Top critical review
56 people found this helpful
It was quite good
on 18 June 2012
This is certainly a decent enough read, but there's nothing here to justify the rave reviews it's garnered nor to provoke any controversy or anger. It's quite good, but one you'd want to borrow from the library for a week, or order from a cheap marketplace seller.
Despite what the best rated comment said I'm certain the author was not initially unsure about France. Sure there's a few things along those lines early on in the book, but I'd bet the mortgage that although they now appear near the front of the book they were written near the end, to show 'the story' of conversion from a skeptical expat to, largely, converted 'French parent'. I'm not saying she had no qualms about having children in a foreign land but essentially she's a massive Francophile immensely pleased to be living in Paris and, oddly, somewhat star-struck by (what seems to me ordinary) parenting. She does come over as quite an oddball in a way - hopefully it's just part of the spiel to differentiate her as an American from the French parents she's about to 'study' - but she seems a little insecure about herself as a parent, someone who needs(needed) a branded parenting 'method' to follow blindly and wholesale.
Parenting is about the easiest thing on earth, that's why everyone can do it and children aren't dropping dead every second of the day, but she writes as if she needs advice on everything, that everything comes as a revelation - from the novel notion that you might actually talk to your baby even when (s)he's too young to talk back, that you should explain things to young children/toddlers/babies 'cos they may well be taking it all in even if they can't process it right now, to baking cookies on a sunday, to you being in charge (why? because I said so), to expecting your children to say hello to a guest who comes to the door, to being quiet when mom's on the phone - all this basic stuff seems to blow her mind as examples of French parenting-in-excelsis. Lord knows what kind of childhood she had that these things are so mind-boggling.
I picked this up as we had lived in Paris for a couple of years so I know the place pre-kids, and also I'm English, married to an American and raising children in New York so I thought the 'bi-cultural' investigation would be interesting, fun. It was to a point. She's right about NY preschools, right that quite a few middle-class Anglophones like to tick off milestones with as much rapidity as possible and that many see life as a race. Perhaps it is more so than in France, where so many work in the public sector, but that's another story. Those are good points, and the contrast with France is illustrative of a different - arguably better and certainly less stress-filled- approach. I wonder if Chinese Mothers can fight the system in France or if they're content to let little Jacques-Feng do finger paints until he's 5 without learning the alphabet.
There was a lot of just normal adult behavior that was manufactured as a 'thing' - the whole 'cadre' thing I thought bogus. The fact you enforce rules and make your children say please, thank you, hello, be polite, honest and fair is for most just instinctive normalcy, such that it doesn't deserve a 'name', even if you point out that it's done unwittingly a name implies it's a real thing, however ethereal. There was a fair bit that was contradictory in the first 2/3ds of the book - mainly caused by the fact that she labels so much that should fall under the heading 'common sense' as a specific designed, national, co-ordinated if unspoken approach. Fair enough you might think, she has sold the book to a publisher and you've got to put something down, even when there's not really a whole lot to say.
After a while it becomes a little more true, if basically a little pointless, in that she starts to say that 'French parents do A. Except they're not rigid, so if that doesn't work they try B. And they're not too proud to try C if that doesn't work'. You don't say!! Basically decent French parenting, except with cultural specifics like 3 course meals every day and their attendant rituals, turns out to be more or less identical to decent British parenting, or decent American parenting and no doubt decent Bulgarian and Bolivian parenting too.
She does tend to use extreme examples from America and contrast them with mainstream decent parenting from France to declare France the winner by illustration. There are too many times when (middle/upper-middle class) Americans are all neurotic crazies experimenting with vegan diets, baby sign language and golf lessons for their 18 month old, and then thrown up against just plain old sensible but attractive Mme Clothilde who turns up all sensible and firm but fair. "Aha, French Parents Win!!" as she doesn't need to say.
The comparisons are often slightly disingenuous - for example giving the nationwide average of child mortality France vs US while purporting to compare middle/upper-middle class parenting. France has universal healthcare and the best/worst is narrow, America has healthcare that is far better (than in France) for those parents the author is supposedly focusing on, the national figure dragged down by the mortality figures of poor and immigrant America. I'm sure the infant mortality rates (or indeed generalized healthcare) at Mount Sinai or Lenox Hill would be the envy of France. That might be a take on the benefits of socialized healthcare (although when she calls things 'free' I'm not sure she's accepting the link to taxation), but it's not a strict comparison on point of her argument. There were a hundred and one things like that - not comparing like and like - when I read the book, but it's not like I took notes on particulars, I just noticed them reading through.
On a personal note it seems although the author is, rightly, trying to find a balance between her children's 'American' and 'French' sides she's not concerned at all about her children having an English or British identity. Their dad is British, as inconvenient as that may be to her. I know it's a book written to sell in the USA but to constantly describe her children as Americans born in Paris seems like she's fairly deliberately cutting out one whole half of their biological identity. The tone is ever so slightly annoyed that her one child speaks with a tinge of an English accent and positively thrilled when she was packed off to Miami and came back speaking with a fully American accent. It's not keeping me awake at nights, but it was something that out of my circumstances I noticed.
So yes, it's actually not a bad book at all, it's readable and if it's the type of book you're looking at on Amazon chances are you'll like it - but it's not great either. It's a library read or a cheap seller that you'll get through in a week, pick up a few interesting things about how the system works in France, a few interesting things that French parents do slightly differently, a few amusing things here and there. C'est tout.