Falling into France, or Paris at the very least

When Bringing Up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman (I would link to it but I’ve tried three times and for whatever reason that function isn’t working on wordpress today) was first published, her marketing people and the media presented it the way so many books on parenting must be promoted anymore – as an argument for a better way to raise children. It wasn’t published so terribly long after Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chau, whose excerpt/adapatation in the Washington Post led to outrage by countless American mothers, and suddenly it seemed like every nationality was claiming to parent better than we do. What with being super busy arguing with one another over issues like breast or bottle, stay at home or work, attachment parenting or free-range parenting, all we  really had time for was to take to twitter/facebook/tumblr and unleash a collective, defensive roar before returning to our own lives.

So reading Bringing Up Bebe wasn’t really on my agenda, even when I saw the author interviewed on various news programs and I found myself nodding in agreement with what she had to say.  Thus far in raising Evangeline I have remained true to only two parenting experts – Dr. Brazelton and AskMoxie.com. It wasn’t until I read a post at one my new favorite blogs More Than a Weed (which I would link to but again…can’t…) praising the book that I decided to give it a read.

A recently sprained ankle and wanting to avoid asking S. to do anything more than he was already handling led to me finally breaking down and ordering the book for my ipad – and I’m so glad I did! What was positioned in the media as a “the French do it better” with an heavy emphasis on Druckerman’s observations of French kids’ eating habits is instead a thoughtful, compassionate combination of memoir, investigation, reportage and philosophy that has increased my confidence in some of the choices I’ve already made and given me the courage to try some new approaches with Evangeline.

Because we are completely and totally food obsessed here in America, a lot of the news coverage of this book  talked about her chapters on French eating, and how French kids eat everything, and how amazing this is, etc. etc. and while I did draw a lot of inspiration from her food discussion, what I found more subtantial and more impressive was her observations of French culture that bleed naturally over to French parenting.

One of my favorite chapters discussed the importance not only of the words please and thank you in French culture, but stressed the value of children saying hello and goodbye as well…

Of course I’d been making Bean say the magic words, “please” and “thank you.” But it turns out that in French there are four magic words: s’il vous plait (please), merci (thank you), bonjour (hello) and au revoir (good-bye). Please and thank you are necessary but not nearly sufficient. Bonjour and au revoir – and bon jour in particular – are crucial…adults are supposed to say bonjour to each other too, of course…it’s crucial to say bonjour upon climbing into a tai, when a waitress first approaches your table in a restaurant, or before asking a salesperson if the pants come in your size. Saying bonjour acknowledges the other person’s humanity…it signals that you view her as a person, not just someone who’s supposed to serve you.”

I love this idea, and it is one I’m working to instill with Evangeline. I think the point that saying hello recognizes the other person’s humanity is incredibly powerful, and something not often required of children. S. and I have both heard the theory from friends that toddlers are practically sociopaths and it’s the parents’ job to bring them up and out of their own selfishness and make them aware of the world and how to behave in it. Evangeline has taken very naturally to “please” and “thank you” – I mean, let’s face it – those words help her get what she wants – and she delights in “bye bye” but she prefers a death stare instead of a greeting for anyone she doesn’t see regularly. We are nowhere near getting her to say hello to people, but this book has encouraged me to keep prodding her on this matter, every day.

More than once, Druckerman references French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano, and while I promised myself I’m no longer dieting (I’m not!) I couldn’t help myself, I had to download it too. I took a break from Druckerman’s book to soak up Guiliano’s lovely, rambling stories of the way French women live, eat, work and love and while at the end of the book when Guiliano summarizes all the things French women do and don’t do I came away thinking “Wow, French women don’t seem to have a lot of fun,” I found this book almost as wisdom-filled and helpful as Druckerman’s. Guiliano talks in  terms of “recasting” the body instead of losing weight, and gives solid, concrete, doable advice  that is the opposite of almost any “diet” I’ve ever seen, encouraging readers to truly examine their eating habits to determine what is absolutely necessary to keep for their overall happiness and what could be reduced or even eliminated without affecting the person’s lifestyle.  For instance, I am not French and know I couldn’t be happy without our beloved taco night once a month or so but I really could sacrifice the handful of crackers I occasionally stuff in my face out of desperation. She also recommends asking yourself “what will do?” – Will one glass of wine instead of two be sufficient? Could you replace your Oreo cookie habit with a piece of dark chocolate? Her approach is about balance, recalibration and a confidence in ones own body, and just like Druckerman’s book, I found several key ideas I could implement quickly.

