Parenting (and schooling) wisdom from the French

Bringing Up BebeThis week, a friend loaned me her copy of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. And like her, I managed to devour the entire thing in two days. It’s one of those books you just can’t put down, and I couldn’t wait to write a review of it.

Bringing Up Bébé is blowing up the bestseller lists right now; chances are you’ve already heard quite a bit about it. It’s a memoir published by Penguin Press, so undoubtedly Bringing Up Bebe was intended to follow the path of their previous successes Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (ehhh) and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (loved it). Bringing Up Bébé incorporates the careful reflections of a transplanted American that Elizabeth Gilbert’s and Amy Chua’s readers will be familiar with, and includes Chua-style, painfully honest disclosures about the challenges of raising kids.

The author of Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman, is a New Yorker who moves to Paris with her husband. She notices some extreme differences between American and French parenting styles (or, to be more accurate, upper-class New York and upper-class Parisian parenting styles, as the author writes mostly about her wealthy urban social circle.) Druckerman observes French children sitting calmly in cafes with their parents, eating sophisticated dishes and exhibiting proper table manners. When she has her first child, Druckerman is further astounded to learn that French babies typically learn to sleep through the night by the age of 3 months. Her French friends have children AND an active social life, private life, and romantic marriages. Her American friends are exhausted from making every second of their lives revolve around the kids. And so Druckerman seeks out the differences in parenting styles and attempts to model her own parenting after the techniques she learns in Paris. The book is a nice blend of research, personal stories, humor, and general cultural reflections.

Druckerman is a very good writer, but I was surprised to realize halfway through the book that she and her family members are portrayed as rather unlikeable. She micromanages and nags her husband (who is not particularly involved and dreads coming home from work to her and the kids) and has a complete inability to say “no” to her children with any sort of confidence. I literally smacked my head at one point when her five-year-old daughter chastised Druckerman for not being able to convince the younger sons to climb into their stroller: in exasperation, the daughter instructed her mom to “Just say one, two, three” like the teachers at school do. I was sympathetic at first, but Druckerman’s full time job was to research parenting techniques for the book: she had around-the-clock nanny care for her kids and free high-quality preschool available from the age of six months, plus everyone she talked to for years both modeled how to command authority and explained it explicitly to her. The fact that she struggled to attempt something as simple as the “big eyes” (also known as the “teacher look”) when a child misbehaves was just plain depressing at times.

However, Druckerman is nothing if not honest, which is what makes the book such a compelling read. She doesn’t overshare, and yet is brutally forthright about both her personal shortcomings and those of American parenting styles. She’s been criticized for fawning over the French and romanticizing their way of life, but I found her assessment of American life to be extremely accurate and therefore I take her word on the French norms, as well. Much of the backlash against this book seems to stem from people who see the book as an affront to capitalism, or people who have knee-jerk reactions to anything that paints Americans in a less-than-ideal picture. A book review on the Forbes website is titled “Bringing Up Bébé? No, Thanks, I’d Rather Raise a Billionaire.”

Many of those who dislike the book seem oblivious to things that (to me) are obviously not working in American society. Americans, in general, think that busier is better, and many children’s lives are just as over-scheduled as their parents’. Often upper class parents have a fantasy of control, dictating how every moment of their child’s life is spent, and shielding them from any discomfort or unpleasantness. Additionally, compared to the French, our vacation time and maternity leave is short and our work days are long. These societal norms send an unspoken message that money is more important than family time and quality of life. We rush our students to hit developmental milestones, teaching babies to read and kindergarteners to solve math problems in workbook page after workbook page. There is little time in our culture for children or adults to just be, to breathe, to relax.

By contrast, the French believe in enjoying the small pleasures in life, and they place a great priority on teaching their children to savor and enjoy experiences like good food and conversation over a leisurely meal together. Druckerman writes that children enter preschool as infants, but don’t begin formal academic learning until the age of 7, as the French believe that the years of childhood are short and should be enjoyed. Early childhood education consists of play, socialization, and allowing students to “awaken” and discover their world for themselves. Autonomy is highly valued, as children are respected as individuals and expected to show the same respect for adults’ unique needs and personalities. Druckerman present French parenting as free from the constant “mommy guilt” that Americans feel and the incessant worry that the approach you chose for raising and disciplining your kids will turn out to scar them for life.

In French parenting (and there is basically only one way that parenting is done, as opposed to in the U.S. where every “expert” claims a different approach), there is a basic cadré, or framework. Druckerman explains that the cadré gives children structure and security. There are set mealtimes and bed times and basic rules and manners which must be followed. But the cadré is firm on only these few crucial areas, giving children much freedom and liberty to blossom within the framework in their own ways. This perspective is freeing for the parent–who is not pressured to hover over the child and narrate or praise every move the little one makes–as well as for the child, who learns to play independently and develop an identity, preferences, and friendships apart from the parent.

The book is filled with examples of how this plays out in practical situations, each one more compelling than the previous. Instead of saying “Don’t hit him!” French parents speak in terms of rights (“You don’t have the right to hit him.”) Druckerman writes on page 229,”This is more than a semantic difference. It feels different to say it this way. The French phrasing suggests there is a fixed and coherent system of rights, which both children and adults can refer to. It also makes clear that the child does have the right to do other things.” Another common phrase is “I don’t agree,” as in, “I don’t agree with you pitching those peas on the floor,” said in a serious, firm tone. This, Druckerman writes, “establishes the adult as another mind, which the child must consider. And it credits the child with having his own view about the peas, even if this view is being overruled. Pitching the peas is cast as something the child rationally decided to do, so he can decide to do otherwise, tooo.”

The list of fascinating French cultural norms is endless: students as young as age five go on 8 day school trips with their teachers each year; children eat only at four set times of day (no baggies of Cheerios on the playground); gourmet meals are served in schools to help develop childrens’ palates; infants are spoken to in complete, rational sentences and are believed to understand the words spoken; schools are closed for 2 week mid-term breaks in which parents regularly send their children off to stay with relatives while they themselves travel, work, or just enjoy their time to themselves.

The lifestyle of both the French parent and the young French child sounds enjoyable and sustainable. And yet the very little bit of information Druckerman gives about French primary and secondary schools (the book ends when her oldest child is just entering the formal schooling system) is disturbing. She paints a picture of a school system which is the opposite of American schools in which children are often over-praised: French teachers are notoriously tough and never grade on a curve. Their standards are high and they see their job as pointing out what is wrong rather than what is right. They dislike communicating with parents unless there is a problem. Based on the grim description in the book, French schools beyond preschool don’t sound like any place I’d like to teach, much less send my own child. I’m curious to learn more about the realities of schooling there.

My love for this book doesn’t stem from a complete agreement with the French approach to child discipline, although I was nodding my head at nearly every principle shared. Nor does it mean that I believe every word Druckerman says about French culture. Rather, I love this book because almost every single page gave me pause. It made me think about my own views on child development, parenting, and schooling in entirely new ways. It reinforced beliefs I held intuitively and challenged me to consider cultural norms that don’t serve us or our children well. Bringing Up Bébé, for me, was that perfect elusive combination: an easy, enjoyable read that made me think and left me with more questions than when I started.

Anyone else read Bringing Up Bébé? What are your thoughts on the book?

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Nicole March 16, 2012 at 1:34 am

I believe in the ideas expresses in the said book. However, we also have a culture divide to consider if French parenting will be used by Americans parents. For me, the best way is to assimilate those things that are possible and try to maintain the good point of American parenting.

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