About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

#87: Bringing Up Bebe

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman
(New York: Penguin Press, 2012)
"When American journalist Pamela Druckerman has a baby in Paris, she doesn't aspire to become a 'French parent.' French parenting isn't a known thing, like French fashion or French cheese. Even French parents themselves insist they aren't doing anything special.

"Yet the French children Druckerman knows sleep through the night at two or three months old, while children of her American friends take a year or more. French kids eat well-rounded meals that are more likely to include braised leeks than chicken nuggets. Her American friends spend their visits resolving spats between their kids, but her French friends sip coffee while the kids play.

"Motherhood itself is a whole different experience in France. There's no role model for the harried new mom with no life of her own. French mothers assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there's no need to feel guilty about this. They have an easy, calm authority with their kids that Druckerman can only envy.

"Of course, French parenting wouldn't be worth talking about if it produced robotic, joyless children. In fact, French kids are just as boisterous, curious, and creative as Americans. They're just far better behaved and more in command of themselves. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are -- by design -- toddling around and discovering the world at their own pace.

"With a notebook stashed in her diaper bag, Druckerman -- a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal -- sets out to learn the secrets of raising a society of good sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents. She discovers that French parents are extremely strict about some things, and strikingly permissive about others. And she realizes that to be a different kind of parent, you don't just need a different parenting philosophy. You need a very different view of what a child actually is.

"While finding her own firm non, Druckerman discovers that children -- including her own -- are capable of feats of understanding and autonomy that she'd never imagined."

Table of Contents:
  • French Children Don't Throw Food
  • 1. Are You Waiting for a Child?
  • 2. Paris Is Burping
  • 3. Doing Her Nights
  • 4. Wait!
  • 5. Tiny Little Humans
  • 6. Day Care?
  • 7. Bebe au Lait
  • 8. The Perfect Mother Doesn't Exist
  • 9. Caca Boudin
  • 10. Double Entendre
  • 11. I Adore This Baguette
  • 12. You Just Have to Taste It
  • 13. It's Me Who Decides
  • 13. Let Him Live His Life
  • The Future in French

My Take:
Maybe it's just because it provides some justification for my own parenting style (my admittedly-human and thus imperfect teenager also "did her nights" at 3 months, and has always had a remarkably broad palate), but I enjoyed this book. There's always a danger, when comparing two cultures, to fall into the "A is good, B is bad" trap, and Druckerman does some of this, but she at least acknowledges some of the ways in which American parents may be onto something (for example, the far-greater prevalence of extended breastfeeding), and those in which cultural and political differences undergird those in parenting styles (i.e., it's much easier to establish and enforce widespread norms for parent and child behavior in a country where state-supported creches are ubiquitous and high-quality).

According to Druckerman, the advantages of French parenting essentially boil down to two. First is the concept of attend, or "wait." In the glossary of French parenting that precedes the body of the book, she explains "'Wait' implies that the child doesn't require immediate gratification, and that he can entertain himself." This begins in infancy, when parents pause for a moment before responding to a noise from the baby's room (is she really hungry or wet, or just stirring in her sleep?), and continues to be a common command throughout childhood, whether prompted by kids' requests for snacks or parental attention. The second is the cadre, or framework: "setting firm limits for children, but giving them tremendous freedom within those limits." While this makes sense, I do wish Druckerman had paid more attention here to the role society as a whole plays in setting these limits. Certainly, the prevalence of creches gives the French an edge here, as does (I believe, from what I've read) the far-greater value the French place on assimilation. Nonetheless, as someone who always strove to be a minimalist parent and often felt like an ill-prepared or merely grouchy one, there's more than a little appeal to the notion that a Good Parent need not follow her child around the playground, haul a week's worth of toys around in her diaper bag, or offer a pre-prepared, processed food snack every 30 minutes. (Parisian parents, says Drucker, offer children an afternoon snack -- gouter -- at about 4:30 pm, but otherwise just feed them at mealtimes along with the rest of the family.)

An interesting and thought-provoking read, especially for anyone who's had it up to here with the One True Way/ more self-sacrificing than thou parenting ethic of certain US sub-groups.

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