woman in front of eiffel tower with baby
Parenting advice, it’s everywhere! We don’t really notice it until we become parents ourselves, then suddenly it seems to come from all directions - television, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet. Not to be outdone by the many media sources telling us how to raise our kids, the people in our lives suddenly become experts on the topic! Family, friends, co-workers, and complete strangers can’t seem to stop themselves from offering (mostly unsolicited) advice. I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of it myself.
As if being a new parent isn’t stressful enough, the minute a child comes into the world, we have to sift through myriad opinions advising every stage of growth for the next 20 plus years. Like it or not, this inundation of information, some based on research, some not, shapes the way we guide our children and behave as parents. As American parents, we spend years exposed to influences telling us that education starts at birth, the more attention given to the child the better, for every good action there is a reward, and kids need to have the best to be the best. Of course, ideas may change over time and space, but wherever we are, parenting values are reinforced by the community in some way or another, ultimately influencing how we guide our children.
So, what does a new mom or dad do when life’s little twists and turns lead them to raising children in another country where parenting styles and cultural values are different? In the book, Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman tells a story of an American in Paris who finds herself faced not only with learning a new language and fitting into a new culture, but parenting in a world not yet her own. A journalist at the time, Druckerman had no intention of writing a book on parenting. In fact, it wasn’t until she and her husband started taking their 18-month-old daughter to restaurants that she started to notice that French toddlers behave very differently in restaurants than American toddlers – without the usual shrieking, spilling, and mess under the table.
Intrigued by what she witnessed, and naturally inquisitive, she began to travel with a notebook in her diaper bag, jotting down observations and eventually interviewing French parents. From the moment Bringing Up Bébé made its bookstore appearance in the spring of 2012, critics were quick to label it as a negative critique of American parenting, treating it as if it were a full blown scientific study on the topic. Since I had lived in Paris and interacted with French families as a babysitter while studying abroad, I was intrigued. Just pages into the first chapter, it became clear that many of the ranting and raving critics hadn’t taken the time to actually read the book. Quelle surprise!
In this mom’s opinion, Bringing Up Bébé is a delightful chronicle of one new mother’s parenting adventure. Armed with the beliefs instilled during her American upbringing, Druckerman artfully and humorously describes her experiences and realizations as she navigates a parenting style influenced by aspects of the French culture distinctly different from her own. She highlights the trial and error of parenting that we all experience while providing an almost accidental insight into the cultural, social, and governmental structures serving as a basis for her perceived differences between French and American parenting philosophies.
Almost sad to finish this delightful read, I contacted Druckerman in Paris to probe a little further into her experiences.
Q: Given that you have lived in France for a number of years and obviously have been influenced by its culture, what’s the perspective from which you have chosen to write this book? What kind of response have you received from everyday American mothers?
A: I couldn’t have written the book from anything other than an American perspective. It’s who I am! The response from American parents has been overwhelmingly positive. I get warm, smart, appreciative letters on almost a daily basis. I think the book has resonated with American moms because we’ve been parenting in a way that doesn’t completely make sense to us. We’re looking for alternatives. My book is one small part of a larger conversation about this.
Q: What many reviews of your book fail to highlight is the fact that there are some distinct differences between the types of resources available to parents, children, and women in France as compared with America, such as national healthcare and daycare (crèche). By drawing attention to these fundamental differences, were you hoping to spark change?
A: I didn’t write the book as a policy argument, though I’m certainly persuaded – after living in France – that our government could provide more concrete help for working mothers. We don’t have national paid maternity leave, and in most cases public education only starts at age four or five. The U.S. military runs America’s largest network of day-cares, a system that looks remarkably like the French crèche.
Q: As an English-speaking adult, moving to France with minimal knowledge of the French language, how long did it take you to feel comfortable living in another language?
A: I arrived in France speaking almost no French. But I had been working in Latin America, so I spoke decent Spanish, which made French somewhat easier. It was a year or two before I felt comfortable having long conversations in French. I took French classes, made some French friends, and tried to read Le Monde most days.
Q: In your book, you clearly connect language with a certain way of thinking and looking at the world. There are expressions in French which convey meaning that is almost impossible to translate into English, and vice versa. Which language do you use most in raising your kids?
A: I speak English with my kids, but I do occasionally drop in the odd French parenting word, like bêtise and sage. There may not be exact English equivalents for these words, but with some context and explanation, any English speaker can understand them.
Q: There is a theme of American competitiveness and desire to speed up child development throughout your book. However, educational rankings suggest that European students tend outperform American students even though they start reading and formal education later than American children. What do you think about this?
A: Finland ranks the highest in school performance studies, and yet kids there don’t learn to read – or officially start school – until age 7. Yes, it’s possible to teach some two-year-olds to read, but I’m not sure how much good that does them.
Q: “Bringing Up Bébé” has opened the door for discussion of parenting styles, and other related topics such as healthcare, nutrition, femininity, childcare, and education on both sides of the Atlantic. As families become more multicultural, parents can certainly relate to your experiences. As an American in raising kids in France, how would you describe your parenting style?
A: I admire a lot about French parenting. But of course, I want my kids to feel American too. We come back to the U.S. as often as we can. It drives me crazy that the French don’t teach kids to swim until they’re six or seven. I was swimming when I was three! There’s a spirit of optimism and risk-taking in America that I want my children to have too. And I think it’s nice that when we’re back home, my kids are the focus at family gatherings and dinners. I just don’t think it would be good for them to be the center of attention all the time. I don’t think I need to choose between the “French” and the “American” ways of raising kids. I’m inspired by the French example, but I’m trying to choose the best of both.
Q: Which French parenting strategies have you integrated into your own parenting style? Which American strategies have you let go?
A: I’ve tried to absorb the French way of feeding kids, of wielding authority, and of teaching my kids to entertain themselves. I’ve started speaking at length to babies, and letting my kids just “discover” things for themselves, instead of pushing them to acquire skills.
Q: What is your response to critics who say that your book makes fun of American parents and tells them how to raise their children?
A: I’d say they should read the book!
Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman, is available at your local book store and on Kindle.
Nicole Flesvig Bruland is a mother of two, writer, and educator. Raised near the Canadian border, and having studied in Paris, she is a French/English bilingual with a passion for language. She has been a teacher and education policy consultant at the Florida Department of Education.