Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman
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Mar 16, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, parenting, 2012, favourite
Read in April, 2012 — I own a copy

This isn't so much a review as a personal post, and I can't really apologise for that. It's a topic that's clearly personal to me, as I'll explain, and one that a lot of us love to discuss. Hopefully, my meandering discussion will make you interested in reading this, because I think all new parents, or people currently pregnant or planning on having kids, would really benefit from reading this.

I wanted to read this because I was curious, and because I heard the author interviewed on CBC radio, and also because I have an 8 month old son and some of the things she was talking about, I wanted to learn more about. But I honestly thought I wouldn't learn much. (I know, how arrogant am I!) After all, my baby was sleeping through the night at 11 weeks, and I am not nor ever will be the anxious, hovering, over-stimulating kind of parent. I'm not a neurotic, middle-class American parent from New York who wants her kid to be a child prodigy (Druckerman seems to know quite a lot of these). I've always seen him as his own person, with his own personality and his own interests. I have no intention of trying to mould him into anything, or force him to do soccer, fencing, piano and French lessons after school, every week. I won't be enrolling him in any activities at all until he's old enough to express an interest in an activity, and I certainly won't be putting his schedule ahead of my own life or that of the family as a whole. In short, having read the numerous anecdotes Druckerman presents here, I can say that I have nothing in common with the parents she's comparing French parents to, except that I am a parent.

That's the context in which I started reading this book, and while that didn't exactly change - I'm more of a "French parent" than an American one - I found that there was in fact a great deal to learn here. Some things resonated with me because they reminded me a lot of how I was raised, back home in Tasmania. Other things clicked with me because, here in Toronto, I think there is a degree of overparenting going on - the intensity of which would vary depending on the area you live in. But there's a place that does music lessons for babies, and I have met some parents who've told me they haven't used the word "no" with their 1+ year old baby. There's just a general feeling that everyone's watching, everyone's judging, and you should feel guilty if you do something fun, for yourself. I've also, occasionally, detected a touch of competition amongst mothers describing their babies developmental progress.

Which brings us back to Bringing Up Bébé. I find non-fiction books really hard to review because there's so much in them, so much to think and talk about, that I want to just quote the entire book with little commentaries between paragraphs, especially when they're as well-written as this one. I don't think I've read a more readable non-fiction book, ever. Druckerman has such a smooth, flowing, engaging style, I flew through the book and found it hard to put down. Between the humorous anecdotes, of which there are lots and lots (both of other people and her own family), the interviews with other parents, child psychologists, paediatricians, university professors and other experts, and the weaving of a memoir-like story in amongst the carefully reconstructed French parenting style, it's also one of the most fun books I've read in quite a while.

I'm hardly the first to point out that middle-class America has a parenting problem. In hundreds of books and articles this problem has been painstakingly diagnosed, critiqued, and named: overparenting, hyperparenting, helicopter-parenting, and my personal favorite, the kindergarchy. One writer defines the problem as "simply paying more attention to the upbringing of children than can possibly be good for them." [...] Nobody seems to like the relentless, unhappy pace of American parenting, least of all parents themselves. [p.4]


So begins Druckerman's investigation into understanding what French parents do differently. She stresses that, as a white middle-class American, she's referring primarily to white middle-class Frenchwomen, or Parisians. She's not speaking for the "peasants", as they're still considered to be, outside the city, or the lower classes. She's also comparing French parenting to American parenting of the kind mentioned above, but even so, the idea of the "terrible twos" and toddlers throwing tantrums, kids refusing to eat vegetables etc. is pretty universal among all of us, and she's right: we do expect it. But apparently among the French, not only are tantrums and bad public behaviour rare, the kids eat a varied healthy diet from the moment they switch to solids, and they're not cowed by a so-called strict upbringing but are "cheerful, chatty and curious."

She doesn't claim that the French invented this style of parenting, or that no one anywhere else does it, but that in France it's part of their national identity. It's consistent, and doesn't come from a noted paediatrician or a book, in vogue one year, gone the next. There are some aspects - like the low percentage of breastfeeding mothers past the first three months (and it was low from the first week) and the school system for older kids, which she doesn't go into much - that aren't that great. But their attitude in general, and their approach to child-raising, is different from what Druckerman had known and thought was normal.

