When Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting dropped in early 2012, American parents noticed. It was hard not to, what with the troll-y headline “Why French Parents are Superior” in the Wall Street Journal and that distinctive cover peaking out from all those over-stuffed tote bags. I bought the book because everyone bought the book and because, as a new father, I hoped that Pamela Druckerman was right, that my kids might benefit from the adult-centric worldview the book attributed to the French and pushed hard.
In Bébé, Druckerman, the subtitular American mother, depicts her French counterparts as ineffably stylish, unswervingly strict, and deeply loving mothers of equally stylish, polite children and also as defenders of their own private lives outside the penumbra of parenting.. The Gospel of Bébé puts a lot of emphasis on saying non firmly and establishing inviolate rules for children concerning etiquette, eating, and sleeping. Druckerman’s main notion is that French women are fantastic parents because they treat their progeny not as children, but as miniature adults and that they see themselves as fully functioning adults, not merely as mothers.
I read the book in the sleep-deprived, life-suck maelstrom of poorly managed sleep training and envisioned a sort of bohemian salon held in a West Elm. I could make that real for me. All I had to do was follow Druckerman’s rules and my bébé would eat with docility, greet with civility, and go to sleep with alacrity while my friends and I drank sancerre rouge, arranged playdates, and drifted off towards satisfying threesomes.
But the Parisian idyll never came to pass. My copy of Bébé is now tucked between Dante’s Inferno and Stendhal’s Le Rouge et Le Noir as I suspect it was always supposed to be. I haven’t read, much less discussed, any of those books in years. I haven’t had time. I’m too busy chasing my boys around as they destroy everything we own.
I wasn’t alone in Druckermania. Numbers help provide a sense of cultural hype, if not long-term import. There are 1,313 Amazon reviews of Bringing up Bébé. Morris Massel, a former lawyer-turned-software entrepreneur from Manhattan and a father of three, published his on February 8, 2012. “This is not a ‘how-to’ book,” he wrote, after giving the book five stars, “It is a series of informed observations about how Parisians approach parenting…. There are no magic tricks; just a shift in behavior and approach that the author shares with us. Some of it makes sense.” At the time, Massel’s kids were 10, 7, and 2 and he was pretty excited about Druckerman’s theories. But did it affect his decisions? He pauses as he thinks back to the Bébé era. “Not really… but a little,” he tells me. After reading the book, he instituted what he calls an “Honest Taste Policy” in keeping with Rule #58: Follow the French food rules. “You can’t just reject food,” Massel explains. “You must taste it and if you don’t like it, you have to explain.” His middle son’s favorite food is now blue cheese.
Fromage bleu aside, this seems like a fairly representative experience.
Kristin Reinhard was living in Switzerland when she read Druckerman’s book. Following Druckerman’s advice to let children fill up on vegetables, she started putting out a “Veggie Box” for her three children. The kids ate and she was happy. She is still happy that she followed the Bébé advice. Does she have much more to say about it? Not really.
These are good ideas about food and any impact is some impact. But having spoken to other parents about it, I still wondered if Druckerman’s book had any lasting resonance beyond the Upper East Side and, you know, Switzerland. I asked Paula Fass, a professor of history at UC Berkeley and author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child, for an answer. She provided one: No.
“It was a no-go from the beginning,” she explains, “As a historian, I could tell you that was predictable. The whole French experience and the American experience around family life is so fundamentally and culturally different.”
Fass explains that France has always been a much more paternalistic society. “There hasn’t been so much of an emphasis on the family being so mother-centric,” she explains, “Whereas in America, if you dig deeply, mothers feel absolutely and completely responsible for their children.” What this means is that once they become mothers, American moms tend to be subsumed by their maternal role. Not so in France, a fact which has little to do with individual choice and much to do with culture. The importance of motherhood, she explains, is so deeply ingrained in American culture that Druckerman’s book never had much chance of pushing past curiosity. She cites a letter written by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1840s in which he notes that French women become liberated after they’re married where as American girls become much more disempowered.
“Americans have been comparing themselves to the French for years,” she said, “but it doesn’t change the underlying cultural values.”
But perhaps the more immediate reason that Druckerman’s book now feels a bit like a best-selling that blip is that the style of parenting she advocates only makes sense with a strong social safety net, a net that is, in America, in an almost unprecedented state of laxity. Druckerman’s languorous afternoons of lunches and the absence of panic at having to return directly to work after giving birth are not the organic result of better time management or French je ne sais quoi. They are, in many senses, state subsidized. As Fass puts it, “The kind of institutions that French mothers depend on and don’t feel any fears about, American mothers don’t have to begin with.”
How does this augur for the future? Well, in America, child care is losing funding on a federal level, public education is being gutted and the tax benefits enjoyed by middle-class families are atrophyhing. Only four states offer paid family leave. On the other hand, this hasn’t stopped American parents from looking yearningly abroad for tips. The latest entrant in the genre Bringing up Bébé spawned is entitled Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children. It came out in January and is already on its way to becoming a best-seller.
One imagines this genre has not yet grown to maturity. As long as American parents remain unhappy — and, according to a recent study, the United States boasts the largest “parental happiness gap” of the 22 countries studied — we’ll keep looking abroad for answers. We’ll convince ourselves that the French do it better. The Germans do it better. The Danes do it better.
Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but there is an inherent flaw in this way of thinking about the process of raising kids. Parenting doesn’t happen in a cultural vacuum. The skinny parents walking the cafe-lined streets of Paris and Berlin with silently cheerful and self-reliant children haven’t cracked some sort of caretaking code. They have tked to norms that emerge from systems far bigger and more complicated than individual families.
Private policy doesn’t exist independent from public policy so the lasting takeaway from books like Bringing Up Bébé and Achtung Baby might have little to do with managing dinner time or cooling it with all the emotional support. Ultimately these books make the case that there is one activity that American parents are unusually bad at. That activity is voting.