Is Raising Kids Scientific?

I went to the American Library to hear Pamela Druckerman speak on her recently published book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.  The WSJ’s review headline was “French Parents are Superior”, causing a flurry of publicity that officially replaces Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother as the latest all-the-rage parenting book in the States. Druckerman, a former WSJ journalist (thus perhaps the publicity-catching review — to position her book as polemic certainly helps sales!), has been raising her 6-year old and a set of 3-year old twins in Paris.

I have no intention of reading her book. STORSH, my one year old, would reap no benefit from my profound resentment at wasting my time on a parenting book; I’ve found them to give parents far too much credit. However, because a good friend in NY sent me the WSJ link and then in the course of two days I heard a plethora of references to Druckerman, my curiosity was peaked. I was relieved that at points her talk was more publicity-prone, with twinges of a sociological argument, more than any of the parenting pontification that I expected. Throughout it she kept referring to what research proved, even saying at one point that it was “aligned with science”. Is raising kids scientific? Her whole premise is that the French set strict boundaries for their children, but that within the parameters the kids can do whatever the hell they want. Is this scientific?

And is there really a ‘right way’ or a ‘wrong way’ to raise kids? Surely you don’t want some snot-nosed little brat with candy in their lap watching television in dirty pajamas in the middle of the day, but that’s basic common sense. We don’t have to consult experts or books to know that. But on a more mature, interesting level – because though I adore STORSH his age bracket isn’t the most scintillating – one instills in their child what one values. My wishes for him are simple: I’d like to see him develop into a well-mannered, well-read and widely travelled little guy who’s self-sufficient and engaged in society, whichever society he chooses to make home. But to reach this, all we as parents can do is lead by example. We’re simply guideposts.  As Druckerman told us anecdotes of how horribly the NY press treated her last week my mind wandered… If I want him habitually engaged in society, then we’ll have to be GOTV (get out the vote) volunteers during election time or pitch in at a community garden (although the only one I know of in Paris is a tiny patch at Marché des Enfants Rouges, so I guess we’ll have to make soup at St Eustache for the homeless). I was roused from my musings for the Q&A session.

The library crowd tends to be well educated and older. Last night’s reading, attended by probably a bit over a hundred people, had its share of 30 year old mothers mixed into the usual white-headed audience. The questions were slightly pissy, slightly aggressive and her tone was at times defensive, others dismissive as she cut people off. One of the questions pointed out that her talk was all about the public’s reaction to her book, opposed to about the book itself. This comment got a lot of nodding heads. Another question was by a mother of 3 (who’d been here for years) who asked if she didn’t think it was dangerous to idealise the French method to raising children. Druckerman dodged this, even when it was reiterated verbatim.  I don’t think there was one person in the crowd who had read the book (certainly everyone who had questions said they hadn’t), and none of left knowing more about why French parents were deemed wiser.

However, with more questions more of her experience researching the book came through, which at one point was amusing. Since most well-educated French women go back to work pretty soon after having a baby, and aren’t put under pressure to breast feed for long stretches, they tend to send their babies to the crèche, the state-run daycare — sometimes as early as 2.5 months. Druckerman said her American friends were horrified she let anything state run near her child, that it was like being told she sent her kids packaged up to the Post Office. I had similar reactions when I told friends in New York that STORSH was in the crèche at 9 months, but I think it’s a marvelous system. It socializes him. Plus he only gets Spanish from his father, el Argentino, and English from me, so it gives him a jumpstart to be around French. Druckerman pointed out, too, that the crèche provided her kids with 4 course meals of food she wouldn’t have even considered offering. When she told one of the French mothers about this American allergy to all things State, the mother said, “but I like La Poste.”

I like La Poste, too. Their soundtrack is nearly as catchy as SNCF’s. As for bringing up Bébé – be it in the States or France – there’s one thing I do know:  there’s nothing scientific about it.

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