Critical American and British reviews of Pamela Druckerman’s books abound — and even some sobering French rejoinders. Slide over to STWFU for a book review on both Bringing Up Bébé and French Children Don’t Throw Food based on a summary of cultural comparisons and thoughtful critiques — including a few from actual French mothers and fathers — before attempting to emulate all-things-French (according to Druckerman).
I ate up every word of Bringing Up Bébé while pregnant. I was certain that executing each and every French-honed parenting technique in the book was going to make me a rockstar American mom. However, after nearly two years of actual motherhood, I later listened to French Children Don’t Throw Food on Audible with a bit of a suppressed appetite. (All puns detected above intended.) I do empathize with the critical American and British responses to Druckerman’s controversial books, but I was still able to discern helpful take-aways based on her perceptions of French parenting methods. Here were mine:
We did not apply the Cry It Out (CIO) method of sleep training in our home due in part to our interpretation of behavioral research related to the healthy development of secure attachments in infants, but also because I experienced extreme anxiety — and on a few occasions, minor physical pain — when Sydney would cry explosively for extended periods of time. Her persistent, intense temperament (from birth on) often led her to cry more forcefully than many of my mama-friends had ever seen their own children cry; some of them had to see it to believe it. Even our pediatrician was impressed with her pipes (it could have something to do with the fact that her paternal grandfather sang opera). Sydney would cry so hard that — on the few occasions I actually waited to see what would happen if I just let her be — she vomited in her crib. Whenever I ended up stripping vomit-covered onesies and crib sheets while suffering through an encore of the screaming-baby soundtrack at 3:00 a.m., I heard Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves circa 1994 in my head.
But instead of Speed (1994), it was Sleep Deprivation (2016).
Me (to myself): What is that smell?
Me (back to myself): It’s vomit.
Me (also to myself): We’re covered in vomit?
Me (still to just myself): We are now.
Me (irritated with myself): What, you thought you needed another challenge or something?
“To believe in The Pause, or in letting an older baby cry it out, you have to believe that a baby is a person who’s capable of learning things (in this case, how to sleep) and coping with some frustration,” Druckerman says. And once Sydney was safely beyond the infamous Fourth Trimester, in which research indicates that consistent, prompt, attentive care to newborns has lasting emotional and behavioral benefits (science says “you can’t spoil a baby“), we began using the Cradle app. It offered customizable, guided, timed intervals during the interruptions in her nighttime sleep and daytime naps, which enabled opportunities for Sydney to (attempt to) self-soothe, followed by brief periods of adult intervention as necessary. (Check STWFU for our upcoming review on the Cradle app.)
The key for our own sleep-training success may or may not have been The French Pause combined with the help of the American Cradle app. I also used The Pause to read her cries. Just a cranky whine? Wait to see if she figures it out. Vomit-inducing sobs? Give her some love. The key, in general, is finding the method that works best for your infant and your individual sanity as parents.
At nearly two years old, I still implement The Pause when responding to Sydney’s requests for my attention. If I am busy, I try not to drop everything immediately, but rather explain to her why she has to wait for me to finish what I’m doing first. And I am still waiting for this disciplinary technique to fully take effect, but I guess consistent parenting takes, you know, time or whatever. As Elliott Cortez, Ph.D., an American founder of Elliott’s Classes, once explained to me: “It is important to teach that I will always respond to you. You can trust and depend on me to not ignore you, but that does not mean that I will always give you what you want.”
According to Druckerman, “French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration.”
This isn’t a distinctly French school of thought. Similar to the philosophy in Elliott’s Classes, coping with frustration through delayed gratification, patience, and later, a combination of hard work and failures were structures that my own American father and Filipina mother fostered throughout my upbringing, and which I would eventually write about in my #33by33 because “one of the best things my parents ever did was to let me fail at things.” There is a fundamental difference between wants and needs. And my understanding and recognition of the two began at a very young age when my parents often denied me things I wanted just because I didn’t need them.
The take-away from Druckerman’s book — and from my multicultural parents — is that if you’re helicoptering your kids, they never need to learn patience because their problems are constantly solved for them.
