So I just finished reading Bringing up Bébé, and I really enjoyed it. So many people talked to me about it, and I’m really amazed at the widespread cultural discussion that Druckerman has managed to elicit. For me, it came at just the time when I myself am starting on the parenting journey, and, since my husband is French, we often discuss differing parenting strategies on both sides of the Atlantic.
For the most part, I would say that I very much recognize both countries in her descriptions. I do think that her description of American parenting is a bit exaggerated and probably also more characteristic of upper middle class urban and suburban families, or at least educated parents, than the “middle class” she claims, although frankly I’m not sure who the American middle class is anymore… On the French side, except for a few objections (such as her claim that the French are less neurotic than Americans where in fact the French are very heavy consumers of anxiolytics), I found myself laughing at how true so many of the things she talks about are. It also turns out that my husband is very French in many of his attitudes about childrearing!
I won’t go into all the ins and outs of her comparisons and arguments, but I’d like to comment on her discussions of French eating habits and how they relate to raising children. As an aside, one thing I appreciated in the book was her discussion of the pressure that French women, particularly Parisians, are under to stay thin. This goes even for new mothers. Sometimes I think that the “French paradox,” that is to say the American disbelief of the seemingly magical French ability to eat rich food and stay thin, is overstated. French culture indeed pressures people to stay thin. French drugstores are filled with cellulite-removing products, and there is a widespread (and highly annoying in my opinion) habit of assessing any weight changes in the moments just after greeting friends and family. (“Ah, I see you eat well in the US!”)
They just go about weight control and eating healthy in a different way. The main jist of the French attitude to eating, as Druckerman discusses, is that it should be careful, intentional, and well-structured. They trust in tradition to tell them how to eat, which is about as far from the American attitude as possible. For one, snacking is anathema in France (this is one that is admittedly hard for me) but one of the reasons why it works in France is that meals are different. If you eat a turkey sandwich, hold the cheese, and a diet coke, you will likely be hungry again in a few hours. The French eat consistently filling and well-balanced meals. If you do eat a filling meal in a US restaurant, you generally get far too much, usually of one thing, and must order additional sides of even more food if you want vegetables or rice, for example. In France, most restaurants encourage the prix fixe menu, with which you will get the daily choices of the chef: an appetizer of a small salad or other vegetable in vinaigrette, followed generally by one plate with a piece of meat in sauce, a serving of vegetables such as green beans, and maybe a serving of rice, with 1 or 2 slices of baguette on the side. You might even take a small slice of tart to end on a satisfying note, a practice which also insures that you likely won’t be thinking about food for at least 6 hours or so.
This reminds me of another thing that she discusses that I agree with. Some upper middle class Americans want to withhold pleasurable food from their kids as long as possible, in the belief that a taste for fats and sweets is entirely acquired. In my opinion, this is B.S. Of course, food education is crucial to developing a taste for good food, and good eating habits need to be instilled in childhood. But we are programmed to be drawn to sweet and rich foods. Druckerman puts it well when she says that some parents seem to try to override the “collective wisdom of our species and the basic chemistry of what tastes good.” The French approach is to work pleasure into the framework of life, but in a disciplined way. Disciplined eating in France does not mean no pleasure and it does not mean demonizing particular foods, which tends to be the case in America. It simply means smallish portions of freshly prepared food, taken at a nicely set table, at specific hours, and no snacking in between. Pleasure and restraint, in equal doses. That’s the paradox, I suppose.
Michael Pollon asks the question, which rightfully puzzles many Americans, “What should I eat for dinner??” The array of options, each with their devotees and marketing strategists, makes this question incredibly complicated. Druckerman essentially argues the same thing about child rearing. We ask ourselves- Should I use attachment parenting? Love and logic? Homeschooling? Bilingual education? What does my specific child need? And on an on. In a way this gives us more freedom, and in a way not. In France, the answers are mostly given to you. She argues that this makes for both greater discipline and greater freedom for children. Greater discipline because they quickly learn to control their impulses, and greater freedom because discipline brings independence – and because “specialness” can be a burden. By the same token, American parents are more likely to 0vermanage their children, even while they underdiscipline them.
Of course, I always laugh at people who try to raise their children to be different from themselves (we watch tv all evening but would like to have children who prefer reading Dostoyevsky; we eat crap but our daughter isn’t allowed salt or sugar; or we don’t speak Chinese, but our child is in an intensive Chinese-only program, etc) To this extent, I think that trying to model parenting practices after those of another society is foolish. Of course, there are things to learn and many that are easily implemented. And yet, each society raises their children to belong to their own culture. What we do and who we validate as a society makes the biggest impression of all on kids. We raise ADD kids because we are an ADD society. Duh… That makes us great at some things (making movies and marketing, for example) and crappy at others (math, anyone?). We also instill plenty of good qualities in our kids, such as (in my humble opinion) a more happy-go-lucky spirit, a laid back attitude to rigid social norms, and a good sense of civic responsibility, all of which are sometimes lacking in French society. This is who we are and what our culture as well as our education prepares us to be. Maybe that’s ok. If not, we need to think about ourselves before our kids. Until we are ready to change, we shouldn’t expect kids to.
At one point in the book, Druckerman says something that I find very revealing. She says in passing that one of her French friends bakes with her daughter every weekend, and one of these times, Druckerman was visiting. When they finished baking and 4:00 rolled around (4PM is the only permissible snacktime for French children), her daughter ate a cupcake. To Druckerman’s disappointment, her friend did not offer her one, most likely because she herself was not planning on eating one. Druckerman says, “Little girls who grow up in homes where the mother doesn’t eat the cupcake surely grow up to be women who don’t eat the cupcake either.” Very true.
While I sometimes marvel at French children’s comparative discipline, with their perfectly neat French handwriting, politeness, and ability to go from 12 to 7 without eating, I feel quite certain that this is not my own culture… I definitely would eat the cupcake. But Bringing up bébé is definitely worth a read, and might just change a few things around our house, who knows.