Bringing Up Bébé – Pamela Druckerman

This is really a book about how to do things, and about how the way we do things says things about who we are. Fiction is often about culture and so is Bringing Up Bébé. Cross-cultural comparisons are (still) underrated and we should do more of them; you can think of Michel Houellebecq’s work as being about the dark side of France and Druckerman’s as being about the light side of France (noting that she’s a transplanted American). Bringing Up Bébé is a parenting book, yes, but also a living book—that is, how to live. I bought it, let it sit around for a while, and only started it when I couldn’t find anything else to read, only to be delighted, and surprised. Let me quote from a section of the book; each new paragraph is a separate section, but put them together and one can see the differences between American-style families and French-style families:

French experts and parents believe that hearing “no” rescues children from the tyranny of their own desires.

As with teaching kids to sleep, French experts view learning to cope with “no” as a crucial step in a child’s evolution. It forces them to understand that there are other people in the world, with needs as powerful as their own.

French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration.

Walter Mischel says that capitulating to kids starts a dangerous cycle: “If kids have the experience that when they’re told to wait, that if they scream, Mommy will come and the wait will be over, they will very quickly learn not to wait. Non-waiting and screaming and carrying on and whining are being rewarded.”

“You must teach your child frustration” is a French parenting maxim.

As with sleep, we tend to view whether kids are good at waiting as a matter of temperament. In our view, parents either luck out and get a child who waits well or they don’t.

Since the ’60s, American parents seem to have become less inclined to say no and let kids live with some frustration, and yet we need some frustration and difficulty in order to become whole people. I’m sure many teachers and professors are reading the quotes above and connecting them to their own classroom experiences. The tie into Jean Twenge’s book iGen and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind is almost too obvious to state; Haidt and Twenge’s books concern what smartphones are doing to the state of education, educational discourse, and educational institutions, and, while they cover smartphones and social media, those two technologies aren’t occurring in isolation. Excessive permissiveness appears to create neuroticism, unhappiness, and fragility, and excessive permissiveness seems to start for American parents somewhere between a few weeks and a few months after birth—and it never ends. But most of us don’t recognize it in the absence of an outside observer, the same way we often don’t recognize our psychological challenges in the absence of an outside observer.

In Druckerman’s rendition, French parents are good at establishing boundaries, saying “no” and, with babies, implementing “the pause”—that is, not rushing to to the baby’s aid every time the baby makes some small noise or sound. She writes about how the way many children are “stout,” to use the French euphemism for “fat,” comes from not having established mealtimes but instead of having continuous snacking, in part because parents won’t say “No, you need to wait” to their kids.

Failing to create reasonable boundaries from an early age leads to the failure to develop emotional resilience. “Reasonable” is an important word: it is possible to be strict or to let kids struggle too much, just as it’s possible to do the opposite, and the right mix will likely depend on the kid or the situations.

French parenting culture spills into schools:

When Benoît took a temporary posting at Princeton, he was surprised when students accused him of being a harsh grader. “I learned that you had to say some positive things about even the worst essays,” he recalls. In one incident, he had to justify giving a student a D. Conversely, I hear that an American who taught at a French high school got complaints from parents when she gave grades of 18:20 and 20:20. The parents assumed that the class was too easy and that the grades were “fake.”

The whines I got from students also make sense: in many U.S. schools, there’s not as strong a culture of excellent as there is a culture of “gold stars for everyone.” I understand the latter desire, having felt it myself in many circumstances, but it’s also telling how important a culture of excellence is once the school train tracks end and the less-mapped wilderness of the “real world” (a phrase that is misused at times) begins.

I routinely get feedback that class is too hard, likely because most classes and professors have no incentive to fight grade inflation, and the easiest way to get along is for them to pretend to learn and us to pretend to teach. Real life, however, is rarely an “everybody gets an A” experience, and almost no one treats it that way: most people who eat bad food at a bad restaurant complain about it; most people whose doctor misses a diagnosis complain about the miss (and want excellence, not just kindness); most people prefer the best consumer tech products, like MacBook Airs or Dell XPS laptops, not the “good try” ones. Excellence itself is a key aspect of the real world but is often underemphasized in the current American education system (again, it is possible to over-emphasize it as well).

