Confession: I love the French, but in my own way. By that I mean I’m obsessed with smelly cheeses and Edith Piaf. But I’m not about to condone scarf wearing in the middle of July or unlimited time off to just exist.
Still, it comes as no surprise that my Bhagavad Gita of child rearing, that essential book of wisdom, is “Bringing Up Bebe” by American journalist Pamela Druckerman. In my humble opinion, it completely captures the wisdom behind generations of well-behaved French children.
That said, following its model has not resulted in some paragon of virtue. Let’s just say that raising a red-blooded, American toddler like a French baby is not as easy as un-deux-trois. Here are the lessons I’ve been able to use as a parent.
First things first: There is la pause. In the book, Druckerman outlines the importance to French parents of pausing when their child cries in order to ascertain what the cry is about.
In the baby years, this was such an important lesson. We avoided a lot of fussiness and poor sleep habits by acknowledging that not every cry is built equally. Also, sometimes a little amount of crying is acceptable if it will result in months and months of not crying.
As a toddler, this lesson has become a little more complex. As my little one starts playing with other kids, you can see his ability to get back up and brush off his pants without a lot of fuss, which makes me so proud.
On the other hand, my kid now has so much more to say and still hasn’t mastered the language to say it. As you may have guessed, this results in a decent amount of whining, crying, and mewing. While la pause is still an essential tool, it requires a great deal more energy these days to decipher every cry.
Sometimes, this results in a cookie … sacre bleu!
In her book, Druckerman describes children who can be told mommy and daddy are busy, and they just float away to play quietly in the corner. This was the opposite of what Druckerman experienced with so-called “helicopter parents” in the States, who had choreographed their child’s playtime up to the quarter-hour. The secret? Tell them to go play and then let them do it without interference, over and over again.
From that perspective, some many consider the French approach borderline lazy. But in practice, it was a gift to my kid, not just myself. By shifting my expectations of what my responsibility as a “good mom” was, I not only eliminated a lot of unnecessary stress from my life, but my kid has developed, at 14 months, the capacity to play quietly in the corner just like the French babies.
Now, that play may only be for 20 minutes, tops. But that’s 20 minutes I didn’t have before to answer emails or enjoy one of those smelly cheeses. And that’s 20 minutes for him to expand his mind and develop independence that will serve him well later in life.
Speaking of food, how to raise angelic gastronomiques is of the utmost importance. Druckerman is about ready to tear her hair out at the difference between her rambunctious toddler and her French comrades. The French petite eaters are hungry for blue cheese and shellfish, and are calmly playing with crayons while out to dinner.
In terms of adhering to the book’s recommendations, I’m pretty sure we would get a middle to passing grade. At best, I would say our introduction of new foods has been hit or miss. Scallops and tofu were a hit, but edamame became a missile, not a munchie.
Strangely, my son enjoys walking around sucking on lemons. This can’t possibly be normal, but I suppose it’s a reasonable aperitif by French standards. Even typical American options have failed before. Burgers? No way. Sausage or bacon? Not going to happen.
Mac ‘n cheese and fruit is typically our go-to savior, as it has been for American toddlers before him.
Education over discipline
That said, the real marker of our child’s openness to new food could be seen around the dinner table. As much emphasis as the French put on eating together as a family, I could see with my own eyes the difference it made when mommy and daddy were eating the same thing. Suddenly, corn, carrots, and sweet potatoes were being gobbled. And, I may even say, enjoyed.
Not all of the food was eaten, but all the food was tasted. What’s more? Family dinnertime has become a routine, not just a forgotten priority. My kid often ends up eating things I’m surprised he enjoys, like chopped cabbage salads or bell peppers. I still don’t eat green beans given the choice, so who am I to judge?
By far, the most important lesson I took away from the book was the idea that my most important job is to “educate” my child. Druckerman describes French parents looking perplexed when asked about their “disciplinary style,” as so many Americans do. By placing an emphasis on education over discipline, the French have hit on not just a way to avoid emotional blowups. It also reminds me of how to do my best by my kid.
In short, the French may not have all the answers, but they provide a healthy antidote to today’s overparenting trend. And if that includes a little more time for good wine, good food, and family, then I consider it a win-win.