I could write on and on about both of these books – each chapter of each text had something I either identified with or found helpful, and made me fervently hope S. and I can take advantage of Pittsburgh’s direct flights to Paris someday before the opportunity expires, but what I think I found so powerful in both books is the emphasis on having an enjoyable (even pleasurable!) lifestyle – a collection of days well-lived, as opposed to what I feel so many of us do now. I am attempting, for our family, the creation of a pleasurable lifestyle as opposed to day after day of rushing to work, rushing home, slamming something unsatisfactory on the table for dinner while letting Evangeline run wild,  and both books have helped me understand how to establish of a firm cadre (framework) that allows for organization and discipline but also a lot of freedom and joy.  I am very thankful both books came my way and I hope to update down the road as I implement some of the tactics from each!

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6 Responses to Falling into France, or Paris at the very least

  1. katy says:

    I know this isn’t your point at all and is barely tangentially related, but I’ve taken to eating a square of dark chocolate Willy Wonka style–shaving off small morself of it to savor very slowly. And I find it much more satisfying than when, in my moments of weakness, I’d been cramming my face full of Oreos :)

  2. Anne Camille says:

    You’ve made both of these books seem interesting. I may check out Guiliana’s book. I’m so surprised when I meet children and teens who do not greet people, though I certainly could improve some on doing so with service people. Reading this I thought “I do that”. But then I wondered if I do it all the time. Probably not if I’m questioning myself. I never thought of this as a particularly French thing, but reading this I’m reminded of being in France where it is nearly universally done.

  3. litlove says:

    Hurray! I generally love the French approach to living, which is heavy on pleasure and companionship and dismissive of silly or unnecessary rule-making. The French coined the maxim, after all, that economical little phrase of clever and insightful truth. They don’t waste time or words. But most of all, it’s nice to find books that actually do help, rather than punish under the guise of helping. So I’m very glad you read them. We used to make our son say hello to people because like most kids he went through a very shy phase and preferred the death stare (that really made me laugh) or just running away. Hello is easy to say, it breaks the back of that strange-adults-are-all-killers thing the little children have, and we used to say it was completely sufficient for social intercourse. Then he had a bridge into the conversation if he wanted one, when he was older. I used to love being in the halls of the lycee where I taught in France, because the teenagers greeted each other all the time – the boys shook hands, the girls kissed, girls and boys kissed, and it felt so warm and lovely.

  4. smithereens says:

    I did wonder for a while if I’d dare comment on your lovely post. While I certainly agree to and practice the discipline “cadre” that Druckerman presents, I never saw much truth in the Guiliano fantasy (most probably because I – a French – personally have curves: somehow many French women did get fat even with her principles). Coming back to early education, I’m forever grateful of the pre-school canteens and how much thought they put in instilling good eating habits in my son. At the recent PT meeting the teacher repeated that preschool’s objective is to learn to be a student: basic social skills and discipline frame throughout the day, including at meal times and recess – saying Hello is part of this too, but it’s not that easy! (It takes a lot of prodding and reframing, French kids are not different than US kids of course)

  5. I haven’t read either of these books, but I’ve heard so many good things about Bringing Up Bebe that I’m definitely putting it on my must-read list. I did read Mireille Guiliano’s French Women for All Seasons, and you might really enjoy that one as well — it’s focused on eating seasonally and in moderation, and it emphasizes the same principles of pleasure found in French Women Don’t Get Fat. Like you, I’m not sold on giving up ALL of my guilty pleasures — she would certainly cringe in horror over buffalo chicken dip — but I do find her ideas valuable.

  6. Katy – I agree with you on the small piece of chocolate part…and I DO like dark chocolate…but I still infinitely prefer high-quality milk chocolate, which apparently women from France would never, ever eat!

    Anne – I agree. It was definitely a good reminder for me to check what my Grandma called my p’s and q’s!

    Litlove – exactly! Reading self help books that were actually helpful was surprisingly delightful…and the fact that I could so easily implement some of the suggestions was really great as well.

    Smithereens – I love the perspective you offer! Although I will argue the “curves” you refer to are very different than the obesity we see in America right now – I think! By the way, I did respond to your last email – did you receive it? For whatever reason your emails always end up in my spam filter…

    Carrie – I finished the French Women for all Seasons and loved it as well! She is fun to read – her voice is so terribly constructed but i don’t care…she’s fun!

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