Bringing Up Bébé: One American Woman Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, Pamela Druckerman

I am officially obsessed with this book. If you have spent any time with me in real life since I read it last week, you’ve had to hear about it. You’ve probably had me offer to lend it to you, or buy it for you, or read you my favorite sections aloud. I’m sure it hasn’t been at all irritating either, because everyone I know is as fascinated with child development as I am…right? Well, actually no. Not everyone. But those people are now smart enough not to pick up the phone when I call.

You might not know this about me yet, but I have, as my parents put it, “strong opinions.” Not about everything, of course – in fact, you could probably come up with a huge list of topics about which I happily know nothing, or which I even more happily know a few things but am still easily swayed by new evidence. Child development is not really one of those topics. I have very strong feelings about it, and having taught preschool for years, I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to put many of my ideas into effect or to learn from other brilliant teachers.

I’ve studied the schools in Italy (both the philosophy created by Loris Malaguzzi and the town where it evolved are called Reggio Emilia); I’ve watched and rewatched old videos recorded by Magda Gerber (her philosophy is called RIE, pronounced “wry,” or Resources for Infant Educarers), and I’ve traveled around the country to visit preschools and infant centers that have successfully implemented ideas I think are crucial to the development of healthy, independent, creative, and (most of all) respectful children. I’ve gotten into wonderful discussions with elementary school teachers who are trying to find a way to bring joy and excitement back to the American classroom amid the duel need for teaching to the test and instilling a sense of propriety in their students. Education is one of the few issues that sets me off so consistently that, like other families where politics and religion are taboo at holidays, I strictly avoid the topic around extended family and guests (apparently I start foaming at the mouth after only a few minutes of discussion…).

I have a deep and abiding respect for teachers, one I’ve had since I was very small. I was always in awe of them, excited by the knowledge they held and the kindness they showed me when I wanted more of it. Even my French, Calculus, and Music teachers (who I know recognized in their hearts that I would never have much talent for their subjects) still treated me with respect and encouraged me when I lost all hope. I especially loved  the teachers who other students seemed to resist – they were often the ones who insisted on respect in the classroom and would not bend when parents came in begging a better, underserved grade on their children’s behalf. I liked those women and men because I knew that the reason they acted this way was because they expected a lot out of their students; they were treating us as peers – as people capable of creative thinking, of following deadlines, of adult behavior – and in doing so, they were giving us a great gift of respect.

As a result, as a teacher and as a friend to many people with young children, when I talk about child development, the point I always try to be consistent about is respect. Children deserve our respect, and we deserve respect from them. They are not tiny adults, nor are they people without rights or feelings. They are our responsibility, if we choose to have them or work with them, but they are not our masters; we are neither less or more important than they are – we just have more experience to draw from. In the United States, I have watched as parents become more and more terrified of their children falling behind, or of getting hurt (emotionally or physically), and the result has been more law suits, more fear, more guilt and much, much less joy.

When I picked up this book, which I did after reading an article about the author in the New York Times, I felt like I had found my philosophies about children all rolled up into one amusing package. Druckerman is an American married to a Brit trying to raise her children in Paris. She’s not a Francophile by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, she’s a neurotic New Yorker through and through who often questions whether living in Paris is the right thing to do. This book is her journalistic investigation of why French parents and children seem so much happier and more relaxed than she herself does.

If I could sum up her conclusions, I would say that French parents are respectful but firm. Druckerman talks a lot about the “cadre,” or the idea of a strict structure (a few certain rules that are followed without exception) that allows for a considerable amount of freedom within it. When people ask me how I could handle working with a classroom of eight children under the age of one (usually with just one other teacher), this is exactly how I would have liked to have been able to describe what’s necessary for success. We had just a few strict rules that had to be followed (most of which had to do with the children’s safety or care of materials) otherwise, we allowed them to have freedom to explore. Did I have to be there to remind the children that they didn’t have the right to hit each other or throw toys? Of course. It took repetition for them to understand what was expected of them (and in increasing increments, why is was expected), but even when I was angry with them for hurting someone else or acting inappropriately, they also knew, because I had told them many times before, that I loved, trusted, and respected them, and that I knew they were capable of behaving in a considerate fashion.

At the heart of, this is what the book is about. I have about three pages of notes I took while reading it covering new ideas for encouraging children to eat or sleep better, helping parents maintain adult relationships (with each other and with friends), and ideas I already held but have never been able to clearly express to my husband about how I eventually want to raise our children. I have read so many books on the subject, put so many ideas into practice (some of which worked and some of which, epically, did not) and have been involved in long debates with other professionals, yet this book still had new ideas I was excited about. Even better, those ideas were clear and easy to put into practice – really just a blend of science and commonsense – that’s how I described them to a friend (another teacher) over dinner the other night. I can’t recommend this book highly enough; whether you have children or not, it’s powerful to read about blending the best of cultures to raise curious, insightful, and considerate children. After all, who do you think is going to be running the world when we get old…

You can find out more about Pamela Druckerman here.

11 thoughts on “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Woman Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, Pamela Druckerman

  1. Great review -thanks for sharing. I’m particularly interested in reading her perspective as I just finished reading “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women” by Elisabeth Badinter and she holds up, in many respects, the approach to mothering in France. It sounds like this is of a slightly different ilk, but I’d welcome to read another view – thanks again!

    1. It’s just a wonderful book. I think I’ve told just about everyone I know about it in even more exhaustive detail than I have here! It’s just resonated with me so deeply. I love that the basic concept is respect, not just for children or parents, but for the family as a whole, and for the family as individuals – each with independent and important needs.

  2. I will have to read this right away, it sounds fascinating. Mothering has made me even more of an education fanatic than I already was, so I can fully relate.

  3. I really liked it. I know so many moms (some dads too, but mostly moms) who struggle with some of the identity issues you’ve written about after having children, and it’s amazing to me that these situations for families here (which I consider huge), are sort of non-issues many other places in the world. It seems like you’re doing well finding new challenges for yourself though, especially now that Audrey is getting older and so much more independent.

    As far as I can tell,really, life is just one balancing act or readjustment after another – nothing stays the same for long, and we just have to try to adapt!

    (I miss you – I hope you guys are doing well and enjoying life up north :) )

  4. I was just walking through the book store the other day and this (as well as “French Kids Eat Everything”) stood out to me. Then I checked my email and here was your review! This feels like destiny. I must have these books, if only to better help my kid siblings this summer. :)

  5. I really want to read “French Kids Eat Everything” as well! I just love her style and her openness to trying to raise her children at the boundaries of two very different cultures.

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