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French Lessons: A Review of Pamela Druckerman's "Bringing Up Bébé"

Author Elisa Murray

Published on: December 30, 2013

bebe-198x300-2By Elisa Murray

When I first heard about the new book Bringing Up Bébé, via the Wall Street Journal excerpt titled Why French Parents Are Superior,” I was equal parts incensed and intrigued. Incensed because the book seemed poised to profit (hugely, most likely) off divisiveness and new-mom insecurities. Intrigued because I’m a sucker for cross-cultural comparisons, especially those that might teach me how to get my two-and-a-half year old to happily eat leafy greens and to stay seated during meals -- instead of climbing down from his chair every three minutes with a jaunty “Right back!”

So I snagged the press copy that came to our office, and, with just a passing glance at the glamouriffic French maman on the cover, read it in two days flat.

Yes, it’s a quick read and a mostly engaging one. Pamela Druckerman -- a mom of three and a former Wall Street Journal reporter -- is a humbler and a more charming narrator than I expected. She’s often funny, shares juicy cultural tidbits, and her tale (more of a tale than a how-to) is compelling enough: An American woman follows her British boyfriend to Paris and -- somewhat reluctantly -- settles down and marries him.

Druckerman has three children in relatively short order, and starts noticing that the French do parenting differently -- from less-anxious mothers-to-be to parents who expect things of their children she hasn’t dared dream of: With the help of a simple trick called “The Pause,” babies “do their nights” starting at two or three months. Children are calmer, greet adults with a pleasant bonjour, snack just once a day, and eat a wide variety of foods. Parents focus on setting a “cadre” (frame) for kids early on: Firm boundaries, but freedom within. As a result of all this, “The French seem collectively to have achieved the miracle of getting babies and toddlers not just to wait, but to do so happily.”

Along the way, Druckerman weaves in research and studies -- on the importance of sleep, for example, or Walter Mischel’s famed “marshmallow test” of how kids handle delayed gratification -- that to her mind are backing up the French way.

So -- interesting. But is it worth an American parent’s precious reading hours, not to mention the price of a hardcover book? It depends. None of the practices she describes are particularly groundbreaking (helping a baby to learn to self-soothe?). Still, it is inspiring to read about an entire culture committed to encouraging a child’s “awakening” and “discovery” rather than mastering the next milestone. We can all learn from the French way of eating and involvement of children in baking. And if you’re looking for reminders that it’s okay to prioritize adult time, this book will help.

But Bringing Up Bébé also disappoints. Most frustrating were her generalizations about American parenting and kids -- whining, overprotectiveness, tantrums, anxiety and fear of day care generally rule the day. She glosses over drawbacks to the French system, such as a lack of support for breastfeeding, natural childbirth, or stay-at-home parents, or -- in later years -- a rigid educational system that channels children to a career choice early.

In the end, the most compelling part of the book, to me, had nothing to do with French parenting and everything to do with the extraordinary support that French parents receive, from universal health care that will even pay for a mother’s “rééducation périnéale” (yes, it’s what it sounds like) to access to low-cost, excellent child care -- first, at a city-run day care called a “crèche," staffed by caregivers who have passed rigorous entrance exams, and later, at equally excellent preschools.

Given these benefits, it’s not surprising that women return to work in higher percentages than in the States, and feel less guilty about it. It paves the way for a more honest choice and balance between home and work.

It’s idealistic, I know -- but could creating a culture of better choices for parents be a lesson we learn from the French?

More on Pamela Druckerman and "Bringing Up Bébé":

- Read ParentMap's Q&A with Pamela Druckerman

- Bonne Maman: One Mom's Thoughts on Bringing Up Bébé

- Pamela Druckerman reads from Bringing Up Bébé on Monday, March 5 at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.

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