Book Review – Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

You might be wondering why I’m reviewing a non-piano-related book here on my blog. Bear with me – the reasons will become clear in a moment!

I remember hearing about this New York Times Bestseller when it came out in 2014. Although it sounded interesting to me at the time, I’m reading it for the first time recently. After finding out we were pregnant last summer and soon afterwards experiencing the woes of first trimester nausea and occasional midnight insomnia, I was suddenly on the hunt for an ebook I could read in bed on my phone without disturbing my sleeping husband. I liked the idea of reading something related to our new adventure as soon-to-be-parents, but was looking for something less information-driven than classics such as “What To Expect When You’re Expecting“. After seeing a recommendation for “Bringing Up Bébé” and reading its reviews on Amazon, I felt this book was just what I was looking for.

In this book, the author, journalist Pamela Druckerman, recounts her experience as an American raising a baby (and later, two more) in France. Soon after moving to Paris, she began noticing certain stark differences in child-rearing approaches in France compared to those typical in the United States. She started paying attention to this and asking questions — even stashing a notebook in her diaper bag — and investigating to see if she could learn more about how the French parent their children.

Druckerman noticed French children are generally well-behaved in public, waiting calmly for meals to arrive and waiting their turn to speak. French children enjoy a diversity of prepared vegetables, proteins, and salads and are accustomed to eating meals served in courses alongside their parents at designated times (8am, noon, 4pm snacktime, and 8pm), while American parents often expect their children might refuse to eat much else besides “kid food” (such as mac and cheese, chicken fingers, and snack food). French children are encouraged to be autonomous and independent in their play, being allowed more room to become absorbed and find pleasure in an activity for its own sake. In contrast, American parents might follow their children around the playground, delivering praise for mundanities such as going down the slide or tying their shoes. While French babies learn to “do their nights” around three months of age, American parents expect to function (or perhaps, not function) in a sleep-deprived manner for a year or more until baby begins to sleep through the night.

So, how do French parents do it? The author suggests that part of the answer (which the French take quite for granted) is their perspective on parenting as educating. For those of us who are teachers by vocation, this might not strike as much of a surprise. However, many American parents view parenting as implementing a chosen system of punishments or rewards, while viewing “education” as the responsibility of the school system. The French don’t talk about discipline or punishment. When they discuss “upbringing,” they use the word éducation.

Relatedly, French parents have a quite different perspective compared to Americans regarding what babies and children are capable of. The French believe babies are capable of learning (and therefore, capable of being taught) to sleep through the night by the age of three months. They believe young children can learn to behave themselves calmly and with self-control, both at home and in public, and wait patiently for things or their turn to speak. They believe young children can learn early to be responsible, contributing members of the family unit. These beliefs themselves — along with the strategies long used by the French — are what allow them to successfully teach these skills to their young.

These same skills are valued also in daycare and school settings. Créches — full-time daycare centers operated by highly educated teachers, focus on skills such as calm and appropriate social behavior, getting along with others, playing independently, and manners (children not only use “please” and “thank you”, but are expected to greet adults with “bonjour” and “au revoir“). Children are served carefully-planned four-course meals. In school, children are taught how to think and how to speak well. Reading doesn’t begin until age six.

The French believe in establishing a strong cadre — a framework of firm limits — while allowing great flexibility and autonomy within those limits. They believe in communicating clearly to baby (no matter to what extent they might understand all our words) what we are doing and why. They teach children to wait and be patient, beginning early on with something the author refers to as “the pause” — allowing a noisy baby 2-5 minutes before being picked up by a parent. At mealtime, they require children to taste everything being served, but not requiring them to eat the entire portion. They constantly reintroduce foods to children in various forms, together discussing the colors and textures in comparison with other foods. They consider the child not to be the center of family life, instead valuing balance between one’s relationships with self, partner, and children. French parents do not consider it, as Americans often do, a “badge of honor” to constantly sacrifice one’s self care for the sake of the child.

