Book Review: “Bringing Up Bebe”

February 7, 2012 · 14 comments

in Book Reviews, Our "View" of Babies

Bringing Up BebePerhaps you’ve heard of former Wall Street Journal reporter Pamela Druckerman’s new memoir, Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting?

Written in a lively, engaging style, laced with many humorous anecdotes, and well researched, this is not a “how to”, so much as it is Druckerman’s finely observed account of how she finds herself married to a British man and living in Paris when their first child is born, ten years ago. (She’s since had two more children, and she and her family still reside in Paris.) In a hilarious scene that will ring all too true for many American parents of toddlers, she recounts how she and her husband decide to take a  a brief  summer “holiday” with their then 18 month old daughter (the holiday that makes them swear off “travel, joy, and ever having more kids”).

As she looks around, Druckerman notices that the Parisian parents dining with their toddlers of the same age don’t look stressed or hassled, and unlike her daughter, the Parisian toddlers are sitting happily in their highchairs eating “fish, and even vegetables.” She begins to wonder about the differences she’s observing. She says, “Before I had a child, I never paid attention to anyone else’s. And now I mostly look at my own. I can’t help but notice that there seems to be another way. But what exactly is it?” And so, we have the beginnings of the book, which has been given much attention and advanced promotion in the popular press in recent days.

The gist of the many articles/reviews  I’ve read  is that “French parenting” (and by extension French parents) is superior to American parenting because it results in babies who sleep through the night at three months of age, are quite well mannered and polite as toddlers, and have sophisticated tastes in food. While all of these things may be true, I think the focus is skewed.

The problem I find with the way the book is being promoted and reviewed is that (as usual) the media is focused on asking and answering the question, “Is French parenting superior to American parenting?” Does this ring any bells? Last year, it was Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of  The Tiger Mother, about Chinese Parenting that was the focus of the controversy. (I read that one too! ) However, framing the discussion in these terms misses the point, and while it is dubious as to whether it sells more books, what it does do is raise hackles, result in snap judgments, and add fuel to the tired old argument of  who has dibs on the “the best way to parent.”

Many won’t even open the book because they’ve pre-judged it based on recent news coverage, and the argument will continue to rage on at a superficial level. This serves no one well.  I think the question Druckerman begins with is a much more useful one to consider. Are there things we can learn from observing the way parents in another country raise their children that can inform our own quest to do well by our children, while  allowing us to enjoy them (and  parenting) more at the same time? If there are things to learn, what are they? Druckerman notes “nobody seems to like the relentless, unhappy pace of American parenting, least of all parents themselves.” She notices French parents seem less guilt and anxiety ridden , and they seem to enjoy their children more. 

Druckerman states at the beginning that she doesn’t suffer from a pro-France bias, and when she says”French parents” she’s generalizing, because of course, everybody is different, and she’s comparing mostly educated middle and upper middle class French parents with their American counterparts. She also notes that France provides families with all kinds of public support services that make parenting more enjoyable and less stressful- things like universal (and free) health care, free preschool, and even monthly cash allotments for having children, yet she doesn’t think this fully explains the differences she notes. To her, it seems “the French have a whole different framework for raising kids.”

Druckerman concludes the first chapter of the book this way:” There are dozens of books offering Americans helpful theories on how to parent differently. I haven’t got a theory…. I’m starting with the outcome and working backward to figure out how the French got there. It turns out that to be a different kind of parent, you don’t just need a different parenting philosophy. You need a very different view of what a child actually is.”

As I read these words, I find myself  cheering. This is exactly what I have come to believe, based not only on my experience, but on my studies with Magda Gerber (Hungarian, not French) who sought  to revolutionize not just how parents and others care for and raise babies, but who believed this shift could not and would not come about through teaching or learning any particular “technique” or following any set of prescribed do’s and don’t’s, but through a fundamental change in the way we see and think about babies. My take on this: “If we change the way we think about babies, we change what we do, and if we change what we do, we change the outcomes we get. It’s as simple as that.”