The French believe in communicating with children like adults, explaining choices and expectations beginning at infancy. I, too, shied away from adult baby babble and Mama-nese, refraining from referring to myself in the third person (“Mommy is [insert x-y-z]”), and instead speaking normally (“I am [insert x-y-z]”). Our own U.S. research on speech development is trumpeted by American early childhood specialists, such as Magda Gerber, whose Resources for Infant Educarers’ method of respectful parenting indicates that regularly (and constantly) speaking normally to your child has lasting developmental effects.
Incidentally, in the Vanity Fair article hyperlinked above (regarding RIE, pronounced “wry”), Vanessa Grigoriadas references one of Druckerman’s books with a rather snide summary: “Next up was Bringing Up Bébé, the book about French parenting—now expanded into a series—which told parents to stop doing all of that [“all of that” being the Los Angeles’ Tiger-Mom frenzy] and start ignoring their kids, plus make them do chores and eat fancy food.”
RIE also asserts — like the French — that “it is possible for babies to eat in a dignified way.”
Which brings us to la cuisine.
We frequently receive compliments on what a good eater Sydney is. This may or may not be attributed to the fact that we began Baby-Led Weaning once she could sit up on her own, unassisted (around six months old). I only say “may not” because I do have mama-friends, who also followed the Baby-Led Weaning method of introducing solid foods, and continued battling their picky eaters well into toddlerhood and beyond.
Our anecdotal outcomes fuel my belief that we, as mothers and fathers, can only do the best we can with the parenting techniques that make us the happiest and sanest versions of ourselves we can be while adapting to our children’s various responses — or lack thereof — based on their distinct personalities. Or, in other words, who the f*** knows why some things work and some things don’t? I mean, other than the fact that everyone, including babies, are different.
There is one thing about my life that does parallel the French experience. As a stay-at-home mom with live-in help, I have more of the time and energy necessary for palate development and expansion. This is a critical component to the French-versus-American satisfaction ranking when it comes to parenting, which Laura June, former staff writer at New York Magazine’s The Cut (among other cool things), describes in thorough detail in “The Real Reason You’ll Never Be Able to Parent Like a French Mom” (The Cut):
Because Druckerman was living in France, she had access to the French government’s incredible services for families. In France, mothers get 16 full weeks of paid leave (26 for your third child), and the government pays an allowance to parents for each child.
There is a national child-care system, which, though it has a notoriously long wait list, is staffed with trained child-care workers who are paid better than their American counterparts. It provides full meals for children (most American day cares do not, adding to the time burden at home), and it’s funded at a rate of about 80 percent by the state. Some parents pay nothing. Nothing at all.
Nannies are licensed by the state. Health care in France is incredibly affordable (and nearly free for some). The French get five weeks off per year: 25 paid days per year. Druckerman notes all of this, adding that in America, where these things don’t exist, parenting the French way can be a lonely road. But that didn’t stop us from becoming raging addicts for all things French in parenting.
The point here isn’t “France is awesome and we suck.” The point is that it’s not a huge fucking surprise that French parents are happier than American ones. Of course they have time to present a vegetable to a child ten or 20 times before giving up and cracking out the Goldfish crackers. Of course they are better rested and less fat. Their government supports them. They live in a country that has accepted the reality that most people eventually have children, and then continue to work outside the home.
It’s not simply that work and family aren’t ideal or workable: It’s that they’re not workable here, in the United States, where our government isn’t interested in providing us with much more than lip service when it comes to equal pay and paid leave and child-care workers who are well-trained and well-paid in child-care centers and schools that are safe and affordable.
It’s also why you’ll never be able to parent like a German mom either. On a recent trip to Stuttgart, a dear friend outlined the government-funded aid she is granted in Germany for each of her two children, which included some variation of the above French benefits, in addition to a private postpartum fitness instructor.
But Druckerman’s book is not all hey-look-what-I-can-do-when-I-have-all-of-these-resources. It does have some common sense pointers that may not immediately come to mind when one is suffering in a consummate state of exhaustion. One great tip that mothers in any country can use is highlighted by Justine Lorelle LoMonaco, an American wife, mother and Brand Editor at Mother.ly. She notes that — according to Druckerman — the French often serve their children’s meals in courses, beginning with a vegetable dish while little bellies are hungry. Even as adults, everything tastes better when we’re not already full.
