Bringing Up Bébé
by Pamela Druckerman
From Goodreads: The secret behind France’s astonishingly well-behaved children.
When American journalist Pamela Druckerman has a baby in Paris, she doesn’t aspire to become a “French parent.” French parenting isn’t a known thing, like French fashion or French cheese. Even French parents themselves insist they aren’t doing anything special.
Yet, the 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.
Of course, French parenting wouldn’t be worth talking about if it produced robotic, joyless children. In fact, French kids are just as boisterous, curious, and creative as Americans. They’re just far better behaved and more in command of themselves. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are- by design-toddling around and discovering the world at their own pace.
With a notebook stashed in her diaper bag, Druckerman-a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal-sets out to learn the secrets to raising a society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents. She discovers that French parents are extremely strict about some things and strikingly permissive about others. And she realizes that to be a different kind of parent, you don’t just need a different parenting philosophy. You need a very different view of what a child actually is.
While finding her own firm non, Druckerman discovers that children-including her own-are capable of feats she’d never imagined.
Let me start by saying that I don’t have kids. I don’t want to have kids. I don’t mind kids- I have nieces and nephews and friends with adorable toddlers, but I’m not inclined to procreate just because other people have made some cute children (and don’t try to tell me that I’ll change my mind when I’m older. I am older. My mind hasn’t changed).
But while I don’t have kids, I often wonder why some are well-behaved angels and some are screaming demonspawn that make we want to carry around a crucifix and go all Father Merrin a la The Exorcist on them. I also have a long history of reading memoirs where the writer goes through some major life change and moves to a new country. Because both of these things are addressed in Bringing Up Bébé, I decided to give it a shot and was quickly won over by Druckerman’s story.
After losing her high-stress job as a journalist covering stories in dangerous places, she ends up falling in love with Simon, a British expat living in Paris who convinces her to move in with him. They get married and along comes Baby #1. Druckerman immediately goes into Harried-American-Mom-To-Be mode and does endless research into parenting techniques and trying to figure out the best birth plan while fretting over every bit of food she puts in her mouth. Meanwhile, the expectant French women and other mothers she’s met thinks she’s crazy for everything she’s putting herself through. Sure, a Frenchwoman isn’t going to be smoking or drinking while she’s pregnant, but she’s not going to refuse a bite of cheese any more than she’s going to gorge on cheesecake. As Druckerman looks more closely at French families, she discovers that they are quite different from a lot of American ones.
I will admit now to being baffled by modern parenting. There are so may products and services designed to ‘stimulate baby’s development and intellectual growth’, as well as horrid stigmas against parents who dare to use formula or drop the kids off at daycare. There are parents who get so wrapped up in making sure that the child is constantly learning and stimulated and practicing this or that that the parents forget that they are human beings, too, and that humanity has been raising some pretty good kids for a long, long time without the benefit of baby knee pads or Baby Einstein.
I think back to my childhood and the way my parents raised me (without Baby Einstein! Woah!), and I think my siblings and I turned out pretty well, even if our parents weren’t supervising our every move or ensuring that we couldn’t possibly be injured (I hurt myself when I was a kid A lot. It hurt, but I learned a lot- like not to go around corners on the bicycle so fast so I wouldn’t fall down, or to get my balance before the horse starts moving so I don’t fall off). My parents expected me to get good grades in school, but they weren’t about to send me to some crazy accelerated program so I could do high school and college at the same time. They gave me boundaries, but I had freedom within those boundaries to excel at the things I liked doing, instead of wasting my time and their money on lessons I hated, simply to add another line for my college resume.
This, according to Druckerman’s research, is what makes French parents different from American parents. The French don’t expect to sacrifice everything- time, relationships with other adults, sanity- for their children the way many American seem determined to do. Motherhood, in particular, is neither martyrdom nor a competition for the average French mom. They love their kids and want them to be happy, but they know that raising children is not a competitive sport. They’re not going to win a prize because their child went to the most lessons or learned to read at age three. They accept that even the littlest child is rational, and that things like sleeping through the night, patience, and how to deal with frustration are things that must be learned.
While I found most of the book to be interesting and rather charming, I was frustrated by Druckerman’s confusion regarding much of French parenting. Things like ‘The Pause’, where you wait a few minutes to see if the baby will settle down on her own and go back to sleep and the notion that even little kids will eat all sorts of foods, even if it takes a few tries to get them to eat a new flavor (my friend’s four year-old, for example, has to take a ‘Thank You bite’ of everything on her plate and, more often than not, finishes everything she’s given, which is exactly what the adults at the table are eating). Most of French parenting boils down to common sense- set rules for the children, but understand that they are little and will break those rules sometimes; understand that they are learning everything- including how to sleep and how to deal with the most basic of emotions; understand that if you push a child too hard to excel, they are going to push back at some point. And one of the most important points that many parents don’t want to face– the kids don’t need them around every second of the day.
Again, I thought this was all common sense. It’s what I see my sister and my friends do with their kids, and they’re all turning into wonderful little human beings. Perhaps its a Midwestern thing, where we’re not so exposed to the hothouse environment where you have to go through interviews to get into a public school and everyone’s vying for a spot in the most prestigious colleges. But I suppose I do see that pressure now and then, such as when my teacher friend’s acquaintances trying to guilt her into not taking her four year-old out of daycare during the weeks she had off during summer break (she didn’t take her kid out of daycare. She wanted her child to maintain the structure of daily activities and the friendships her child had with her classmates).
What Bringing Up Bébé seems to boil down to is this: don’t micromanage your children. Give them rules and give them freedom, but don’t try to turn them into child prodigies. No one will be happy with the outcome. And while you’re at it, remember that you have a life, too, and relationships to maintain. Parenthood does not require the sacrifice of your sanity.