Druckerman gives context for the current trends in American parenting - I think she may have missed a couple, but the things she brings up were enlightening and interesting (I'm not American so it's all new to me). She also gives historical background on French parenting and the invention of daycares - she doesn't say so but it is implied that the French invented the daycare. I was surprised to read that daycare is still frowned upon in America - amongst the middle and upper classes, anyway. Probably part of the problem is that is seems to be largely unregulated. In Canada and Australia, daycares are in huge demand and we're told to register our babies before we even get pregnant, in the hopes of acquiring a space - which will cost, in Toronto at least, anywhere from $1300 to $1900 a month. In France, it's all subsidised by the government, and of high quality.

[caption id="attachment_12168" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Pamela Druckerman and her three children, Bean, Leo and Joey"] [/caption]

As I mentioned, a lot of it seemed familiar, either because it was a framework that I grew up in in Australia, or because I'm already doing it with my own son or it's the approach I know I'll be taking over time. And for me - and my own parents - it was never about reading some parenting philosophy and adopting it, often rigidly, as people seem to do with them. It's about using common-sense and intuition, being sensitive to your child, but also about having a certain set of priorities.

For French parents, according to Druckerman, the priorities in child-raising include:
not letting your children rule your life
establishing firm boundaries but providing a lot of freedom within them (the cadre)
teaching children rather than training them
teaching children to appreciate a wide range of good quality food from the very beginning; and
teaching children to greet people politely (the three magic words in France are bonjour, au revoir and merci)

Every time I see a child who is acting up in public (I'm sure they do it at home too, but I only see them in public!), throwing a wobbly, spitting the dummy, it seems very clear to me that the child needs, wants and is asking for, in the only way they know how, is for their parents to take control. It's clear to me that these children feel lost and unsure and are desperate for their parents to be in charge. Just think about how calm and reassured your baby feels when you're holding them in the warmth, security and loving embrace of your arms. As they get older, they still need to feel that love, security and in-charge-ness from their parents, just without being held like a newborn. The difference between us and the French is that many of us think children need rigid authority figures in their parents, someone who "lays down the law" and who they're basically scared of, whereas the French seem to understand the difference between authoritative and authoritarian (I can't find the pages where Druckerman talks about this but it's in the book somewhere!).

It's hard to use the word "discipline" because it has so many different, sometimes subtle meanings in English, and is too easy to misconstrue. Kids need discipline. I agree completely with the people Druckerman interviewed who said that kids who are treated like kings (the "child-king") are deeply unhappy (and generally grow up pretty dysfunctional, too - such as, they're unable to deal with stress or frustration). Druckerman tries to explain and show what this actually means, because the word can sound scary. But it's no great mystery: it merely means being a responsible parent who provides the kind of safety net a child needs, without giving them a list of all the things they can't or aren't allowed to do. Children need to know their parents are in control, protecting them, but not stifling them. It's rather like building a rock wall in a lake to create a pond to keep your child in and also to keep dangers out, but within the pool the child can do whatever they want. Autonomy with limits. Kids need both, and they don't get either if you want to be your kid's best friend, career coach or military drill sergeant.

The day after I finished this book, I was in the supermarket, at the check-out, when another mother joined the queue behind me with a toddler in a stroller. The toddler was doing a weird cry-yell-whine that was pretty irritating, to be honest. The woman was clearly aware that her kid was making an obnoxious noise and was probably quite embarrassed about it, because when talking to him didn't do anything she grabbed something off the display - I think it was Dentyne gum - and handed it to him, whereupon he promptly became quiet (and got a piece of gum out and started munching on it). It's so easy to get into this pattern, and after reading this book I no longer feel like it's naive to believe that I won't let that pattern happen (I've always felt pretty confident about this since we never really whined or nagged much with our mum when we were kids). The belief that all kids are like this, naturally, is one that Druckerman successfully deconstructs and counters.