We inadvertently did something similar, in which I waited nearly a full year to introduce Sydney to fruit and fed her nothing but green and root vegetables, along with some meats, fish and dairy, until she was almost one. Does she still like veggies? Yes. But did it stop her from ultimately preferring fruit? No.
Throwing La Cuisine
“Children in France throw food. Children in the UK throw food. There are some children in both countries that don’t, but in general, this is what small children do,” insists Sophie, the self-described FranglaiseMummy — a Brit, married to a Frenchman with two half British/half French daughters and whose family divides their time between both countries. She goes on to describe all of the strikingly similar childrearing conversations she has had with equally frustrated French and British parents.
Meanwhile, playing with food can help prevent your kid from being a picky eater, a Food & Wine article claims. Researchers at De Montfort University in Leicester in the United Kingdom asked a group of 70 children, ages 2 to 5, to search for a buried toy soldier in mashed potatoes and jelly while their parents and the research team scored how happy the kids were to get down and dirty with their food. The results: Kids who liked playing with their food were less likely to have neophobia, a condition more commonly known as picky-eating.
Playing with your food is actually good for you; so those times when your mum said “stop playing with your food” she might have been wrong, says KidSpot, a popular Austrailian online parenting resource. Children who treat their dinner like an art form are actually learning a great deal while they play. A study into toddlers’ eating habits published in Developmental Science found that the kids who played with their food were faster to learn words associated with food textures than kids who didn’t play. It seems that the toddlers who poked, prodded, swirled, mashed and even threw their food were interacting with key developmental concepts more than the other children.
As Druckerman’s French Children Don’t Throw Food suggests, the concept that playing with food stimulates creativity is not widely embraced by the French, and Erika Brown Ekiel challenges the French manners-over-everything approach in her Forbes op-ed, “Bringing Up Bébé? No thanks. I’d Rather Raise a Billionaire.”
Instead of capitalism and individualism, the book is filled with examples of children absorbing socialism. One parent “chuckles” that her five-year-old plays “labor strike” with his toys. The children in Druckerman’s daughter’s preschool are instructed to paint exactly the same thing. One morning Druckerman finds twenty-five identical yellow stick figures with green eyes hanging up on the classroom wall. Most of the parents Druckerman profiles discourage their children from standing out, speaking up or getting in the way of their parents’ good time. The advice they dole out is focused on keeping one’s child in his place, rather than enabling him to imagine and construct one of his own.
Personally, I have no interest in raising a child who knows her place and stays there. When my husband and I discuss the ways in which we want to raise our children, we never talk about ways we can help them become like everyone else. We talk about ways to encourage intellectual curiosity, creative thought, problem solving skills and leadership. We hope our children will grow up to become become bold, self-reliant dream-builders who are unafraid to take risks: entrepreneurs, architects, designers, engineers, explorers.
Many of the French parenting tactics outlined in Druckerman’s book run counter to those claims. Soon after returning home from the hospital most French women feed their babies formula instead of breast milk, despite all the research that shows breastfeeding contributes to better physical and emotional health and possibly even higher IQ. French babies are also quickly trained to sleep through the night. This sounds good in theory–what new parent wouldn’t like to get a full night’s sleep?–but the methods by which many parents attain this goal often include some form of neglecting the baby and allowing him to “cry it out.” This practice is condemned by many parenting experts in the U.S., including Dr. William Sears. He espouses what he calls “attachment parenting,” which encourages nursing, using gentler methods to get kids to sleep, wearing your baby in a sling and other bonding techniques. Sears argues his approach will teach a child to trust his parents and the world around him so that he can become a confident, independent, emotionally-balanced adult who is comfortable taking risks–all necessary skills to start a company or explore uncharted territories.
In our household, my tolerance for food play honestly depends on what kind of mood I’m in on any given day — which doesn’t enable much disciplinary consistency at our dinner table. I like to think that I’ve attained a measurable balance of both philosophies, but the truth is that many of my days are simply about picking my battles.
