Pamela Druckerman understands that at the moment, she is not popular in Miami. We’re not talking LeBron James-level disenchantment. But a column she wrote for the New York Times critiquing Miami was about as well-received here as the news that the NBA superstar was taking his talents back to Cleveland.
“There was a lot of pleasure in Miami, but not enough surprising interactions and ideas” — was that the line that set us off? Or was it “Miami may one day be the city for normal-looking people with semi-intellectual aspirations and a mild social conscience. But it’s not there yet.” Residents raged. Tweets flew. Local media responded (three columnists at this paper weighed in, including Dave Barry).
Druckerman says she was surprised at the ferocity of the responses (especially Barry’s — she grew up a fan). “And remember,” she says, “I used to cover the Middle East.”
Tackling controversial topics must come naturally to the former Wall Street Journal reporter, who also covered Latin America (Latin influences in Miami “really shaped my career,” she says). On Saturday, Druckerman — who grew up here, attending high school at Killian and Ransom Everglades — returns to Miami-Dade to talk about her parenting book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (Penguin, $18 in paper).
Suggesting another culture has the inside track on successful parenting is another potential minefield; parents are way more touchy about raising kids than they are about their hometowns. But Bringing Up Bébé offers sensible and interesting observations, social science and insight into how the French view parenthood and child rearing, which boils down to this: Children are an important part of the family unit — but not the only important part.
“There was an initial bit of a media controversy with people saying I was advocating baby socialism and bristling at the critique of American parenting,” Druckerman says. “But I found that when ordinary mothers and fathers started reading it, that criticism melted away. They were looking for solutions.”
Among the topics Druckerman tackles in the book are sleeping through the night (French babies manage this far earlier than American babies) and feeding (French parents spend a lot of time encouraging infants and young children to expand their palates, making sure they try everything on their plates). French parents are also sticklers for teaching their kids to greet adults politely and that adult interactions are not to be interrupted. They make conscious efforts not to instantly grant a child’s every wish.
Sound familiar? Probably because you were raised that way, too (though French mothers have an advantage, what with subsidized day care and nannies and other parent-friendly child-care options).
“I’ve had grandmothers saying, ‘This is what I used to do.’ My own mother says this. In some ways it’s because France is a conservative place,” says Druckerman, who has tried these methods on her own children, who are 8, 6 and 6 — with some success (“In the realm of food we’re doing reasonably well; in the realm of authority, I definitely struggle”).
So what caused American parenting to shift to the more intensive, instant-gratification-and-constant-stimulation-based style of child rearing we call helicopter parenting?
“Something shifted in American parenting in the ’90s,” Druckerman says. “That’s when intensive parenting began. The more you do for your child, the better. The more you sacrifice, the better. It partly came from economic issues, the widening economic divide, that anxiety about whether your kids were going to have as much as you do. … Mothers felt their kids’ success hinged on how much they did from pregnancy on. If they didn’t eat the right things in utero, the kids’ failures would be their fault.”
But Americans aren’t the only parents who struggle with getting kids to eat and behave and not run around restaurants like lunatics. Druckerman has heard the same complaints from Brazil, Chile, Germany, Great Britain and Russia. Intensive parenting is the norm; it’s not just that Park Slope mom she heard asking her child if he wanted a parsley snack. “I think I understand the intention: These parents don’t want their son to be fat. … But there’s a reason why parsley has never caught on as a snack. It’s a seasoning. … What happens when he discovers cookies?”
So who pays the price?
“I’ve concluded that the kids exposed to this kind of intensive parenting turn out OK; it’s the parents who suffer,” Druckerman says. “Since I first wrote the book, some of the kids I’ve been around have grown into kids you can have a meal with. All these extra curricular activities, the kids enjoy them. But their parents are exhausted. They’re the ones who do all the driving and carpooling and relinquishing their own free time. In France, the ideal is a balance. The idea you would sacrifice everything and leave yourself no free time is considered wildly unhealthy.”
Druckerman says she’s looking forward to coming to Miami to talk more about the book, which now includes a “Bébé Day by Day” section.
As for that column that said, “Miami is overrun with lawyers, jewelry designers and personal trainers, all trying to sell services to one another”? Druckerman doesn’t believe she was overly harsh.
“I felt it was a fairly mild piece,” she says. “It was critical in some ways. … I think there has to be room in the public discussion of Miami for more diversity of opinion. Miami is the place I come back to, the place in America where I spend the most time. I bring my kids here to make them into Americans.
“Miami has the second lowest median income in America. Poverty is increasing, and despite all the philanthropic efforts here that’s clearly not a political priority. … I really care about the outcome of these problems. I would love to be part of a constructive conversation about them and to contribute to some part of the solution.”