This week, I got the chance to read Bébé Day by Day, the follow-up to Pamela Druckerman's bestselling Bringing Up Bébé. My verdict: Vive la French parenting!
They say that those who fight the hardest are those who are the most alike, so perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me that when it comes to parenting, the English and the French have quite a bit in common.
It took Pamela Druckerman, an American journalist and mother, to show me as much. Druckerman's keen observations about the differences between European and American parenting styles were spot-on, and her writing style in Bringing Up Bébé was fun, flirty and accessible, rather than preachy or judgmental.
For parents interested in the ideas behind Bringing Up Bébé who couldn't find time to read it all the way through, Day by Day is perfect. It's divided into short chapters based on bite-sized parenting "keys" -- a less laissez-faire author would have called them "rules" -- designed to be picked up and read in spare moments.
I'll admit: Not all of Druckerman's keys appealed to my English sensibilities, but the majority of them did. Here's my English take on some of her most interesting arguments:
• #11: Observe Your Baby
This one is fantastic, and so important. New parents often assume that when a baby moves around, makes noise or fusses, he needs something. But a lot of the time, babies are just experimenting, not asking for help. The only way to know what a baby is trying to convey -- and be sure you're not projecting a need onto him -- is to actively watch him and learn which cry means "wet diaper" and which means "I like making this interesting noise!"
One of my favorite things to do with a baby this time of year is take him outside with a blanket and a book. I can watch him spend a half hour or so rolling around, and catch up on weekend reading while he's engrossed in playing with grass or looking at rocks. Everyone gets some calm downtime, and you get the chance to watch and listen to your baby away from the toys and TV.
In fact, I would pair #11 with #20, Do the Pause, which advises parents to wait and listen when a sleeping baby starts to fuss or cry. Just like adults, children cycle through sleep phases, and scooping her up between cycles or during a light phase can interrupt her cycle and teach her to expect you to come in rather than learn to soothe herself.
• #77: Lose the Baby Weight
This is such a complicated issue. There is enormous pressure on women to lose weight immediately after giving birth -- at a time when they should be focused on bonding with their new baby. Many women internalize these pressures and find that they don't feel sexy or confident with extra weight. I can't tell you how many mums I've heard say things like "I just don't feel like myself," or "I can't wait to get my body back." While many women may feel better when the baby weight is gone, the last thing new mums need is more pressure to lose weight.
However, if you follow #4, The Fetus Doesn't Need Cheesecake, and #5, Eat for One (and a Bit), you will find #77 far easier to do. The French attitude to food is famously more reasonable than the American, and it's no surprise that this holds true in pregnancy.
• Chapter 4: Bébé Gourmet
I nearly laughed aloud at the entire food chapter, because I associate so many of these "French" recommendations with my very, very English mother and her compatriots. In fact, Druckerman arrived at many of the same conclusions I covered in my last article: serving vegetables as a first course, establishing a dinner table culture that embraces new foods, involving kids in cooking and rejecting separate "kid food." Food and table manners may be where Americans have veered furthest from old-fashioned common sense, and where English and French parents find themselves most emphatically aligned.
• #96: You're Not Disciplining, You're Educating
This is fantastic. Children don't run across the street because they want to make you angry; they do it because they have not yet developed the right habits and can't understand danger and consequences the way grown-ups can. Teaching children proper manners, life skills and behavior is a long process. When they make a wrong choice, like leaving a messy room or throwing a tantrum, it's up to parents to teach them how to make a better choice next time.
I especially like Druckerman's analogy comparing teaching table manners to teaching math: you must build up proper behavior cumulatively, and not get discouraged if a child forgets something or needs extra help on a certain kind of problem. Life skills and social skills must be taught and practiced, just like academic ones.
I think Druckerman's really on to something -- and not just because I see echoes of my own professional philosophy in her keys. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Druckerman mentions that of all the keys, her favorite is:
• #82: Your Bedroom Is Your Castle
I love that one, too, because it covers two core principles I underscore in my work as a nanny and in my book:
The first is the preservation of parental dignity. I've seen successful, fabulous people utterly lose their adult selves in a sea of diapers and applesauce. Although a change in priorities is to be expected, there's no need to give up being oneself in order to parent.
The second is the importance of sleep. Without a good night's rest, no one is at their best. It's simply more difficult to be a good parent -- or a well-behaved child -- if you are sleep-deprived.
Something Druckerman said in the same New York Times interview really resonated with me: Americans, she says, are "very outcomes oriented, so we don't talk as much about the quality of the years you're going to spend under the same roof as we do about what you do to get to a certain outcome." Listen closely, American parents, as Druckerman relays how French parents keep balance and joie de vivre in their lives while "raising a society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents."