I just finished a fascinating book on parenting called Bringing up Bébé, written by journalist Pamela Druckerman. I was drawn to this book for more than one reason, none of them having to do with parenting. First, I appreciated the title’s reference to one of my favorite movies (thanks to my dad’s influence) from when I was a kid. Second, the use of the French word for baby and the book’s subtitle, One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, both appealed to the Francophile in me. Third, anything that suggests that Americans might be wrong is attractive to me.
This book has not been received favorably by all American audiences, a result that is not surprising in the least. After all, no one likes to be told they’re wrong. And Druckerman is subtly and politely but quite firmly doing just that. I appreciate this book because it doesn’t let American parents get away with the pat excuses of, “He’s a child; what do you expect?” or, “They call them terrible twos for a reason.” (I don’t think they do call them that in France, likely because they aren’t terrible.) Unfortunately, I think this book will do what many of the best sermons, speeches, and exhortations throughout history have done: enrage those who need to hear its message the most, therefore disabling their ability to receive it; and be endorsed by those who need to hear it least – people who already practice (and see the positive results of) the suggestions contained within.
Without going into too much detail about why this book should be read by everyone, parents or not, or why the French truly are superior, at least in some ways, I’ll just summarize Druckerman’s main conclusion, which is – to oversimplify it – that American parents are overindulgent and allow their children to rule over them, while French parents have found a way to balance authoritarianism with allowing their children the freedom to express themselves and be who they are. She uses a lot of research and various observed examples to back up her findings, mainly focusing on sleep rhythms, eating habits, and behavioral/discipline patterns.
The part I resonated with most was an underlying thread running through the entire book; an idea that one of the main differences between the French and Americans is that French people view their children as legitimate human beings, capable of knowing and learning and conforming to rhythms from the time they leave the womb, whereas a large portion of American parents tend to coddle and suffocate their children because they view them as too young, immature, inexperienced, etc., to learn or decide anything for themselves; which, of course, becomes a vicious cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that, because American children are coddled and suffocated, they often are too immature and inexperienced to think, learn, or decide for themselves.
The main time I witness this is when American adults (parents or otherwise) speak to children. Regardless of the child’s age – whether teenager, adolescent, grade schooler, toddler, or baby – many adults have gotten the idea that children must be talked down to, patronized, and condescended. Many parents wonder why their teens rebel and disrespect them and act out; my supposition is that a lot of times it has to do with the teens not feeling respected themselves. Unfortunately, most parents don’t wonder anymore why their toddlers and young children throw regular temper tantrums for no apparent reason. Rather than delve into why, they’ve simply come to accept and expect that this is part of raising small children. They assume that young children have no rationalization skills, so why even bother trying to ask why they’re having a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store? It’s better to bribe him or shove some food in his mouth so he’ll shut up and stop embarrassing them, right?
The thing that has probably become my biggest pet peeve when watching adults interact with children is the way they talk to them. Adults assume a certain (low) level of understanding, and when communicating with children, one can witness adults intentionally bringing themselves down to this perceived level. Not all adults do this, mind you. The best and most respected teachers out there – the ones who get the most results from their most “troubled” students – understand the danger of doing this. And some really awesome parents understand it too. But not the majority of the ones I’ve witnessed and observed in my almost 28 years on this earth.
The most intelligent, well-behaved, and articulate children I have met in my life have been children whose parents have never spoken to them like they were halflings. Even from before the time they could understand language and words, these children were spoken to like normal human beings, just the way you and I might speak to each other right now. I have said before that I completely abhor the fact that people speak to children the same way they speak to animals. They change their tone of voice (it immediately becomes high pitched); they start using words they would never use in adult conversations (like boo-boo, teetee, and bwankie); and they talk down to the child (instead of validating what the child has to say, they ask the condescending question, “Oh, really?” which immediately communicates disbelief; or, they over-validate what the child has to say, acting as if this imaginary tale of fantastic proportions involving superheroes and mythical creatures is absolutely, 100% true, when the child very well knows that it is not true and is just trying to have a bit of fun).
Yes, children develop at different paces, and yes, their logical reasoning skills and general grasps of syntax and vocabulary are much lower than (most) adults’, but this does not make them stupid. It means they are at a different place on the developmental journey, and that should not be occasion for condescension from adults. We should not expect children to deliver well-constructed debates or impressively articulated demands from the time they are first able to speak, but we should always encourage them toward attempting to articulate themselves and rationalize their own thoughts. Patronizing them by deigning to lower ourselves to their level sends two messages: 1) I am not worth as much; 2) I have no reason to improve myself.
I have actually babysat upper-grade-school children who knew how to speak and pronounce words properly but still talked like babies. Why? Because they were allowed to and saw no reason to quit. After all, if they continue to act like babies, their parents are going to keep treating them like babies, no matter how old they get. And what child wants the royal infant treatment to stop? Infants have it made! All they have to do is make a single peep, and adults are at their beck and call, ready to carry out their every whim. My theory on why parents let this continue is that they don’t want their children to grow up too quickly because, as we all know, it does happen too fast. When I encounter this type of child in a babysitting experience, I typically refuse to acknowledge the request (whether it be for more pwetzels or a huggy-poo before bed) until they speak to me as properly as I know they can. I admit, some of my disgust for this behavior is rooted in my love of language and grammar. But I also believe that children should be challenged and empowered to mature and grow up, not stay whining little bwats.
Something Druckerman touches on in her book is the high level of importance the French place on children learning to say not only please and thank you (which are the universal magic words of American culture) but also hello and goodbye. American children are not generally asked to greet anyone upon arrival and departure, and this sends them the message that their greetings are not important to us as adults. It reinforces the implication that they are just accessories, mandatory accoutrements parents are forced to lug around, less important beings than anyone who is more than two feet taller than them. French children, on the other hand, learn quickly and early on that everyone is worth being acknowledged, including themselves.
In my own life, I have conducted a semi-sociological experiment on a favorite child of mine whom I babysit often. We’ll call him Cason because…well, that’s his name. I have known Cason since he was just over a year old. Considering he’s just a few months shy of four now, that obviously isn’t very long (though it is most of his life). But when I talk to and interact with Cason, I do my best not to talk down to him even though his speech capabilities have only in the last year begun to really develop. It can be difficult, at times, to overcome what feels like an instinctive way to talk to children, but it’s not instinct. This is one instance where we can definitively say nurture is winning the debate over nature. I was talked down to as a child (and sometimes am still talked down to as an adult in my late twenties). I grew up in an environment that taught by example that I should communicate with children in a louder voice, using a high-pitched tone, and with an exaggerated and insincere enthusiasm about everything. (By the way, kids can tell when you’re being insincere.)
At some point in my life, I started having encounters with children who seemed unusually intelligent for their ages, and by the time I met Cason, I realized – as a result of observing how his parents talk to him – that these smart, articulate, seemingly precocious children weren’t necessarily advanced for their age; they just seemed that way because they were so far ahead of other kids their age. Why? Because their parents talked to them like they were normal human beings.
So the first time I babysat Cason, I decided to try to emulate his parents’ way of communicating with him. At this point, he couldn’t yet talk. As young as he was, he of course cried when they left, especially since this was his first time to meet me, let alone be left alone with me. After they got out the door, I knelt on the floor next to him and explained what was going on, something to the effect of, “Your parents are going out for a little while, and I’m going to hang out with you while they’re gone. Then you’ll go to bed, and they’ll come back while you’re sleeping, and then you’ll see them first thing when you wake up in the morning.” I had no idea if he understood what I was saying, but he listened tearfully and silently to every word, as if he could understand and was trying to decide whether he could trust me. Then, after a couple of trial sniffles and big breaths, he smiled, held out his arms for me to pick him up, and didn’t cry the rest of the night.
Later that same night, he was running around and playing with his toys. I watched him from a couch with my laptop out. He came over and wanted to look at the computer, so I let him. His hands were sticky, though, so when he reached out to touch it, I told him, “No, please don’t touch that; your hands aren’t clean.” He withdrew his hand and toddled away to resume playing.
Now, it could be that luck was on my side that night and that I just had good timing. But I don’t think so. I think he understood me just fine, even if he couldn’t respond verbally. And ever since that night, I’ve done my best to keep copying his parents’ example and continue to talk to him like he’s a normal person. And, as I’ve watched him grow up, I’ve also watched him make extraordinary progress in his grasp of language, his articulation skills, and his communicative abilities. He speaks full sentences now and (with prompting and encouragement, at times) is able to explain coherently why he is upset about something or other, which is so much easier to deal with than screaming, kicking, punching, or biting. (He occasionally does still shout, but he’s come a long way, and he’s miles ahead of other kids his age, and even other kids who are older [whose parents I hope never ask me to babysit].)
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge proponent of the nurture side of the debate. I think environment plays a much bigger role in development than genes do. The reason so many American children are brats is not that Americans are genetically bratty. It’s the mob mentality. It’s their environment. They are taught how to be brats, and they spend their time with a bunch of other brats, and they learn to be that way. If you don’t agree with me about nurture, look at adopted children. Look at military children. Or missionary kids, or other third-culture kids, such as Pamela Druckerman’s pack of Paris-born children who, genetically, are half American, half British. They’ve molded to their sage French environment and have themselves become sage.
I don’t know how J.R. and Jenny are managing to do such a non-American job with Cason (and Jack, Cason’s younger brother, who is no less awesome) in the extremely American culture they live in, but I am gonna stick around them when I have kids, or, if I’ve lost them back to the Great Northwest by that time, I’ll just have to move to France. By the way, I’m not saying that I’m a parenting expert or anything, or that I know any better than anyone else how to raise children. I don’t know the first thing about raising children. But I have spent the last couple of years learning how to talk to children, and that’s a step in the right direction, I think.
Not that you have to listen to me; I know every parent’s favorite advice expert is the childless single woman next door, but hey. I was called a baby whisperer recently, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. But seriously. Check out Bringing up Bébé if you have some time. Even if you’re not a parent, it’s really good. I promise. And I haven’t even begun to do its synopsis justice here. She’s got all sorts of statistical proof to back up her claim that France is kicking America’s butt in the raising-children department. Grab a copy from your library. Even if all you do is flip through it to find the italicized words and work on pronouncing them out loud in your best French accent. (Wait, what? Of course I didn’t do that.)