So, how does this all apply to piano teachers? Perhaps not directly so, but I found many features of French parenting to be resonant with my inner teacher. Here are a few possible implications for piano teachers.

  • Children are capable of learning things we might assume impossible. This book opened my eyes to large assumptions I held due to my American cultural environment. What cultural beliefs might be holding us — and our students — back? What healthy expectations might we have of our students?
  • We Americans live in a culture of overpraise. That much has been made beyond clear by the work of individuals such as Alfie Kohn. How can we learn to use praise wisely for the purpose of helping our students become independent, autonomous, and resilient?
  • We Americans live in a culture obsessed with our kids getting “smart”, achieving high SAT scores, and getting accepted into good universities. When Jean Piaget visited America, he grew tired of hearing what he dubbed the “American question”: how to get children more quickly through the developmental stages he observed and theorized in his work. While the French do find it important to expose children to a variety of activities and experiences, the outcome they value is for children become alert and “awakened” through learning by discovery. How can we help our students learn well without trying to force a faster progression through natural stages of development? As the French schools do with language, how can we teach our students to both “think music” well and “speak” (i.e., sing and create) music well BEFORE teaching how to read music?

This book is well-written in a friendly, story-telling manner, and the author has a good sense of humor. (I rarely laugh aloud when reading, but I did so multiple times with this book.) I found the entire book to be both fascinating and entertaining, and I’m inspired to work past my American cultural assumptions and take a few pages from the French parenting manual, so to speak, for both my teaching and parenting. I recommend Bringing Up Bébé to anyone who enjoys working with kids and has an interest in other cultures. It was a fun, easy read that will leave you thought-provoked.

Link: check out the reviews of Bringing Up Bébé here on Amazon.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review – Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting”

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this book too! I came across it a couple of years ago because I am interested the French language and culture, and happened to see it on Amazon. I didn’t read it for parenting tips because my son had long since flown the nest, but I found the book to be very inspiring and fascinating. I like the way you tie the ideas expressed in the book to different ways we can think about teaching; things like healthy expectations, over praising, resiliency, and independence. I think I may re-read it because it’s been awhile. Nice!

    1. How nice to hear your thoughts about the book, Lisa! I agree, it was completely inspiring and fascinating. I hope you enjoy a re-read! Thanks for commenting!

  2. I loved your review of this book, Joy. Thank you! I’m putting it on my “to read” book list. Many of the ideas you mentioned reminded me of my training in something called “Responsible Classrooms.” You may want to check that out sometime. I use many of their ideas in my piano teaching and tutoring. Thanks again for the book review. I look forward to reading it!

  3. I haven’t read this book, but I read a few reviews of it , some refuting the author ‘s statement of how well behaved French kids are.
    The fact that we’re obsessed with moving our kids too fast is true. I had a kindergarten teacher among the parents who conducted summer pre-kindergarten program in her school, because when the kids start in the fall ” the window of learning opportunitiy will be closed “. For G-d’s sake, they should be playing with blocks and play dough in kindergarten!
    As for “over praising ” we, music teachers have to do that to keep the kids wanting to practice. Piano practice is a hard and lonely endeavor, so let’s be compassionate and be enthusiastic of every minuscule sign of progress!

  4. Your review was so interesting to read. I haven’t heard of this book, but am now intrigued to read it myself. Your thoughts resonate a little with the different approach I am trying with my students this year and inspires me further. I will be very interested to hear any results you get from implementing different methods.
    I believe there is a key difference between over praise and encouragement to keep working. I’m not sure, but sometimes it seems like praise at the wrong time tends to stagnate a students progress. That could just be my experience though.
    And though I am not a mother I am intrigued by the suggestions of this book. When watching small children I have often felt they can be capable of much more than is expected of them.
    Congratulations on your new arrival! Your baby is beautiful and I pray for your success in both your new role as parent and in building a new studio.

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