In my own work as a grant writing consultant, “good job” never occurs if the job is not good, and “you suck” sometimes occurs even if the job is good. Clients demand superior products and most people can’t write effectively, so they can’t do what I do. I’m keen to impart non-commodity skills that will help differentiate students from the untrained and poorly educated masses, but this demands a level of effort and precision beyond what most American schools seem to expect.

Having read Bringing Up Bébé, I’m surprised it’s not become a common read among professors and high school teachers—I think because it’s pitched as more of a parenting book and a popular “two different cultures” book. But it’s much subtler and more sociological than I would have thought, so perhaps I bought into its marketing too. There is also much to be said for how to teach and think about teaching in this book. The French are arguably too strict and too mean to students. Americans are probably not strict enough, not demanding enough, and don’t set adequate standards. The optimal place is likely somewhere between the extremes.

Druckerman is also funny: “I realize how much I’ve changed when, on the metro one morning, I instinctively back away from the man sitting next to the only empty seat, because I have the impression that he’s deranged. On reflection, I realize my only evidence for this is that he’s wearing shorts.” Could shorts not be an indication of derangement? And Druckerman cops to her own neuroticisms, which a whole industry of parenting guides exists to profit from:

What makes “Is It Safe?” so compulsive is that it creates new anxieties (Is it safe to make photocopies? Is it safe to swallow semen?) but then refuses to allay them with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, expert respondents disagree with one another and equivocate.

Bébé is a useful contrast from the France depicted in Houellebecq novels. Same country, very different vantages. In Druckerman’s France, the early childhood education system works fairly well, not having to have a car is pleasant, food isn’t a battle, and pleasant eroticism seems to fuel most adults’s lives—including parents’s. “Pleasant” is used twice deliberately. In Houellebecq’s France, empty nihilism reigns, most people are isolated by their attachment to machines, and and most actions are or feel futile.

So who’s right? Maybe both writers. But Druckerman may also point to some reasons why France, despite pursuing many bad economic policies at the country level, is still impressively functional and in many ways a good place to live. The country’s education system is functioning well and so is its transit systems—for example, Paris’s Metro is being massively expanded, at a time when the U.S. is choking on traffic and struggling with absurdly high subway costs that prevent us from building out alternatives. New York’s last main trunk subway line was completed before World War II. Small and useful extensions have been completed since, but there is no substitute for opening a dozen or more new stations and 10+ miles at a time. Improved subway access reduces the need for high-cost cars and enables people to live better lives—something France is doing but the U.S. seems unable to achieve. AAA estimates the average total cost of an American car to be $9,282. If French people can cut that to say $3,000 (taxes included) for subways, the French may be able to do a lot more with less.

France’s bad macro policies and overly rigid labor market may be offset by good childcare and transit policies; Bébé could help explain why that is. Druckerman says, “Catering to picky kids is a lot of work” (“cater” appears four times in Bébé). If the French don’t do that, Americans may be spending a lot of hours at work, rather than leisure, that the French aren’t spending—therefore raising the total quality of French life. Mismeasurement is everywhere, and, while I don’t want to praise France too much on the basis of a single work, I can see aspects of French culture that make sense and aspects of American culture that, framed correctly, don’t.

Summary judgment – Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee – Pamela Druckerman

Pamela Druckerman’s Lust in Translation is light on research, heavy on anecdote, and a nonetheless entertaining book in its examination of the contradictory responses adultery raises. It’s wrong, unless you’re in love, in which case it’s okay; it’s wrong, unless you’re in a country that permits multiple marriages, in which case it’s not adultery; it’s right, because everyone does it, in which case it’s okay, unless it’s not. Some countries appear more opposed to adultery and commit more of it while other appear less opposed while committing less. Opportunity matters: affairs are easier to arrange in rich countries where people have access to hotels, cars, and so on, but many rich countries (like the United States) engaged in relatively little adultery. Most of all, examining adultery brings out contradictions on both individual and societal levels.

