Superior French Babies? Vraiment?

Peel back the layers of cultural stereotypes meant to catapult vulnerable and tired American parents into a perpetual state of self-doubt and longing for all things French, and all I reach is one conclusion: Good parenting is borderless.
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Riding the wave of the popular book revealing the secrets on how French women don't get fat, unlike us American slobs, is now Pamela Druckerman with her tome on superior French parenting. C'est vrai, little stokes the flames more than pitting Americans against the French. It's hard not to think back on the summer President Bush declared "Freedom Fries" and we were meant to gobble them up, including up on Capitol Hill, with swelling patriotic pride. I offer my kudos to Pamela Druckerman and her savvy ability to generate press for her new book by undermining American parenting and holding French parenting, and children, up on pedestals.

But peel back the layers of cultural stereotypes meant to catapult vulnerable and tired American parents into a perpetual state of self-doubt and longing for all things French, and all I reach is one conclusion: Good parenting is borderless.

Sure, the French do plenty better than us. They do food better than us. They certainly do cheese and bread better than us. Having spent time in France in July, I argue they do Bastille Day better than we do Independence Day. To say the French do maternity leave better than us is an understatement. CBS news ran a story about how French womem can take up to three years of paternity leave, with a guarantee that their jobs will still be there. In fact, it is possible to have three children in France, less than three years apart, and not work for nine years, all the while keeping your job and salary safe. French women receive paid maternity leave for four months. Furthermore, just tending to the needs of new mothers varies dramatically between the countries: How about five nights in the hospital after having a baby instead of being ushered out after 48 hours? The French mastered access to healthcare and affordable child care in ways that seem near impossible here in the United States; universal preschool begins at age three in France. But parenting, that, too is superior? C'est vrai?

I say non.

Having grown up overseas, including living in Belgium, true, not France, but close, I can say with certainty that Druckerman's convenient stereotypes of American parenting versus French parenting accomplishes one thing well: cherry picking the good against the bad for her own profit. As an American parent raising my children in America (as much as I'd love to be raising them overseas), I'm not sure how having the confidence to say "no" to my children, consistently and with effort, isn't as much American as it is French.

Are there American parents who consistently fail to set boundaries for their children because saying "no" is harder than saying "yes?"

Of course.

Are there French parents who consistently fail to set boundaries for their children? How could there not be? Having witnessed children throwing tantrums in parks in Lyon and Paris, even in small little Tarascon in the south of France, I am pretty sure that tantrums among toddlers are as borderless as the tenets of good, firm, consistent parenting.

An interview with Ann Curry on NBC's Today Show left me wondering if we're really meant to believe French babies are even born superior -- with a unique ability to soothe themselves back to sleep and sleep all night long beginning at two months old -- in a way American babies just can't. True, Druckerman elaborates on this point in the Wall Street Journal, that the French don't rush in to service the baby's needs immediately but neither did this American, and I am hardly a cowboy charting my own path with a superior American baby. Again, it's one of the most basic tools in learning how to teach a baby to go to sleep and I am surrounded by plenty of proud "No" moms who deployed this technique from the beginning months of their child's life as they still do now, when they consistently and regularly tell their child "No" and set forth boundaries. No need to swaddle my babe in the French flag.

Druckerman's interviews with the "leading expert on how children learn to delay gratification" also fascinated moi. First of all, she's referencing studies that were conducted on children over 50 years ago. Then conveniently leaps to the following conclusions: "Could it be that teaching children how to delay gratification -- as middle-class French parents do -- actually makes them calmer and more resilient? Might this partly explain why middle-class American kids, who are in general more used to getting what they want right away, so often fall apart under stress?"

Her claims are based on what? How is my American middle-class child falling apart under stress? What disappoints me is this: Druckerman's failure to instead examine the engrained French attitude that maternal and infant care is a cultural responsibility, not solely a maternal responsibility and the family's responsibility, as is the case in the U.S. I question this -- how does this cultural belief system impact French mothers?

Does a cultural system that supports young families raising children by providing access to maternal health care, universally affordable (free) childcare and paid maternity leave, along with work-life balance (i.e. five weeks of vacation), not have a powerful effect on one's parenting style and view of the world?

I'd like to hear more on that and less on superior French babies. Until then, I will enjoy sipping delicious French wine and eating exquisite French cheeses while deploying my American ability to proudly say "No" to my kids and converse, somewhat uninterrupted, with other parents. Think next year we'll hear how the Canadians do it better?

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