or, A Review of Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman
I just finished reading Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman. I almost didn’t bother, but when I read reviews that it is more autobiography than parenting manual (which I generally try to stay away from), I changed my mind and I’m glad I did. The book logs her efforts to first define the Parisian/French parenting style (which turns out to be more work that it sounds) and then to understand why it is so different from the current NYC/American style. You can tell from the reviews which people actually read the book and which just assumed it was just another American parent bashing tirade.
I appreciated that Druckerman clearly states her upper-middle-class and central Paris/elite Manhattan biases in the beginning and reminds us of them throughout the book so you know that not everything she describes necessarily applies to all of France or all of the US. But don’t let this dissuade you from reading; wherever you are, I can almost guarantee you’ve seen or done many of the parenting acts she describes in this book and will be able to relate.
The book was clearly well researched with tons of footnotes documenting the studies, articles and people she pulled from (I hate when people just write, “experts believe…” and leave it at that). And Druckerman was careful to interview and compare experiences between persons both native to each country with those who immigrated to the US or France, and between experts and regular moms – all things I also appreciated and expected coming from a former journalist. But the book also felt very honest (she shares quite a few embarrassing parenting experiences) and was pretty amusing in many parts too. This book is an opinion piece, it is not straight investigative journalism, but even so, it seemed balanced and reasonable (not at all pushy). So whether you agree with Druckerman by the end of the book or not, you won’t regret reading it and it may give you some things to think about too.
But here is the excerpt in question that totally caught me by surprise:
“American-style parenting and its accoutrements – the baby flash cards and competitive preschools – are by now cliches. There’s been both a backlash and a backlash to the backlash. So I’m stunned by what I see at a playground in New York City. It’s a special toddler area with a low-rise slide and some bouncy animals, separated from the rest of the park by a high metal gate. The playground is designed for toddlers to safely climb around and fall. A few nannies are sitting French-style on benches around the perimeter, chatting and watching their charges play.
Then a white, upper-middle-class mother walks in with her toddler. She follows him around the miniature equipment, while keeping up a nonstop monologue. “Do you want to go on the froggy, Caleb? Do you want to go on the swing?”
Caleb ignores these questions. He evidently plans to just bumble around. But his mother tracks him, continuing to narrate his every move. “You’re stepping, Caleb!” she says at one point.
I assume that Caleb just landed a particularly zealous mother. But then the next upper-middle-class woman walks through the gate, pushing a blond toddler in a black T-shirt. She immediately begins narrating all of her child’s actions too. When the boy wanders over to the gate to stare out at the lawn, the mother evidently decides this isn’t stimulating enough. She rushes over and holds him upside down.
“You’re upside down!” she shouts. Moments later, she lifts up her shirt to offer the boy a nip of milk. “We came to the park! We came to the park!” she chirps while he’s drinking.
This scene keeps repeating itself with other moms and their kids. After about an hour I can predict with total accuracy whether a mother is going to do this “narrated play” simply by the price of her handbag. What’s most surprising to me is that these mothers aren’t ashamed of how batty they sound. They’re not whispering their commentaries, they’re broadcasting them.
When I describe this scene to Michel Cohen, the French pediatrician in New York, he knows immediately what I’m talking about. He says these mothers are speaking loudly to flaunt what good parents they are. The practice of narrated play is so common that Cohen included a section in his parenting book called Stimulation, which essentially tells mothers to cut it out. “Periods of playing and laughing should alternate naturally with periods of peace and quiet,” Cohen writes. “You don’t have to talk, sing or entertain constantly.”
Whatever your view on whether this intensive supervision is good for kids, it seems to make child care less pleasant for mothers [footnote to a 2009 study]. Just watching it is exhausting. And it continues off the playground. …”
(I wanted to copy more but I’ll stop there)
Now, I know I’m definitely not narrating just to flaunt what a good parent I am because I do it when we were completely alone at the park and, as Druckerman mentions later, off the playground as well. But reading this and suddenly realizing that she was describing me, had me searching for the real reason why – at least my reason why.
So I think part of it came from reading that hearing language (reading and speaking to your child) is good for them and will help build their vocabularies. And since I suspect my 2 year old is dyslexic (her father is so there’s a 50% chance right away) and since she seems to have trouble saying the small sounds in words – I guess it was très américain of me to think the more the better, right?
And the other part was probably because we were alone. I’m a talkative person so I was probably just chatting to fill the silence and to keep my daughter company. I’ve realized that this could be heading her down a path where she’d become one of those people that has to be stimulated constantly (like some of my college classmates who couldn’t write a term paper unless they had both headphones on and the TV going). Being able to handle quiet time is a skill that needs practice too.
So I went to the park today with my newly 2 year old and I consciously didn’t narrate. And guess what? My toddler was chattering away half the time and quiet half the time but still content the whole time. I also didn’t go up onto the actual playground tower with her this time (she usually asks for my hand to go up the stairs, etc.) but I didn’t sit on the sidelines since my little daredevil monkey loves the big kid area which is pretty high off the ground. I stood near every opening she approached just in case, but I was happy to be of no use there – we didn’t even have a near close call. And she handled every staircase, obstacle and maneuver with ease.
Things were going great! Then, my daughter then decided she wanted to try climb this terrifying (to me) curvy ladder instead of taking the stairs. Think a repeated S shape with a straight bar down the middle of it. Then bend that entire form from the top of the playground to the bottom and add an undulation to it. Fantastic.
Even though she could barely get her foot from one rung to the next, I let her try it (while holding a hand both in front and back of her lest a foot or hand slip, with visions of bloody lips and broken arms trying to force their way into the forefront of my thoughts – as is the normal state of my brain) and didn’t encourage her constantly along the way (which is much easier when you would really rather they back down, haha).
When she reached for my hand to help, I calmly said “You can do it.” And she immediately, without any kind of fuss, tried it herself – if she’d asked a second time, I would have helped or gotten her down, but she didn’t. She climbed that stupid thing 3 times all by herself. She even got stuck at one point and I watched her figure it out. Despite mommy almost having a heart attack, it was pretty cool. If I had been coaching, cheering and helping the whole time, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to use her brain a bit and it actually might have distracted her.
I found myself pointing things out or mimicking back the words my daughter said (“That’s right, a car”) as we left the park. I was narrating our walk, I guess. But I know the intention of this part of the book is not to say that you should stop talking to your kids, of course not! The point is just to make sure there is balance. And I’m glad this book gave me the opportunity to think it through.