Bringing up Ayo

You know a book is popular when you are 67th on the library’s waiting list for one of the 60 available copies. After waiting nearly three months to secure my copy, I finally got a chance to read Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé – One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. I consider myself fairly selective about which books on parenting I read because sometimes it’s simply not helpful to have dozens of conflicting views on the same subject. However, given the hype around Pamela Druckerman’s provocative teaser article Why French Parents are Superior, the France-USA connection and several emails asking me if French parenting really is better after all, I decided I’d read the bébé book.

Bringing up Bébé is written by an upper middle-class American mother of three living in Paris. Without spoiling Pamela’s best anecdotes, let’s say that the book centers around the importance French families place on getting children to sleep at night (faire leurs nuits), teaching them the value of patience and waiting, saying bonjour and training their palates to eat fantastic food from a young age. To achieve these things, Druckerman writes that most French parents adhere to one virtually innate, but seemingly universal parenting style in contrast to parents in the States who choose a parenting philosophy or create their own hybrid from the gobs of information they read.

There was a definite stroke of genius in some of her observations, that only an astute expatriate could pick up on:

  • A French child saying bonjour is likened to having great teeth in the States – both show that someone has invested into his upbringing.
  • The simplistic happy ending vs. the realistic unsure ending. Many American children’s books and songs have protagonists present their problem, struggle and then find a solution. Their French counterparts often have a more realistic view of life being more complicated and ambiguous. French stories often feature a problem, then a struggle then a temporary solution with the struggle eventually resurfacing. Though not all children’s books fit these two observations, it is interesting that each nation’s way of seeing things is taught at a very early age.
  • American parents often see it as their duty to guide their child through developmental milestones themselves and as early as possible, enrolling them in as many courses as possible (Portuguese for babies, baby sign language, pre-reading). The earlier their children achieve a milestone, the better the parent they are. Druckerman sees French parents in contrast as more hands-off, valuing above all “awakening” and “sensory discovery” (l’éveil et la découverte sensorielle), teaching children to enjoy life (profiter de la vie) and develop at their own rhythm rather than focus on competing from a young age.

Despite the inevitable stereotypes, the at times far fetched interpretations and the incredibly annoying literal translations for effect: “it’s me who decides”, “I adore this baguette” or “me, i think that I am not agree” (makes you wonder if Pam is extrapolating based on inaccurate linguistic comprehension), I found Bringing up Bébé to be really enjoyable to read and even quite entertaining. I certainly recognized most of the themes on both sides of the national borders. I chuckled at the Anglophone expat parent who was flabbergasted when told her five year old child’s class was going on an eight day trip. Immediately, I was taken back to the early 90s when my seven year old brother boarded a luxurious bus, gripping his stuffed monkey “Jimmy” with bulging eyes (the monkey, not my brother), waving good-bye to us as he headed off to his own eight day poney-club adventure in his first year in France. What a culture shock that was for my own mum too.

While I never took three years out of my life to study the differences, I did have the privilege of experiencing both French and American families and the children produced by their differing parenting philosophies – and well beyond the younger child years the author writes about. The variation of course, is that I was a child/teen in France and a now I’m a parent in the US. Based on this experience, I do agree with the author that parts of the French model is wonderful. France values exposure to varied food from a young age, boasts generous maternity leave, cheap healthcare and excellent standardized, public education. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call the French parenting style superior when it really doesn’t instill in kids a sense of confidence, entrepreneurialism and the empowering idea that anything is possible like the States does, for example.

After reading Bringing up Bébé, I’m hardly going to get my panties into a knot like Erika Ekiel (who says: Bringing Up Bébé? No Thanks. I’d rather raise a Billionaire – lol).  I get that without some prodding and poking, Druckerman’s book wouldn’t sell. I also know how easy it is to initially get enthusiastic about a culture other than your own. Yet, I’d hope that as readers in our day in age we’d have enough common sense to know that each culture will have both things we can learn from and flaws. French kiddos are far from perfect. Duh.

Speaking, reading or singing to Ayo in French, might lead you to think that I want to raise him as a little French boy. I really don’t desire that at all. Rather, I hope that by Ayo learning French he will be exposed to “the other” (l’autrui), to a vast world around him, to different ways of life and values brought to him by a second language and culture. Actually, it even feels narrow minded to want to raise our child to be both American and French. As a Third Culture Mama, I ask – why not incorporate into our parenting all of the great values found in many different cultures Tall Mountain and I have been exposed to: France’s love of food and philosophy, British humour and literature, Indian music and communal living, German work ethic and craftsmanship, Chinese resourcefulness and respect for their elders, American hopefulness and warmth. And the list goes on and on and on. Why limit ourselves to following one country’s model in our globalized world? That was the question I was left with after reading Bringing up Bébé.

