Last week, I finally finished reading Bringing Up Bebe, the book I was excited to blog about here. (Actually, that's a record for me as far as how fast I've finished a book for my own reading pleasure, lately. A sad fact for a librarian.) And, y'know what? Overall, I'm a fan of the book.
Firstly, I tend to be a fan of progressive writing. That's my own random terminology, and I don't mean "ahead of its time" writing (although a clever concept always seems to hook me right into a book: American in Paris raising kids, living a year taking the Bible literally, reading the entire encyclopedia and seeing if one really learns a darn thing, etc). There may be a clearer or more professional way to put it, but a piece that shows the growth or change that takes place in a person over time (especially when there are learning processes happening) is what I mean by "progressive writing." Sure, overall people can say "This book is about an American woman living in France, learning how to raise her children in a more Parisian way," but that doesn't touch the heart of it. Regardless, the manner in which Pamela Druckerman wrote BUB drew me in as much as the facts and research that she undertook to create it.
That being said, we're brought on a linear journey - from before American Pamela even met her British-born husband, Simon (who is essentially a worldwide resident, quite well adapted to living in and being a part of various cultures) to their foray into parenthood with not one but eventually three children. From pregnancy and labor (it's definitely not a 2-3 day stay in the hospital, and while breast feeding isn't frowned upon, it's not altogether encouraged) to those bumpy first months (when did YOUR child first start "doing his nights"? Between 2-3 months old is the norm in France. CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?!) to raising an independent, *polite* child while maintaining one's own identity as a human being, the cultural observations are absolutely fascinating. I found myself bubbling with "I want to try that!!" enthusiasm at points, yet apprehensive at others. And, y'know what? The author was in the same boat, so it's definitely not a handbook for "how to raise French kids." And it's not necessarily a parenting book. It's as much a book about thinking outside the box and actually *considering* what works and what doesn't for your family, rather than following the other fishies onto a path of smothering, over-scheduling, and aggrandizing children (such as much of America currently does).
In general, I would say that the motivational "I like how the French do it" moments definitely outweighed the "whoa, wait a minute, seriously?" ones. For example, meals. The book discusses, in depth, the diets of French children and mealtime expectations, such as the diversity of meal planning within every single daycare (many of which are government-run), along with courses. By a certain age, children are completely comfortable sitting at a table, sharing along with the food and conversation (they have learned not to interrupt since no adult will allow it...hmm, imagine; I had an issue with this when I was a child, so the similarity between how the French and my mom and siblings approached this stuck me like a knife...yet, I don't interrupt). Oh, and there are no "special" mealtimes for kids. Breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner. No appeasement with food, or snacks in the midst of playtime, or even juice while watching TV. Water, if wanted, but even that's usually reserved for the meal. But, those meals are full of incredibly healthy, diverse foods (there's that word again - I only mean that there's generally a full meal including lots of veggies, and often a cheese course). Oh, and there needn't be a fuss over whether they finish everything (another "leads to obesity" American trend). They'll also learn that if they don't eat what's offered now, they'll have to wait for the next meal - nothing special will be made.
What about playtime? I learned as much about Americans as I did French when it came to this bit. Apparently, many (not all) Americans have a tendency to play alongside their children, often stating every little thing they're doing ("Now we're playing with a red ball. See the red ball? It's round. We can roll it.")...and sometimes bilingually. To them, every moment is a learning experience that they must fill in order to attain some higher IQ or future opportunity. It's almost like an anxiety that gets transferred, and can be associated with the later "did my kid get into the best preschool" mindsets and leads to over-scheduling (the examples listed in the book are astounding, of real American parents who have signed up 3-year-olds for three different language tutors and a kazillion other activities or have found their way onto sports teams that expect parents to be more actively involved than the kids). Yes, every moment is a learning experience, but if kids don't have mental down time or an opportunity to "learn by doing" (what my college once crammed into my head as the "latest" in education - the constructivist approach), particularly independently, a clinging relationship is developed and a society full of needy, oftentimes misbehaved children emerge. When parents put so much pressure onto their children and give them ALL the importance in the world (yes, children are loved in France, but are also taught that they're no more special than anyone else), the "I'm so great," spoiled attitude becomes a problem.
Going hand-in-hand with these "too hands-on parents" is the idea that French parents don't see themselves as just parents. They maintain their own identities. When one visits a French playground, one will see mothers casually chatting with one another. No one is chasing after children (unless they're an expatriate from another country) or overseeing what type of game the kids will be playing. If you're unable to keep your child in the sandbox without running off, they see this as a parenting issue - you're not firm enough with them. It's not a selfish thing (kids play while you blindly sit and socialize); it's remembering that mommies need time to be themselves, too. Besides, the kids need to learn socialization with the other children, too. It's frowned upon if children tattle or if parents stick their noses into social issues, be them at school or the playground. At the same time, parents actually trust what teachers do and don't expect them to play "police" to fighting kids. Pamela is concerned when she gets a report that her daughter is doing "fine" in school; she expects a complete rundown of behaviors and interactions, as do many Americans. All very eye-opening.
Of course, as is discussed in the book, it is ultimately easier to try French parenting techniques when one is, in fact, living in France. It's simply more accepted to do as those around you are. The general observation that arose from this reading, though, is as much "traditional" American as it is currently French; let kids be kids, but be sure that you're "in charge" and have taught them their place. They must be allowed to play together, to handle confrontation and situations themselves, and not be constantly coddled or followed by adults who are pushing their development (for whatever reason). Simultaneously, the words "please" and "thank you" (as well as "hello" and "goodbye" - just as important as the other two in France) must be imposed, and certain structures [particularly those involving eating and bedtime (although bedtime is a relative term; "parent time" is common, and children can "go to bed" but not go to sleep...seriously, it's interesting)] are expected. Ebb and flow. Organized chaos within set boundaries. Very thought-provoking.
I know that many American parents are up-in-arms about the book. Well, of course; anything that may seem to argue against your own methods is bound to tick you off. But you also have to read it to understand a) how it's actually written (not as a "how to manual" and b) it's not necessarily touting all French methods. The final chapter shows what Pamela has learned and made a part of her family's life, and what has kept her firmly planted in the land of stars and stripes. Even for folks who aren't parents, it's a wonderful writing on the juxtaposition between two very unique, wonderful cultures.