Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman
The popularity of books like this give the impression that today's American parents are willing to take advice from anyone other than their own relatives. The most helpful advice the French have about child rearing is very traditional, the sorts of things people everywhere have said for generations: don't pick the baby up the moment it fusses, No means no, you have to try a bite of everything, children and parents are happier when the parents are in charge. Excellent advice, and worth reading if these are unfamiliar concepts to you. A grandparent could give this book as a gift, and thus sneakily impart their own child rearing wisdom to the next generation.
What truly interested me about this book was its insights into a monolithic culture. Druckerman tells us that her French counterparts are more relaxed about parenting, and it is easy to see why. Unlike the USA, France does issue handbooks when babies are born. There is, like so many other things in their nation, one approved way of parenting, and everyone agrees to it. Child care workers, grandparents, teachers, everyone you meet on the street shares the same child rearing philosophy, so French parents have a support system which does not exist in America. Imagine if everyone who came into contact with your children was going to reinforce the very same standards you were trying to teach them. That alone would make parenting easier.
However, this does not mean they are not under pressure. They may accept the pressures of their society, which are very different from ours, but that is not the same as not feeling them. For example, weight control is a national obsession among the French. Not having regained your figure three months after giving birth is considered shameful. Literally. French husbands, doctors, relatives, friends, all feel that a woman who has not lost her pregnancy weight by three months is failing her duty as a wife and woman and will tell her so.
Gender roles are more rigid in France, with women accepting that they will be paid less, and do more child rearing, more housework. Druckerman is impressed that despite this, they complain less. However, her Parisian friends admit that one of the reasons they return to work so soon, keep trim, etc is because "men leave." (France has divorce rates similar to the US, around 50%, and is much more accepting of infidelity.) Druckerman doesn't investigate these comments, but I wish she had. There were just enough of them sprinkled throughout for me to wonder if the French women were not so much happy as resigned. (France is the only nation among 18 recently studied with depression rates higher than the US.)
The other main point that struck me as I read is that, no matter what a parent chooses, it will always be "for the good of the child." In France, it is considered to be good for the children to enter childcare before a year old (France has highly trained childcare workers.). It is good for them to be autonomous, which translates to spending a lot of time away from their parents. It is good for them to have parents who have their own lives.
I have never met a parent who said, "Well, I don't think this is the best thing for my son, but it is what I want, so he'll have to deal with it." No. Nobody says that. Whether we are talking about sending a child to summer camp, taking a higher paying job with more hours, having a family game night, a parent's alone time, or getting - or not getting - a divorce, we say it is for our child's benefit. That the French also believe this is no surprise, but neither is it proof that their practices are superior.
Because Druckerman is only looking at the parenting of very young children (and, again, I think a lot of the parenting specific advice she received in France is excellent) we really cannot fairly judge whether the French are wiser parents, because, in the end, it is not about whose baby slept through the night earlier. It is about the adults they become, how they handle themselves in adversity and success, their integrity and humility and compassion for others. At least, it always has been to me.