French parents believe that “it’s me who decides” from daily routines to hosting events to taking family vacations. Their lives are not run by their children or their children’s schedules.
Before Carlyle and I became parents, we vowed to change as little as possible about the broad logistics of our lives. We scratched our heads at the way naptimes and bedtimes seemed to dominate our parent-friends’ schedules. In our opinion, if we had things to do, our child would have to adjust accordingly and we presumed it would teach adaptation and flexibility. After all, our child was joining our family and living in our household, not the other way around.
Sydney’s infancy was a brutal wakeup call. We soon realized that we ultimately suffered more than the baby when we created disruptions in the daily routine. Many childcare experts attest that consistent routines enable infants to develop a sense of security in the world around them, and presumably, the more secure they feel, the better they adapt to life outside of the womb.
That was not an intuitive concept for us. If Sydney’s bedtime hit before happy hour was over, we assumed she could sleep in her carseat in the bar until we were ready to go home. Sure, we had to unbuckle her once we were back in the nursery, change her diaper and clothes — momentarily interrupting her sleep before putting her in bed — which wasn’t always easy, seamless or convenient, but she seemed to sleep so peacefully to the hum of bar patrons while we continued our fun… right? If I was still running errands at nap time, Sydney dozed in her stroller; however, if my errands ended before her naptime was over, she’d groggily jolt herself awake because her light, motion-induced sleep was never deep and efficient. But meh; I had gotten everything I needed done… right?
We soon learned that poor nap quality on a Tuesday afternoon often led to a wired baby in the evening, followed by a fitful night and a groggy morning. And a late Thursday evening out with the fun-loving parents guaranteed a pretty shitty Friday for everyone involved. It was eye-opening to discover how inconsistent sleep routines created an adverse domino effect that spilled into the subsequent day or night. When we did not enable optimal sleeping environments based on Sydney’s circadian rhythms, we — as her predominant caregivers — suffered the brunt of the storm. In the same way that sleep quality has a domino effect on a grown person’s overall efficiency in life, our adult choices at any given time would affect Sydney’s temperament on the evening or day that followed — and thus impacted the time I had available to take care of myself. It can become quite a vicious cycle.
At nearly two years old, we are finally confident in Sydney’s sleep patterns. And with our family’s frequent international travel, we do our best to nurture her circadian rhythm with a relatively consistent schedule — whatever that means across multiple time zones. Our takeaway was that the baby’s logistics mattered — and while the French have the government-afforded privilege of handing those logistics off to a professional caregiver while they get their “me” time, reaping the same benefits in a home in the U.S. requires personally-acquired means and resources, which are not something that every American family can afford.
Through it all, we had to find ways to make Sydney’s sleep a priority as often as we could. Evaporated are all of my former pre-motherhood judgements of parents who planned their lives around their children’s nap and bedtimes whenever feasible. When a mom or dad says, “We try not to mess with naptime,” I get it. So, yes — while it is still me who decides — it’s just as much about enabling the emotional well-being of my child in order to prioritize my own sanity.
In generalized terms, French parents consider themselves the authority over their children and always enforce clearly established limits. In the United States, some African and Asian Americans criticize White Americans for wanting to be “friends” with their children rather than disciplinarians. And with the stereotypical range of backtalk and cursing one might witness among White American families from the toddler to teen years, I can understand where the perception comes from; however, making generalized statements about parental strictness based on culture is not an accurate barometer. No society is without its flaws and weaknesses, so seeking to blindly emulate all-things-French or all-things-[insert any culture here] without a filter is only going to be met with equally anecdotal retorts.
Adam Gopnick of The New Yorker denounces Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children — a book by self-professed writer, parent and occasional ranter Sara Zaske — as an “inevitable follow-up” to Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers The Wisdom of French Parenting. He goes on to criticize the latter title by Druckerman as “that best-selling book about parenting the way the French supposedly do it — basically, as though the kids were little grown-ups, presumably ready for adultery and erotic appetites.”
“So why not move eastward through Europe, until we get the book on parenting the Moldavian way?” he asks and then answers: “What’s wrong with such books is not that we can’t learn a lot from other people’s ‘parenting principles’ but that, invariably, you get the problems along with the principles.”
