The Effect of Culture on Parenting (or A Review of Bringing Up Bébé)

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman is a humorous, enjoyable account of an American’s view of French parenting.

Druckerman lives in Paris with her British husband. When her first child is born, she describes herself as a frantic mom. An earth-shattering revelation dawns on her while sitting in a French restaurant. She observes that all the French kids sitting in the restaurant are quietly eating while she and her husband can hardly contain their daughter in her high chair. And so begins her quest for why French parenting is different.

I personally did not get the impression that she approached her book as someone that had been admiring French parenting for a time, who then decided to write a book. Rather, I got the feeling that she was a frantic mom, noticed that the moms around her did not appear frantic, and, voila, what a great book idea! She is a journalist after all. One needs only look at Amazon and type in either “French” or “parenting” in the search engines to know that a book combining the two is sure to be popular.

One very obvious flaw is that she sticks to upper middle class Parisians for her French examples. While she did expand a little more for her American examples, she focused primarily on Manhattan, NY. I don’t think I need to tell you that it is generalizing things much by focusing only on a small group of Parisians to base French parenting on. Druckerman briefly acknowledges that parenting would be a little different in other parts of the country in a discussion on breastfeeding. She acknowledges that more mothers outside of Paris breastfeed, but of course, she did not include them in her research for the book.

While Druckerman touched on other subjects, the bulk of her book focused on greetings, eating, schooling (specifically daycare), and authority. Much of the French parenting she speaks of has more to do with the overarching culture than the individual philosophy of parents. I wish I could explain all of these in light of the culture, but for the sake of length, I will use only the example of greetings to explain what I mean.

Greetings: She talks at length about how French parents expect their children to say “hello” and “goodbye” (right along with “please” and “thank you”), and yet she never references la bise. I simply found that interesting. Taking the larger culture into light, greetings are an important part of politesse in France. It is much easier to expect your child to give proper greetings when the whole room is doing it. It is expected, it is normal, the child does it.

Why is this more difficult for American parents? I think that is a little more difficult in our culture, because when we walk into a room, we just casually say “hi” and keep talking. Suddenly, we might remember to make our child say “hello,” and we are faced with a dilemma. Should we stop and tell them to say “hello” and risk the scene of defiance, or do we just hope no one notices that they did not greet them? There is no accepted norm of how people greet in America. Children are left to the whim of the adult at that moment to know if they are going to be forced to say a proper “hello” and “good bye”. In France when you walk into a home, everyone greets you. Children and adults alike all give the appropriate bise or handshake. It is just what you do. Ultimately, it is just a habit of politesse, not a battle each time there is a greeting.

Much of the time I was nodding and smiling throughout the book. She relayed scenes that I could completely picture having grown up in France: the greetings, children sitting at the table eating exquisite food, the 4 o’clock snack that everyone takes, and the school lunches. I enjoyed her examples of French parenting magazines, and how they differed from those here in the US. And I especially loved how she tied in some of the thoughts of the French philosophers. Her account of sitting through the meeting of chefs discussing the menu for the day cares (ages 0-2) made me smile in understanding. Only in France would you have such an animated and lengthy discussion about what vegetables, colors, and variety needed to be included in the menu for one-year-old’s. You can see an example of school lunch menus here. The French love their food, and they are determined to teach their children to love it too!

What one has to remember, though, is that this is France, and with it comes a whole structure of life that is different from ours because of socialism. Women get automatic maternity leaves, day care is free, and the government, by way of the school, is as important in raising children as the parents. It is impossible to have a dichotomy between the culture and their parenting. Because, for all of us, culture does affect our parenting.

I enjoyed her book. Her light, witty style was engaging. I think there is great value in reading about other cultures, because there is always something to glean from them. However, it is important not to take one book like this, and believe that you truly have a handle on a certain culture’s parenting style. In fact, I suspect that, seeing as Druckerman had only lived there a few years at the time of the printing of the book, she herself will begin to understand the nuances of culture more in the future.

When reading a book like this it would be easy to dismiss everything because of some of the negatives and over generalizations. However, a good reader, will be able to pick out some really helpful things. I thought some of the references to authority and ‘le cadre’ were especially helpful. To state, though, that parents do not yell or demean makes me wonder if she observed enough families. I have certainly seen yelling and belittling of children. Understanding that this is not a how-to parenting book will help you enjoy the book. It is not a manual on parenting. It is, after all, one woman’s perspective on French parenting.

