Book Review: Bringing Up Bébé / French Children Don’t Throw Food

Critical American and British reviews of Pamela Druckerman’s books abound…

Bringing Up Bébé? No Thanks. I’d Rather Bring Up a Billionaire (Forbes)
French Children Don’t Throw Food. Really? (Franglaise Mummy)
Maman Knows Best: Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé
 (NYTimes)
The 4 Best Lessons from ‘Bringing Up Bébé’ (and 3 of Them Are Total B.S.) (Pure Wow)
The Secret to French Parenting (The New Yorker)
Zut! Can the French really be parents sans pareil? (The Telegraph)

And even some sobering French rejoinders…

Bringing Up Bébé: A French Dad Responds… (Slate)
French Moms: We’re Not as ‘Superior’ at Parenting as You Americans Think (The Atlantic)
The Truth About French Parenting: And I Would Know (The Atlantic)

But that’s not to say that Pamela Druckerman is full of sh!t. I still recommend her books for new parents, albeit with a grain of salt, because I do believe there are some valuable French interpretations of rather universal parenting principles that can be implemented across cultures — even if they are not uniquely original concepts. Hop over to MOMganized for a summary of my own take-aways.


I, too, read Bringing Up Bébé with the sweet, hopeful naivety that consumed my first pregnancy before the realities of motherhood in the United States set in. Despite the help I have at home in the form of an awesome, live-in mother-in-law, and the fact that I did not return to work, I was in a daily face-off with a fussy infant, who later morphed into a strong-willed toddler. Within months, I was eyeing “easy babies” with envy and sporadically googling all the things that could possibly be wrong with mine. Sydney would be nearly 20 months old before I found this Aha! Parenting article that helped me reframe my frustrations with raising a strong-willed child and ease the sting of my #FrenchParentingFail.

Like me, Laura June, former staff writer at New York Magazine’s The Cut (among other cool things), loved Bringing Up Bébé, as well as French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon, and French pediatrician Michel Cohen’s The New Basics. And like June, I had hoped to apply as many of the French parenting techniques as possible when my first child came along.

“I was armed and ready to bring my baby up in a distinctly un-American way, right there in Brooklyn, New York,” June touts. So was I — right across the East River, on the west side of Manhattan. However, some societal realities soon stirred self-reflection in both of us on our parallel motherhood journeys. Our introspective microscopes zoomed in on the communities in which we live and the lack of support American families — especially mothers — receive in comparison to those governed by the family-centric laws of other countries, France in particular. June highlights some important truths in “The Real Reason You’ll Never Be Able to Parent Like a French Mom” (The Cut) — which have more to do with surviving in an inefficient American society rather than being an inherently inefficient American mother.

Because Druckerman was living in France, she had access to the French government’s incredible services for families. In France, mothers get 16 full weeks of paid leave (26 for your third child), and the government pays an allowance to parents for each child.

There is a national child-care system, which, though it has a notoriously long wait list, is staffed with trained child-care workers who are paid better than their American counterparts. It provides full meals for children (most American day cares do not, adding to the time burden at home), and it’s funded at a rate of about 80 percent by the state. Some parents pay nothing. Nothing at all.

Nannies are licensed by the state. Health care in France is incredibly affordable (and nearly free for some). The French get five weeks off per year: 25 paid days per year. Druckerman notes all of this, adding that in America, where these things don’t exist, parenting the French way can be a lonely road. But that didn’t stop us from becoming raging addicts for all things French in parenting.

The point here isn’t “France is awesome and we suck.” The point is that it’s not a huge fucking surprise that French parents are happier than American ones. Of course they have time to present a vegetable to a child ten or 20 times before giving up and cracking out the Goldfish crackers. Of course they are better rested and less fat. Their government supports them. They live in a country that has accepted the reality that most people eventually have children, and then continue to work outside the home.

It’s not simply that work and family aren’t ideal or workable: It’s that they’re not workable here, in the United States, where our government isn’t interested in providing us with much more than lip service when it comes to equal pay and paid leave and child-care workers who are well-trained and well-paid in child-care centers and schools that are safe and affordable.

(The Cut)

Those same American-versus-French discrepancies are detailed by Jenny Anderson, a 10-year veteran of the New York Times, where she covered finance and then schools. Her Quartz piece, “French moms aren’t superior parents — they just have it easier,” concludes that rather than idolizing French women for all they do, we should start idolizing French policies that allow for exercise, work, and the personal grooming that make the myth seem like reality.

Anderson also adds caution before romanticizing French schooling, which is described by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry — a French parent who speaks Americanese on the Twitters — as a system that “seeks to mercilessly beat any shred of nonconformity out of children (the beating is now done mostly psychologically) so that they may be slotted into a society that, itself, treats nonconformity the way the immune system treats foreign elements.”

It’s true that French children throw fewer tantrums than their American counterparts. But at costs that seem unacceptable to me. It’s telling that the only place I can remember encountering children “better behaved” than French children was in the Soviet Union, where my parents briefly worked and lived when I was a child, and where [foreign] parents were simultaneously shocked and delighted to see a child who thought it was normal to express himself, take part in conversation and so forth.

(The Atlantic)

Yikes.

Further adding to the conversation from a voice of actual French experience is Sophie of FranglaiseMummy, who includes the following disclaimer before weighing in on the criticisms of Druckerman’s book — many of which she received from French parents themselves (in other words, Sophie is not just an envious, defensive foreigner; she’s in good French company).