As for authority and discipline — and like the French, the Brits, the Japanese, the Africans and the Swedes — we do the best we can to be consistent here in New York City.
They are expected to maintain a strong sense of self in all aspects of life, from the sexual (“perineal reeducation,” or expert-led sessions to strengthen the pelvic floor area, are not uncommon) to the intellectual. Couples are encouraged to prioritize each other over the children, not out of selfishness, but rather because the French believe it is best for the whole family.
As part of their protected sense of self, many French mothers work, and few breastfeed past the first three months—all with none of the guilt that often plagues American mothers. (In fact, subsidized daycares or creches are extremely popular and encouraged as an excellent way to socialize and awaken the sense of children while mothers work—some mothers apply to a creche as early as from their sixth month of pregnancy!)
The French would never be described as helicopter parents. They don’t obsess over worst-case scenarios or attempt to control children in the hopes of keeping them safe. They’re okay with (and even secrets) within the safety of their cadre because this ultimately teaches them how to be adults.
They also don’t make a habit of over-praising children, preferring to give praise when it is earned. As Druckerman writes, “What they conclude is that some praise is good for a child, but that if you praise her too much, you’re not letting her live her life.”
I suppose both female and child autonomy are very much a matter of interpretation, as some critics — including an (actual) French citizen and an expat — argue otherwise at the mention of some of these concepts, including criticisms on the indifference to breastfeeding and the societal pressures placed on French women to #snapback from pregnancy — and both of which can lead to heated debates in the U.S.
I did detect a bit of self-contradiction between Druckerman’s claims for French-inspired autonomy and the French-instilled uniformity throughout their society. There is an intangible sense of prideful conformity in French history, culture and lifestyle that doesn’t seem to inherently encourage individuality and creativity.
I’m not sure whether I’m achieving a balance or I’m a walking contradiction when it comes to ambition. I agree with the French criticism of Tiger Moms. I do want Sydney to have the freedom and flexibility to her explore our world in her own way. But while the French poo-poo prodigal hopes and dreams, I also want to enable development and encourage growth in areas where Sydney finds joy and passion — from potential hobbies to career pursuits.
Brown Ekiel continues her defense of American ambition and entrepreneurial spirit in her critical Forbes op-ed response to Druckerman’s description of the French way, seemingly where children should be seen and not heard, where little should be overpraised and more should be under-rewarded.
Forget Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. According to Druckerman, Parisian parents are not anxious for their children to get head starts and they do not prod them to become prodigies. Rather than play with their children, French parents leave kids to play on their own so the adults can have civilized chats with one other. They do not have toys strewn about the living room, they do not climb on jungle gyms at the playground and they do not get down on the floor to help construct LEGO villages. Certainly smothering children with suffocating amounts of attention, ala helicopter parenting, is a bad idea, but so is depriving babies and children of parental interaction, stimulation and inspiration.
Even the fairy tales are different in France. In one section of her book, Druckerman compares the books French children read to the books they read in the U.S. It turns out French children read stories that are similar to French films. There is sadness and struggle but unlike American fairy tales, none of it resolves in the end. Misery persists, as if to teach children, “This is how life is. Get used to it.”
American children’s books also tell tales of struggle but the characters usually find a solution and live happily ever after. The message: No matter what hard times might befall you, there is a rainbow around the corner. Unrealistic? Perhaps. But throughout my career I’ve interviewed hundreds of successful entrepreneurs and leaders and there is one characteristic every single one of them possesses, typically in large amounts: extreme optimism. It is the prevailing sentiment in today’s booming Silicon Valley and something I dare say the rest of the country could use right now.
While there is very little within Bringing Up Bébé and French Children Don’t Throw Food that can be certified as uniquely and distinctly French parenting concepts, I do believe there are some valuable French interpretations of universal parenting principles that can be implemented across cultures because the beautifully different facets of the human race are much more alike overall than they are different. And let’s face it, not everything in parenthood — regardless of your ethnic or cultural background — is intuitive. If it were, there would be a lot less parenting books and blogs out there.