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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