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Bringing Up Bebe - One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

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Bringing Up Bebe
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When I review a parenting book for this site I'm looking at two things: 1) what advice can parents (and specifically parents of toddlers) take away from it and 2) how engaging is it -- after all, our time is limited, and I don't think any parent wants to be bored, preached to, or made to feel that the reading is drudgery. Reviewing Bringing Up Bebe according to these measures I can summarize briefly:
  1. This book is extremely thin on practical and actionable advice. Pulling out the valuable parts, Druckerman could have written an 800-word essay on sleep training and saying no and been done with it.
  2. As for engaging: Well, let's just say that if I hadn't promised to write a review of the book on my blog I would have stopped reading at page 30.
Page 30 is where, in the course of six sentences, Druckerman goes from saying that French women don't define you based on how you give birth (naturally or with pain medicine) to saying that French women believe nonepidural births are only for "crazy" Americans. It's only chapter 2, but it's not the first contradiction nor the first judgment of American parents that Druckerman throws out unchallenged. Already, the purpose of this book seems to be: bring down Americans at all costs, even if it means resorting to caricatures and sweeping generalizations.
It's a shame, because, in addition to that 800-word essay Druckerman could have written on French parenting, she has the potential here to create a fun memoir about an expatriate navigating life in Paris with young children. Instead, this accomplished journalist and author creates a rambling diatribe that harks back to the mommy-against-mommy mentally I had hoped we were finally moving past.

To be clear, the problems I had with the book aren't directly related to French parenting techniques. Yes, there are several French practices Druckerman describes that I personally oppose, but that wouldn't make me give a book a bad rating. I am more objective than that.

Besides, some of the French practices I immediately wanted to adopt. For instance, she describes how French parents talk to their children from infancy as if they are actual people. Pediatricians and parents firmly believe that even young babies will understand what you are saying. So one night, faced with a tantrumming toddler who doesn't want to sleep, I try it. I explain to my Little Guy that he needs to go to sleep so mommy can get rest before she has to work the next day. I have great doubts that my 15-month-old comprehends the reasoning, but I find that it makes me much calmer to talk rationally to him (versus what I might have done otherwise: beg him, "Go to sleep," or ask, "What? What is it that you want?"). Calm mommy makes for a clam baby. Little Guy settles down fairly quickly and sleeps wonderfully (coincident or not) that night.

There are other parenting techniques that Druckerman describes that I also admire: saying "no," asserting that you are the decision maker, and pausing before you pick up a crying toddler, for instance. Of course, many of these ideas aren't uniquely French. Druckerman praises how French parents and chefs encourage good eating habits, but it sounds a lot like the 50-exposure rule advocated by American cooks and authors. Druckerman admits that these French parenting "secrets" aren't all new ideas, but she credits the French approach for their success in raising a nation of good sleepers, good eaters, and well-behaved children. So I guess to accept the book's theme that French parents are especially wise, you have to believe America is a nation of parents who can't get their kids to sleep, only feed tots "kiddie" food, and condone gross misbehavior in children.

Druckman cites studies that back up some of these American parenting "fails," but many of her accusations have no scientific base. In fact, to back up some of her main arguments about the superiority of the French way she throws out bias generalizations that make it seem as if everything she knows about American families she learned from reality TV and YouTube videos. Even in instances when she reports first-hand observations of U.S. moms and dads in action, she makes sweeping assumptions that these individuals represent the majority of American parents and judges those behaviors as wrong.

So we have statements such as

  • "…French kids rarely whine or collapse into tantrums —- or at least do so less often than American kids..." (p. 61) I don't know how anyone could make a blanket comparison like that.
  • “We're [Americans] so concerned about cognitive development that we're forgetting to ask whether children in day care are happy and whether it's a positive experience for them." (p. 115) As a mother who has had children in day care, I can tell you that is pretty much all moms I know in the same situation think about: is my child happy and well-cared for?
  • "I frequently hear American stay-at-home mothers say they never use babysitters because they consider all child care to be their job." (p. 130; emphasis the auhtor’s). Druckerman assumes her limited experience reflects the opinion of the larger U.S. population. There's no basis for that belief. However, even if this is the mass sentiment of American SAHM, why does the author belittle it? The leap she makes is that if you spend too much time caring for your kids you can't be a sexy French-style mom. I know some pretty sexy moms who disprove that point, and I know a whole other group of moms who don't really care about achieving French levels of sex appeal; they're proud to be the only caregiver.
  • "...[W]e [Anglophones] all know that our breastfeeding 'number' is a concrete way to compete with one another." There is definitely a small subgroup of women who feel competitive about breastfeeding. But "all"?
  • "American kids often seem to get away with hitting their parents, even though they know they're not supposed to." (p. 255) This unsubstantiated statement is made to shine a light on French parents' ability to maintain strict discipline among their children (although Druckerman is careful to point out, continuously, that the French don't consider it discipline, just education).
And the list goes on.

