If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to raise a child in France, this is the year for you, because no fewer than three books about French parenting have been released this year.
Two of them – Bringing Up Bebe and French Kids Eat Everything – follow the same general arc. They were both written by American mothers who found themselves raising children in France. Although initially disoriented by the experience, both women found much to admire and emulate about the French way
Bringing Up Bebe has gotten more attention than French Kids Eat Everything, which is too bad, because it is the more annoying and less useful of the two. Author Pamela Druckerman presents some interesting information about how French mothers (there’s very little about fathers in any of these books) maintain a sensible perspective – and balance – with regard to their children, but her view of American parents and children is so relentlessly negative that it crosses the line into offensive. For example, she sees an American mother playing with her child on a playground and attributes the mother’s actions to a competitive need to appear better than the other moms. It doesn’t occur to Druckerman that the mother might actually enjoy sliding down a slide with her own child. She similarly misses the mark on breastfeeding, never seriously considering that part of why moms nurse is for the simple pleasure that comes from this most basic bonding act with a child.
According to Druckerman, the French way is neither permissive nor child centered. Druckerman looks around her and sees French children behaving better than their American counterparts and decides she wants her children to be like them. She sees less to admire in French adults – she views them as judgmental, rule-oriented, and aloof – but she doesn’t make the connection between how children are raised and the adults they become. Her book should come with a warning label: People who want French children will someday have to contend with French adults.
Still, French mothers do seem less stressed out, perhaps because the French government subsidizes daycare and preschool, or perhaps because there is less disagreement in the culture on how to do things. In addition, the mothers seem less guilt-ridden than their American counterparts – which makes Bringing Up Bebe a nice counter point to traditional child-centered American parenting books like The Baby Book, by William Sears, which are notoriously stress and guilt inducing.
French Kids Eat Everything is a more enjoyable read – and it provides lots of useful information on teaching children to have a healthy relationship with food. Given our current obesity epidemic, it’s hard to argue with the premise that Americans have a food problem – and looking to the French for some guidance is probably a good idea. Author Karen Le Billon describes a culture that doesn’t snack (this bad habit fills children up with empty calories and spoils their appetite for the healthy food they get at meals) and thinks it’s okay to be hungry between meals (the French have a saying: Hunger is the best seasoning).
The third book isn’t really a parenting book at all, but an intellectual diatribe against an emerging parenting trend in France that is more child-centered and “natural” – in other words, more American. In The Conflict, author and French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter warns that the pressure on mothers to embrace natural parenting – which includes childbirth without drugs, breastfeeding, and cloth diapers – threatens women’s progress and happiness. She argues that it forces women to subsume their identities for the supposed good of their children – which, she concludes, is good for no one at all. Many American mothers reading the book will recognize immediately what Badinter is talking about – because those pressures have already profoundly affected American motherhood.
In the end, each of these books has something useful to contribute to the conversation about parenting, but none is definitive. As with all advice books, parents will find some ideas to adopt, and some to reject. C’est la vie.