A Book Review: Bringing Up Bebe

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 used to do (though this is actually my little brother)

What I used to do (though this is actually my little brother)

I sit alone

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

Vive La France, an article by Paul Rudnick for The New Yorker

way of doing, well, everything (French Women Don’t Get Fat, French Children Eat EverythingBringing 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.

Happy reading!


5 thoughts on “A Book Review: Bringing Up Bebe

  1. Great review. I agree with that totally. The French books for me were so freeing. I wanted to form a playgroup around the idea that we would all do French style parenting together.

    From the picture she paints, I think that part of the reason the French childrearing culture is so successful is that it is completely accepted by everyone in the country as “this is what you do with kids.” So you don’t have this endless debate and comparison with other moms about how to raise kids. And the second-guessing.

    I mean, if you stand in line at a grocery store here and your kid starts screaming for a cookie, every single person in line behind you wants you to give that kid a cookie to shut him up. Whereas in France, everyone in line would support you in withholding the cookie. It makes a difference in the sense of your own personal authority, and i think that’s what kids respond to more than specific techniques.

    • Yeah, I liked the societal consensus aspect, too. Th second-guessing here drives me crazy. Sometimes I would read two parenting books giving opposite advice and then feel guilty that I couldn’t follow both. Ridiculous!

  2. Great review!
    Druckerman would probably classify me as the typical American at the playground, however, she’s be wrong. I bring C to the coolest parks so that *I* can play! It looks a lot less psycho to have a toddler in tow than me playing up there all by myself! 😉

    Oh, and I actually did laugh out loud when I read the New Yorker article!

  3. Rachel, I don’t know if you’re reading this, but — I love that you have such a sense of play. I probably would enjoy parenting a lot more if I still remembered how to play . . . . though even I can appreciate that playgrounds have gotten a lot cooler since we were kids. I do miss the oh so dangerous spin-it-and-jump-on merry-go-rounds that you can’t find anymore. 😉

  4. Everything you said “yes” to I so far agree; I also had the same Montessori parallel in my mind when reading about how they just leave the kids alone! Today in the car S was quiet for a while and instead of pointing out things to look at or trying to engage him (!!!) in conversation, I just enjoyed the silence. But it’s hard for me not to get red in the face at the apparently very prevalent “nay” idea of the stay at home mom. I certainly don’t think that the stay at home mom is the best option for everyone, or that all women are happy as such. But why does this seem like such an inconsiderable possibility? Also, a mother putting her child in day care 5 days a week so she can “have time for herself”? Do we need time for ourselves? Yes! American parenting has definitely lost sight of the need for the parents to remain whole persons and not just the uber parent. You need to continue to nurture your identity (excuse my use of that word) and person in order that you CAN be the best parent you can. However, the book does not even take into account that parenting requires sacrifice. This is what really irks me the most. It seems as if in France you can just birth the child then have someone else do the rearing and voila! You’re still the chic, skinny, woman with a steamy love life, awesome career, and all the time in the world for girlfriend dates over coffee, cocktail parties, and etc. etc. I didn’t have that life BEFORE I had kids! Anyway, enough of my ranting. I obviously don’t mind the book enough to discontinue reading it because I’m more than halfway through and will probably finish it within the next 24 hours.

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