It’s that time of year again! Time to allege that Americans are lousy parents. Last year, it was Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; this year, the slings and arrows come from Pamela Druckerman’s book Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.
Oh la la.
I was eager to read the book because I a bit of a francophile (though not as much as I am an anglophile) and have visited twice and also have French in-laws. I was curious to see how French parenting differed from American parenting.
Bringing Up Bebe in a Nutshell
As an expat bringing up three children in Paris, Druckerman noticed that the French parent very differently than Americans. In France, French babies sleep through the night at 3 months as a rule. French parents also never fear taking their children to restaurants because these paragons can easily handle lengthy, multi-course meals containing a variety of ingredients. At playgrounds, French children play enthusiastically but never throw tantrums when it’s time to leave or they don’t get their way. French parents are even able to enjoy a leisurely coffee and chat with a friend while their children happily entertain themselves without destroying the house. Druckerman concludes that whatever the French are doing, it allows them to parent with much less stress and more joy than American parents, who in contrast over-parent and are hyper-vigilant about any possible danger, resulting in stressed, exhausted parents.
According to Druckerman, French parents do the following to achieve such civilized children:
- Teach their babies to sleep through the night around 3-4 months through the Pause, a type of attentive listening that means parents don’t immediately pick up a crying baby
- Teach their children to wait and learn patience as well as to become bored and figure out how to entertain themselves
- Talk to their children as if they can understand & treat them with respect from infancy
- Setting firm limits in which certain rules are inviolate (fixed meal times, no snacks, respect for adults and parental authority) but are extremely permissive everywhere else
- Understand that parents are not chained to their children and need adult time
- Do not try to rush their children on to the next developmental stage but are content to let them explore and develop at their own pace
- Don’t overpraise; praise them when they say or do something truly outstanding
- Approach child-rearing with the believe that they are educating their children instead of disciplining them
What I Liked
There was a lot to like about Druckerman’s book. First of all, it was a quick read. Also, a lot of what she observes about French parenting makes sense. Take the Pause for example. French parents typically wait a few minutes to evaluate whether the baby is really awake and to give the baby a chance to settle on his/her own. In contrast, I remember rushing to pick up Daniel immediately at night when he started to cry as an infant. It wasn’t until almost 2 years later that I blearily waited a few minutes and discovered the child could put himself back to sleep. What is really amazing is that it appears that the Pause is understood and agreed upon by almost all French parents. There is no CIO vs attachment parenting in France; there is only the Pause.
I also liked how French children are able to entertain themselves. Perhaps I take this ability for granted since I was an only child, but I like that Daniel is at the age where he can play with his trains by himself. I want him to use his imagination to alleviate any boredom he might feel without depending on me or Jimmy to give him something to do.
Druckerman’s book also made me rethink some of what I think Daniel may or may not be capable at his age. I was struck by a story in which Druckerman recounts her shock at seeing a three-year-old girl carefully measuring out the ingredients for a cake all by herself and scooping batter into a cupcake pan. These cupcakes were later eaten at the one snack-time French parents allow. After reading that story, I wonder if I may be too quick to rule out an activity or experience for Daniel because I think he’s too young or doesn’t have the attention span.
The concept of educating versus disciplining a child is fascinating and possibly the most paradigm-shifting idea I took from the book. Education is gentler but hints at setting a firm foundation on which everything sits. It hints at a longer journey with give and take between both the parent and child; it makes rearing children a co-production instead of a dictatorship, thought the parent is clearly in charge. Discipline, on the other hand, is tied to punishment and has a negative connotation. Instead of broadening a child’s horizon, it appears to limit them through a litany of “thou shalts.” Education is what we do for humans whereas discipline is what we do for animals. I don’t want to be a parent who disciplines; I want to be a parent who educates.
What I Didn’t Like
Bless her heart, I don’t think Druckerman particularly likes living in Paris. Her constant feeling of being an outsider is reminiscent of other books I have read about American expats in France. She has low French self-esteem (moral of the story: don’t move to France unless you have extremely high, possibly delusional levels of self-esteem). It is difficult to read a book in which the author constantly points out how much she and her family suck in comparison to the effortless French.
More importantly, Druckerman generalized a lot about American parenting vs. French parenting. According to her, American parents are all hyper-vigilant, helicopter parents who don’t sleep for years because our little darlings have never been sleep trained, and we accept that as normal. As well, all American children are poorly-behaved miscreants who eat whenever they want and around whom our lives and schedules revolve. I get the point she is trying to make, but it doesn’t help her case that we can learn from French parenting when all of American parenting is lumped together and dismissed as “bad” with no statistics to back it up.
Speaking of statistics, more would have been nice. Druckerman throws in the occasional study to support whatever claim she is making (usually to support her claim for the superiority of a French method), but there are very few studies overall. I would have liked to have seen more objective information to back up her conclusions.
Druckerman’s book is more of an ethnographic study than a how-to manual. If you want to learn exactly how the French achieve the behavior they do with their children, then this is not the book for you. If you are intrigued by how different countries parent, then you will likely enjoy it.
While I criticized the book for over-generalizing American parenting, I must admit that there is a grain of truth to Druckerman’s assertion. I am constantly trying to define what a good mother is in the 21st Century. Is it the mother who spends every moment doing enriching activities or playing with her child? Is it the mother who carves out time for herself and her spouse and acknowledges that she is separate from her child? I receive mixed messages about this every day and as a result, I feel guilty if I don’t spend every minute with Daniel, if he is not my sole focus and guilty if I want to get a babysitter and do something frivolous. Bringing Up Bebe, though flawed, was a nice reality check into how other parents parent.