I'm coming pretty late to the party, but that's how I roll these days. I would like to blame my baby, one of those didn't-sleep-through-the-night-until-one-year-old types, but that would just be showing the flaws in my American-style parenting. Does that sound defensive? Sorry. I just read Pamela Druckerman's Bringing up Bébé, and I am bursting with thoughts. And yes, defensiveness. It's hard not to feel a little cornered when someone starts questioning your national parenting habits (even when they are simultaneously questioning their own). For those of you not in the mom's group orbit, Druckerman wrote a bestselling book based on her years spent parenting small children in Paris, during which she realized that French children sleep, eat, and generally behave better than their American counterparts.
My basic conclusion is that yes, the French parent differently, but that it would be almost impossible for Americans to replicate their philosophy (which the French don't, tellingly, see as a philosophy), because we ourselves were not raised by French parents.* Every culture raises children to live in their own time and place, and I think if American parenting is a confusing mishmash of tips and tricks, well, maybe it's because America is a confusing mishmash kind of place (people call it a "melting pot" when they want to be more kind). Just like we don't have any one food tradition (and we then have to read about French diets, or Mediterranean diets, or Okinawa diets, or, mystifyingly to me, caveman diets), we also don't have one parenting tradition. And part of America, we have to remember, was actually predicated on the very basis of getting away from stuffy European traditions. We are free! And we enjoy this freedom right up to the point when we realize that our freedom to eat what we want and parent how we want has somehow ended in obesity and tyrannical children.
Druckerman kind of acknowledges this conundrum. She herself says that she doesn't want her kids growing up into "sniffy Parisians," even though she wants to imitate many of their parenting techniques. But it's hard not to wonder whether only sniffy Parisians can really be successful at implementing the parenting practices she outlines so longingly, or, conversely, whether implementing those practices would in fact, inevitably, create little sniffy Parisians. Control (the French have strict rules about when and where eating, dressing up, and using playground slang are appropriate) and patience (at just a few weeks old, the French teach their babies that they will not respond to their every cry) and prioritizing aesthetics (French women are expected to "bounce back" faster than a Victoria's Secret model with a big show coming up) are all good things, and they are qualities we admire, but I wouldn't say that those are the things that we Americans have been raised to believe are the core values of our country. And because we weren't raised to believe that, it makes it very hard to convincingly parent a child under those principles.
As a bit of an aside, though hopefully an illustrative one, I've often thought about the difference between the kids I saw in Lesotho and American kids. One image that is burned in my mind is of the waiting room of the Mokhotlong hospital filled with babies, toddlers, and small children who would wait with their parents for hours (hours!!). Not a single toy graced what was really just a long hallway with benches (not even those weird wire and wood bead contraptions that I can only surmise must be sold by pharmaceutical salesmen). Not only that, but the kids didn't even get down and start trying to wrestle with each other, or build forts out of the chairs. Nothing. They just sat there. This was astounding to me even before I had a baby of my own, but now I am truly awed by what this small sight obviously illustrates about cultural differences. These kids waited because that's what they had always done. And, here's the key, the adults did it too. Not once did I see a magazine or any other form of entertainment in the hands of one of the adults. They had to wait for their medicine or to see the doctor, so that's what they were doing. Waiting. And they knew full well going in that it might take an entire day. Americans just DO NOT GET THIS. And I am American to my core in this regard. Anyway, kind of a long-winded attempt at saying, even though we might think we are closer culturally to Parisians than to small-town Basotho, the principle remains. It would be very hard for me to teach my daughter to wait patiently in line for eight hours, because it would be nearly impossible for me to do so myself without going out of my mind. And it would be hard for me to tell her she can never snack, because I would hate to live by that rule.
What really makes me a little jealous, though, is the sense of confidence that Druckerman's French friends and neighbors seem to have about their parenting. They advocate following your intuition (as do I), but it is certainly easier to act on your intuition if everyone around you seems to think along roughly the same lines. I have had many conversations with moms who are tormented because their doctor or mother-in-law or some other person with possible child-rearing authority has told them that they HAVE to do something that feels completely against their instincts. And often they end up doing it, because being a new mother (or father) is disconcerting and it doesn't matter how good you have been at every other thing in your life, this is something you have to figure out as you go along. So we want advice, and we want a set of defined answers. But in America they don't seem to come as easy. Druckerman tells a great anecdote about how she and her husband were stymied by a question the daycare (crèche) lady asks about their daughter's feeding schedule. They couldn't answer the question, and she was completely baffled by this ignorance. How can you not know when your own baby eats? Druckerman finds an answer to this cultural stand-off when she notices that the American website BabyCenter gives eight different sample schedules for five- to six-month olds, "including one in which the baby eats ten times a day." A French parenting magazine, in contrast, offers one schedule. Babies eat at eight A.M., twelve P.M, four P.M., and eight P.M. But then you just end up back at my previous point--she notes that this makes sense because it is the schedule almost all French adults follow as well (minus the snack, of course). How many Americans do you know who are this scheduled? Or, much better question, do you know any two American adults who follow the exact same eating schedule? If not, how do we then implement it with our babies?
Druckerman raises some very interesting questions about American parenting, and I'm sure I will continue to think about them as I muddle my own way through raising a child. I do want my daughter to learn to wait for gratification, and to respect adults, and to (while we're thinking big) start taking longer naps. But these are only a few among many positive qualities we want to instill in our children. It is good to be intentional about fostering whatever qualities you yourself think are essential to leading a good, fulfilling life. So I'm glad I read this now, because as E enters the toddler years I do think it is important to start really thinking about what "family" values you want to emphasize. And I think this will also make me pause to evaluate my own habits, because how can you teach qualities that you aren't modeling yourself?
Whether or not you buy the parenting principles (and I'll wager you'll be tempted to, because Druckerman makes French kids sound so....obedient), it's an interesting read for the anthropological perspective. I would actually love to read a book that just compared cultural parenting styles--kind of like the movie Babies, but with words. Just putting it out there.
* At the same time, while our current parenting culture might look very different than France's, my husband made the good point that a lot of French parenting practices sound like American parenting from 50 years ago. I can't imagine my grandmothers or their cohorts climbing around on jungle gyms after their kids, waving baggies of Cheerios and narrating their every move.