Druckerman says, “Outside America, people have their own ideas about whom to have an affair with, how obliged the parties are to each other, and even how the whole thing should end.” Ditto for inside America, which, like most places, actually has many sexual cultures, not few. Druckerman points out that in some situations, like baseball teams, the culture conspires to allow adultery. Some novels play this idea took; think of Désirée Zapp in David Lodge’s Changing Places, who says, “I’ve always wanted to be chaste. It’s been so nice these last few weeks, don’t you think, living like brother and sister? Now we’re having an affair like everybody else. How banal.” In Désirée’s academic world (the novel was published in 1975 and probably has its roots closer to 1970 or 1965), everyone was having, or seemed to be having, affairs (Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man portrays a similar effect). Now, on the contrary, more academics appear to be leading the relatively tame sexual lives of businesspeople.

Unless they’re not. “They” could refer to businesspeople or academics. Today’s scandal de jour involves Mark Hurd, the former HP CEO, who didn’t get offed for adultery, but for falsifying company reports to try and hide the adultery. Tomorrow it will be someone else. Druckerman points out that American rhetoric about cheating often involves the lying being as bad or worse than the sex. That’s a rule she’s intuited through many conversations and some reading. It’s the kind of rule many people pick up:

Infidelity may seem like a secret, lawless realm, in which people make private decisions about how to behave. We learn the rules through, among other sources, stories and gossip about how affairs play out. These shared narratives defined what is ‘normal’ in each place and shape our expectations about what should happen to a couple in the course of a long marriage. Of course, no one’s life follows the rules exactly. The point is that everyone in a society knows what the rules are and where their own behavior stands in relation to the rules.

The question is, how many people know “what the rules are,” don’t like them, and want to change them? Probably a small number, and an even smaller number actively work to change them. Yet those few are where change comes from: Gay Talese might be on example, since Thy Neighbor’s Wife chronicles sexual change in America and implicitly endorses changing mores. Of course, since that book came out around 1980, and Lust in Translation came out in 2010, Talese’s book arguably hasn’t had the effect he might have intended.

Social scientists call these “rules” about any subject of human behavior “scripts,” which people implicitly learn from the culture around them. That we have imbibed scripts even for forbidden behavior shouldn’t surprise us: if the behavior is common enough to be forbidden and to have norms or laws prohibiting it, that behavior is also probably common enough to occur. Scripts change based on context. In Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, Kathleen Bogle describes how the hookup script operates on college campuses—the same campuses that were once in loco parentis and now are closer to “anything goes as long as no one complains.” To Bogle, women complain about the hookup culture but feel powerless to do anything about it; this seems odd to me because women are the choosers and men are the chosen.

Their Chinese counterparts probably feel the same way at times, to return to Druckerman:

China’s sexual revolution [since the introduction of market capitalism] is very contagious. I keep hearing stories about married Western men who, after working in China for a few months, decide that monogamy really isn’t for them. Peer pressure shapes a sexual culture. When everyone around you is saying that cheating is normal, and that you’re entitled to indulge yourself and no harm will come of it, it starts to sound like a good idea.

“It starts to sound like a good idea:” presumably everyone thinks what they are doing is a good idea, while what their neighbor is doing is wrong, and what the people on the other side of the world are doing is worst of all, especially if those people are women. The most common thread running through Lust in Translation is hypocrisy, although Druckerman doesn’t take pains to point that out and follow where it might lead. She’s a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, which shows; I would’ve liked the book to draw broader, deeper conclusions, to examine more research on sexuality and culture, and to look more at evolutionary biology. Regarding the last, Druckerman says that “I assume that people everywhere have roughly the same mix of biological urges. I want to know how people in different cultures channel those urges.” But you can only do so if you have a reasonably strong understanding of what those urges might be and how incentives alter them.

You’re mostly left to draw your own conclusions from Lust in Translation, but the book is easy enough to read that you can finish it in three hours and still have enough substance to change the way you think—if you want to. Lust in Translation suggests that you’re less likely to change how you think and more likely to find cunning ways of justifying what you do and castigating what thy neighbor does. It’s not just the American way, but a common method of dealing with life all around the world.

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