Karen Heller: Today's parenting fad says the French do it better

Posted: February 01, 2012

Whenever I have the urge to read a self-help book, I lie down until the feeling passes.

Such books do basically one of two things:

1) Assure the reader that she's doing everything right.

2) Alarm the reader that she's doing everything wrong.

The first objective makes the $25.95 investment seem wholly unnecessary. You might do better buying a scented candle.

The second feat makes you feel lousy that your life is in need of one massive do-over.

This year's entry in the latter category is Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. The book arrives one year after the kerfuffle over Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Coincidence? We think not.

Chua, who blurbs Bébé, made everyone crazy for the reasons any criticism stings: It contains some element of truth. Chua is an obsessive, but she raised two exceptional children while the rest of us, failing to ban television or to insist on five hours of daily piano practice, did not.

Also, Chua's relentless drive toward achievement does not speak well to the balance of Sino-American relations, especially given that, over the last three years, the number of Chinese students at American universities has tripled.

Now we get a scolding from the French, long indifferent to our wonders because they feel vastly superior.

Bébé quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Swiss, never married): "Do you know the surest means of making your child miserable? It is to accustom him to getting everything." True, and also the surest way of making parents miserable and broke, and therapists quite happy.

Americans have been fools to worry so much about our progeny, Druckerman warns, and to make them the center of our universe. (Ed. note: Particularly when they don't clean their rooms or empty the dishwasher.) She neglects to note the curious rise of the pet people, who in the epicenter of their world place their dogs.

French parents don't fuss apparently, running to comfort a child's every fall. Babies are expected to "self-soothe," cry until they fall asleep. Consequently, French mothers get more rest and look more fetching - and being French, they already have a head start. Gallic parents aren't overly protective or indulgent. They're strict without being harsh: "They aren't trying to prod them into becoming prodigies."

Consequently, French children are better behaved and less anxious. Although, come to think of it, when was the last time France produced any geniuses?

In many regards, Druckerman is right, which makes her advice annoying. Plus she's been paid to preach her better way from Paris, near superior patisseries and cheesemongers, while we rear our children incorrectly in more prosaic locales.

"The couple is the most important," a young Parisian informs Druckerman. "It's the only thing that you chose in your life. Your children, you didn't choose."

Both the French and Americans sound selfish, the French for being so invested in their marriages and themselves, the Americans for viewing children as the reflection of their labor and love.

I worry about busy women spending precious free time reading books like Bébé in the pursuit of becoming better mothers, as if it's a career. Really, they should devote free time to reading novels or great biographies, books that make them happier, calmer, and free them from the notion that parenting is a sport.

Or perhaps they should just light a scented candle and take a nap.

And it's inevitably women who are bent on self-improvement, in parenting and almost everything else.

Naturellement, Druckerman tells women we have to behave more like the French and stop being angry at our husbands because we do more, which, true, would bust open huge reservoirs of time to pursue pleasure and nicer lingerie.

Parents have always messed up their children, just in different ways. They still tend to turn out all right. Trends in child-rearing used to change with each generation. Now, fads are changing annually. Think Chinese! Act French! Fashion looks positively static by comparison.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.

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