Chinese parenting by tiger moms, American parenting by eagle moms… make way for the frog moms? Isn’t frog a derogatory term for the French? Well, at any rate, Wall Street Journal is becoming the place for author moms to elevate the parenting of other countries. This time, vive la France!
Note to self: If I ever write a parenting book, make sure there are enough controversial excerpts for the WSJ to string together. And have them simply insert an adjective into this title structure: “Why ___ Parents are Superior.” That is the key to a bestseller!
While tiger mothering only needed one book to light the ire of the American public, French parenting has three champions: (1) the one profiled in the WSJ, Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman; (2) French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billion; and (3) The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, Elisabeth Badinter. Many of these books were published a few years ago — but I only recently read Bringing Up Bebe (yay for my public library). I haven’t read (2) and (3) — but there is a concise re-cap of (2) if you go to this link.
So here is the first in a multi-part response to French parenting (as described by non-scientific author moms) from the cogsci perspective.
Part 1. Cadre (French word for “frame”): how eating and sleeping are the essential essentials
Obviously all parents intuitively get that eating and sleeping are important for babies. Some more intuitively than others. [For myself, I knew it was important for cogscibaby to nap but found out the hard way that nap time really is sacred for preserving our entire family’s sanity. We now have a rule — only one potentially nap-interfering event per day.]
The French (as represented by the small irregular sample of Pamela Druckerman’s friends) seem to somehow have babies that tend to eat (drink milk) and sleep in uniform patterns. Most French babies “take their milk” around 8am, 12pm, 4pm (snack or le gouter), and 8pm. French people believe that most babies sleep through the night (“doing his/her nights”) between 6 weeks and 4 months. When les Americaines hear about this sleeping business, they are like — what the what?
So how does this regular eating/sleeping schedule emerge? Are Gallic genes special? Is there a national militaristic baby training culture?
French parents seem unable to explain how they do this. Druckerman’s informants often say that the baby decides or prefers this. Unhelpfully, some classic French parenting books wax poetic about babies and their inner peace, trusting their body, strangeness of night. But Druckerman eventually ferrets out an interesting parenting strategy/philosophy from a French doctor: to pause and observe.
What does this mean? Before taking action, to pause and look for signs of hunger or to observe whether the child is truly awake. Once a parent has observed the child for a moment, he/she can feed the baby when it is truly hungry (as opposed to simply wanting to be picked up, etc). At night, a parent who waits/observes might note that the child is still sleepy and not really roused even though they might be crying for a bit. He/she in the few minutes of observation/waiting might find that it returns to sleep. This observation (particularly in the first few months of life) may reveal baby’s natural routine. Once the routine has been observed, even on days when there is some variation (due to events, being distracted during lunch, teething, etc), the routine can be enforced providing each day with a structure to hang on. This structure is what the French seem to refer to as cadre, “the frame.”
There is probably more to cadre than eating and sleeping, but these are the essential essentials. And during the first few months of life… there really is nothing more to cadre than that.
And baby science seems to support the idea that this routine/structure/pattern/cadre is an early part of teaching a child limits and expectations. A study reported in the Infant Mental Health Journal (Salisbury et. al, 2012) found that when parents of colicky babies got help with feeding, sleep, and routine (all cadre), there was less reported crying compared to a control group that received standard pediatric care with colic.
And even though the standard pediatric line is that one cannot spoil a baby, this NYTimes parenting blog posits that it might be more complicated than that. Perhaps part of parenting is to listen/observe and figure out what a child truly needs.
As for me, I may have inadvertently instituted the pause strategy (but no observation) for sleeping. Full disclosure: Cogscibaby slept 6-8 hours straight around 2 months old. This entire time I just assumed that he liked sleeping and that was why he slept through the night. But in hindsight it may have been this: I am a DEEP sleeper. Even though cogscibaby slept in a crib next to me, I just never really heard him when he cried. Cogscidaddy kept thinking that I would wake up eventually (HA!), so we were both slow to respond.
For eating, we accidentally instituted the observe strategy (but no pausing). Just because we’re dataphiles, we had been keeping track of cogscibaby’s milk-drinking habits… over time, we just saw patterns in the data and now cogscibaby eats at 8am, 12pm, and 6pm. He used to take a big bottle of milk/formula between lunch and dinner (just before his nap) but now we’ve started giving him a solid snack of yogurt or sembei (rice crackers) around 3-4pm.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this French parenting series: Parent centered parenting.