What about you? What are some things you are bringing into your parenting from a culture other than your own? What do you see as some of the strengths of the parenting style of your country/countries? If you aren’t a mama, what are some great cultural values that you think kids can benefit from?

7 thoughts on “Bringing up Ayo

  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself, Esther! I completely agree that we can learn to love and admire so much about every culture around us. There is no one superior way to raise a child. I am intrigued by the book, though, and have been interested in reading it. I actually do like to get my hands on as many parenting books as possible, since, at this point I don’t find that they necessarily influence my parenting style (I’m more confident in my OWN natural style at this point) but, I love the food for thought and the different ways of thinking about things.

  2. Il est temps que ses charmante femmes américaines ou canadiennes(Pamela Druckerman,Karen le billon) ,nous laissent un peu tranquille avec notre mode de vie .Elles savent que le sentiment anti-Français est très répandue en Amérique du nord .L,une des pire insulte pour un politicien Américain est de parler Français.Culturellement et historiquement ,je pense sérieusement que la vision du monde Anglo-saxone et Française sont tous simplement incompatibles .Pour ce qui est de l,éducation de nos enfants ,les mères Françaises on un secret ,elles font comme leurs mères .

    1. Bonjour et merci à vous d’avoir laissé ce commentaire. C’est bien possible que Pamela Druckerman ait pu profiter du sentiment anti-français pour vendre son livre. Ceci dit, ce sentiment existe de moins en moins dans les grandes villes aux US, où au contraire, tout ce qui est européen et plutôt idéalisé. C’est peut être unique à mon entourage mais j’ai très rarement vu un américain désaprouver des aspects de la culture française chez nous (culture de l’oeneologie, musique française, France Infos, posters en français par exemple) ou du fait que je parle à mon fils en français. Je pense donc que Pamela et les autres (Karen le billon je ne connais pas) se servent surtout de la grande fierté et sensibilité parentales pour vendre. C’est d’ailleurs ce qu’a fait Amy Chua dans son livre qui critique l’éducation parentale américaine en préconisant ses racines chinoises.

      Moi, je ne considère pas du tout que la culture anglosaxone et française soient incompatibles. Il vous suffirait de vivre quelques jours chez nous pour voir comment elles peuvent cohabiter. Mon époux étant américain, adore la France et moi j’ai grandit en France et suis depuis séduite par l’enthusiasme, l’accueil et la créativité des américains. Du coup, et comme je disais dans ce billet, on présente à notre fils les facettes de chaque culture que nous apprécions et font partie de nous mêmes. Puisque notre expérience ne s’arrête pas à la France, l’Angleterre ou les Etats-Unis, on s’efforce de garder une ouverture d’esprit par rapport aux autres cultures aussi.

      Tout à fait d’accord avec le fait que les mamans apprenent de leurs propres mères. Donc finalement, ce qui séduit Pamela c’est peut-être tout simplement le retour à la simplicité de nos mamans et à celles de leurs mamans. C’est le retour à ce qu’on faisait avant: bien manger et pas entre les repas, respecter l’autre et apprendre à dormir comme les grands et apprendre l’autonomie pour survivre dans un monde difficile. Est-ce donc vraiment révolutionnaire?

  3. I love following the ponderings of your journey as you consider, learn and discover both yourself, your many cultural influences, the unique makeup of your wee one, and the intersection of all of these.

    Have you seen the documentary film, “Babies”? The film follows four babies from four different cultures from birth through first steps. While the film has profound limitations, it is beautifully crafted and raises many interesting observations and questions.

    I found Gautier’s comment above interesting and disturbing. I was sad to learn of his/her impressions of an anti-French sentiment in the U.S. While I cannot discount his/her experiences, I cannot identify at all. I am an American who has lived in many different parts of the U.S. I have been completely unaware of anti-French sentiment in any of the places I have lived. I am far more aware (even in myself) of a tendency to idealize and magnify the positive elements I can see of European and French cultures.

  4. Yes, I have watched “Babies” and really enjoyed it. It puts so much into perspective. I wish Balmès, the producer, would have followed and filmed babies of many other cultures too. That documentary is crying out for a sequel called “children” or “teens”, don’t you think? 🙂

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