Book Review: Bringing Up Bébé

Bringing Up BébéBringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French ParentingBook Review: Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman

I loved this take on what an American raising her children in Paris sees as the differences between French and American parenting.

No, I don’t believe that everything the French do is perfect, and everything the Americans do is wrong wrong wrong. But I do think that there’s always a lot to be gained by considering how other cultures handle things.

I think Druckerman makes some claims about “French” versus “American” that are really more “Parisian” versus “Manhattan” so it doesn’t completely translate if you’re not raising your child according to some of the conventions of upper middle class New York. She may be a journalist, but this isn’t an extensively researched sociological study of parenting differences. It’s her perspective, almost entirely based on the parents she sees and knows in Paris and New York.

I also think she minimizes several aspects to French parenting that make raising children a lot simpler, and also make it harder (if not impossible) to implement French methods in American culture. The social support system there is dramatically different, as is the overall emphasis placed on certain things (such as food and not snacking between meals). Just the fact that virtually everyone your child comes into contact with has the same expectations for behavior makes a difference – you end up having your standards reinforced everywhere. That doesn’t happen here.

Some of the “shocking ideas!!” that Druckerman relates strike me as not so shocking at all, and are things that I see parents I know doing. Maybe that’s the Manhattan vs. the South or Midwest showing? I know plenty of families that recognize that the parents are the authority figures, and the children aren’t in charge. Sure I know some families where the kids run things, but it’s nowhere near the universal thing Druckerman seems to indicate it is in the U.S.

In addition, I know families that do a great job of establishing the frame that she extols – a firm structure of boundaries, within which a child has a great deal of freedom. I’ve read about the concept in American parenting books, so I’m not sure why she describes it as such a revolutionary idea. I wonder if it’s perhaps that in France, the frame for most families ends up being pretty similar.

The book is also skews towards the personal-experiences side versus sociological study in that, in addition to mostly discussing middle- to upper-middle-class Parisian parenting, it also mostly discusses parenting babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. Her oldest is ready to begin kindergarten when the book end, and while some of the French parents she mentions have older children, her focus barely touches on anything after preschool.

That seems like a HUGE issue missing from the book, because most of the criticisms I know of relating to growing up in France have to do with the school system, which can be incredibly harsh and critical. Druckerman hints at that in a couple of paragraphs, that grading is challenging and it’s rare for students to be praised. My own anecdotal experience from friends and family who have experienced it says it goes way beyond that.

One section describes dining habits – one of the main areas where I think French parenting is better than American. Kids eat what the family eats. They eat a wide variety. They don’t snack outside of one set time after school. Food is obviously important to them, but it doesn’t become the centerpiece for every single event , no matter what time, like it seems to here. Druckerman briefly discusses this in contrast with American habits, and describes how even toddlers eat four-course meals every day at their daycare centers.

(Since this is only one small aspect of her book, there aren’t a ton of details provided, but if you’re interested in more, Karen le Billion wrote an entire book, French Kids Eat EverythingFrench Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen le Billion, about French food culture relating to children, and it’s an excellent look at it from an American perspective. If you’re at all interested in this aspect of French parenting, I’d highly recommend it.)

I didn’t love the book because I thought that I should be doing everything in it. I loved it because it got me thinking about why I parent the way I do, and what ideas can I take from another culture and adapt to our own situation. I don’t think any one culture has all the answers, but I think there is a lot to be gained by thinking through how we do things, and if there are better ways, both for short term benefits, and the long term results.

Publisher’s Description:
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.

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Book Details

Title: Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French ParentingBook Review: Bringing Up Bébé
Author: Pamela Druckerman
Category: Nonfiction / Parenting
Length: 304 pages
My Rating: 4 Stars

Comments

  1. Your description is pretty much what I thought this book would be like, which is why I’ve given it a pass even though I’m a bit of a Euro-phile and I’m in the little-kid parenting phase. I think living in Spain for a year when I was in college de-romanticized a lot of European-envy for me — they have their own set of problems, for sure! I completely agree about the food thing though. We are very much a “kids eat what the parents eat” family (although sometimes the kids eat a deconstructed version), and my MIL was giving us a hard time about it over Thanksgiving. Why would she prefer to only feed the kids mac & cheese, etc., when our 3 yr old willing eats a good variety of food? Argh…

    • I never understand that, when people WANT to feed them a more limited diet. Mostly I get compliments about the variety of food my toddler will eat…but I guess some people are just crazy.

  2. The book sounds interesting. Thanks for the review! I might give it a read even though I’m no longer parenting a toddler. Just for the sake of getting a perspective on yet another two ways of raising kids – Parisian and Manhattan. Just as you say – to get me thinking of what I’ve been doing and what other ways there are to do it 🙂

  3. I read this book when I was pregnant with my second and had a similar overall opinion as what you’ve written here. My first kid had a lot of food issues her first year, and we saw several nutritionists who recommended Ellen Satter’s books (Feeding with Love and Good Sense, and How to Get Your Kids to Eat but Not Too Much). Satter’s feeding approach is actually quite similar to the French approach … family meals, set mealtimes, etc. So the French approach really connects with what’s recommended (if not always practiced) in this country.

    The other thing I took from the book was the idea of “the pause” when it comes to infant sleeping. Without doing it deliberately, I found myself “pausing” before getting my second baby when she stirred and realized that it was this book that gave me that idea! She didn’t sleep through the night as early as the French babies in the book, but she sure slept longer stretches faster than my first did, and transitioned to her crib better as well!

  4. Wonderful review. This book has been on my TBR list, because I like books that compare two cultures on a particular topic. I am disappointed to hear that the focus of the book is on personal experience and not research. I will probably read this book at some point, but not anytime soon.

  5. Your review echoes my own thoughts on the book. It was interesting to read it in conjunction with French Kids Eat Everything, because le Billion’s husband is French and she mentions several times his criticisms of French child-rearing–that, after all, he left France and moved to Canada because he disagreed with a lot of French ideas (I think mostly having to do with schooling–clearly he agreed with the food aspect).

    I definitely agree that upper middle class Manhattan parenting is not all that like lower middle class Midwestern parenting, and most of the parents I know have problems with the same issues Druckerman discusses (that was another interesting contrast with FKEE, since the le Billion’s lived in rural France, not Paris). I agree that the main difference, and what makes it seem so revolutionary to Druckerman probably, is that EVERYONE has the same standards, and so the “frame” is enforced everywhere you go, which is completely impossible here unless you are with your child and running interference for him every minute–which would bring its own set of problems.

    I loved it for being thought-provoking and for showing insight into how two different cultures (Paris and Manhattan, as you say) practice parenting, but I’m not a Francophile and I don’t see it as an instruction manual at all. I did like that Druckerman pointed out at least a few French parenting practices that she disagreed with, such as how French mothers rarely breastfeed, and certainly not for longer than six months or so.

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