For contrast, this article by Karen Le Billon states why she believes you shouldn’t parent like the French except for one exception. The exception, according to her, is eating. It might be helpful to know that she is also the author of French Kids Eat Everything so that might have some influence. :)

I would love to hear your thoughts. I was not able to cover everything I would have liked, so if you have further questions feel free to ask in the comments.

How does your culture (from as broad as society to as narrow as your church) affect your parenting?

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  1. This looks like such an interesting book. Also would love to thumb through the eating one as well. Eating is defined by culture and unfortunately our culture eats most of its meals in the car. People think it strange when I tell them that we eat dinner together every night. Even our pediatrician. Sad.

    • Johanna says:

      Yes! Eating is definitely one area that is so “obviously” affected by culture. I hope to write more about that..and review that book. Someday.
      I think eating together is SO important. It’s always refreshing to hear of families that are still doing that!

  2. We greet the same way in the Netherlands, including the “air kisses.” I am sure growing up in a different culture makes me parent differently, but right now I can’t think of too many examples. One thing is that my kids always go to bed early. Kids in the Netherlands are in bed by 8 at the latest. Mine are in bed by 7:30 (their ages are 7 and 8). I still sometimes struggle with the (Dutch) mindset that you can’t bring kids to Wednesday night church because it is too late for them.

    • Johanna says:

      Tawnja, I never thought about the fact that growing up in a culture made me think differently about parenting, but as I was reading the book, I thought, well maybe I do think like the French in this. I don’t know, still, if I do, but I found it very interesting what was ‘shocking’ to her and to me it seemed more like common sense.

      And I can totally relate to the bedtime thing. Our kids go to bed at 7. 7:30 is their “late” bedtime for occasional summer nights!

  3. I think consistency is hard in all parenting arenas. It’s hard for us (personally) to be as strict when others we’re hanging out with are way laid back, and vice versa. Church is an interesting scenario because it feels like others are always watching how we handle our kiddos – ESP since daddy is the pastor. 😉

    • Johanna says:

      Oh yes, consistency! I agree…for instance she talks about kids not eating snacks at the playground. Yep, sounds great, but in France there is peer pressue NOT to eat the snack. Here, when everyone else is dishing out the snacks don’t you think your child will want some? :)

      And, I totally get you about the Pastor’s kids thing. I wish it weren’t that way, but I have seen all the time, unfortunately!

  4. I love this. It’s always so interesting to get a peek into someone’s point of view whether it’s through their culture, their experiences, or through their perceptions. It is so interesting to read this book review with your childhood experiences in mind. I’ll have to check it out and add it to my infinitely long list of books that I am working my way through. Thanks for this review, it will give me a lot to think about when I read it.

    • Johanna says:

      “my infinitely long list of books” – yep! I can relate!
      Culture is such a fascinating subject to me!

  5. Thanks for this review!! I’ve been looking forward to your thoughts on it, and really appreciate your perspective on this.

    Like Kerry mentioned in her comment and like you commented, I wonder how big of a role “peer pressure” plays in the way culture plays out into parenting. As a generalized statement, if the entire culture loves food, then certainly it’s much more natural to teach children to love food. (And related to your discussions on habit–how some habits are essentially endemic within certain cultures, both good habits and bad. But they are much easier learned when everyone else is doing them.)

    Oh, and that school menu looks amazing! :)

    • Johanna says:

      Oh, I definitely do. That is why when I was reading the book, I sometimes thought, well of course they do that… they wouldn’t dare not to! And the culture there is very clearly defined and the French are very proud about that.
      I see the peer pressure parenting right now where we live all the time. Sometimes I wonder what is actual belief/conviction about how to parent and what is conviction on that purely because of the peer pressure.
      One good thing about moving a lot is that we have learned to not let a specific church or sub-culture define our parenting…we aren’t there long enough for that to work and the next place will be different. It has forced us to know why we do what we do and then just do it…even if it is counter-culture (both society and more narrow).
      As to the menu–I know! I wish someone would cook like that at my house. 😉

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  7. World's Apart says:

    I was raised in Mexico, but educated in a parroquial school in the United States (grew up crossing an international point of entry daily). The difference in parenting in the U.S. is that this is not a homogenous culture, it’s a melting pot. So when the culture reinforces so many varying, sometimes conflicting, things, it’s confusing to the child, and stressful to the parent. I am raising my children as I was raised in Mexico with the expectation that they stop what they’re doing and say “hello” and “goodbye”, regardless of the audience, and they are doing quite well (the push-back came when they were young and now into the grade school, they just do it). Same with many other things. It’s more work for the parent, and yes, it’s akward at times, but they know that in their case, some things are not optional.

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  1. […] Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman. Read my post on the effect of culture on parenting. […]

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