The French method for bringing up baby

American parents see attack from yet another nation of know-it-alls

February 09, 2012|Susan Reimer

Just as American parents were emerging from the trauma of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Amy Chua's treatise on the superiority of the semi-abusive Chinese mother, there is a new entry in the parenting rat race.

Pamela Druckerman has written "Bringing Up Bebe," the observations of an ex-pat American mother on the calm, civilizing force of French parents and their polite and self-contained children.

The book has caused a predictable sensation on this side of the pond, where mothers are in endless pursuit of the holy trinity of parenting: children who sleep through the night, greet adults politely and eat what is in front of them without a fuss.

Druckerman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter married to a British sportswriter who now lives in France, has a 6-year-old daughter, whose tiny-tot tyranny caused Druckerman to wonder why French children, in stores, at playgrounds and in restaurants, did not seem to be equally possessed by the twin demons of selfishness and impatience. She also has 3-year-old boys who — now that their mother has learned to say "no" with convincing authority — not only eat Camembert cheese, but pronounce it correctly.

To get the scoop on whether the book is creating a similar sensation in France, I checked with friend and former Baltimore Sun colleague Lynn Anderson Davy, who is living there with her French husband and 2-year-old daughter (and also has another baby on the way).

Was this book — Druckerman is now making the talk-show rounds in the U.S. wearing a beret — really the parenting equivalent of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking?" Does it unlock great French secrets for an unsophisticated world?

"The buzz around the book here in France is mostly among Britons or Americans living in France. Many Anglophones here are in awe of the French way of child rearing because it does seem to have impressive results," said Davy, who is trying to raise Alice with the structure the French love but with the very American permission for free-spirited discovery.

"French children, in general, are well-behaved, but they are also forced into little adult molds at an early age — too early, in my opinion," she said, adding that most of the Anglophone mothers she knows agree.

Davy's observations of French family life mirror Druckerman's. "The French seem to believe that having children is just a part of life, and that once the baby arrives, you go on living more or less as before. They set rules and apply them. C'est tout," Davy said.

Interestingly, Davy found the French disapproving of several very American things she did with Alice.

When she swaddled her as a newborn, a nurse scolded her: "This is not the Middle Ages." An old woman on the street shrieked at her that Alice, in a Snugli baby carrier, could not breathe.

Her pediatrician was thrilled that shebreast-fedAlice until she was a year old, whereas French mothers quit at about three months because — as Druckerman suggests in her book — they are concerned that the "mystery of the breast" will be lost for their husbands.

Davy said she is one of the few mothers who plays with her child at the playground; most mothers chat with friends while their children amuse themselves. And Davy had to give her blessing to a midmorning snack for Alice since her French nanny would probably have adhered to the strict no-snacking-until-4 p.m. ritual in France.

"The French don't believe that you have to sacrifice to be a parent," said Davy. "We Americans seem to be willing to go to great lengths to accommodate our children — we quit jobs, change social schedules and exhaust ourselves cleaning up after messy toddlers — whereas the French force their children to adhere, more or less, to an adult schedule and lifestyle."

A new American mother might find much to learn from Druckerman's observations of the French family, where the parents are the authority, there is no negotiation and the children are saved from the tyranny of their own desires.

Families where patience is a lifelong lesson and the teaching of it begins in the cradle.

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