Monday, February 13, 2012

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I recently read the article, Why French Parenting is Superior, in the Wall Street Journal (Feb.4, 2012) about a new parenting book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman. I have, literally, just finished reading the book. 

Druckerman unveils aspects of French parenting, in general, that she has personally encountered and researched. Some points are helpful; some are nothing new. I did chuckle at a few parts because I could relate to the situations. But, being one of those mothers who suffers from mommy guilt à l'américaine, I do have issues with the author's tone. Yet, I didn't have to read the whole book to be annoyed.

Already, I have problems with the title of the Wall Street Journal Article. It implies that the statement “French Parenting is Superior” as fact. The word “superior” is dangerous. Stating any attitude, diet, religion or faith is “superior” only implies that anything else is wrong. In general, the French “educate” their children, as she says, differently. But, within the French population, individual parents educate their children differently just as do American parents. Not only do the slew of parenting books on the market show us how “wrong” we're doing it. Now, we have the further guilt of not being born into the “superior” parenting nationality.

As an American, married to a Frenchman, having lived in France and now in Belgium, I'd like to add my two centimes worth. I have witnessed parenting practices that span the spectrum while living with French host families during college and as a nanny to French children (just outside of Paris) after college. Not to mention, I have two children of my own. So, our little ones “benefit” from American and French parenting. Sometimes my husband's and my ways of “educating” complement each other and other times, we roll our eyes at each other and walk out of the room.

One of my first experiences of French parenting started in an upper middle-class neighborhood outside the capital. A rather reserved father walked me into the front door one night and introduced me to his wife as the new nanny. The children, ages 2 and 4, were sleeping at the grandparents' home nearby. Despite the time, the mother insisted we go meet them “tout de suite!” (right away). At 11pm, we rang the doorbell. The grandmother in her dressing gown and slippers led two, very groggy, young children in their dressing gowns and slippers down the hallway. Hardly after saying hello, the mother prompted the 4 year-old to “parler en anglais. Montre-la que tu sais parler en anglais.” (speak in English. Show her you know how to speak in English). The adorable, in a Madeleine way, young girl rubbed her eyes trying to think of something to say. I told her it was ok, that we'd talk in the morning when she wasn't so sleepy. To which, the mother insisted, “Non. Elle peut parler maintenant” (No. She can talk now). And thus started my séjour en enfer – pardon my French.

Almost nightly, starting with our very first night all together, the mother woke up screaming because one of the children had woken her up, either for a bad dream or a wet bed. Talk about “pas possible!”. That's just what I was thinking trying to sleep – that the mother was pas possible.

Not only was I to speak English to the children all day – which I do agree is the best way for them to learn – but, a young Spanish woman would also come speak and “play” in Spanish throughout the week. Before leaving for the high school where she was a French teacher, the mother would pull out various toys and explain just how to play them to optimize her son's language acquisition. (At this time, I had already earned a  teaching degree. But that didn't count, apparently).

Besides the languages floating around, and out of fairness I do agree it's best to teacher languages at the youngest ages, the sister had various other lessons outside of pre-school. As a result, I often found her lying on the couch half asleep in the middle of the afternoon. The family only rolled out the TV stand after bedtime to watch the news. So, she wasn't just relaxing in front of a cartoon...she was exhausted. Choosing my words very carefully, I expressed my observations to the mother. Her response, “Tu n'es pas la première personne à me le dire. Mais, quand moi, je vois qu'elle est fatiguée, je ferai quelque chose.” (You're not the first person to tell me that. But when I see that she's tired, then I'll do something about it.)

Finally, one warm afternoon, we packed up the children to go swimming at the grandparents' house. I thought, “Enfin, some fun downtime.” I held the girl's hands, her arms stretched out and her legs kicking behind her. I said, “Let's be a motor boat” and started puttering my lips to make the noise of the motor. She smiled! Her eyes widened! What did the grandmother say to her daughter? “Regarde ça. Elle ne nage pas comme il faut.” (Look at that. She's not swimming correctly). 

I...could ...go... on! Besides with this particular French family, I have attended and hosted playdates where more than one French child (French-French, not french-speaking Belgian) systematically jumped on and over the furniture. Evidently, their cadres (family framework) had a few loose nails.

Like Druckerman, I have met other French parents who have found a perfect balance of instilling respect and the notion of living up to certain expectations without suffocating the children.

On many occasions, I have been at dinner parties where, during the apéro (cocktails), the children pass around the finger foods. The parents or grandparents either secretly signal to the children to do so or they just know. Possibly, they have seen older siblings or cousins do the same. Good examples are very powerful.

I can say that my children were happy when I finally let them serve the apéro snacks– once they were at an age when I was fairly certain they wouldn't drop the (breakable) plates and bowls. After the apéro comes dinner, which can last hours. During which time, the children are not at a separate table in the corner. They are not eating pizza and hamburgers because “it's just easier.” They are sitting amongst the adults. They listen to conversations. They eat what the adults serve – including but not limited to foie gras, escargots, duck, various seafood and fish (even when there are bones).

A few years ago, we attended a wedding in France. The following morning, my husband and I were chatting with other guests in the lobby when I did witness the epitome of good parenting. At one point, three teenage boys were talking amongst themselves when one of their fathers said, “Allez descendre les affaires de mamam.” (Go bring down your mother's things). Mind you, the mother in question was a perfectly fit SAHM in her fifties. But with no hesitation, not even a break in conversation, all three boys turned to walk towards the elevators to go get her luggage from the room. No eye rolling. No back talk. Just did it. Being once a high school teacher with, let's say challenging, teenage students, I was very impressed!

So, back to this book about the “wisdom of French parenting,” there is some wisdom to French parenting. But, there is also some wisdom in many styles of parenting. Just like you need food to survive, you need a variety to be healthy.

Children have to, in any culture, deal with what's on their plate. They can eat it. They can chuck it against a wall. I believe parents have to present their children with limits and boundaries as much as fruits and vegetables. All of it makes for a good mind and body. 

So rather than panicking about the latest parenting opinions, look at what you are serving your children in terms of love, support and education.  Whether you are an American parent or a French parent or a parent tout court (period), observe how they digest it all. Then, adjust the seasoning as necessary.

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Natalie said...

Very well put. I already had a blog entry about this article started in my head...but mine won't be quite as eloquent as this!

Unknown said...

Hi Michelle, it was nice to meet you this weekend. And I wrote about this woman too in January. She certainly raised some emotion.

ina said...

Is this the same book "French children don´t throw food" (great title already ;;) or just the same author. Hard to believe she would get away with writing two books like this... said...

Ina, it sounds like the exact same book from the review I just read of "French Children Don't Throw Food" and is indeed the same author...I wonder how/why she published both books...

Ms. Tonya said...

Michelle, This was a great article. I have heard of the book but haven't read it yet. Thanks for writing such an interesting and thought provoking response to the book.

Anonymous said...

I was going to read this book, but now not so sure. My in laws are from France so it piqued my interest. ....I have 3 month old twins, there are SO MANY "how to" book out there it is overwhelming

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