So, my plea is for a more nuanced conversation. My hope is that people will read the book before judging and dismissing it, and that we can move beyond simplistic stereotyping, and arguments about whether the French, or the Chinese, or the Hungarians, or the Finns are “superior” parents, and instead talk about what we can learn from and share with each other that will lead to raising happy, healthy, well rounded, resilient, children and result in strong families.

(Note: It is rumored that many French babies sleep through the night starting at three to four months of age. Many who haven’t yet read Druckerman’s book believe this is because they are bottle fed, or left to cry without comfort. Nothing could be further from the truth.  A hint to helping baby learn to sleep well from early on without “crying it out”:  Combine a bit of science with sensitive observation and response. Most of all, begin with trust in a baby’s capabilities. Bringing Up Bebe is worth buying and reading just for the chapter on sleep.)

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Bence Gerber February 8, 2012

An insightful, informative review. I like the suggestion: “what we can learn from and share with each other that will lead to raising happy, healthy, well rounded, resilient, children and result in strong families.” … and … “If we change the way we think about babies, we change what we do, and if we change what we do, we change the outcomes we get. It’s as simple as that.”

Alice Callahan February 8, 2012

I’m intrigued by the sleep chapter! I have been thinking lately about the fact that our newborns are born knowing how to go to sleep without a lot of help (but in a very different environment) and how we go from that starting point to an increasing number of interventions and associations to help them sleep. You know my story: bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, an association that required CIO to break. I have been thinking a lot about what we could have done differently from the start, but I don’t want to suggest any early sleep training for young infants – maybe just more opportunities for them to self-soothe in some quiet, supported way. As you say – beginning with trust in a baby’s capabilities. My husband rolls his eyes and says, “easier said than done!”

Lisa February 8, 2012

Hi Alice,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! I had to laugh at your husband’s “Easier said than done!” and roll of the eyes, because I am hard at work on a sleep post- which is proving to be a bear (partly because I stayed up half the night last night reading and writing, and then had an early morning and long day today, so my brain is addled)! In an attempt to inject some humor into the post, I just finished penning an imaginary reaction from one of my readers who rolls her eyes and says “Easy for you to say!” when I suggest that very young babies can astonish us with how capable they are, if we can just manage to trust them, and we give them many opportunities to experience learning through doing, including self-soothing- with support as needed, of course! I don’t think I’m going to get this post finished tonight, but I plan on linking to yours, and I look forward to continuing this dialogue with you!

Alice Callahan February 8, 2012

I am right there with you on the staying up half the night researching and writing. My interest in infant sleep has ironically resulted in many lost hours of sleep for me! And it doesn’t help that BabyC is trying to figure out if she needs two naps or one these days — my writing blocks are increasingly erratic. Your hard work inspires me to get back at it tonight:)

Karen Le Billon February 8, 2012

Love this thoughtful review, particularly this question:
“Are there things we can learn from observing the way parents in another country raise their children that can inform our own quest to do well by our children, while allowing us to enjoy them (and parenting) more at the same time? If there are things to learn, what are they?”

My answer to the first question is ‘yes’! But a qualified yes. Observing a culture from the outside is very different than living within it. I am married to a Frenchman (but I was born in North America) and we have lived with our 2 young daughters in both places. There are many aspects of French parenting I wouldn’t recommend – but you don’t really see them unless you live with a French family (and have a French mother-in-law)! The French are known for their ‘pudeur’ (discretion), so a foreigner living in France will only get part of the story. I think, for example, that the French emphasis on obedience risks stifling creativity and empathy in children. But families within any culture are so diverse that my statement isn’t true for all French families we met (although many of them).

As to the second question: we could definitely learn about how the French feed their children well. They have a well thought-out set of parenting strategies, great school curriculum, smart regulations — the whole package. Their kids really do eat a huge variety of healthy food – and like it. If you don’t believe me, check out the French Kids School Lunch project, where I blog every week about the school lunches kids are eating in France…it’s really quite remarkable.

Anyway, thanks for the review!

