Behold Pamela Druckerman’s new book Bringing Up Bebe! Heard of it? If you’re a mother, surely you have. While some have interpreted the book is nothing but unfair America bashing, I argue the content is neither unfair nor is it bashing. What Druckerman has organized is very important and deserves your time.
The book is laid out in a rather objective manner. Druckerman is an American journalist living in France with her British journalist husband and three children. As a new mother in a foreign land, she noticed a pattern of different behaviors surrounding the upbringing of French children that was different from what she was used to in the United States. Like any good journalist, she decided to find out why. Through various interviews with French parents and doctors and American parents as well as an abundance of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence with some actual research thrown in, she comes up with a few ideas as to what the answer may be. Through her appealing, occasionally self-deprecating, and never condescending style, Druckerman tells her own personal story of learning to parent her children while presenting her conclusions to simple questions like “Why do French kids have such an adventurous palate?” “Why do most all French babies sleep through the night at 3 months?” and “Why do they play so well and independently on the playground?” While she often reinforces that her observations are indeed generalizations and that not every French kid is an angel and not every American kid is a brat, she couldn’t ignore a handful of consistent and distinctive cultural differences between the French and Americans when it came to family life and parenting.
Here’s a breakdown of a few of Druckerman’s main ideas.
- Observation: French kids are conditioned to wait almost immediately after they enter the world. Conclusion: The skill of patience and self-distraction and delayed gratification makes it easier for them to cope in situations that would normally cause a kid to melt-down like a long restaurant meal, or wanting something while mom is busy talking on the phone.
- Observation: Kids everywhere prefer chicken nuggets and pizza, but the French culture prioritizes the cultivation of a varied palate. They don’t offer kids chicken nuggets and don’t assume they won’t like foie gras or escargot. Conclusion: Kid led menu planning leads to kids eating nothing but white food. Parent led menu planning leads to kids eating spinach, pate and Brie.
- Observation: French parents refuse to be martyrs. Mothers often make parenting decisions based off what is best for her and the family not just what the kid wants. Couples almost immediately revert to previous romantic and social activities after a child is born. The happiness and leisure of the adults is of high importance. Conclusion: There is less guilt and less resentment. Also, kids are taught right away that they aren’t the center of the universe and the family does not revolve around the kids’ desires.
- Observation: French parents are stingy with the praise. Conclusion: The idea behind resisting exaggerated positive reinforcement is that French children won’t become heavily dependent upon and addicted to their parents’ approval. They learn to be self-motivated and to develop their self-esteem on their own, independent from their parents’ attention.
Druckerman also discussed the French’s focus on a child’s need to develop autonomy and respect for the family and the community. None of these ideas are particularly profound, but I can completely understand how Druckerman found these concepts refreshing enough to write a book for Americans about them, as they are practically unheard of in our culture.
I’ve been a mom for just a little over 3 years now. I know what kind of children I want to end up with, but I few ideas how to get there. Generally, I feel confused and tread through my days meekly and with little confidence or conviction in my parenting decisions. The one thing I am confident of is that I’m uncomfortable with the parenting trends that dominate the current generation of mothers and I’m also uncomfortable with the way I’m made to feel when I deviate from what is seen as the only loving and supportive way.
Why are we so nasty?
Americans have the habit of being nosy and judgmental. Ever visit a mommy online message board? American mothers can be ruthless, patronizing, and quick to tout their moral superiority and utter disgust that some people are even allowed to reproduce. There is very small thinking and little encouragement, just constant tearing down. Not to mention we don’t have much of a cultural legacy of parental framework to draw from. Our kids are being raised differently than we were, we were raised differently than our parents, and our parents were raised differently than theirs. It’s like we’re always trying to reinvent the wheel. From scratch. With each generation. We have no collective goals as a society, because well that wouldn’t be very American. America is all about the individual. The individual’s desires and their upward mobility and there is little value in the state of the community. Druckerman found that all of these parenting ideals seemed to be an intrinsic part of French societal thought. Every French parent agrees what’s important when it comes to raising a child without explicitly having to discuss it. The only thing parents have agreed upon in America is to disagree. There is no united front in raising our children.
What’s the result?
What is the natural result of this lack of unity? Competition. Unhealthy competition. Competition between mothers who create more between their kids. Parents end up considering their child as a special project. Filling their childhoods with tutor sessions, tennis lessons and horseback riding camp, instead of empty alone time for self-motivated discovery, or to, I don’t know, read a book. We push them to practice the piano every day so they’re the best. So we’re the best parents. Raising kids becomes a direct extension of the parents’ abilities to manage, to inspire, to push. American parents give it all towards this challenge. Mother’s give up their figure, their education, their jobs, their social life, their hobbies, their sleep “for the sake of the children”. The problem, reported by Druckerman, is this actually makes no one happy. Not the children, not the parents. So why do we do it? So we can say, “well I gave everything I had! It can’t be my fault my kid’s not happy!”? Or is it to be free of the guilt? The guilt mongering from the disdainful looks we shoot at each other when the kids melt down at the grocery store, from the nastiness spewed all over the internet? Either way, we can’t seem to break free of it, and all the while Druckerman is pointing out is how effortless these alternative and basic child-rearing strategies are to the French.
Really when it comes down to it, I woefully concede that the French way would never work here in the United States. I don’t think the main ideas Druckerman presented in the book are unique to the French and I don’t think the French are better parents, per se, they’re just better at raising French kids and Americans are better raising American kids. That is, we’re exceptional at producing coddled, uncompromising, self-centered, entitled consumers. We value those qualities. We must. We don’t teach our kids to wait, we give it to them now. We don’t expect our kids to understand how to and find value in eating good food, so of course they won’t. We cultivate egocentric personalities by placing the child’s needs before those of everyone that comes into contact with him. We want our kids to like us, we don’t consider whether they respect us. We give up our very last sliver of leisure time as a parent so we can drive our kid to, and then sit through a junior football game where we jump up and down and cheer emphatically when he oh so heroically catches.a.ball. That’s the American way.
“By sacrificing long-term happiness for short-term pleasure, we have cheated ourselves and our children, and have endangered their legacy.” – Hoyt Hilsman