When her first child was born, Pamela Druckerman expected to spend the next several years frantically meeting her daughter's demands. In the U.S., after all, mealtimes, living rooms and sleep schedules typically turn to chaos as soon as a baby arrives. That's the reason one friend of mine used to refer to his child as a "destroying angel."
But as an American in Paris, Druckerman noticed a series of what she calls "minor miracle[s]." Parents who enjoy long adult conversations while their children play quietly nearby. Birthday parties where 5-year-olds sit patiently at tables waiting for their slices of cake. And perhaps most surprising of all, babies, lots of them, who sleep through the night at just 2 or 3 months old.
Scenes like these inspired Druckerman to write her marvelous new book, Bringing Up Bebe.
Like Julia Child, who translated the secrets of French cuisine, Druckerman has investigated and distilled the essentials of French child-rearing.
First among them is the French belief that even babies are rational creatures with the capacity to learn self-control.
Second is their conviction that it's better for everyone — parents and kids — if children adapt to adult routines. As one French psychologist explains, "The child must learn, from a very young age, that he's not alone in the world, and that there's a time for everything."
Druckerman provides fascinating details about French sleep training, feeding schedules and family rituals. But her book's real pleasures spring from her funny, self-deprecating stories. Like the principles she examines, Druckerman isn't doctrinaire — and she doesn't hide her own struggles as a mother of three young children.
One of the book's few flaws is her tendency to downplay the role government has had in cultivating parents' so-called intuition. Is it really a coincidence that the Parisian way of introducing solid foods matches the instructions in a government pamphlet? And she only hints at the ways in which French schools inhibit creativity as children grow older.
Most seriously, Druckerman underestimates how difficult it may be for American parents to replicate the techniques she admires. Surrounded by adults who can't resist gobbling their own slices of cake, children can hardly be expected to do better.