2012 Reading books parenting reading

Reading 2012: Bringing Up Bébé

March 28, 2012


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. 🙂

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  • Catherine @ A Spirited Mind March 28, 2012 at 11:30 am

    Interesting – I reviewed this book today too. I think Druckerman was really clear that she was comparing a specific sub-set of American parents and a similarly specific subset of French parents. She didn’t really set out to say ALL American parents or ALL French parents are one way or another. Since I think the subset she profiled is fairly commonly represented in American parenting magazines and books (they secular ones anyway) I thought it was very interesting to see how differently upper middle class Parisians parent and to consider how many of my own views are shaped by our culture versus being shaped by the Bible or what actually works.

    We parent somewhat counter-culturally as well, so it also interested me to find that my choices might not be castigated as much in other cultures as they often are in my mostly middle-class peer group here. As with any book, it’s best to take the good and leave the bad, and not rely on any one source for complete understanding as you said!

    • Keren March 29, 2012 at 6:21 pm

      Thanks, Catherine. Yes, interesting–I was scrolling through my Google Reader, and oddly your post and mine were on top of each other, showing the same image of the book. I was confused for a minute! 🙂

      Your comments provide helpful consideration, and I definitely found the book fascinating. And helpful. And thank you for your review, too!

      “I think the subset she profiled is fairly commonly represented in American parenting magazines…” Yes, that is very true; I didn’t think of that in considering the American parenting she describes. (And she even mentioned excerpts from French parenting magazines.) I had to laugh at a recent parenting magazine that told me it was actually okay for kids to play with a little dirt here and there. I think that is indicative of American parenting: that we have to have “an expert” tell us what is okay and what is not before we can figure out if something is acceptable or unacceptable. (Not that we can’t and shouldn’t learn anything from experts.) Whereas among the French, many of their parenting issues (such as the food) are such an important part of and generally understood part of the culture that little thought is given to how it should look vastly different between children and adults. There aren’t manuals on it, they just do it.

      I do think American parenting books are more broad in the variety of views offered (at least, the bookshelf at Barnes & Noble is, and that is what I was thinking of as I read the book), and sometimes it seems that even a good number of “traditional American Christian views” seem to stem from our culture, though they me be spiritualized or presented in a slightly different light. (I see this more and more as I study family life in other cultures.)

  • Erika March 28, 2012 at 11:53 am

    I’d heard a lot about this book, and just finished reading it, as well. I have to admit that I probably came away from it with a less favorable impression than yours.

    I’m afraid that her view of French parenting is pretty exaggerated and misrepresentative. She must have not been to the parks in Paris that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen plenty of Frenchies have temper tantrums, lots of moms yelling at their kids in public, and lots of the French mommies I know spend very little time with their kids. And kids throwing food? Um, yeah. At the same time, I know plenty of French moms who breastfeed, babywear, and cosleep with their babies…and don’t feel guilty, that is true. 🙂

    There are some great things, though, about motherhood in France. The maternity leave is much longer, and there’s a lot of emphasis on helping mothers recover.

    • Erika March 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm

      I should also add that the breastfeeding, babywearing, cosleeping moms are actually the ones I know whose children are more like the ones described by the book, too.

      Overall, I think that the writing style and the exaggeration and hype is what is actually going to sell this book. No one’s going to read a real sociology book with such excitement as they’d read something like this. But, as an American mom (who doesn’t parent like normal Americans, either) who had kids in France, I felt bashed on every side by the book. And I felt like I don’t want my boys to grow up to be French adults. I realize what the author is trying to do, but it’s a little over the top.

      People will probably either love the book or hate it. You must be an exception to have fallen somewhere in between.

      • Keren March 29, 2012 at 6:24 pm

        Thanks for the insight, Erika.

  • Mary March 28, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Sounds interesting. I saw a show about this. Just curious, but how do your babies develop well if you don’t do tummy time?? Or if you don’t feed them baby food??

    I’m definitely going to check this out now. Thanks for sharing. But I wasn’t sure if you liked it or not? Did you?

    • Johanna March 29, 2012 at 2:52 pm

      I don’t feed my kids baby food either:)

    • Keren March 29, 2012 at 6:34 pm

      We’ve had our babies sleep on their tummies (making sure their sleeping area is safe and the mattresses are not airtight/waterproof), and they get a lot of neck exercise just from that (and no flat heads, and more soothed tummies). The recommendations on this have gone back and forth over the years, and it will be interesting to hear what recommendations there are in the years to come.

