This post has been on my computer for a while and I just now realize I never got around to hitting “publish”… Oops! Better late than never, though, and Mother’s Day seems like as good a time as any.
I’ve been interested in how different cultures approach child-rearing. I’m keenly aware that Americans, in particular, seem to value “cognitive development” above all else – you can read this article for more on the subject. Which leads me to how the French raise their children.
The latest parenting book I’ve read is Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman (the link goes to my Amazon store). It’s a book written by an American who is raising her children in France and who couldn’t help but notice cultural differences in the attitudes towards parenting on either side of the Atlantic. In a nutshell, and to generalize, French children are better behaved, sleep through the night earlier, and are less picky eaters, while French parents are more relaxed than American parents. The author goes on to give numerous examples and to explain how the French raise their kids.
It’s not all generalizations, though. There are many citations by experts like Françoise Dolto (whose works I have to admit I’m surprised haven’t been translated into English) and even scientific studies, such as one I would have liked to be aware of before the birth of the Little Prince: Teresa Pinella and Leann L. Birch, “Help Me Make It Through the night: Behavioral Entrainment of Breast-Fed Infants’ Sleep Patterns”, Pediatrics 91, 2 (1993):436-43. Scientists running this study basically had a method thanks to which 100% of the infants in the treatment group slept through the night at 8 weeks (versus 23% of infants in the control group). While French parents don’t deliberately do things the scientific way, it seems that this approach is the one that is most matter-of-fact in France. It basically involves making sure the baby is fully awake before intervening, and gently teaching him to sleep through the night instead of responding by feeding him at the first noise he makes. (You can read more about it at the link, or in Druckerman’s book.)
That being said, French parents are also much less likely than Americans to research parenting. In America, there are parenting books everywhere you look, and every family seems to have its own way of doing things. Parents study these books almost like they’re going to be evaluated on how much preparation they’ve done before having kids. In France, there isn’t even a word for “parenting” (one simply raises/educates one’s children), and most of the country seems to agree on how things should be done. For example, children are usually taught to wait (like waiting for their mother to finish a conversation on the phone before interrupting), they are given a wide variety of foods (as opposed to rice cereal, or chicken nuggets while the adults eat real food), and they are treated more like small adults (they are included in conversations at the dinner table and are taught to say hello and goodbye with the same insistence as are taught to say please and thank you). French parents also don’t devote as many hours of one-on-one care to their children as American parents do, they don’t rearrange their lives around their children, and they feel less guilt about it, too. Overall, French parents are more relaxed about raising children.
Much of this rang true to me. I don’t think it’s really because of Quebec’s position, both geographically and culturally, between France and America. I think it’s mostly because I was educated in the French system myself (I went to the lycée and many of my friends were French). Plus, up until a few years ago, every young child in my social circle had a French parent. So this book was, in many ways, common sense, a reminder of things I already knew to be true, but felt like I had lost among all the parenting theories. Not that it’s not compatible with concepts such as positive parenting or attachment parenting, but to me, OF COURSE you’re supposed to speak to your baby as if he understands and treat him with the same respect you show any other person, OF COURSE you’re supposed to let him experience the world and help him interact with people, OF COURSE you have to teach him patience. There were also some surprises for me in the American way of doing things: Druckerman was practically bowled over see that French mothers allow sweets every day, including dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate “even” for the kids (as in pain au chocolat, for example), and that baking a cake in the afternoon doesn’t necessarily mean eating the cake that same afternoon, but rather saving it for dessert later. Um, you mean that isn’t what everyone does?
Overall, though, I really enjoyed reading this book. Even if a lot of it was things I already knew, it was good to have a reminder and to have a contrast with the American way(s) of doing things.