Bringing Up Bebe – A Book Review

I wish I could do the proper accent marks for “bebe” but I can’t. I mean, I probably could if I tried really hard, but . . . I’m not going to.

Before I begin my discussion of this is the latest parenting book/mommy memoir sweeping the world, I want to share my favorite anecdote from it. Pamela Druckerman’s daughter, Bean, who has been raised in France, is visiting her American grandmother. The American grandmother is excited to share with Bean American delicacies, such as Kraft Mac & Cheese. But Bean won’t eat it. “That’s not real cheese,” she says. Awesome.

As far as I can tell, Bebe is being received better than Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, possibly because, as Americans, we seem to have accepted that the French do everything better already – eat, dress, have sex – so adding parenting is no big thing. And also we don’t believe the French are better at anything we consider important – war, making money – so it’s not threatening to accept their parenting advice. Whereas the implication that China is beating us at parenting is . . . well, we react badly.

Of course, Amy Chua’s name-recognition still sells books. She has a blurb for Bebe And it’s interesting, because her blurb commends Druckerman for “her premise that parents of all cultures should be able to learn from one another.” I thought that was actually more true of Chua’s book, which was less a valorization of the “Chinese” way of child-rearing than it was a memoir, with a description of Chua’s parenting techniques, and the results, both good and ill. Whereas I actually think Pamela Druckerman’s Bebe is more positive on French parenting. She expresses American hesitation over some things, but mostly seems to think those American hesitations ought to be overcome in order to be a better parent.

I’m going to sound critical in this post and I don’t mean to, entirely. I got a lot out of this book. A lot of it was really, incredibly useful. A lot of it made me feel like I’ve already screwed up irrevocably, but some of the patterns and habits she described I’m definitely going to take on more in my life. Druckerman writes about The Pause when it comes to sleeping infants – starting as early as a few weeks old, you hear them cry, and then you wait to see if they actually need something or if they’re just experiencing a sleep cycle. That trains the babies to regulate their own sleep and it trains the parents to respond to the children with patience and understanding instead of rushing in with the first solution you think of. Definitely if I have another kid I will be employing The Pause.

Druckerman describes French eating habits – three meals a day, one snack, all actual food, and no constant supply of Cheerios in between. I’m going to try to move towards this.

The cadre is big in France – having a strong, strictly held framework of rules, but within those rules, more or less a free-for-all. The rules include eating and sleeping rituals, minding Mama’s “no”, and various other things depending on the family. I am terrible at being strict. I am going to try harder. As Druckerman says the French say to their children, C’est moi qui decide! (It’s me who decides.)

And I’ve already started saying that to Zoe (“C’est moi, Zoe! And I decide non!”), and I’ve started saying, “Soi sage,” and “Attend!” even though she has no clue what I’m talking about. “Attend” means “wait.” “Soi sage” means “Be wise” and is the French replacement for “Be good.” And it’s different in fairly important ways. Being “good” means being quiet and unobtrusive, doing what your parents or other adults have told you to do. Being “sage” means being in control of yourself, aware of your needs as well as the needs of others, conducting yourself in a way that speaks well of you. I’d definitely rather Zoe be sage than good.

More than any particular technique, Druckerman describes an overall attitude about children that I have tried, in part, to exercise with Zoe, sometimes with limited success. The idea is that children are people, and need to be spoken to and respected as people. They can understand the things you say to them, and they are capable of controlling their behavior rather well, if they are given the trust to do so.

She also writes of a culture where treating your children as one incredibly important and delightful part of your rich, full life, rather than your entire life and identity, is the norm. I try that, too. With limited success.

Even with all the things I like about this book, I think there are some things that Druckerman brings up without fully exploring the implications. One point she emphasizes more than once, especially in the eating and sleeping chapters, is the degree to which the French do not think of things like The Pause and the four-times-a-day eating schedule as anything special. They are hard-pressed to speak about the particulars of how they get their kids to sleep through the night so early, or eat so well. Druckerman instead investigates, discovers The Pause, and then asks a French friend, “Is this what you do?” and the French friend says, “Oh, yeah, I do that, I just never thought of it as doing anything before.” Druckerman seems to respond to this with an at-times overwrought sense that the French are just naturally magical. But there’s something more there that needs exploration. America is a country that absolutely prides itself on its individualism and its pluralism. Even in our current, bifurcated, vituperative environment, wherein the right prefers individualism and the left pluralism, we still are much more strongly committed to those ideals than most other countries are. And, in committing to those ideas, we do not take well to national consensus on much of anything, including the best ways to raise children. We are resistant to the very idea of a national character, except for one of, you know, a plurality of rugged individuals.