In case you don’t read this blog often and want to know if I’m qualified to comment, here’s some quick background on me:

I am a Brit, married to a Frenchman and I have two half British/half French daughters. We spent the first 3.5 years of our eldest daughter’s life in France and have been in the UK for the last nearly 3 years. In total, I lived in France for 13 years and I have lived in the UK for 24 years. I should also point out that I never lived as an expat in France; I have a degree in French, I am bilingual, the majority of my friends in France are French and I had a French boyfriend for 3 years before meeting my husband of 10 years (both of which came with a French family that I became part of).

So that out of the way, here are my thoughts/feelings on the book…

(FranglaiseMummy)

Sophie notes, in particular, that France has a real problem with “Enfants Rois” (King Child), a phenomenon which Druckerman mentions, but doesn’t detail in her book. She describes how her mother-in-law, a school doctor in the Avignon region, burst out laughing when Sophie told her about French Children Don’t Throw Food. Her m-i-l then went on to describe the nastiness, aggression and lack of general respect that she receives in her practice from children as young as 3 years old nearly daily. The problem is only getting worse, Sophie alleges in her blog.

So, what is true? What is false? And what differences are there, really?

The FranglaiseMummy offers the below breakdown, followed by a disclaimer that her list is neither an attack on France nor the UK as she loves both countries — and is “hence raising [their] children the Franglais way — taking the bits of each culture that work for [them].”

  • Children in France throw food. Children in the UK throw food. There are some children in both countries that don’t, but in general, this is what small children do.

  • Women in France have a lot more pressure on them to go back to being “a woman” very quickly. This includes everything from weight, to general appearance, to having a social life sans bébé to returning to work soon after giving birth. French maternity leave is 16 weeks and most mums return to work within 3-6 months of having a baby.

  • As most women do go back to work soon after having a baby, and as childcare is so affordable (with state help) in France, it means that most French children are raised on average 4-5 full days a week by a “nounou” (childminder) or in a crèche (like a UK nursery).

  • French babies on average sleep in their own cot, in their own bedroom as soon as they come home from hospital (aged around 5 days). Co-sleeping is almost unheard of and definitely frowned upon. Some parents have babies in their room with them, but nowhere near as much as in the UK and not for as long.

  • French parents shout at their children. At home. In the park. In the supermarket. I have heard the following being yelled at small children in public “tu me fais chier!” (you’re pissing me off!), “tu me gonfles!” (you’re doing my head in!) and “tu continues comme ça et je t’en colle une!” (carry on doing that and I’ll give you a smack/wallop you one!) Not exactly the picture that Druckerman paints in her book.

  • Our eldest daughter is 6 going on 16 at the moment, as are most of her school friends in the UK, and the other mums and I are often talking about the attitude we get from them. On a recent holiday to France, I had the exact same conversation with a French friend about her 6-year old daughter. It’s the same, people!

  • School on the other hand is totally different. School in France is super strict, with children being shouted at regularly and kept in place by fear, with creativity shunned and learning done by rote (French children have to learn poetry and do dictations from a young age). I remember our nounou’s 6-year old daughter being terrified one day as she’d forgotten her ruler and would get in trouble for not having it. She and her mum plotted that she would drive home and get it, the daughter would sneak to the toilet so the mum could get it to her without the teacher knowing. Wow, great lesson in life to teach kids: lying and deceit.

  • School in the UK is more relaxed, creativity is encouraged and all the teachers that L has had so far (3 different ones) have managed to keep their classes of 30 children in line through being nice but firm. I have never heard any of them raise their voices to the children. I was recently on a school trip with L’s class and it’s amazing the respect and control that their teacher was able to command.

  • Druckerman talks a lot about British parents being “helicopter” parents, but I have rarely witnessed this. I have seen as much helicopter parenting in France as in the UK, and I think it depends on the type of person the parent is, rather than their nationality.

  • French parents are more willing to leave their babies/children at a younger age and for a longer time than British parents. As an example, I went back to work 4 full days a week in France when L was 3 months old, and when she was 2 years old, Hubs and I went to the Dominican Republic for two weeks without her, leaving her with her nounou, who she called “Tata” (Auntie) as she was so like a member of the family. I have also just left C with Hubs for the weekend so I could have a girls’ weekend with my friends from uni – she turned 6 months on Sunday (I am still breastfeeding so simply expressed whilst away and Hubs fed her bottles in my absence.)

  • From experience, I would say that the French are far more open to smacking (bottoms) than the British. I don’t know anyone in France who this shocks, yet a lot of my British parent friends would never do this and frown upon those who do it.

After all of that, I still recommend Druckerman’s French-glorifying books (and there are a lot of them) as food for thought as you cater your own parenting blends to your family’s tastes. (Oh, puns.) While there is very little within these two titles that can be certified as uniquely and distinctly French parenting concepts, I do believe there are some valuable French interpretations of universal parenting principles that can be implemented across cultures because the beautifully different facets of the human race are much more alike overall than they are different. And let’s face it, not everything in parenthood — regardless of your ethnic or cultural background — is intuitive. If it were, there would be a lot less parenting books and blogs out there.

ADD BRINGING UP BÉBÉ TO YOUR AMAZON CART
AND TOSS IN FRENCH CHILDREN DON’T THROW FOOD

What are the French parenting methods that I took away from these books? And what were yours? The discussion continues on MOMganized for the Soul.


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