I spent nearly 5 years in France before having children. I learned to speak French (when needed) and developed a network of friends from very international backgrounds. That was you find living on the Cote d’Azur. However, from the moment I was pregnant, my assimilation into French culture accelerated. I viewed family life through the lens of French culture. Sure, I had "What to Expect" like most of my Anglo-Saxon sisters (bought on a stateside business trip when I was 4 months pregnant), and I followed English-language sites and blogs on pregnancy and parenting. We even used English-language naming books from which we unwittingly chose the #1 most popular boy's name in France as Boo's first name. Still, from the early consults to the delivery and then raising a boy (and then a second), both my French vocabulary and my understanding in cultural behaviors became more fluent.
When Pamela Druckerman's book, "Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting" came out earlier this year I was forwarded reviews from multiple friends. The press I was sent by well-meaning friends was almost a challenge. My network of friends (half from other countries, have French) smirked at the Economist's focus on French toddler's amazing table manners, as if they were ready for Taillevent from the age of 18 months. I think that the UK title - "Why French Children Don't Throw Food" is a bit unfortunate. There seemed to be a collective eye-roll over how our kids routinely act up at the table and how none of us would dare take a crowd of young kids (less than 5) to a white-cloth restaurant.
The Wall Street Journal was more annoying. They published an excerpt from the book, bluntly titled "Why French Parents are Superior". I have to disagree - I do not think that French parents are better. Or by extension that American parents are somehow inferior. Who's to judge? What's the metric? "Better" adults? Pass rate in college? Economic indicators?
And yet. There was something, I reflected. My sons learned how to eat off a spoon. NEVER finger foods. Quite the opposite. The summer when Boo was 2 and Little Guy was newborn we went to Nashville for the summer. We spent an evening early in our stay at the Local Taco. I ordered Boo the classic kid meal – cheese quesadilla with black beans. He refused to eat the quesadilla until I cut it up and gave him a fork. It was the beginning of a trend – All sandwiches, pizza, hot dogs and other kiddie goodness had to be eaten with a fork. He said no to cheerios as a snack (though yes with blueberries and milk for breakfast). He is different, my family said. He is so French.
I should read this book, I thought again.
Fortunately the book is subtler than the press. Ms. Druckerman writes from first-hand experience and combines a memoir with research and outside perspective. She writes in chronological order of meeting her husband, Simon, moving to Paris, getting pregnant and then, later, getting pregnant again and having twins. The book ends with a chapter on education as her oldest nears the age of preschool. Her memoir style is incredibly honest – she writes of her ambivalence towards Paris and the toll that parenting 3 children takes on her marriage. She is open with her confusion and questions towards French parenting and seeks out answers through research (there is a rich bibliography) and interviews. She observes American (over)parenting almost as an outsider through interviews with friends or on trips to New York playgrounds.
Her conclusion is that there are things imbedded in the French culture that make family life more balanced. I have to agree. Her service to fellow expats like me is to give names to some of these things – my favorite is The Pause. In the anxious days before Boo was born and then just after, the American parenting advice I read said to not leave Boo crying at all – attend to him right away. Like Ms. Druckerman, this is what I was taught to do. She learned, as I did, that there is a moment of waiting (the pause) to see if the baby can calm himself down. Unlike Ms. Druckerman, we were avid sleep trainers. Perhaps too much so – I was very rigid on Boo’s daytime schedule in order to regulate the nights. Once Little Guy came along I was much more relaxed which made day to day life more pleasant. But now he’s almost 3 and he’s still not a great night-time sleeper, though he doesn’t wake us. We’ll never know if it’s his own physical tendency or that we didn’t give sleep the same focus with him as a baby.
The last chapter on education is the one that stayed with me the most. Perhaps because it’s what comes next for us – Boo will be in kindergarten (grand section) next year. When she wrote her book, her oldest daughter was on the verge of primary school so most of what she writes is through research. Her friend Benoît, a university professor who has also taught in the US, says:
“What you’re taught in high school is to learn to reason. You’re not supposed to be creative. You’re supposed to be articulate.”
I wondered, is it better for a society to be creative or articulate? What does that mean, anyway? Are those traits that different? Can you be highly articulate but a banal thinker? Can you be truly creative (e.g. with results) without being articulate? Obviously, France has created some of the best artists, industrial designers, and architects in the world. So clearly he’s not saying that creativity doesn’t have a place in society. My husband says that Cartesian doubt is built into the french culture, and is strongly expressed in education. Kids are taught to doubt a premise and test it until doubt is removed. Only then can they speak. In the US we are taught self-expression as a primary form of individualism. This, too, is direct from Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) which shows just how close our cultures really are – two expressions of the same historical precedent. What is different is how in American culture the raw experience trumps expression of reasoned analysis: See “On the Road” and mid-century American art. We are taught that we can forge our own way (“Go west, young man!”) and make our own future, our own life. Our entrepreneurial spirit says that if something doesn’t work we try something else. Simple.
On the other hand, as Druckman explains, in French higher education students are graded on an ideal, never on a curve or on a teacher’s sense of effort (there is no “A for Effort”). I see this lockstep aspiration toward ideals all throughout French culture and reflected strongly in the Michelin Guide and its star-system for ranking restaurants. The Michelin ideal – technical perfection – for ranking restaurants has formed restaurant culture around the world. But sometimes, when eating in one of these restaurants as I occasionally do, I’m awed by the skill but disappointed by a sense of expression, of real creative spirit. Counter to that is a restaurant movement in France to avoid the Michelin system altogether and make well-made meals that has an altogether different expression.
In the end I was surprised by this book – I was prepared to roll my eyes at it but in the end I appreciated that it made me think and reflect. What in her observations ring true? How does my experience compare? Is one way better?
I find it hard to answer the questions. You can take this book as a parenting guide – Ms Druckerman shares the French way and lets you know that you can apply some of the behaviors too. You can also take this book as one woman’s reckoning with another culture. For me, coping with these questions, and how I live and raise a family outside my own native land is my own life’s exploration.
Please weigh in.