Book Review: Bringing Up Bebe / by Krista Boivie

This past weekend I spent Friday and Saturday night babysitting for an adorable family who was in town for a wedding.  It was fun to spend time with some little kids for a change, since my days are spent with big kids.  Today’s book review is all about parenting.  I know that a parenting book is an odd reading choice for someone who is not a parent, but I believe in being prepared for the future.

In Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman, an American journalist, has written a witty and delightful memoir where she shares her struggles and what she has learned about French parenting while raising her three children in Paris. 

The ideal Parisian woman is calm, discreet, a bit remote, and extremely decisive.

Other than the bit about being extremely decisive, Druckerman’s description of a Parisian woman is very similar to how I see myself—perhaps this is the reason why I enjoyed reading about the French method of parenting.

French parenting is heavily influenced by two principles: the first is the Pause, and the second is the CadreThe Pause is about letting a child fuss or cry for a few minutes (never more than 5 or 10, depending on the age of the child) to make sure that something is really upsetting the child or if they just are trying to settle themselves. French parent's believe that the Pause works because babies aren’t helpless animals and can learn things—they are teaching the child confidence, serenity and how to be aware of other people.

In the French view, having the self-control to be calmly present, rather than anxious, irritable, and demanding, is what allows kids to have fun…I’m now convinced that the secret of why French kids rarely whine or collapse into tantrums—or at least do so less than American kids—is that they’ve developed the internal resources to cope with frustration. They don’t expect to get what they want instantly… French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration. They also treat coping with frustration as a core life skill. Their kids simply have to learn it. The parents would be remiss if they didn’t teach it.

The second tip to successful parenting is in the CadreCadre means that kids have very strict limits and the parents will heavily enforce the limits—however children are given tremendous freedom within the limits.  The elements that make up the Cadreare sleeping, eating, saying hello/goodbye, being respectful and school.

Along with the Pause, sleeping is the first skill that French babies learn. It is expected that the baby will learn the rhythm of the family and join it--not have the family rearrange itself to meet the needs of the baby.  Using the Pause, French parents help the child learn how to sleep through the nights by teaching them how to regulate themselves.

The second aspect of the Cadre is food. Food is a national treasure to the French and so it is not surprising that French parents take the task of training their child’s eating habits quite seriously. From a young age, French children are taught how to bake—not just by helping their mothers, but by actually making a whole cake themselves.

All this baking doesn’t just yield lots of cakes. It also teaches kids how to control themselves. With its orderly measuring and sequencing of ingredients, baking is a perfect lesson in patience. So is the fact that French families don’t devour the cake as soon as it comes out of the over, but wait until goûter [afternoon snack].

Even though the French love their food and eat a diet much higher in fat than Americans--the French don't have as many struggles with their weight as Americans.  Most of this is because they regulate their portions, engage in more exercise and they snack less.  Small children are taught to eat only four times a day, breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack (goûter) and dinner. Druckerman relates that French women do not carry ziplock bags full of Goldfish or other snacks for their children between mealtimes—the child is expected to wait for their normal meal times.   

It’s not just what and when French families eat that make their meals little capsules of patience training. It’s also how they eat, and with whom. From a very young age, French kids get used to eating meals in courses, with—at a minimum—a starter, a main course, and a dessert.

Children are also taught to eat ‘real’ food and not just highly processed boxed food I know I resort to far too often. French parents understand that they have to build their child’s palate by exposing them to different food multiple times. In the book, Druckerman quotes from a French parenting guide that suggests:.

Showing kids a vegetable and asking, “Do you think this is crunchy, and that it’ll make a sound when you bite it? What does this flavor remind you of? What do you feel in your mouth?” They suggest playing flavor games like offering different types of apples and having the child decide which is the sweetest and which is the most acidic.

This process of constantly talking to their children about what their eating, doing, feeling and thinking helps French parents create a safe environment for the child to develop their own identity.

Druckerman shares many of her own personal stories in the book which highlight her struggle to find a balance between her American upbringing and trying to incorporate the new French techniques she was learning.  Her observations led to this identification of the philosophical differences between American and French parenting.

We Americans assign ourselves the job of pushing, stimulating, and carrying our kids from one developmental stage to the next. The better we are at parenting, we think, the faster our kids will develop…French parents just don’t seem so anxious for their kids to get head starts. They don’t push them to read, swim, or do math ahead of schedule. They aren’t trying to prod them into becoming prodigies. French parents believe in “awakening” and “discovery”.

The last major component of the Cadre is saying teaching the child to say hello/goodbye.

It is crucial to say bonjour immediately when meeting someone or engaging in some sort of a transaction (at a restaurant, taxi, in a store, etc). Saying bonjour acknowledges the other person’s humanity. It signals that you view her as a person, not just as someone who’s supposed to serve you…Saying “please” and “thank you” puts children in an inferior, receiving role. An adult has either done something for them or the child is asking the adult to do something. But bonjour and au revoir put the child and the adult on more equal footing, at least for the moment. It cements the idea that kids are people in their own right.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed the book and I could happily share tidbit after tidbit, but needless to say if you are interested in different parenting ideas this book is an excellent read.  If I ever have the opportunity to be a parent I definitely plan on integrating the best of American parent and French parenting to create my own parenting style and hopefully raise patient, respectful and confident children.

Although--I still haven’t read any parenting books from Asia or Africa—so perhaps there are even more skills yet to be discovered.