Bringing Up Bébé

Are French Mothers Really So Poised and Perfect?
What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 14 2012 4:57 PM

Bringing Up Bébé

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An American mom and a French dad discuss Pamela Druckerman’s controversial parenting book.

Pamela Druckerman.
Pamela Druckerman, whose new book Bringing Up Bébé compares American and French styles of parenting

Benjamin Barda.

Dear Jean-Marc,

Rachael Larimore Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.

I’ve been a parent now for more than eight years, and—confession— I’ve never actually made it all the way through a parenting book. But I found Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting to be irresistible, if for no other reason than books that tell American parents that we’re doing it all wrong are guaranteed to spark controversy. Thank you for joining me in a discussion; I’m looking forward to your perspective on the book as a French parent.

To introduce myself: I have three children, all boys, ranging from age 2 to age 8. When my husband and I decided to start a family, I, like Druckerman, scooped up an armful of books on pregnancy and parenting. Unlike Druckerman, I didn’t pore over them and agonize over what “parenting style” would best suit us. We settled into what I like to call the “trial and error” method. Our kids are not the best eaters, and they probably watch too much television. They misbehave in restaurants, though rarely. On the other hand, they are happy and do well in school and are generally respectful toward others.  According to Druckerman’s thesis, my husband I probably do spend too much time with them. But I like to play Monopoly and read Harry Potter books, and my husband loves Legos, so our kids are stuck with us for a while.

 Though Druckerman might not entirely approve of my methods, I found things to admire about hers. Druckerman found herself raising a child in a culture that she was relatively new to, and she turned her journalist’s eye on the parents around her: Why are French babies so calm compared to mine? How do these French mothers do it? Were I in the same situation, I’d be tempted to withdraw into my own little world or to start looking at real-estate ads back in America. And I appreciate that Druckerman shared her own difficulties in trying to adopt some French parenting techniques. It keeps the book from getting too preachy, and it humanizes her. She’s not claiming to have discovered a miracle cure for bratty toddlers that we should all adopt immediately.

But I do have a few problems with the book (and that’s always more fun to talk about, non?). My biggest issue is that, to write a book that isn’t 800 pages and as dry as sawdust, Druckerman over-generalizes in describing “hyperparenting” as the definitive American parenting style. There are parents who overschedule their kids and obsess about their every milestone, and I will admit there is a certain societal pressure to show that you’re a good parent by putting your child’s every need first. But I think this applies mostly to upper-middle-class parents, and largely in urban areas. I’m curious to hear your take on her description of French parenting.

Additionally, I feel like Druckerman is sincere in her attempts to convince American parents that, with a little effort at the onset, they could actually have calmer, healthier children and have more time to relax. But the image she paints of thin, beautiful, well-dressed French mothers raising happy, well-behaved children, all while working and putting nutritional, made-from-scratch dinners on the table every night is intimidating (even if it’s too good to be true, as I suspect it is) and more likely to put her intended audience on the defensive than to help them change their ways.

Jean-Marc, I’m eagerly awaiting your thoughts on the book. Is there a singular French parenting style? Having read Druckerman’s descriptions of American children, are you putting off plans to visit our great country? And finally, how DID you get your kids to eat their haricots verts?

Rachael

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