This weekend I met my friend Samuel at the park. A native of Brittany, he’s describing my children as “the mysterious French man”, but like me, he is a suburban dad here in Connecticut. This reminded me of an article I read several years ago about the book Bringing Up Bebe, about parenting insights gleaned by an American mother living in France. The author, Pamela Druckerman, is amazed by the fact that the babies of some of her French friends sleep through the night, even as early as two months of age. The philosophy behind this she describes as, half jokingly, Le Pause:
Waiting is the key: the French do not do instant gratification. It starts more or less at birth. When a French baby cries in the night the parents go in, pause, and observe for a few minutes. They know that babies’ sleep patterns include movements, noises and two-hour sleep cycles, in between which the baby might cry. Left alone it might “self-soothe” and go back to sleep. If you dash in like an Anglophone and immediately pick your baby up, you are training it to wake up properly. But if a French baby does wake up and cry properly on its own, it will be picked up. Result? French babies often sleep through the night from two months. Six months is considered very late indeed. From The Guardian
While I am a bit skeptical that your average French infant is sleeping through the night without interruption at two months of age, I do see the value in this parenting philosophy. Infants do frequently cry out in their sleep, due to the the immaturity of their nervous systems. Literature on infant sleep refers to some children who are “signallers,” and are more likely to cry out at night; if parents run in every time their child grunts, they are reinforcing the night wakings and creating problems for themselves down the line.
For better or worse, the default mode of parenting in America seems to have become quite intensive and hands-on. The excessive form of this is “helicopter parenting” where every need the child is met immediately, and every possible risk eliminated. In the arena of sleep training, parents worry that they will harm the child but I can reassure you that this is not the case. Parenting fads come and go, and it’s hard to know what we are doing now that will seem ludicrous 50 years from now. Libby Copeland has a great article in Slate on bad parenting advice which includes such gems as, “an 1878 book called Advice to Mother informed said mother that she should not give her baby gin to relieve flatulence.”
When I asked Samuel about the difference between American and French parenting he demurred, as has only been a parent here. I asked him about the concept of cadre, which is mentioned in Druckerman’s book. After I spelled it for him as he could not understand my abysmal French pronunciation, he said:
Cadre means frame, like the frame of a painting. So children are definitely part of the painting (in the frame), but they are more in the background, not the main subject of the painting.
I think this gets at the heart of it– the idea that children are supposed to fit within the family, and that their needs don’t always necessarily need to be foregrounded. For me, this is reflected in the idea that kids should be able to sleep through the night on their own– not just because it is an important life skill, but because it is good for their parents as well. Different parents make different choices about sleep, about feeding, about discipline and a thousand other challenges which they face day-to-day. The fact is, if you love your kids (and you do) and you try your best (and you will), your kids will be fine. And so will you.