Review: Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

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Review: Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
It should probably not be too surprising that many of the people commenting about this book on Facebook, blogs and in other public places, have not actually read it before expressing their impassioned resentment of the very idea that French parents might know something American parents don’t know, something worth learning about. After all, it doesn’t take much to get people going about the arrogance of the French (even though in this case the author of the book is an American living in Paris). What is surprising is that even many reviewers seem to have had a hard time putting aside their prejudices about the French and their way of childrearing sufficiently to be able to write objective reviews. More than one reviewer has taken the opportunity to tell stories about negative encounters they, or their children, have had on French playgrounds: and I can’t help but feel that their snarky dismissal of Druckerman’s observations are somehow linked to those experiences. Having spent many summers in France with my own children from the time they were toddlers, I could do the same thing, and believe me, it is a bit tempting to indulge in telling just one juicy little anecdote about some horrible French parent or child we encountered along the way. But I’m going to resist the temptation, and go straight to delivering my opinion about this book. The subtitle makes abundantly clear what the author intends to deliver. She is offering the unique perspective of one American mother, and what she learned about “the wisdom of French parenting” while raising her own three children in Paris. I believe books should be judged on the basis of what authors intend to do, and how well they achieve their intentions. Using that standard of judgment, I think this is a very good book. Pamela Druckerman takes her readers on an ambitious and thoughtful journey of inquiry into the question of why French parents seem to be able to control their children’s behavior so much better than American (and British) parents, a question that occurred to her as she observed French parents in a seaside restaurant enjoying their meal with theirsmall children, as she and her British husband scrambled miserably, trying in vain to keep their own unruly toddler under control. That curiosity led her to write this book. And while it is essentially only what is promised: a somewhat limited and personal perspective on French parenting, it is also well-written and well-researched, with much valuable “food for thought” for parents to chew on. Druckerman shares more than just her own personal observations. She has done a fair amount of research, interviewing a French pediatrician in Soho, visiting a crèche in Paris, interviewing quite a few parents, both French and American. She shares findings from recent research concerning infant sleep behavior, compares the incidence of childhood obesity in the U.S. and in France, and many other interesting and relevant bits of information. Her research takes her to the center where French childcare workers are trained, and to a meeting at which the menus for Parisian crèches are being discussed. It is all very interesting. Granted, one of the main criticisms leveled at the book and its author is true. It’s a very narrow segment of French society that Druckerman is observing: well-to-do Parisians in just a couple of arrondissements. Still, through the years I have observed parenting in other parts of France and other milieus and I have to say that the way Druckerman describes French parenting is consistent with what I’ve seen elsewhere. Druckerman is evenhanded and essentially noncommittal in assessing how the two cultures measure up comparatively in the end. “I admire a lot about French parenting,” she says. “I’ve tried to absorb the French way of eating, of wielding authority, and of teaching my kids to entertain themselves… But I have a harder time accepting certain parts of the French emphasis on autonomy. Of course I don’t want my kids to be too dependent on me. But what’s the rush?” Thoughtful weighing of the pros and cons of two very different approaches to raising children is what I liked best about the book. I too have wondered how French parents get their children to sit quietly at tables in restaurants for hours on end. (One day when I saw a French grandfather smack a 7-year-old girl who was whining on the street, I thought I knew the answer to my question, and decided I would stick with my less punitive American approach to making my kids behave.) But Druckerman has spent a lot more time with French parents and children than I have, and she says that French children’s remarkable self-control is usually achieved without their parents resorting to physical violence. I believe her. Other reviewers have called attention to the generous government benefits that contribute greatly to the pleasure and comfort of raising children in France, and have commented that if parents (and children) in the U.S. were treated even half as well, we might be much more relaxed and happy about parenting also. This is true: but the wheels of social change move slowly, too slowly to benefit individual children and their parents. While we are working for and awaiting changes in our own government’s approach to childrearing, is there anything American parents could learn from the French way of doing things that would help them raise their children better? While my own personal belief is that the French way can often be too harsh, at least for my very American sensibility, I think so. Pamela Druckerman thought so too, and in Bringing Up Bébé she has shared the insights and knowledge she gained by opening her mind to a different way of doing things. That’s something to celebrate on Mother’s Day. Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher based…
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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).