As an American living in Paris, Pamela Druckerman took great fascination in observing the French people and their differences compared to Americans. When she entered the season of motherhood during her time living in Paris, such observations and comparisons took on particular and personal interest. She details them and chronicles her journey in Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.
The table of contents delivers clever chapter titles, but doesn’t necessarily define the flow of the book:
- Chapter 1: are you waiting for a child?
- Chapter 2: paris is burping
- Chapter 3: doing her nights
- Chapter 4: wait!
- Chapter 5: tiny little humans
- Chapter 6: day care?
- Chapter 7: bébé au lait
- Chapter 8: the perfect mother doesn’t exist
- Chapter 9: caca boudin
- Chapter 10: double entendre
- Chapter 11: i adore this baguette
- Chapter 12: you just have to taste it
- Chapter 13: it’s me who decides
- Chapter 14: let him live his life
I went into this book with high hopes. I am an anthropology enthusiast, particularly when it reflects family and home life of other cultures. I think it’s helpful to see a global picture of family life as we consider our own cultural presuppositions and lenses. Beyond that, our family had briefly entertained the option of living in France this past year and having our third child in France (obviously that didn’t come to pass); and I often feel like, in some ways, we raise our children slightly differently than what’s considered “the norm” in America. (Like the French parents portrayed here, I don’t get stressed out and “do tummy time,” I don’t start my babies on cereal or baby food, and I don’t just feed my kids chicken nuggets and Kool-Aid. At the same time, I did, uh, keep some of the baby weight, I do breastfeed extendedly, and I am a stay-at-home mom.)
Druckerman writes in a light, witty style, which can be both good and bad. As to the good, many will find her writing style entertaining, conversational, and funny. As for the bad, most of her analysis relies heavily on anecdotes and personal experience, rather than official data or research, and her tone may come across as condescending toward both cultures.
She begins the book by portraying her ideas of the French parent and the American parent. From her observation, French parents are relaxed and carefree, their babies sleep through the night by 3 months without making them cry it out, the mothers return to work having lost all their baby weight, don’t feel like they need to breastfeed, their children don’t throw temper tantrums, and the children begin eating four-course meals before age one. Contrast that with American parenting, where American parents are always stressed out, babies either wake up through the night past age one or are forced to cry it out, American mothers pack on the fat, obsess about breastfeeding, their children are spoiled brats, and American children are picky eaters. French mothers put their children in state-sponsored daycares and actually look forward to it, while American mothers either are hovering stay-at-home moms or go back to work feeling guilty. French parents also get the luxury of taking their children to the park without ever having to play or interact with their children. Instead, they enjoy their adult conversation the entire time.
While I believe some of these aspects may be true, I believe the author fails to look at a full sample of either American or French parenting, and chooses to see the good in French parenting (from her perspective of what good parenting is) and the bad in American parenting in her comparison. For the American style of parenting that she portrays throughout her book, it seems like she is look at a thin representation of American parents, specifically those from upper-middle-class, white Americans from New York City, and for French parenting, it seems like she is again looking at the more middle-class parents, although this time from Paris.
There are other questions to ask. We can’t just stop at, “Wow! what perfect, stress-free children” and assume that’s the final product of French parenting. Druckerman seems to love French children, but often comments on the French adults in a way that leaves me thinking she finds them snobbish, self-centered, rude, and annoying. French children become French adults, and likely their childhood upbringing plays a role in their adulthood if both share such universal traits. Of course, I think it is an overgeneralization to think French adults are all snobbish and stuck up. But then, I think much of this book is built on overgeneralizations and oversimplifications.
Additionally, is it the mark of good parenting really to be able to live a stress-free life, pursuing your own interests, and not to need to interact with your children? I certainly believe that American parenting (in some sectors) does tend to have issues with what is referred to as helicopter parenting, but the solution might not be to send children to daycare for 10 hours a day. And even with helicopter parenting, the problem seems to be more with hyper-scheduling and obsessive micromanagement than it is with a parent who spends time with their child building deep and true relationships. As Christians, we need to realize that parenting is not our highest calling, but it is nonetheless a very important one for those of us with children.
Don’t Throw the Bébé out with the Bathwater
There is still a lot of helpful information for consideration. If you’re interested in sociology, you’ll likely enjoy parts of this book. There is a lot that can be said for the way Druckerman portrays the more relaxed state of the French parent and for the way in which she portrays them as calmly interacting with their children. She also portrays the French as having a better understanding of childhood development in many areas, which itself is helpful information on child development.
American parents tend to be more individualistic, while the French do seem to be more group-oriented in the way they raise their children, both in including extended family and believing the state plays a large role in bringing up children. They also all have a general and unified understanding of what parenting looks like, while American parenting styles can vary widely. (So, in the case of the French, what I perceived as overgeneralizations may actually be an accurate depiction of the average parent. Although, the author does say that outside of Paris, “French parenting” is slightly different in some ways.)
Druckerman also speaks of American parents valorizing guilt; whereas, if French parents do feel guilty, they aren’t always airing it in front of the rest of the world. (This seems true in my observation, and sometimes I almost feel guilty for not expressing that I feel guilty more often and more publicly. )
There are also lots of helpful tips that parents may pick up on as they read, from teaching young children to enjoy different types of foods to teaching a child that “no” means “no.” Some, of course, are just common sense.
Druckerman also shares her experience of raising her own children in Paris (only through early childhood), along with her British husband. She gave birth twice in Paris: first to her singleton oldest daughter, and then to twins. By the end of the book, her tone is softer toward both parenting cultures, and she seems to adapt elements from both French and American styles of parenting as she parents her children in Paris.
If you want to have a fuller picture of parenting around the globe, though, don’t just read this book and don’t just read books by Americans and think you have an accurate picture of parenting in a certain country or region. (It would really be quite silly to think the Chinese are all “tiger mothers,” and the French all are calm, relaxed, and love-food-but-are-skinny.) It’s often easy to project our own ideas of what parenting should (or shouldn’t) be when writing or reading about parenting in other cultures. For a fuller picture, it would be helpful to look at books written specifically as anthropology books or at ethnographies, to watch videos, and to actually live in and interact with other cultures.
Readers would also be wise to make the distinction that this is a book about parenting (at least the author’s view of how it exists in Paris), not a book on how to parent. That, of course, doesn’t mean there isn’t instructive help along the way. Take it with a grain of salt. And maybe a with a bite or two of pain au chocolat.
So, friends that were raised in France by American parents (or vice versa), I’ll leave it to you to give me feedback as to whether or not the book accurately portrays French parenting.