On the whole I’m skeptical about parenting books; some simply scare-monger while masquerading as advice, and others can be reduced to a simple two word phrase: common sense. Nevertheless I breezed my way through Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman’s crisp account of raising a young family in Paris; her blend of anecdote and research offers an even-handed, light-hearted, sans-preachy comparison between parenting styles of the United States and France, all dished up with dry wit. So it’s eye-popping to see the hullabaloo this book is raising in the press and online, and the amount of vitriol hurled at its author, whom, I can only hope, is as capable and blithe as her prose and perky marketing photos suggest, because she’d best duck and cover. If you dip into the message boards without cracking the book’s spine, you’d assume that Druckerman (who is American, with a British spouse) had committed treason by suggesting that maybe it’s not a good idea to use food to pacify little Kyle all day long (the French don’t ‘snack’, except at 4pm in the afternoon) or that little Madison may not need therapy if Mummy takes time out to date with Daddy or, God forbid, goes back to work full-time. Behind this fracas, I smell scorched egos – for hell hath no fury like mothers whose mothering skills are scorned – and a few commentators manage to turn what could have been an intriguing discussion about the challenges of child-rearing into a xenophobic slanging match, which often concludes, completely irrelevantly, with barbs about France’s history of military capitulation. How dare anyone suggest we could learn anything from another nationality, let alone the French!
Are these the new Tiger Moms as some breathless reviews suggest? Eh, nope. The French tend not to harangue their children toward academic or material success and neither do they see them as “a project” requiring continuous improvement. On the contrary, often French children are not taught to read until they are around six or seven years old, and extracurricular activities such as music or sports are embraced as an opportunity for fun and creative growth rather than an essential step toward securing a future competitive advantage. A Swiss psychologist quoted by Druckerman remarked that whenever he explained the stages of child development to an American audience, he would always be asked what he termed “The American Question”: how can we speed these stages up? This reminded me of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Michael Pollan explains that through a cocktail of genetically-engineered junk corn, growth hormones, and antibiotics we’ve managed to reduce the time it takes a prepare a cow for slaughter from 5 years to 18 months. So, provided we’re not picky about side-effects, why shouldn’t we compress a child’s natural cycle of development too? I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me why the heck we’re always in such a hurry.
That French women benefit from considerable social support not available to their American sisters cannot be denied. From six months paid maternity leave, to free access to nurseries and kindergartens, to nationalized top-quality health care, they are aided to enjoy both family and career. Wisely, Druckerman side-steps any in-depth examination of how this might trigger cultural differences; given our current political climate, for her to suggest that we could benefit from some social re-engineering would cause her passport to be revoked. It’s also worth remembering, amongst all this angst on blog posts and message boards, that both her sampling of French parents and her target audience are very, very small segments of the populations of the United States and France as a whole, namely the comfortable middle classes, who have the luxury of worrying about whether introducing shellfish is a risk, or if two is too early to learn Swedish. For the majority of single mothers and lower-to-middle income families in this country, going back to work after having children is not an option. They will most likely have no time to either read this book nor sweat over its nuances, and given that Druckerman’s wisest advice concerns the thorny subject of diet, it is frustrating that it costs more here to buy a gallon of organic milk than a Happy Meal, meaning that many families could not afford to follow it.
Still, the majority of parents of any nationality who love their children and have a modicum of, yep, common sense, will be able to read this book and say, “that’s a good idea, I’ll try that,” or “this is nonsense, let’s give this a miss,” without feeling that either their noses or their patriotism has been knocked out of joint. The current hysteria, however, indicates an ever growing paranoia and lack of confidence in that small sliver of America addicted to competitive parenting, and Bringing Up Bebe is a timely reminder, (seasoned with an engaging blend of Gallic certitude and American self-deprecation) that our responsibility is not to raise a child, but to raise an adult.