“Bringing Up Bebe”: Book Review, Part Two

Stumbling Gracefully is hosting a book club and the book we are currently reviewing is “Bringing Up Bebe,” by Pamela Druckerman.

In Part One, I revealed my own roots as a Francophile and my connections to France.

So, Part Deux: The Review

Pamela Druckerman is an ex-pat who lives in Paris and, like many writers before her, she finds fruitful writing ground in cross-cultural differences. Specifically, she finds her own child-rearing techniques lacking compared to the French parents she meets. She notices that French children behave well in restaurants, sleep through the nights early on and seem to have a politeness and belief in the authority of their parents that her own children and the American children she knows do not. So she sets out to find “the secret” to the way the French raise their children.

In light of the Time Magazine “Mom Enough” controversy and the very real “Mom Wars” currently raging in the US, I’m tempted to say that there IS a secret and that is: there doesn’t seem to be any debate in France at all about how to raise children.

But, let me move on to what Druckerman observes. She first notices that culturally, childbirth is different in France:

“French moms often ask me where I plan to deliver, but never how. They don’t seem to care. In France, the way you give birth doesn’t situate you within a value system or define the sort of parents you will be.”

The national health system there covers Druckerman’s hospital stay for six days. There is not the strong focus on breastfeeding in France either. Most women don’t breastfeed there.

This is explained partially by the state-covered childcare, which Druckerman extols in terms of its quality and availability. With such a system in place, the vast majority of French women return to the workplace: there isn’t the same agonizing of whether to stay home. Staying at home seems to not even interest the vast majority of French parents Druckerman knows.

Druckerman also notices that most French infants begin “doing their nights,” or sleeping through the night, very early: usually beginning at six weeks. Druckerman figures out, after interviewing French parenting authorities and parents alike, that French parents use a method she calls “the pause.” “The pause” essentially means that when a baby cries the parent will “pause” and wait to see if the child can self-soothe and fall asleep quickly on its own before picking the child up.

And with “the pause” begins perhaps the central tenet in French parenting, as Druckerman describes it. “The pause” is an introduction to the key French concept of delaying gratification. They teach children to wait before eating dessert, to wait before rejecting food they haven’t tried and to wait for their parents to finish talking before they chime in. That’s not to say they are not tuned in to their children: part of what Druckerman observes is that French parents are very attuned and listen to what their children say. They just don’t necessarily give in to what their children want.

Also key: the sense of “cadre,” or parental authority. The authority of the parents is pretty absolute. What seems different to Druckerman is that French parents seem quite confident in laying down the law. There seems to be no hesitation or guilt when parents tell their children “no.” And the word “no” is apparently not used sparingly.

The relationship between the parents is apparently treated as sacrosanct. Ayelet Waldman’s infamous New York Times article would probably have been totally ignored over there. Says Virginie, a French parent:

“The couple is the most important. It’s the only thing you chose in life. You didn’t choose your children. You chose your husband. So, you’re going to have to make your life with him. So you have an interest in whether in it going well. Especially when the children leave, you want to get along with him. For me, it’s the prioritaire.”

I could go on and on about the two major influences of French parenting authority (Rousseau, who my dad pointed out abandoned his own children at an orphanage, and a pioneering woman in the 60s named Francoise Dolto) and the advantages of the creche (daycare) where delicious three course meals are served to children.

But here’s where I note my impressions of Pamela Druckerman. She is a charming writer, and an insecure woman amongst a population of beautifully dressed women who seemly maintain it all: their looks, their weight, their jobs and their love lives with their husbands. I mean, I get it. Sub in Lulemon yoga outfits for skinny jeans and boots and impossibly fit physiques and Pamela is me: feeling like a fish out of water.

I tend to take a more skeptical look at things than Druckerman, however. I have to admit that I gave the book the side-eye a few times. Druckerman would repeatedly tell the same story: she would think she wouldn’t like a certain parenting technique then she tries it and BOOM! It works! Eyeroll.

Mainly though it raised the question: why? Why do we Americans constantly feel so insecure and unsure about how to raise our children? Why are we so defensive about what choices we make? Why ARE there so many choices on how to parent?

Here’s where I decide: I’m going with what my parents taught me. I’ll never be the amazingly nurturing personality my mom is, but I’ll do my best. I agree with my dad that education, politeness and teaching your children to question are the defining virtues of parenting.

And, I will do my best to not compare that and contrast it with what’s out there. Because I’m doing my best. That will be enough.

Final cultural note from my in-laws who just spent a month living in Paris: they went out to dinner with friends with children and the children did NOT sit during dinner, they were LOUD and they didn’t particularly listen to their parents EITHER.

So, there’s that.

And here’s a photo of my children and myself in the latest styles of Paris, as procured by MIL. Because I’m shallow and what I love most about France is the fashion and the food 😉

To read more reviews, click here.


Filed under Bringing Up Bebe Book Club, writing

12 responses to ““Bringing Up Bebe”: Book Review, Part Two

  1. I love that picture of y’all!

    I think we’re so insecure because we’re taught to second guess every single thing we do, every single minute of the day. We can’t embrace any differences, we all have to be the same, do thing the same way. Which is just plain dumb. Something can work for billions of people and be exactly wrong for just one. That’s oversimplifying a bit, but I seem to be prone to exaggeration lately.

