our "twin city" handball team. There, I witnessed that the German parents were more involved. I also witnessed that the german kids had responsabilities. One of them had the keys of the sport hall! I was almost shocked because, in France, the kids do not have a word to say about anything.
But I also have to say that this is my experience. There is no "perfect parent" and all the French parents are not the same. I remember friends who had different education. But they were kind of exceptions to the rule!

Unknown said...

Dya, that was fantastic, and just what I observed while living in France. What you describe is actually very similar to the way American and British children were brought up in previous decades, until the light from other cultures outside the European paradigm and childhood development research illuminated a different path. Of course, you will have French mothers read this, and they will defend their traditions, and give evidence of how they became great intellects and obedient individuals as a result of being raised thus. Interesting to me is that you will not see talk of great empathy, creativity or happiness in their lives. At any rate, your observations are sharp, and your bravery for articulating what you see is commendable. Brava!

apicad said...

Dear Unknown,

I am very sad to read such a harsh comment. I suppose you think yourself a person "with empathy, creativity and happiness" therefore I don't really understand how you can say that I am "obedient, and stuck in my intellect" because raised by French parents.
I think what Dya wanted to point to is the extremeties French education can reach as I am sure "the enlighten" American and British one can also go to. Lancrel and I had both completely different childhoods, as I think we all had. There's as many types of education as there are parents.
Love and understanding starts with us, "adults", before passing it on to our children. I guess that not falling for any prejudices and be tolerant is part of this.
I am French, caring, quite creative and happier than I could have ever dreamed of. I hope to pass it on to my child, whatever style of education I choose.

Dya Englert said...

My Dearest Apicad,

You are one of my favorite people on this planet (and if Unknown is who I think it is, so is she, and knowing how busy she is, I would guess she didn't read your post and mean it as a slight against you).

You are loving and kind and generous like very few people that I know (and so is Unknown), and I know how much love you have in your family. You will figure out what works best for you and your new little darling.

But you know, in all honesty, you are one of the few French-raised people I know, who are confident and have true joy in their lives. You don't have that "grayness" that I see in a lot of French. I wonder if you have to be an "outsider" like unknown and me to see it. (Though the occasional French mom I know feels the same).

And you are compassionate.

When our baby died, you were the only French person (having been raised in France in the French way) who reached out to me. THE ONLY ONE. Not old friends that have known me since I was born, not two people who are close to you and who were close to me, only you.

And the American contingent came out in droves.

This is not to say French are bad and Americans are good. When you scratch the surface of any culture or person (me included), we see things that we won't like.

If the French way works for you, then go for it. But please remember that my post is not just criticizing French parenting (and please remember that I was raised the French way and it didn't work for me, though my Mom will say it did wonders).

I decided to write about this topic because there is a book out that encourages Americans to parent like the French. I don't think it translates. Many French women have no problems putting their children to sleep in another room (and letting them cry), from the moment they come out of the womb (I was the only one in the hospital who slept with her child, there were about 24 children in the nursery). They do it guilt-free, in a very intellectual way. "It is best for the child, and so I, as parent, am doing the best thing."

I'm not sure that many American moms could do it guilt-free. Certainly not many that I know (California-yoga). I couldn't. In France (and in my own family), I was told I should let our Little Man sleep by himself as soon as he was born, that I am embarrassment for not going back to work (I would have paid nearly my entire wage to daycare to have someone else raise my child), that I shouldn't carry him because it's bad for his back, that I was spoiling him....with love and hugs.

You know our Little Man. Do you think he turned out so badly so far?

Parenting is a tough job, and we all make mistakes. But if the bond is strong between child and parent, then you can talk through the mistakes, and give plenty of hugs.

You are a thoughtful person and you will find your way, with your wonderful life-partner.

Welcome to the ride!

Gros Bisous.