Most other countries are not like that. Most other countries are made up of people who, for the most part, have agreed, even fictively, to live as if they are one culture. At least, they agree more often than Americans ever agree. And France is, if not the epitome of a nation valorizing its particularity, certainly very strongly in favor of “French-ness.” (As far as I can tell.) So it’s a lot easier to have a consensus on the best way to raise children, and, when there’s a cultural consensus, then it’s just what you do, not something you have to think about. Michael Pollan has already valorized how other countries have more entrenched and culturally agreed-upon ways of eating; it’s not surprising that this homogeny would extend to areas outside the kitchen.

And not having to think about it goes a LONG way towards calm, confident parents. A LONG, LONG, LONG way. I wonder if French success is not so much attributable to doing The Pause, or the four meals, or anything else, but just the confidence of not having to say to yourself, every time your baby cries, “What should I do? Should I follow the book my mother-in-law gave me or the advice my grandmother told me or what my yoga buddy does? Is what I’m doing working? How will I know when it’s working? When should I stop trying this technique and find another in the over-saturated marketplace of parenting advice that’s available to me?” That kind of shit can drive you nuts. And it does. And it applies to everything. Many, many American mothers are walking around going, “I gave her the Cheerios, which are healthy but not local or organic, and then I made her cry it out for her nap, which is either the only way to get her to sleep or a demonically evil, psychologically scarring thing to do to your child. I didn’t let her watch TV today but then she didn’t know what her friend was talking about when he started singing a song from ‘Barney’ so do I let her watch TV or do I keep her isolated from her friends? And then she ran from me at the park and I hollered at her but was I being too harsh? Or am I obviously lax if my kid ran away from me at all?” (I may have mentioned this kind of batshit stuff before.) It must be nice to have a culture in which everybody is doing basically the same thing so you don’t have to think about it all the goddamn time. I mean, I know not every mother is a neurotic mess like me, but . . . actually, I can only think of one mother I know – and with whom I’ve discussed parenting – who doesn’t seem to be a neurotic mess like me. And maybe she just hides it better.

And I won’t even go into how much easier it is to balance work and life and family in a country that has free and/or subsidized child care for infants through school-age children, and paid-for maternity leave, and all the rest.

Which is not to say that the France she depicts is a judgement-free culture. She talks about the pressure to stay thin and chic, to be beautiful for your husband when he comes home, to have the energy to enforce the cadre and work and cook delicious, healthy meals at least twice a day and three when the kids are not in school for lunch and maintain one’s looks and be sexy for your husband and maintain a relationship with your husband such that you actually want to be sexy for him. But she sort of glides over it. She seems to think that she, as an American, is feeling the pressure in a way that the supremely confident, naturally perfect, magical French women don’t.

And I’m willing to bet that’s not true. I’m willing to believe that France is more homogenized, culturally, than America, because just about every culture is, and also because the French seem to take special pride in their French-ness. But it’s not like there are no individuals. Surely there are some French women who feel their pixie dust supply is a little low, and who wish that a child throwing a tantrum in the store or a pair of sweatpants wouldn’t be the national oddity Druckerman claims it is.

More than that, I bet there are plenty of actual French people who could pick up this book and say, “This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my life.” But maybe I’m wrong.

The chapter on husbands is called, “I adore this baguette.” In it, she tells the story of being on vacation with another couple and all of the attendant children. The other husband made a ritual of visiting a bakery daily and bringing back the goods. When he handed his wife a baguette, she responded with a  beaming smile and said, “J’adore cette baguette!” And that is, indeed, a lovely reminder to be always enthusiastic about your partner’s efforts, etc., etc. But in the rest of the chapter she talks about how French women – most of whom do work outside the home, due to the government-subsidized child care – do a far greater share of the housework than their husbands, and a far greater share of the child care, too. We here in America complain that while women are expected to be Modern and Actualized and Do It All, men are stuck in the fifties and won’t help us with the dishes. But in France, apparently, that’s much closer to true than it is here. And yet, Druckerman writes, American wives are angry at all their husbands don’t do, whereas French wives are tickled at how incompetent men are and still happy and in love with them.

Now, I again wonder. Maybe it’s easier to be happy with your husband when your government is picking up the bill for their pre-school. Maybe it’s easier to be happier with your husband when you’re not even supposed to feel guilty about wanting a life outside your child. Maybe it’s easier to be happier with your husband in a place where it’s completely normal and acceptable for children as young as three or four to go on week-long field trips with their teachers, leaving you and your husband at home, alone, to . . . bond.

