A reader mentioned Bringing Up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman, in a comment yesterday. It reminded me that I meant to post a review of this entertaining and insightful book. The author, a Wall Street Journal reporter, had recently moved to Paris when she had her first baby. She recounts her observations and investigations of French parenting, which she finds shockingly different and surprisingly more effective than Anglo-American methods. As the Goodreads.com summary explains,
[T]he French children Druckerman knows sleep through the night at two or three months old while those of her American friends take a year or more. French kids eat well-rounded meals that are more likely to include braised leeks than chicken nuggets. And while her American friends spend their visits resolving spats between their kids, her French friends sip coffee while the kids play.
Motherhood itself is a whole different experience in France. There’s no role model, as there is in America, for the harried new mom with no life of her own. French mothers assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children and that there’s no need to feel guilty about this. They have an easy, calm authority with their kids that Druckerman can only envy.
The basic wisdom of French parenting, Druckerman finds, is that children should be given strict boundaries and parents should not be afraid to say no. Here, the book points out the ridiculousness of the wishy-washy, wimpy parenting approach practiced by many “enlightened” American families. One of my favorite quotes:
Liz and her husband [Americans] remain determined not to flaunt their authority. Lately [their daughter] has been hitting them both. Each time, they sit her down and discuss why hitting is wrong. This well-intentioned reasoning isn’t helping. ‘She still hits us,’ Liz says.
Within frim boundaries, Druckerman reports, the French give their children great independence and require them to entertain themselves and fend for themselves. French parents do not feel the need to enhance each and every experience to hasten their child’s development. This appeals to me because of its compatibility with the Montessori philosophy of respecting and observing each stage that a child goes through, rather than forcing an adult-imposed developmental timeline.
I love Druckerman’s description of the contrast between Anglo mothers and French mothers at the playground. The former run around playing with their kids, narrating in real-time, while shoving snacks in their kids’ mouths. The latter sit on the sidelines and talk with other moms.
I must confess here that for the first two years of Girl 1’s life I felt very virtuous to be one of the mothers who ran around with their children. That all changed once I got enormously pregnant with Girl 2. Nowadays I sit on the park bench sipping my latte, observing my child from afar and sneering at the other moms sliding down the slides. Okay, I don’t sneer, but sometimes I’m tempted to feel a little smug.
What I do now.
I’m less keen on supposed French wisdom on such topics as breastfeeding, marriage, how soon women should lose their baby weight, whether women should stay at home with their children, and whether five year-olds should go on week-long field trips without their parents. Also, I question the simplicity of some “French” methods as Druckerman describes them. If getting your baby to sleep through the night requires only “La Pause” that French mothers purportedly practice (i.e., waiting a minute when your child starts to fuss and letting the child soothe himself, rather than rushing in), I would be a well-rested woman right now. It’s not always that easy. Finally, Druckerman’s book focuses on middle-to-upper class Parisian families, which makes me wonder whether parenting in other segments of French society might be much different. Certainly a study on American parenting would be inaccurate if it focused only on, say, families in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
My main question, however, is whether French adults are better than American/Anglo adults. That’s the real test of which parenting style is superior, and Ms. Druckerman barely addresses this. In a letter (which I cannot find now) to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, a reader pointed out the tragic deaths of thousands of elderly French citizens in a heat wave in 2003. According to this article from Time magazine, these deaths were due in large part to a “dislocated” French family structure and “a national habit of shutting senior citizens out of sight and mind.” If French-style parenting leads adult children to have so little regard for their aging parents . . . hmm, maybe I should start sliding down the slides at the playground again.
I suspect, however, that most of the “French” parenting described is similar to American parenting of two or more generations ago (sans France’s state-sponsored day care and preschool). The parenting style Druckerman describes also is very similar to that espoused by Christie Mellor in The Three-Martini Playdate (review here). Overall, I find both books helpful overall in silencing the voices that plague many of us over-educated, type-A mothers: the little voice telling us that we can never do enough for our children, that we will never be good enough as mothers, and that any time spent for ourselves is time stolen from our children. Silence, s’il-vous-plaît !
Finally, for readers who have reached their fill of the recent spate of books extolling the virtues of the French
way of doing, well, everything (French Women Don’t Get Fat, French Children Eat Everything, Bringing Up Bebe), here’s a little humor for you. “Vive La France” by Paul Rudnick in The New Yorker is a funny piece poking fun at American women’s stereotype of French women’s stereotypes of American women.