Book Review: Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

Bringing up Bebe was both a book I both loved and -almost- hated. It was fascinating to see French culture up close and explained from an American perspective.

Over the course of the book it is revealed that the French not unlike Americans, have a belief system that underlies their parenting. It is quite different from American theory’s of parenting, mostly because almost everyone in France shares the same theory.  They call it the “cadre”.  The entire book could be seen as an exploration of the cadre.  Sure there are short descriptions about it and there is a history of how it came into being but really every interaction that the author shows between French parents and children is an example of the cadre in action.

I started grasping the underlying cadre philosophy very early on as I read and so began my only real problem with the book.  It says on the cover “One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting”. The problem I had is that for the first 80% of the book the author, even as she observes much, appears to learn exactly nothing about French parenting. In the book we start with the authors first pregnancy and delivery of baby girl Bean.  Bean quickly becomes a precocious little toddler, then preschooler, and then the author bears twins and Bean begins the first year of schooling.  While all this is going on Pamela tells many anecdotes, mostly she describes scenes with her family where everyone behaves badly, each story becoming more predictable as the book progresses.  She then shows alternate scenes with French families where everyone behaves fairly well, although never, may I say, perfectly.  It is obvious that the author is miserable and struggling, she then poses some questions about why the French have it easier than she does and launches into the research that she has done about the subject, complete with quotes from respected American and French child professionals, celebrities and parents on both sides.  These sections with research are what makes the book a fun and compelling read.  The stories that buffer the research however felt unfinished and it bothered me that a woman who could observe so much, be so insightful and write such interesting and cogent prose could learn so little from her own experiences.  I found myself setting the book aside repeatedly and shaking my head at what seemed like sheer obstinate stupidity on her part.

Later on Pamela Druckerman talks about how American children’s stories have a predictable arc: conflict, climax, and final resolution. But that the French favor a far less Pollyanna view of the universe and their stories progress: conflict, attempts to resolve conflict, and then the same conflict again at the end. The author says that this is far more realistic and true to life. Often people never resolve situations and continue doing the same old silly things that were getting them into trouble in the first place. At this point I wondered if she had absorbed French culture completely and if the books tag line had only been achieved by dint of her research and if I would never see any sort of personal growth in her relationships with her kids. I rather liked her first child Bean and felt very bad that the child was stuck with such a clueless mother.

This being said I particularly liked the chapter about sleep.  Apparently in America the average length of time for a baby to start sleeping ‘through the night’ which is parent speak for a five hour stretch, is anywhere between six months to one year old.  However in France the average is two to three months old and ‘late’ is at four months.  It seems that the French have a different understanding of babies needs at night than American parents.  That difference is that the French believe babies should always be fed when they are hungry or comforted when distressed but they do not think it is healthy to disturb babies while they are sleeping. They know it is normal for a baby to wake up several times and even open their eyes without really actually being awake, just like adults and like adults they think it is just fine to allow a baby the chance to self sooth itself back to sleep without any interference from the parents.  It seems to work.

She also has a chapter about food.  French children are much less likely than American children to be picky eaters.  The author attributes this to the fact that the French treat their children like adults when it comes to food.  Once old enough, parents expect children to sit up at the table at meals times, try a bite of everything the adults are eating even if they don’t like it and be polite while doing it.  Children might be excused a little earlier than adults but they always eat the same food and at the same times as adults.

In some of the other reviews I’ve read about this book people complain that the author advocates punishment and spanking in particular and I’m not sure where they get that from.  She does say that 2% of the French use spanking as a punishment “a lot”and less than 30 or 40% of parents have used it once or twice. (I’m sorry I returned the book to the library before I could obtain the exact percentage on that.)  She said that the French in general feel that spanking should not be used except as a last resort and have done their best to avoid it by setting firm limits from a young age with the cadre.  Estimates of spanking in the US vary considerably but the numbers are quite a bit higher than she was quoting for France. The lowest number I saw was “61% of parents in the US spank their children” and that was in Parenting Magazine polling it’s own readers.  Most numbers were considerably higher than that. In my view she doesn’t promote spanking the book seems to actually suggests that with a cadre spanking is unnecessary in most cases.

It was only in the last few chapters of the book that the stories the author tells about herself began to shift. Many still felt unresolved to me but some of them actually show the author implementing some of the French ways of parenting and achieving some calm and peace in her household and in her own head. The time lines show that she is doing this at the same time that some of the earlier stories in the book take place so I was able to see that the writer had been looking at the same situation in her life from two different perspectives. The first perspective was the struggle and the second the was efforts and slow progressions that helped to resolve the struggle.

