Thursday, February 9, 2012

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

Last year, the parenting book that grabbed the headlines was Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  This year's lead contender is out: Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman.  Druckerman, a former journalist, relocated to Paris, had a child and struggled like most of us as a new parent.  The baby completely consumed her life.  Out at dinner with her husband and baby, Druckerman noticed that the French kids sat nicely though an entire meal while American kids often terrorized their parents and those around them.  She can't take phone calls when the baby is up because she can't finish a sentence.  But, at a French friend's house, she sipped coffee and conversed as an adult while the friend's young child played by himself.  By four months old, nearly all French kids sleep through the night.  Druckerman wondered aloud: is there something different that the French do or are they just wired differently?  Bringing Up Bebe was born.

It is all about the parental approach.  Many American parents (and certainly NYC parents like me) are obsessive, try to fill their kids' lives with activities to boost their chances of success and use discipline to get a child back into line.  When I first read the excerpt of the book in the Wall Street Journal (here), I found Druckerman's thoughts about parenting squared with mine: does parenting really need to be an obsessive, combative and all-consuming endeavor? Is there another way in which parents can be fully committed to our children, teach them independence and even enjoy ourselves a bit.

According to the French approach, kids (and yes, even babies) are capable, bright and able to understand.  The parent's job is to educate the child and expose them to life, not to track or discipline them.  For example, how do the French get their kids to sleep through the night so easily and uniformly?  Something called "The Pause".  During the day, the baby wakes, eats and sleeps.  At night, the baby will wake up between sleep cycles, which last about two hours each.  Between cycles, the baby stirs and maybe even cries, but she is not awake.  If a parent steps in at that time to hold or feed the baby, the baby learns that the way to bridge one sleep cycle to another is to cry and get food.  The French wait.  It is called "The Pause".  They understand that the baby needs to learn to bridge one cycle to the next.  So, before attending to a baby, they observe and wait.  They don't go in.  And behold, shortly the baby sleeps through the whole night or, as they call it, "doing her nights".  Crazy, no?  The science seems to line up with the practice.

Food is similar.  Babies nearly uniformly eat at 8 am, noon, 4 pm and 8 pm.  Sounds like a regular eating schedule for older kids and even adults (maybe minus the 4 pm snack).  Every whine during the day does not need to be met with food.  Learning to wait a bit creates frustration (in manageable doses), which we all need to learn to cope with in life.  Older kids learn that a snack is at snack time, 4 pm, not at will.

Playtime is similar.  The kids learn to play on their own at a young age (not with electronics).  They learn to occupy themselves.  Yet again, another life skill.

There are limits to Druckerman's advice.  If a child is wailing for 15 minutes at night, something may be wrong.  Check on the kid.  Inflexibility is not a virtue; patience is.  Since reading this book, I've tried out a few of Druckerman's ideas with my own kids.  The results were pretty amazing.  We'll see how it goes over the next few weeks.

Druckerman's writing is highly approachable and even a bit funny. This is not a "how-to" book. It is a series of informed observations about how Parisians approach parenting. Druckerman shares anecdotes and then supports them with some research. There are no magic tricks; just a shift in behavior and approach that the author shares with us.

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