Bringing Up Bébé Book Review

Is this French parenting guide all it's cracked up to be?

Bringing Up Bebe book
Image courtesy Amazon

As parents, we're inundated with parenting advice. It seems like a new breakthrough, miracle parenting method surfaces every day, but how can you tell if something is the real deal or just a bunch of hype?

When I review a parenting book I look at two things: 1) what advice can parents, specifically parents of toddlers, can take away from it, and 2) how engaging it is. After all, our time is limited and I don't think any parent wants to be bored, preached to or made to feel that the reading is drudgery.

Based on these criteria, I can briefly summarize "Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting" by Pamela Druckerman as such:

  1. This book is extremely thin on practical and actionable advice. Pulling out the valuable parts, Druckerman could have written an 800-word essay on sleep training and saying no and been done with it.
  2. Is it engaging? Let's just say that if I hadn't promised to write a review of the book I would have stopped reading at page 30.

Page 30 is where, in the course of six sentences, Druckerman goes from saying that French women don't define mothers based on how they give birth (naturally versus with pain medication), to saying that French women believe non-epidural births are only for "crazy" Americans. It's only Chapter 2, but it's not the first contradiction, nor the first judgment, of American parents that Druckerman throws out. The purpose of this book already seems to be to bring down Americans at all costs, even if it means resorting to caricatures and sweeping generalizations.

It's a shame because Druckerman has the potential to create a fun memoir about an expatriate navigating life in Paris with young children. Instead, this accomplished journalist and author creates a rambling diatribe that harks back to the mommy-against-mommy mentally I had hoped we were finally moving past.

The Good:

To be clear, the problems I have with the book aren't directly related to French parenting techniques. Yes, there are several French practices Druckerman describes that I personally oppose, but that wouldn't make me give a book a bad rating. I am more objective than that.

Besides, after reading some of the French practices I immediately wanted to adopt them. For instance, Druckerman describes how French parents talk to their children from infancy as if they are actual people. Pediatricians and parents firmly believe that even young babies will understand what you are saying. One night, faced with a cranky toddler who didn't want to sleep, I decided to try it. I explained to my little guy that he needed to go to sleep so mommy could get rest before she had to work the next day.

I have great doubts that my 15-month-old comprehended my reasoning, but I found that it makes me much calmer to talk rationally to him, versus what I might have done otherwise: beg him, "Go to sleep," or ask, "What? What is it that you want?" A calm mommy makes for a calm baby. He actually settled down fairly quickly and slept wonderfully that night.

There are other parenting techniques that Druckerman describes that I also admire: saying "no," asserting that you are the decision maker, and pausing before you pick up a crying toddler, for instance.

Of course, many of these ideas aren't uniquely French. Druckerman praises how French parents and chefs encourage good eating habits, but it sounds a lot like the 50-exposure rule advocated by American cooks and authors.

The Bad:

Druckerman admits that these French parenting "secrets" aren't all new ideas, but she credits the French approach for their success in raising a nation of good sleepers, good eaters and generally well-behaved children. So I guess to accept the book's theme that French parents are especially wise, you have to believe America is a nation replete with parents who can't get their kids to sleep, only feed processed, unhealthy "kiddie" food and condone misbehavior in children.

Druckerman cites studies that back up some of these American parenting "fails," but many of her accusations have no scientific basis. In fact, to back up some of her main arguments about the superiority of the French way she throws out biased generalizations that make it seem as if everything she knows about American families she learned from reality TV and YouTube videos. Even in instances when she reports first-hand observations of American moms and dads in action, she makes sweeping assumptions that these individuals represent the majority of American parents and judges those behaviors as wrong:

  • "…French kids rarely whine or collapse into tantrums - or at least do so less often than American kids..." (p. 61) I don't know how anyone could make a blanket comparison like that.
  • “We're [Americans] so concerned about cognitive development that we're forgetting to ask whether children in daycare are happy and whether it's a positive experience for them." (p. 115) As a mother who has had children in daycare, I can tell you that is pretty much all moms I know in the same situation think about: "Is my child happy and well-cared for?"
  • "...[W]e [Anglophones] all know that our breastfeeding 'number' is a concrete way to compete with one another." There is definitely a small subgroup of women who feel competitive about breastfeeding. But "all"?
  • "American kids often seem to get away with hitting their parents, even though they know they're not supposed to." (p. 255) This unsubstantiated statement is made to shine a light on French parents' ability to maintain strict discipline among their children, although Druckerman is careful to point out continuously that the French don't consider it discipline, just education.

And the list goes on.

There are some French practices that Druckerman chooses to reject. She breastfeeds despite the severe pressure around her not to. She struggles with the practice of warning children about rapporter contre. But unlike when she is critiquing American methods, Druckerman refrains from judging French practices that she rejects. She cites research about the outstanding health of French children despite the fact that the vast majority are not breastfed or not breastfed for long. She explains her reason for nursing as "panic."

She never probes, like the trained journalist she is, to consider the simple concept that the nation's children might even be healthier if more breast milk were flowing. And despite the fact that she continues to nurse her daughter, she makes it sound like the French are right and she is wrong for subjecting herself to "torture" and "suffering."

Even in instances where the French approach seems to put children in danger, Druckerman reserves opinion. The instance where this is most troubling is when she describes a parent who follows the French tradition of teaching children not to tattle (rapporter contre). She tells of an incident among her acquaintances: a young boy sees someone light a firecracker at school; his American mother urges him to report the other boy. His French father advises him "to consider the other boy’s popularity and whether he could beat Adrien [his son, the witness] up." Perhaps bullying isn't a concern in France, but Druckerman's background should make her very aware of how dangerous this rationale can be. Yet she reports without comment.

Compare that to how she reacts to parents in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who try to entice their son to eat parsley for a snack. Druckerman freely criticizes this. Did she ever consider that maybe this kid had a urinary tract infection and the parsley was a homeopathic cure? There's no proof of that, of course, but there's also no proof that these parents were trying to "override basic sensory experiences" (p. 212).

The Big Problem:

In the midst of these judgmental jabs, there is a bigger reason why I found this book so uninspiring: You never see Druckerman enjoying her children. She does tell us how proud she is when they impress Americans with their French manners, and there's great elation when the three kids sit sage at a restaurant table and allow her and her husband to enjoy a cup of coffee.

But conspicuously lacking in this parenting memoir are moments in which we see her family enjoying time together. There are no giggles, no family jokes and certainly no shared play time. If Druckerman's account is accurate, it seems the French never play with their children, and she is eager to imitate them. No LEGO forts for her!

It's actually painful to peek at adult-child moments in this book. The child is always expected to imitate the parent, but the parent never gets a chance to be silly or take a ride down the playground slide with her tot. Manners taught at a young age are great, but I want to tell moms in Paris (and Druckerman) that by skipping playtime with their kids they are missing out on some good times!

Purchase Bringing Up Bébé on Amazon

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