On Friday I had the pleasure of nipping into a French café for lunch with a special friend and her gorgeous little baby, then going with her to our public library for a lecture by former Wall Street Journal reporter Pamela Druckerman, the author of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.
I haven’t read the book yet, but I have seen some reviews of it and read a recent HuffPost piece by Druckerman (who has released a new spin-off book, Bébé Day by Day), so I was eager to hear her talk.
I found myself listening on several levels: as a mother of school age children, as an adjunct professor co-teaching a class called “American Advice,” and as someone who sometimes gets asked for advice on parenting (usually related to divorce or reproductive technologies) and who is now, with my friend Amy Ziettlow, writing an advice book for Gen Xers caring for aging Baby Boomer parents.
The basic idea of Druckerman’s books seems to be that the French do it better—no surprise there, for we Americans have a long history of both envying and reviling the French. Apparently French mothers manage to be warm and loving to their children even as they severely limit their snacking, expect them to eat adult cuisine at meal times, take them to the park instead of hassling with play dates or extra-curricular scheduling, and restrict children from parental bedrooms so as to preserve the sacred enclave of marital sex. (And of course, as we know from French Women Don’t Get Fat, the same mothers stay slim and chic even as they enjoy croissants, wine, and cheese, and rarely bother with exercise.)
Druckerman kept her remarks brief in order to entertain questions, and the anxious parents in attendance were full of them. Do French moms limit screen time? Do they worry about their kids getting into college? When do they tell their children about sex? Most importantly, how do American moms embrace less structure if none of the other, over-scheduled children are hanging around at the park to play with your child? (After all that self-directed angst, I was impressed by a mother with toddler in tow who raised her hand and asked, “What was your research method?”)
While listening, I was also reminded of Ann Hulbert’s wonderful book, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children, which we recently read for class. In that book, Hulbert argues that over the last century American parenting experts have tended to fall into two camps, the “hard” and the “soft,” which play out against each other. (When I explained this thesis to my eight year old son, who wondered about the book I was reading with a picture of a boy about his age on the cover, he remarked wisely, “Well, if you’re too soft with your kids, they’ll sass and talk back. But if you’re too hard, they’ll cry.”) As someone who has struggled with being asked for parenting advice (Who, me? With all my failings?), I was most intrigued by Hulbert’s arguments that very little if any of the great parenting advisors were basing their recommendations on any real data, nearly all of them had difficult childhoods which seem quite often to inform the advice they gave, and their wives (the famous American parenting experts over the last century were all men) and children nearly always say the Great Man rarely practiced what he preached at home (that is, on the rare occasions that he was home and not out on lecture tours and hawking books).
All of which somehow made me more tolerant of Druckerman’s transparently Francophone, decidedly affluent, and myopically memoirish style of advice than I might otherwise have been—and also a bit more forgiving of my own attempts to say something to America, too, about what our children need.