For someone who has never actually given birth nor received an advanced degree in child psychology, I have read a lot of parenting books.
We all need hobbies.
I began heading down this path when I worked long hours in a department store. On the rare occasions that they sent me to tidy up the children’s section, I would wander to the book aisle, hoping to get some mental stimulation at this tedious, low-paying job. It was here that I began reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, one of the most read books about pregnancy. It was either that or look at Goodnight Moon for the tenth time.
One reviewer on Amazon asserts that the author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting “assumes that pregnant women are idiots, and talks to them accordingly.”
That must have been what compelled me to keep reading, in search of “how to” guides in this area that were better, or at minimum, more respectful of their female readers.
Bringing Up Bébé: One American mother discovers the wisdom of French parenting is my latest attempt to find something useful, respectful, and accurate. An interview with author Pamela Druckerman on NPR had alerted me to what some had been dubbing Tiger Mom Goes to Paris.
Yes, both authors assert that there is something wrong with American-style permissive parenting, but the similarities end there.
It’s hard to know what to make of Bringing Up Bébé. At times, the content says more about Druckerman’s quirks and the American-style of parenting, than it may about the French. The style is closer to memoir than to parenting guide, which makes it very readable; yet, aside from the glossary at the start, it does not feel like something one would use as a reference guide.
It did, however, feel like an extended affirmation for those of us who find the helicopter-parenting trend to be unbearable. For those not up on that lingo, I am referring to the practice of parents basically hovering over their children and pressing all the controls, well past the age that youth need that level of assistance. True life example: after not being hired for a job at the age of 23, an individual’s parents call the hiring manager demanding to know why.
For those of us who cringe when parents attempt to negotiate with their children about things that should be non-negotiable, this book provides comfort. There are, apparently, parents somewhere who use common sense, who set firm boundaries, but allow their children the freedom to explore within them.
Druckerman describes a culture that values character-building above skill-building. Autonomy and a sense of justice are ranked above beginning to pad one’s resume at the age of five. It’s not that parents are dictating which hobbies their children should develop, but that they are given limits: Mommy is not chauffeur.
According to this author, French parents also do not give up their lives for their children. In our American culture, it seems expected that parents will stop going out, stop spending time alone, and basically stop functioning in ways that are outside of their children’s lives. They can work, if it is to support their children. They can do to dinner, but it must be with their children. This fosters self-centeredness in youth who have been messaged since birth that they are the most important thing. Druckerman explains that in France, parents do experience a disruption during the first few months after a baby is born, but then they return to creating boundaries. The parents require time for themselves.
But can we reach the conclusion that this is French parenting, or just parenting outside of the United States?
Certainly, there is the sense of a trend. There are observations and anecdotes. But one has to ask if there is not the least bit of exaggeration.
For all of the strengths this has in terms of examining varieties of parenting methods, there are some strange assumptions about gender roles, which reminded me that I apparently missed out on some major milestones when becoming socialized as a woman. We’re expected to understand the “mirroring” method of communication among women, which seems more like a device to propel plot in sitcoms rather than function in real life situations. That’s a minor point and one that can be easily overlooked.
A minor point that is harder to get beyond is the disconnect Druckerman has with feminism, as she writes: “If you drop the forlorn hope of fifty-fifty equality, it becomes easier to enjoy the fact that some urban French husbands do quite a lot of child care, cooking, and dishwashing” (193). She seems dismissive of “feminist rhetoric” while readily embracing the reality that Frenchwomen have structural supports enabling them to more easily balance career with personal life. She explains that France has “national paid maternity leave (the United States has none), the subsidized nannies and crèches, the free universal preschool from age three, and myriad tax credits and payments for having kids” (192).
Does she believe that Frenchwomen were just handed these advantages without any struggle, without any feminist argument?
Ideas, such as this, are not explored in the depth they should be, while others, like the practice of having children greet adults or taste all foods, are repeated in various sections of the book. It feels lopsided.
Another item that gets glossed over: she asserts that most middle-class American families prefer nannies to daycare centers. She also describes a bevy of activities that she claims the middle class takes part in, like the steady stream of extracurriculars for children. Perhaps middle class Park Slope fits this description, but what she has described is closer to what the wealthy do for their children.
Yet, Bringing Up Bébé was not a disappointing read. Druckerman raises issues that women receive instant judgement for, like questioning the practice of negotiating with children. Not sure what this means? Go into a grocery or department store and witness how few parents are willing to sternly, but with neutrality, say “no” to their children. The norm in the United States: bargaining and high drama.
While this book is sure to sound controversial to some, the French-style of parenting, as described by Druckerman, does not include calling a child “lazy” or “garbage.” But it does not fall into the trap of the other extreme, which involves doling out praise constantly.
In short, it calls for a return to common sense, respect, and order.
You can find this book at the Hartford Public Library.