But. As a bratty American feminist, I don’t really want to laugh jovially about my husband’s incompetence around a washing machine and go about my merry way. I don’t think men are incompetent; I don’t think they’re foolish; and I don’t buy into the more American claim that they simply care less about the house being clean than women do. I think they should be held responsible for the doing 50% of the work that is maintaining a home, and that they should be held responsible for being actual partners to their wives, instead of acting the spoiled son, who, yes, sometimes makes a portion and sometimes makes all of the money. So I’m not buying Druckerman’s “The French do this better than us!” thesis on this issue.

(Because I feel it’s necessary for his honor – Jason does quite a bit of the cleaning and child care around here. And he cares WAY more about the cleanliness of our house than I do.)

If I learned anything from Alfie Kohn’s excellent Unconditional Parenting, it’s that child-rearing is not a question of, “How do I raise a child?” It’s “How do I raise an adult?” That seems to be something the French would explicitly agree with, but I wonder how serious Druckerman takes the premise. She hints at certain ways of being that are instilled in French kids early and often – polite responses to adults, philosophy in grade school, a decided lack of praise for scholarly achievement – and for the most part seems to find these positive. (She stumbles a bit when it comes to the school environment, which is apparently considered quite harsh even by many French people.) But I kept wondering about the ways France and America are different from each other for adults, and how these various emphases on one way of parenting over another might be responses to the kinds of adults we think we want, and to the kind of world those adults will have to live in. I don’t know the answers here. But I wish Druckerman’s lens had glanced up a little more often, to absorb the impact of adult culture and what parents’ goals for their children were and why those goals made sense.

I don’t mean to knock this book. As a parenting advice book, it’s really pretty good. I’m hoping to incorporate many of the suggestions and attitudes I found here to my daily routine. I just left wishing Druckerman had delved even deeper into the cultural differences. I wanted this to be less a polemic for French parenting than a description of it.

But the lesson we learned from Battle Hymn was that polemic, even when it’s not really there, sells better than description.

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3 thoughts on “Bringing Up Bebe – A Book Review

  1. gautier says:

    Encore un livre sur les français .Le problème des américains vivant en France , c,est qu,ils expliquent comment font les français ,en général leurs observations sont juste .Mais ils n,expliquent pas pourquoi les français le font.La façon de faire des français n,est pas transposable a la société américaine .Il y a des raisons historique , géographique et culturelle .par exemple ils n,expliquent pas pourquoi les français sont si attachés aux cantine scolaire et a la qualité des aliments pour leurs enfants.les cantines sont devenues obligatoire en France après la seconde guerre mondial parce que la France était ruiné et les français avaient faim et la cantine était le seul moyen pour que tous les enfants aient aux moins un repas par jour .Les expatrier américain ne vous expliquent pas la France est un petit pays et un petit pays ne se gère pas comme un pays comme l,Amérique .en superficie la France doit correspondre a un état comme le Texas. Autre différence énorme.Politiquement, un hommes politique français de droite passerait pour un gauchiste en Amérique .Il est temps d,expliquer aux français et aux américains que nous avons de moins en moins de valeurs commune .

  2. MeanderingMama says:

    I like your social context angle on the book. I am Russian and live in the UK. Visiting my home country with a toddler has been a very interesting experience. The cultural context has hugely impacted my parenting style, maybe more so than I would be willing to admit. For example, a very simple thing like snacking, Russian children don’t snack, they have their set meals which they have at home and then go out for a walk. Within a couple of days, Arthur just sort of naturally stopped expecting food on walks and was very happy to wait to get back home for his home made soup. There was no effort on my part, just an easy fitting into the existing society routine. Then we were back to England where within a few days I started loading the pram with snacks, just because every other child eats at the playground and all our friends do…. and so Arthur will definitely want his raisins or pom-bears, or whatever else, and will actually get upset if he doesn’t get them. I have had other similar experiences in other aspects of child rearing which does make me think that our parenting style as well as our children’s behaviour and expectations are largely formed by the cultural norm of the society we live in, and behaviours and reactions of other members of society, rather than just exclusively by our own individual actions.

    Further to the point of the difference between US and France, I think that the difference is not just the cultural homogeneity of France compared to the US per se, it is the fact that France is a socialist country and US is capitalist. Socialist countries do not want their citizens to be like American adults, they want them French, proud of French-ness and homogenised. I get a feeling that it’s similar to Denmark where everyone is gorgeous but very similar to each other, no one wants to stand out. It’s not a criticism on my part, I actually don’t believe in individuality anyway, I think people are all pretty much the same.

    Thank you for your review of the book, I thought it was very insightful.

    • perica1981 says:

      Thanks so much for reading! I think it’s really interesting, and perhaps not surprising, that our children’s expectations and our expectations change depending on where we are.

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