There are some French practices that Druckerman chooses to reject. She breastfeeds despite the severe pressure around her not to. She struggles with the practice of warning children about rapporter contre. But, unlike when she is critiquing American methods, Druckerman refrains from judging French practices that she rejects. She cites research about the outstanding health of French children despite the fact that the vast majority are not breastfed or not breastfed for long. She explains her reason for nursing as "panic." She never probes, like the trained journalist she is, to consider the simple concept that the nation's children might even be healthier if more breast milk were flowing. And despite the fact that she continues to nurse her daughter, she makes it sound like the French are right and she is wrong for subjecting herself to "torture" and "suffering."

Even in instances where the French approach seems to put children in danger, Druckerman reserves opinion. The instance where this is most troubling is when she describes a parent who follows the French tradition of teaching children never to tell on another (rapporter contre). She tells of an incident among her acquaintances: a young boy sees someone light a firecracker at school; the (American) mother urges him to report the other boy. His French father advises him "to consider the other boy’s popularity and whether he could beat Adrien [the witness] up." Perhaps bullying isn't a concern in France, but Druckerman's background should make her very aware of how dangerous this rationale can be. Yet, she reports without comment.

Compare that to how she reacts to parents in Park Slope who try to entice their son to eat parsley for a snack. Druckerman freely criticizes this. Did she ever consider that maybe this kid had a urinary tract infection and the parsley was a homeopathic cure? There's no proof of that, of course, but there's also no proof that these parents were trying to "override basic sensory experiences" (p. 212).

In the midst of these judgmental jabs, there is a bigger reason why I found this book so uninspiring: You never see Druckerman enjoying her children. She does tell us how proud she is when they impress Americans with their French manners, and there's great elation when the three kids sit sage at a restaurant table and allow her and her husband to enjoy a cup of coffee. But conspicuously lacking in this parenting memoir are moments in which we see her family enjoying time together. There are no giggles, no family jokes, and certainly no shared play time. If Druckerman's account is accurate, it seems the French never play with their children, and she is eager to imitate them. No more building LEGO forts for her!

It's actually painful to peek at adult-child moments in this book. The child is always expected to imitate the parent. But the parent never gets a chance to be silly or take a ride down the playground slide with her tot. Manners taught, at a young age are great, but I want to tell moms in Paris (and Druckerman) that by skipping playtime with their kids they are missing some good times!

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
User Reviews

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 5 out of 5
French and American Parents, Member drmaquita

An excellent review. I am a American pediatrician living in the south of France and have acquaintances in Paris who know the author and who recommended this book to me. It represents the views of upper class Parisians, and is justly and well criticized in the review. My experience is with the more typical French parents. To me a striking difference between French and American parents is that few French parents believe that their children are always right, particularly in relation to teachers and school. It is the school as well as the parents who teach children how to eat, how not to throw food, how not to fight and how to behave as members of society, and there is agreement between the parents and teachers. Children in France do misbehave and throw food, but they do not have adult models for screaming, fighting and having temper tantrums. When French children do these things, an adult teacher, parent or cafeteria helper speaks to them calmly and quietly and they are placed in a corner until they are calm. This way they learn appropriate behavior. The reviewer commented on how speaking to her child calmly as an adult worked for her. Yelling at or hitting a child who is misbehaving presents the wrong role model. Giving in is the wrong message. Respect for teachers was the rule when I was growing up in the US, and we learned to behave at home, at school and in public. My mother told me: ""your teacher may be wrong, but there is only one teacher and 25 students, so learn to do well in this and in any environment. It is my job to support your teacher and to help you learn how to cope with difficult situations."" A trend not mentioned in the review is the new era of American Helicopter moms. American college students studying here have parents who call professors to complain about their children's grades, or other minor problems with living arrangements. French university professors are amazed at the immaturity and lack of personal responsibility exhibited by many American students. The reviewer's point about playing with and having fun with children is an excellent one. French mothers have so much more support than American mothers: free nursery school, 6 months paid and another 6 months half paid maternity leave, financial support for staying home until the child is in high school, grandparents who are paid to retire at 60 and expected to care for their grandchildren whenever needed, including full summer holidays. With that, it might be easier to stay calm. French mothers are very loving with their young children, holding, kissing, speaking softly to them in public much more so than American mothers I see, but they are not as likely to play the way described in the review. There is a high rate of adult depression in France. Maybe this is one of the causes. But there is a high rate of depression in American children now. Maybe the lack of responsibility and independence contributes to that. Without responsibility and independence as well as love, how does a person learn to love and respect him or her self.

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