Yam Erez February 9, 2012

I’m definitely intrigued, and I’m way past this stage — my kids are 21, 19, and 15. But I can relate to the fatigue and the drawstring pants. I’m most interested in how to stop kids’ interrrupting adult conversation and how to get them to eat real food. Appropos the narrated play, what I’ve seen in my income-sharing community is narrated food choice, i.e., Parent standing at the steam table saying to Kid, “Do you want cottage cheese? Bobo, do you want cottage cheese? Yes? No? How about tomatoes? Did you hear me?”

I would simply make up a plate for my kid with a little of this and a little of that. And she either ate it or didn’t. No “Finish your peas first. One more spoonful.” She could have more of whatever she finished. Period. I even witnessed this exchange:

Mom: Yoni, you didn’t eat your egg.
Kid: Yes I did.
Mom: Come over here and let me smell your mouth.

!!! Can you say obsessive-controlling-hovering???

parisbreakfast February 9, 2012

Thank you.
You’ve nailed it with a very balanced review.
I’ve been trying to write about this book & I’m not sure I’ve come close to relating how interesting it is. I don’t have children but I do go to France often and I’m always amazed how French children seem calm, well-behaved and happy. My photos are perhaps better than my words. Druckerman’s book answers a lot of questions I had lurking. It also makes me reconsider aspects of my own childhood.
Altogether a delightful and intriguing book.

Sarah February 10, 2012

Thank goodness for blogs that break through the sensationalized media hype to offer a balanced look at a book that one hopes will be a interesting dialogue starter. Looking forward to reading it following your review.

Suzanne February 25, 2012

As an expat mom in Japan, I’m always interested in hearing about parenting styles around the world. Of course the French always seem to do everything better than the rest of us, but I’d like to recommend CALL ME OKAASAN: ADVENTURES IN MULTICULTURAL PARENTING, a collection of essays by mothers around the world for a more global perspective.

Kitty Raymond March 27, 2012

I loved reading your review of this book. I just reviewed it a few days ago for my blog at Something that stood out to me is that Drukerman observed that there is general agreement on parenting style in France. Unlike the US and Canada, there are not 21 different books, articles, magazines each giving differing advise.

I visited Holland two years ago to observe the quiet lifestyle they preserve for young children. A discussion with a family researcher there, revealed the same thing: there is nearly universal agreement on how babies and children should be raised. And guess what! Parents actually support each other in their parenting roles.

I think the results might be that parents will feel more confident in their role, thus being able to be consistent with their parenting goals.

Kitty Raymond

Vanessa July 20, 2012

I just started reading this book and have just finished chapter 4, I am fascinated by the sleep approach, how come nobody ever talked about this! I had just heard of putting the baby awake to sleep but didn’t seem to make much of a difference when my son was an infant. I was wondering what do you think about what they talk about meals, is interesting and it reminds me a little bit of the way I grew up in Mexico, there were set times for meals for everyone but if we got hungry before we were allowed fruit. I guess it worked but at the same time it goes against say a more Montessori approach where a child knows when is hungry. Also the idea of scheduling feedings for a baby does make me weary.

Lisa July 20, 2012

Hi Vanessa,

I DO believe babies know when they are hungry, and they should be fed on demand. As long as babies aren’t being nursed constantly or for reasons other than hunger (comfort feeding or to put them to sleep), they find a rhythm of feeding that works for their bodies, and they retain the ability to listen to their own innate wisdom about when they are hungry and need food. As babies begin to eat solid foods, I believe in offering them meals at regular times, based on their individual body rhythms, and if they are hungry in-between meals, I think it’s perfectly fine to offer them a healthy snack (fruit, nuts, vegetables, or whole grain bread). I think problems can develop if food is constantly available, anytime, anywhere, and/or children are bribed (“No sweets until you eat all your peas.”) or forced to eat more than they want, or a constant barrage of sweet, processed (junk) food is made available. Alice Callahan just wrote a great post with 11 tips for encouraging toddlers to develop healthy eating habits. Did you happen to see it?

Vanessa July 21, 2012

Hi Lisa,
Thank you for your thoughtful response and thank you for sharing that link, that is a very wonderful post!

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