Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

February 9, 2012 | 2 Comments

On the whole I’m skeptical about parenting books; some simply scare-monger while masquerading as advice, and others can be reduced to a simple two word phrase: common sense. Nevertheless I breezed my way through Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman’s crisp account of raising a young family in Paris; her blend of anecdote and research offers an even-handed, light-hearted, sans-preachy comparison between parenting styles of the United States and France, all dished up with dry wit. So it’s eye-popping to see the hullabaloo this book is raising in the press and online, and the amount of vitriol hurled at its author, whom, I can only hope, is as capable and blithe as her prose and perky marketing photos suggest, because she’d best duck and cover. If you dip into the message boards without cracking the book’s spine, you’d assume that Druckerman (who is American, with a British spouse) had committed treason by suggesting that maybe it’s not a good idea to use food to pacify little Kyle all day long (the French don’t ‘snack’, except at 4pm in the afternoon) or that little Madison may not need therapy if Mummy takes time out to date with Daddy or, God forbid, goes back to work full-time. Behind this fracas, I smell scorched egos  – for hell hath no fury like mothers whose mothering skills are scorned – and a few commentators manage to turn what could have been an intriguing discussion about the challenges of child-rearing into a xenophobic slanging match, which often concludes, completely irrelevantly, with barbs about France’s history of military capitulation. How dare anyone suggest we could learn anything from another nationality, let alone the French!
Are these the new Tiger Moms as some breathless reviews suggest? Eh, nope. The French tend not to harangue their children toward academic or material success and neither do they see them as “a project” requiring continuous improvement. On the contrary, often French children are not taught to read until they are around six or seven years old, and extracurricular activities such as music or sports are embraced as an opportunity for fun and creative growth rather than an essential step toward securing a future competitive advantage. A Swiss psychologist quoted by Druckerman remarked that whenever he explained the stages of child development to an American audience, he would always be asked what he termed “The American Question”: how can we speed these stages up? This reminded me of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Michael Pollan explains that through a cocktail of genetically-engineered junk corn, growth hormones, and antibiotics we’ve managed to reduce the time it takes a prepare a cow for slaughter from 5 years to 18 months. So, provided we’re not picky about side-effects, why shouldn’t we compress a child’s natural cycle of development too? I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me why the heck we’re always in such a hurry.

Despite accusations of Gallic gushing, Druckerman highlights areas of the French approach that raise legitimate concerns: a culturally persistent acceptance of corporal punishment, a failure to promote the health benefits of breast feeding, the possible stifling of individuality in a child due to the constricts of the ‘cadre’ (a framework for behavior by which many French parents swear), a stubbornly misogynistic society that still expects women to do the bulk of the work within the home, and a snooty derision for those struggling to lose weight after giving birth or willing to embrace the role of chauffeur-cum-soccer-mom. Still, I found myself nodding in agreement with the bulk of Druckerman’s conclusions but this might be due to my own Scottish upbringing, which was stricter and therefore closer to the French style. Despite having lived for many years in the United States I’ve yet to buy into the Mommy cult, where being a mother is supposed to trump every other role. The French also feed their bairns chocolate sandwiches – a vindication of one of my favorite vices which my friends and family find gross – though this plus marmalade may be the only two points where Scottish and French cuisines converge…. 

So what controversial advice is Druckerman peddling? Well, that babies need to learn to “do their nights” (and in their own beds, not ours), that manners matter, that having a happy marriage or partnership means a happy home (the greatest gift you can give a child), that over-scheduling denies children the opportunity to learn independence and develop the imagination to entertain themselves, that giving a vocal running commentary about every move your toddler makes while in the grocery store doesn’t prove to those around you that you’re a good parent but may suggest you have completely lost your mind, and that although little Chelsea could happily survive on bagels, cheddar and Cheerios, capitulating to this may be foolish in the long run. Many of my reviewer peers acknowledge these nuggets, but one or two conclude, smugly, that what we American parents do best is “put our children  first” which indicates they miss the point of the book entirely. By putting our children first in all areas we risk raising a nation of little princes and princesses who, when they enter the workforce and are expected to function without being perpetually patted on the back, crumple into needy wrecks. We don’t join our children’s lives, they join ours, and our role is to bring them into the fold not reinvent the wheel around them.  

I confess that my own two-year-old daughters already lag behind their Gallic peers having a tremendous swing when it comes to lobbing bagels and they’ve yet to taste fois gras, nevertheless when another Cheerio hurtles toward the wallpaper I’m trying not to see it as merely an age-appropriate tactile exploration, as Druckerman suggests some American parents may do, but to see it like the French, as a teachable moment, where it is my job to kindly suggest (with as much patience as woman can muster given this kind of behavioral redirection is required a million times a day) that this this is not what we do at the dinner table, mes petites bebes.

That French women benefit from considerable social support not available to their American sisters cannot be denied. From six months paid maternity leave, to free access to nurseries and kindergartens, to nationalized top-quality health care, they are aided to enjoy both family and career. Wisely, Druckerman side-steps any in-depth examination of how this might trigger cultural differences; given our current political climate, for her to suggest that we could benefit from some social re-engineering would cause her passport to be revoked. It’s also worth remembering, amongst all this angst on blog posts and message boards, that both her sampling of French parents and her target audience are very, very small segments of the populations of the United States and France as a whole, namely the comfortable middle classes, who have the luxury of worrying about whether introducing shellfish is a risk, or if two is too early to learn Swedish. For the majority of single mothers and lower-to-middle income families in this country, going back to work after having children is not an option. They will most likely have no time to either read this book nor sweat over its nuances, and given that Druckerman’s wisest advice concerns the thorny subject of diet, it is frustrating that it costs more here to buy a gallon of organic milk than a Happy Meal, meaning that many families could not afford to follow it. 

Still, the majority of parents of any nationality who love their children and have a modicum of, yep, common sense, will be able to read this book and say, “that’s a good idea, I’ll try that,” or “this is nonsense, let’s give this a miss,” without feeling that either their noses or their patriotism has been knocked out of joint. The current hysteria, however, indicates an ever growing paranoia and lack of confidence in that small sliver of America addicted to competitive parenting, and Bringing Up Bebe is a timely reminder, (seasoned with an engaging blend of Gallic certitude and American self-deprecation) that our responsibility is not to raise a child, but to raise an adult.