... without limits, kids will be consumed by their own desires. [...] French parents stress the cadre because they know that without boundaries, children will be overpowered by these desires. The cadre helps to contain all this inner turmoil and calm it down.
That could explain why my children are practically the only ones having tantrums in the park in Paris. A tantrum happens when a child is overwhelmed by his own desires and doesn't know how to stop himself. The other kids are used to hearing non, and having to accept it. It doesn't stop the chain of wanting. [p.237]


I got what she meant immediately about the cadre, but it did bring another thought to mind: that the French have perfected, smoothly, lovingly and without violence or child abuse, what Debbie and Michael Pearl tell parents to do in their hateful book, To Train Up a Child. Every time I think about that book, and the parents who have followed - and continue to follow - their instructions, I feel sick to my stomach. Every time I think of those poor children and babies - some of whom have died from being beaten - who are subjected to what essentially amounts to horrific child abuse, I just want to cry. And rescue them all.

There are a lot of things that we parents do that we don't have a name for; in giving them a name and a description, Druckerman gives us all a bit of credit for our common-sense and intuition - because it's hard being a parent, and it's not often you get any recognition. The French parents she speaks to don't think they're doing anything special at all, because it's not some method with a catchy name (like "Ferberising") from a book. Take "The Pause" - reading the description, I realised that that's what I did with my son, without realising it or having a name for it. I was paying attention, observing, listening, being sensitive to his moods etc. It scared me a bit to read that there's a fairly short window for teaching your baby to sleep through the night - a few months, really - or they struggle to connect their sleep cycles for several years. I used to think that it had nothing to do with me, that it was all him, but now I know it was both of us, working together, to help him to learn to connect his sleep cycles. I met a couple at first aid training whose baby was 13 months old and had never once slept all through the night. Since the mother had insomnia while pregnant, she now hasn't slept through the night herself in nearly two years. This experience has made her decide not to have any more children. Having read this book, I feel awful for the many parents like them who struggle with a first child when they really didn't need to.

I learnt some new techniques for introducing food and creating a good feeding schedule and menu (I was a bit of a picky eater as a child and sadly that's followed me into adulthood - I'm put off by a lot of textures, and my loathing of beans borders on phobia), one that incidentally reminds me a lot of my own childhood (breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner - which we call "tea" - with no dessert, though I'm not sure if that's just because we didn't have much money). I felt relieved, in fact, to learn that I don't have to constantly give my kid snacks, and that this is one reason why kids don't eat proper meals well in our society.

I also learnt that a child as young as three can bake by themselves if you've been baking with them every weekend, which is great to know because cooking is definitely something I want to get my kids enthusiastic about, and part of that is letting them help and enjoy it (I want to do the same thing with gardening). Druckerman even includes the recipe for "yoghurt cake" that the French generally teach their little kids first - they later move on to cupcakes and other kinds of cakes. I'm looking forward to trying the recipe; already Hugh is happy to sit in his highchair, watching me cook, seemingly quite interested in my explanations of what I'm doing.

I learnt that my instinct to resist the pressure to be constantly stimulating (i.e. dominating) my child's playtime is a good one, because they're much happier being their own boss in play and they really don't need you all that much - watching him to ensure his safety is generally enough (I balance this with reading stories, singing songs and engaging him, because he's still learning language etc. from me). And I learnt that my approach of listening, paying attention, being sensitive and learning my child's moods, behaviour etc. is a very good one - so a pat on the back for me.

There's so much to talk about here, but I've already gone on too long. I'll end by repeating that I absolutely loved this book. It was written in a conversational style that also felt like an accessible documentary, with a mix of informative parenting tips and a great deal of self-deprecating humour (unusual for an American - maybe her British husband's dry sense of humour has rubbed off on her). The structure was spot-on, moving fluidly between different aspects of French and American parenting with graceful pacing (yes such a thing exists!!), building a picture of life in Paris, raising three young children, being an expat in France and dealing with common parenting fears. You can relate to Druckerman even if you had a different parenting experience from her, or have never lived in another country. I only wish I could start the book again, as a new reader, because it ended all too soon.
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