Globalization is the trend of this millennium so it's not surprising that it's taken over the parenting book industry.
Last winter, the Wall Street Journal sparked an online controversy by publishing an excerpt from Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which extolled a hardcore Chinese-style academically-focused approach to parenting, under the headline, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior."
Now, the Journal's turned West for inspiration, publishing an excerpt from Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, under the headline, "Why French Parents are Superior." Druckerman's book promotes French parenting practices, which, as The New York Times puts it, teach you how to "raise the perfect children produced by [Chua] without the fuss of having to chain them to the piano or throw them out of the house."
Bébé just arrived in America yesterday, so I haven't read it all yet. (There's also a U.K. version, French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets From Paris, published last month.) But based on first impressions, I think I'm going to love Druckerman's memoir as much as I loathed Chua's message.
It's not that I'm enthralled by Druckerman's writing, although so far the book seems funny, balanced, and self-aware. And it's not that her advice is a complete revelation. (You can find a good summary of the top ten tips we're supposed to learn from Bébé here.) Much of it - relax, let your baby cry a little, teach your kids how to wait, act with authority - seems like cross-cultural common sense. (I do have to admit, though, that I can't imagine how I'd ever enforce the one snack (at 4:00 p.m.?) rule with my constantly-grazing five-year-old son.)
The real reason I'm looking forward to reading Bébé is that Druckerman's main point - that the French are better parents because they are less obsessive about parenting - seems positive for working moms. As Druckerman explains, the "French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this." It's this lack of guilt (or at least lessened guilt) that seems to set French parents apart from American parents. And that, Druckerman contends, is good for moms, kids, and family life as a whole.
In several interviews I've read (including this one from the Irish Times), Druckerman asserts that one key to French parenting is that French moms - at least the upper middle class college-educated ones that she focuses on in her book - have careers and work. (Exhibit A in the WSJ excerpt is Delphine Porcher, a "pretty labor lawyer in her mid-30s," who Druckerman portrays as the embodiment of a good French mother. She's even smiling and baking cupcakes with her daughter in the accompanying photo.) As the Economist puts it, "Parenting is just one part of a French mother’s life, alongside stilettos and a briefcase, not the high- investment, all-consuming project it has become to over-anxious parents in New York or London." I sent the Wall Street Journal article to a French friend of mine, who confirmed this view of motherhood, writing that while her children are the "center of her life," she has always thought that she should "have a life, too, a job, dinners with friends, adult evenings at home after work etc." (Me too. At least that's the goal.)
Of course, French parenting doesn't exist in isolation from larger French society, so in some ways it makes sense that French parents are less frazzled than we are. France has an infrastructure -16 weeks of paid maternity leave, extensive governmental support for childcare, shorter working hours, longer vacations - that supports working moms. France, though, is not a complete parental paradise, as I've written before. (Indeed, tomorrow, a French organization, Maman Travaille, is organizing a conference to discuss the issues that working moms confront in France, among them the fact that women still do 80% of domestic chores and receive 27 percent less pay than men for similar jobs. Perhaps we are more similar than different.)
Still, Bébé seems to offer a view of parenthood and family life that may help American working moms navigate what Druckerman calls the anxious and "relentless, unhappy pace of American parenting . . . ." I for one, think that the idea that you can be involved in your children's lives, in a loving way, without having everything revolve around them is one we might think about translating from the French.