      As for baby food, I’ve been able to breastfeed extendedly (at least, what is considered so within our American culture) and add solids as they’re ready. Our oldest was interested in “food” earlier, around 7-8 months, (and I think part of this was also linked to my unfortunate misuse of scheduling with her, which had me dropping “nursing” prematurely), but we had her go to food she could pick up with her fingers and softer foods, sometimes using yogurt and applesauce when other foods were difficult for her (in full disclosure, she did have a few containers of baby food). With our second daughter, she didn’t start solids regularly until around 12 months, and went straight to eating whatever we were eating at the time. I continued to breastfeed until she was 23 months, but she definitely started eating real food at 12 months. 🙂

      Did I like it? On one place where readers rate books out of 5-stars, I went back and forth between “liked it” and “really liked it.” I eventually settled on “liked it.” There were parts I really, really liked, but I think it was the delivery that drew my overall feeling towards the book down a notch.

  • Johanna March 29, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Oh wow, Where do I even start? First of all, I have not read the book yet but I have been dying to. (We do not have a large budget for books and our library is less than great about getting new books…but I digress).

    I have read a lot of reviews. As someone who lived my entire growing up years in France (1-18) this is very much over generalized. Oh yes, I HAVE seen kids throw temper tantrums. I have seen French moms running around the yard yelling a ttheir kids swinging a spoon at them, etc… (yes, true statement!)

    However, there are things in the culture that are just “expected” and therefore kids just do them and it is no a confrontation/discipline situation. That is something Americans (generalizing again) can learn. For instance, it is no surprise that food and meals are vitally important to the French. It is part of their culture. It always amused me how you could see a child being nothing less than a terror one minute and then sit down at dinner and be perfectly quiet and eat. Lesson to learn? When you have an expectation and are very confident kids will live up to it. In the US (generalizing 🙂 ) everything is up for negotiation.

    I raise my kids counter-cultural. Oh wow… I am amazed how differently I raise my kids. Things that I think everyone thinks about, I get these weird stares, like “why do you care about that?” I love learning from other cultures and I think it is VERY important. I can’t wait to read the book and hopefully I will have more to add.

    As to the Tiger Mother references, yes, I am sure that there are some who do not raise their children like that. (I hope anyway) However, my husband was raised exactly like that. I would read him paragraphs and say “would your mom really say something like that?” and he would say, “of course!” Seriously. I was shocked. It helped me understand how he was raised, a lot about how that affects him as a person now, and obviously helped me understand my MIL culturally. (She is Chinese, if you didn’t know that already).

    And…this is getting way too long. I had no idea you were thinking of moving to France? You need to give me some details 🙂

    • Keren March 29, 2012 at 6:41 pm

      I’m so glad you commented and weighed in on your experiences–I thought of you pretty much the entire time I was reading the book. 🙂 I may be able to loan your ours, and I’d love to hear more of what you think of the book, too.

      The “this is expected” section of the book is one I really appreciated, but failed to elaborate on more here. (Alluded to in the “no” means “no” part.)

      I didn’t realize your husband’s mother was Chinese. Or that that was how he grew up-wow! What a very multi-cultural family you all have. 🙂

  • Erika March 29, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Also, just thought I’d add this. This same author also gifted her husband with a (sexual) “threesome” for his 40th birthday. True to form, she wrote about it. It’s here, citing this as proof.


    Anyway, to me, she seems to delight in the sensational and attention getting. This of course, sells her book, and I think too many readers are not seeing this. It definitely doesn’t help raise my respect for her. Her book prior to this one on French parenting was on infidelity, though she claims to have a very monogamous marriage.

    So yeah, that bit of knowledge does not help with my impression of the book, the author, or her qualifications to be writing on family or parenting.

  • Shelley August 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm


    I saw this book on your blog awhile back and now, after a long library hold wait, I am finally reading it! I never considered how many of my “biblical” ideas of parenting were strongly influenced by American ideas– some, not so good. This has sparked a curiosity in my head about other cultures and family life- do you have any book recommendations? Thanks!

    • Keren August 9, 2012 at 12:48 am

      Shelley, glad you are enjoying the book. And I agree that much of what we call “biblical” is actually cultural, though this extends to much more than parenting. (I found a helpful quote and wrote some thoughts on this in this post: “On Christian Ideas and Cultural Ideas.”

      I am currently reading through Women in the Material World, which is a sort of anthropological photo-essay on the lives of women around the world. It’s a companion book to Material World: A Global Family Portrait. It shows pictures (and some text) of family life in 30 different countries. It won’t give you as in-depth of a picture as a book that focuses solely on one culture, but I think it does show a good bit of the way things are done.

      Family life in various cultures shows up in a variety of books as casual references, and is a area of study that fascinates me. But I would love to read more books that have this as their main theme, too!