Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman - Book Review

What grandparent, brought up in an earlier age and with somewhat different values, ambitions, and fears hasn't cringed to watch today's parents beg their children to behave, seek endlessly to short-circuit the development process in order to give them an edge, schedule their time so tightly that neither the child nor the parent gets any enjoyment from life, or threaten them with dire consequences only to back off when they resist or throw a tantrum? Pamela Druckerman, an American woman living in Paris with her husband and three children noticed one day, when struggling through a restaurant dinner with their young child, that the French children in the restaurant were not only sitting quietly enjoying dinner with their parents, but they were eating fish, vegetables, and cheese while allowing their parents some quiet time as well as engaging in civilized conversations with them. Her observation, coupled with her self-confessed American Mom neuroticism, caused her to ask what French parents did differently and brought her to do the research that has produced the informative and amusing account of her experiences, Bringing Up Bébé:One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (The Penguin Press, 2012, 284 pages, $25.95 in hard cover).

Druckerman begins her mostly light-hearted, sometimes controversial seeming to American minds, and always insightful book with a glossary of French terms applied to child rearing, which is particularly useful for those of us speaking no French. She finishes with a Notes section containing plenty of references and support for her information, an extensive bibliography for further reading, and a useful index, thus taking her book beyond the snarky or worshipful and placing it within a context of historical and cross cultural understanding. She also signals that she's written a serious book about a serious topic while keeping it enjoyable and tweaking the awareness of (American) parents who endlessly suffer ongoing worries about their own adequacy to take on this job. Meanwhile, Druckerman recognizes the cultural differences between the U.S. and France while at once bemoaning her sense of isolation living in a country where she doesn't (yet) speak the language well or fully understand the differences between where she grew up and where she lives.

Chapters about getting children to sleep through the night soon, getting them to eat new and different foods, teaching them who is in charge, and learning to adjust to not constantly hearing effusive praise about how wonderful her child (nicknamed Bean) is help the reader to understand how and why French parents do what they do and where their parenting style comes from. Druckerman places contemporary French parenting within historical, psychological, and developmental understandings to show that well-behaved, independent, self-motivated, and enjoyable children don't just happen, they emerge from ideas going back to 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, and the work of a contemporary pediatrician-psychiatrist named Francoise Dolto. They are deeply rooted in reactions against the formerly rigid class-based system of education and a history of children being seen but not heard. The French approach is no trendy, quick fix formula for creating perfect children (Druckerman reminds us frequently they don't exist, nor do perfect parents) but a way of thinking about establishing and maintaining priorities, skills, and a sense of balance between the work of parenting and the need to have an adult life of one's own.

Pamela Druckerman with Her Children

French parents practice establishing a basic framework for the children to live within. Children whose behavior remains within this frame discover that they have great latitude for making their own choices. A parent's job is to create this framework while teaching their children how to behave within it. The basics of French parenting lie within the idea of teaching, providing an education about how to behave. This is done from a posture of calm and quiet (sage) that resists panic and stress. From birth, French parents learn to get their children to wait. To do this, they must learn to pause themselves before taking action. For instance, when baby stirs in the night, beginning to whimper or cry, French parents learn to wait a few moments before deciding to pick them up and feed them. The children learn to go to sleep and, research indicates, sleep peacefully through the night months before American children typically do. This approach of calm waiting emphasizes the self-discipline necessary to think in terms of teaching children how to behave. Later, it appears, for instance, in the matter of daily eating. French children soon learn to sit down and eat three meals a day with one afternoon snack. They are not permitted to eat whenever they wish and are encouraged to snack on healthy foods. It is a matter of faith among French parents that children will not be damaged by coping with frustration or not having their desires met immediately. Rather, they learn to be measured and to develop a greater sense of themselves as people within a world where other people besides themselves have needs, too. These lessons are not taught through incessant lecturing nor preaching. Rather, they come from example and regular use of the word “No” (non) said with resolve and supported with not giving in to children's natural desire for immediate gratification. These principles extend to the mysteries of toilet training, sending kids off to school, relations with teachers and other parents, and learning along the way to govern ones own life. A major takeaway of this book is to develop an attitude of calm sensibility that communicates itself to children who then, themselves, learn to be calm and sensible. Druckerman points out that Americans like to make life difficult and complex, while the French are more likely to seek lives that are calmer and more rational.

Pamela Druckerman
The tone of Pamela Druckerman's book is humorous and mildly self-mocking without ever becoming snarky or mean. She uses herself as the example of the over-anxious neurotic American Mom and her husband Simon as the somewhat disengaged British Dad. Bringing Up Bébé is not calculated to make American mothers feel resentful or inadequate, but may have that effect anyway, especially given the general resentment of the French in America. The author observes the behavior of French parents and teachers in child care, pre-school, and early schooling as well as the nearby parks, playgrounds, and other places parents and children inhabit. The French approach is certainly made easier and more consistent because of the enormous role of the French social service apparatus, which provides free day care and early schooling as well as first rate prenatal care for all citizens. This allows French mothers to return to work early and pursue their careers while still functioning as effective parents. Meanwhile, from infant mortality to various measures of intellectual and social development, French children seem to outpace their American counterparts. Above all, the French approach seems sensible, not fraught with the achievement anxiety American parents project onto their children. It provides structure, a frame within which there's much leeway for discovery without becoming excessively child-centered and competitive, not leading parenting to become an ordeal for parents or their children.

In Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman has presented a useful and thought-provoking alternative to current child rearing practices in America. She encourages parents to take charge of their own lives while helping children to become autonomous beings separate from and closely adhering to their parents. The approach emphasizes a way of being with children, not presenting tricks or easy fixes. As such, it both challenges and informs while remaining consistently entertaining. The book is available from all the usual sources in all formats. You can help support this blog, by purchasing it from using the portal here. The book was provided to me by the The Penguin Press through TLC Book Tours Bringing Up Bébé has proven itself to be quite a controversial book. I encourage readers of this review to visit the other reviews written on this TLC Book Tour as well as the scathing review from the New York Times.

Other Stops on the Book Tour
Tuesday, February 21st: Sidewalk Shoes
Wednesday, February 22nd: The Feminist Texican
Thursday, February 23rd: Susan Heim on Parenting
Tuesday, February 28th: Just Joanna
Wednesday, February 29th: Book Club Classics!
Wednesday, March 7th: There’s a Book
Thursday, March 8th: Family Volley
Monday, March 12th: Good Girl Gone Redneck