Cultural Textures: Reading Bringing Up Bebe

Ever have that moment when something you've always accepted as true turns out to be purely a matter of perspective? I find these sorts of revelations both eye-opening and a little unnerving. But that's what's happened since I picked up Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe

While living in Paris as an American-ex pat with her British husband, Pamela starts to pay close attention to the way the French rear their children after she has her own baby.  I so wish I'd read this book before I had mine. I love the philosophy she explains, which turns out to reflect not just a strategy for raising children, but a way of looking at life in general.

She starts with a topic that's of interest to every new parent: sleep. And what she finds is so markedly different than what every parent I know here has experienced, I just can't believe we all haven't read this book. Apparently the French begin very, very early to teach their babies to wait. New mothers don't immediately pick up their crying baby, but wait just a few minutes. During that waiting time, they listen. This does two things: 1) it gives the parent an opportunity to pay attention to the cry and to start to learn what the various sounds the baby makes mean (this concept sounds vaguely familiar to me, though I never could discern the different cries myself), and 2) it teaches the baby to tolerate a bit of frustration. 

One huge reason to do this at night, she explains, is that babies, like adults, have two-hour sleep cycles, and if they learn to go back to sleep after they wake up between cycles, night waking ends much sooner.  Shockingly, most French babies are "doing their nights" by 2-3 months. This just floors me. (And for anyone with a new baby, the window to work this magic apparently ends at 4 months. After that, bad sleeping habits have set in and you'll have to wait the "normal" amount of time for your baby to sleep through the night.)

And, the author makes it very clear that the French are not letting their babies do that thing many people here call "crying it out," but are instead allowing the baby time to settle itself down, if that's possible, and to begin to recognize that it won't get everything it wants immediately. There's science behind this particular bit about the sleep, so read the book for details. But this seemingly small concept of not immediately giving kids what they want pervades every aspect of French parenting. Children learn from it self-control, patience, and the concept of delayed gratification. Apparently French children aren't big whiners. Can you imagine? This is probably the biggest perspective shift for me: we Americans largely take for granted that kids behave badly and whine and throw fits because they're kids. The French do not.

The French are apparently coming at this parenting thing with the goal of raising children who are aware,  "awakened," and have the self-control necessary to truly enjoy themselves. She talks about how they let children experience things slowly (e.g., letting them just play in the water from ages 2-5, rather than take an actual swim lesson) and how they teach them to enjoy the world around them (e.g., not much structure during the day for very young kids aside from eating and sleeping times). This is the part that speaks to me as an adult, rather than as a parent. I don't remember a lot of emphasis being placed on truly enjoying the little things when I was a child (no offense, parents). I love the idea of raising a human who will notice and appreciate what's around him and not simply put his head down and follow the Puritanical path to success. 

(I apparently have my work cut out from me. Though he does adorable things like exclaim, What a beautiful Spring day! when he walks outside, he also says "I won, I really won." after a baseball game where no one kept score.)