This is where I found a story that particularly pleased me. The author had caught the flu and when she couldn’t get up in the morning to start breakfast, Bean, who was about six at the time didn’t say anything. She simply let the author rest and marched into the kitchen dragging her little brothers. A little bit later she marched out of the kitchen and told her mother that breakfast was ready, except for coffee which Pamela would have to make if she wanted it. It was the first time that Bean had displayed anything but exasperation or frustration towards her mother and I felt warmed.

These last few chapters helped me decide that I liked the book overall. I suppose I am an American with my attachment to a happy ending.

It stuck me as I put down the book that the reason that I was so quick to pick up of the basics of the cadre is that my parents, although not French, had a similar philosophy about parenting.

My dad always said that if it wasn’t worth dying for it wasn’t worth fighting about. The things worth dying over were made very clear to me: safety was important, mine and others, respect was important, respect for everyone including me. Everything else he didn’t worry to much about. My mother focused on safety and respect too, but she believed that it was also important to pay attention to if things were working in your life or not. She called this ‘looking at what is really there’. For both of them the understanding of these important guidelines was different, but I learned very early what they meant by respect and safety. I learned it so well other people, teachers, family, other caretakers found me well behaved and very respectful at what seems to me looking back on it a remarkably young age.

Despite the fact that I was well liked by most adults and got along well with other children, other people would often question my parents perceived strictness or permissiveness. This, I think, is the benefit of an entire country where they agree on a cadre. Even when French parents disagree on the details (bed time, sugar) they agree that it is important that children be in line with their parents. It was nice to see that there is a place in the world where people do agree on a few things. I get tired of American websites dominated by vocal opponents on topics such as ‘if sugar should be given to children or not’. Why people who profess to believe in freedom assume that everyone should parent like them seems very odd to me.

As much as I did enjoy seeing a change in Pamela’s parenting and an improvement in her life due to those changes, I never gained the impression that she ever truly grasped the idea of the cadre. She talked about it as if it were a set of rules that could be understood and quantified. In fact at the back of the book she distills it into 100 tips about French parenting that Americans can apply to their own homes. I did not take the cadre to be a bunch of artificial rules. It really seemed to me to be a position that an adult takes when they realize that they are going to welcome a little stranger into their lives. Parents distill what what is important to them. They decide what they would die for and what they will not worry about. That way they can be sure that in every situation they know what to pay attention to. Knowing yourself is never easy, but it is easier than trying to remember if you have a hard line on sugar or not.

A cadre is in essence very much what we do when we present our best selves to a potential mate or friend. We choose what parts of ourselves are important and try not to make our meetings difficult by highlighting our neurosis and bad habits so that the transition from stranger to close comrade is made smoother. (A lot of people do this by lying about themselves, but presenting your best self ought not to be a lie, just a sign of respect.)

A parental cadre is different in that in that a child knows nothing, they can do little for themselves, and they are helpless in the face of the world. So parents in France make a structure so that the tiny little person will have an easier time understanding their parents and the world. In essence a cadre is not just about protecting the child it is also about parents growing up and becoming both better parents and better people as the child grows. Doing this allows a parent to always say ‘yes’ with conviction and ‘no’ with equal conviction, because those words comes from a place of deep honesty and clarity.

Each cadre is different because each parent is different and what they believe to be important is going to vary. For example some parents don’t mind being woken up in the morning and thus there will be no rule about what time a child is allowed to come in and wake them but some parents would find it intolerable to be woken up by a child bouncing on them before they have coffee in the morning. Thus morning phobic parents would form a rule about when and how the child is allowed to interact with them in the morning. It might be as simple as “Unless it is an emergency please let mommy sleep until her alarm clock goes off.” Or it could be “Daddy has quiet time while the coffee is brewing.” It is really just an extension of the primary rule of respect that my parents and most French parent seem to believe in, but with a more specific request. And as life changes, as the parents needs change, the cadre will change too. The basic rules of respect, love and safety will stay the same but the demonstrations of those expressions of love and respect will change. When Daddy gives up caffeine he will no longer need to have that quiet time in the morning. When a new baby comes in the family’s life, the parents will help the older child construct a cadre for himself so that he too will have a good relationship with the baby. “This is my room; please don’t use my stuff without asking.”

The author may present the cadre as a way for adults to give rules that are somehow appealing to children but I think the book is very revealing of the deeper meanings of the cadre and how to use it to make sure that children know their parents in a very real and honest way and through that learn to become effective parents in their turn.

Altogether a worthwhile read.

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