When American expat Pamela Druckerman starts her family in Paris, several things immediately become apparent: while she and other expats are looking exhausted and overwhelmed, the French mothers she encounters look amazing and calm. The French children in restaurants are typically patient and well-mannered. Informal chats with French acquaintances reveal even more: French children tend to start sleeping through the night when they’re a few months old. They are taught early on to have an open mind to different foods. Independence and curiosity are nurtured. What are the French doing that all the expats in Paris can’t seem to figure out?
When pressed for details, all the French parents Druckerman encounters will say they’re not doing anything special, but the more she studies French parenting culture, the more Druckerman is able to see that the French are doing certain things differently, and many of those things amount to a healthy dose of tradition and common sense.
This book has been making the rounds in the media lately, so there’s been a lot of talk about what the book is (a lot of it coming from people who haven’t read the book). Let’s clear some things up now about what the book isn’t. It’s not a how-to manual, and it’s not a screed on how the French are soooo much better and so much more perfect than Americans. Druckerman is very clear about this up front: she doesn’t want French kids (while she appreciates their bilingualism and their exposure to a different way of life, she also wants them to retain their American culture). She also mentions throughout the book that the French parents–and their French children–she refers to in the book are mostly upper/middle class Parisians and not representatives of The French as a whole. Ultimately, the book is an engaging memoir/cultural investigation that leaves the reader with plenty to mull over.
I don’t have children, nor do I see myself ever wanting any, but I was completely charmed by this book. Druckerman writes with self-depracating humor and honesty as she recounts becoming a mother for the first time, then even more so later when she and her husband discover they are going to have twins. She’s an outsider who desperately wants to jump that cultural gap and fit in with the French moms who seem to have it all together.
As she slowly works her way into the fold, she realizes the most fundamental difference is that each culture sees parenthood differently. American mothers tend to become consumed by their new role, from what they eat during pregnancy to what pre-schools their children get into. They tend to resign themselves to the fact that their lives now revolve around their children. The French tend to be much more relaxed about more things, and though they value their roles as parents, they also refuse to become consumed by parenthood; they honor kid time, but they also value grown up time and can’t conceive of having it any other way.
Of course, parents–especially mothers–have more support in France. They have maternity leave and health care. There are government-run day cares called crèches staffed by highly trained people (granted, space is limited and people have to apply early, though some preference is given to people in difficult circumstances). For those lucky enough to get in, the crèches provide a valuable cultural education. One of my favorite parts of the book was when Druckerman talked about food, especially food served at her daughter’s crèche:
I sometimes photograph these menus and e-mail them to my mother. They read like the chalkboard menus at Parisian brasseries. Lunch is served in four courses: a cold vegetable starter, a main dish with a side of grains or cooked vegetables, a different cheese each day, and a desert of fresh fruit or fruit puree. There’s a slightly modified version for each age group; the youngest kids mostly have the same foods, but pureed.
Druckerman later sits in on a menu-planning meeting, when the Christmas menu is being planned: things like fois gras and broccoli mousse are discussed as options! The primary goal is to get the children to at least taste different things. If they don’t like something, like spinach, the crèche will eventually serve spinach again, but prepared differently–repeated exposure to the foods tends to bring about eventual acceptance of them, and parents follow this principle at home as well.
Druckerman covers a ton of topics in the book — relationships post-children, discipline, encouraging you kids to be more self-sufficient — but she’s always even-handed about it. A lot of the conclusions she comes to require a slight shift in how people perceive children (and how people perceive the role of the parent), but much of it is also common sense that so many American parents tend to lose in their parenting over-zealousness. It’s a very thoughtful, funny, and well-written book that isn’t even remotely as controversial as some in the media would have you believe: there’s a balance to be found somewhere in between the American and the French models of parenting.
Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting was released on February 7, 2012 by The Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Group. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.