    I’m amused by the ‘no’ thing. We had a talk with our counselor when she suggested that we try not to say no, to save it for running in the street and other real dangers, so that it has more impact instead of being a nag nag nag, all the time. Maybe we were meant to be French, because that’s a lot harder than it sounds, to substitute ‘let’s do this instead’ et al for a blanket ‘no.’

  2. funny – the pause is my instinctive way of parenting. After my c-section, getting out of bed was so painful that, when woken by my baby at night, I would wait and see: does he really need me? Often he would fall back asleep in a few minutes (side note: I never “paused” if he was really crying) – and boom! – he’s sleeping through the night. I know he wakes up, but soothes himself back to sleep.

    As for the book – obviously, there’s lots of generalizations. \not all frenvh kids behave, not all american moms are parenting philosophy maniacs 🙂

  3. You look fabulous in the latest Parisian fashion! Can I move to Paris and go to a creche all day? I was drooling over what the children were served. Like your MIL’s observation about the children, I suspect that French children have their moments as well.

    I have never read a parenting book, but I do feel like there is this pressure to find the “right” way to parent. Like you, I’m focusing on characteristics and virtues I want D to have and cultivating those.

  4. Great impressions of the book! (and I love how you “looked at it side-eyed”… perfect explanation for how I felt at times). I wrote about insecurity (in the form of mom-guilt) in my book club post – I think it pervades our society.

  5. Ooh, now I really want to read the other reviews of the book (I will click on your link). From your description, it does sound like the French methods for raising children are a little too perfect. Nothing works all the time!
    As far as all the choices in America, though, I think that’s kind of what America is all about. We have lots of different cultures, races, national origins, even regional cultures within our country (when you talk about California, it sounds really foreign to me). There’s a lot of focus on individualism – it’s almost our national identity. Whereas other cultures are comfortable & proud calling something “the xx way.” It’s just too bad that when it comes to parenting, we feel it’s okay to judge each other for it.

    • This is a really fascinating point:
      “As far as all the choices in America, though, I think that’s kind of what America is all about. We have lots of different cultures, races, national origins, even regional cultures within our country (when you talk about California, it sounds really foreign to me). There’s a lot of focus on individualism – it’s almost our national identity.”

      This is true. I too wish it just didn’t have to be so judge-y.

  6. The fashion, the food, the free daycare. France has the trifecta. 😉 Great review of the book! Definitely on the side-eyed glances. As with all parenting books, best read with a grain of salt! Nice to “meet” you. And your twins are adorable! I can’t wait until mine are a bit older and can walk and talk and all that fun stuff!

  7. Pingback: Bringing Up Bébé Book Club Post List « Stumbling Gracefully

  8. I tried not to focus too much on the free daycare with gourmet food. *gah* It made me quite jealous! It’s funny that your parents just witnessed a “not so French” baby. My feeling is that this book is a pretty broad generalization. Great review, and that’s an adorable picture!

  9. Amy

    Great point with the grain of salt – like any book, I’m sure it was edited to death before it was published, and it’s only one perspective to begin with! It would be really interesting to read an actual French mother’s take on the book, wouldn’t it?

    Geochick – I so agree, and that wasn’t the only thing that made me feel jealous! The whole thing made me feel like a stupid, underprivileged American a lot of the time. What an idiot I am staying here, not getting paid for maternity leave (without extreme creativity, anyway), paying more than I can afford for childcare if I need it (exaggeration – I’m super lucky that my mom wants to be our primary daycare provider, but what if I weren’t so lucky?), paying stupidly enormous deductibles for healthcare every year, and already worrying about the cost of college – before I’ve even given birth!

  10. Esperanza

    I have thought so much about the quote you shared stating that more people are on anti-depressants in France than in any other nation in the world and what that might mean for the message of this book. I think the French have very high standards for themselves (not unlike us) they just might articulate them in different ways. And maybe they give themselves more freedom in parenting (although as I write that I feel that they don’t give themselves more freedom, it’s just their system provides them more freedom) because they expect more of themselves in other areas. It seems clear they have higher standards as a food and fashion culture – they judge what they eat more stringently (both for quality of taste and nutrition) and are less forgiving about maintaining their looks. I suppose if I had to look a certain way, I’d need more time to focus on my own hair, clothes and body as well!

    I also wonder if some of the systems the book espouses are as easy as she sometimes describes them to be. They would have to be implemented to consistently, and not seeing others implementing them regularly would make it that much harder to implement them yourself. As someone who hopes to use some of what she learned in this book with my own daughter, I’ve found there are times when I’m just too tired to maintain the cadre that Druckerman describes. Sometimes it’s just so much easier to bribe my daughter with a Baby Mum Mum, than invoke my parental authority and I worry that if I don’t always go for the cadre, if she won’t accept it later when I do.

    Parenting is so hard, no matter where you live.

  11. Sorry to have missed out on participating in this book club/selection! Looks like an interesting choice and discussion. I really appreciate the idea of the “pause” and not just when it comes to parenting. Thank you for sharing all of this and I love the adorable photo of you and your kids sporting French fashions! 🙂

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