What I’m Reading: “Bringing Up Bebe,” The American Question

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman is a fascinating book. I offered a summary here, but after starting the book, I couldn’t put it down! It’s a great read.

Today, I’ll discuss the author’s take on American parents’ tendency to push their children through milestones. Here’s an excerpt:

“In the 1960s, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget came to America to share his theories on the stages of children’s development. After each talk, someone in the audience typically asked him what he began calling The American Question. It was: How can we speed these stages up?

Piaget’s answer was: Why would you want to do that? He didn’t think that pushing kids to acquire skills ahead of schedule was either possible or desirable. He believed that children reach these milestones at their own speeds, driven by their own motors.

The American Question sums up an essential difference between French and American parents. We Americans assign ourselves the job of pushing, stimulating, and carrying our kids from one developmental stage to the next. The better we are at parenting, we think, the faster our kids will develop….

French parents just don’t seem so anxious for their kids to get head starts. They don’t push them to read, swim, or do math ahead of schedule. They aren’t trying to prod them into becoming prodigies,” (Bringing Up Bebe, p. 80).

I wholeheartedly agree with Piaget and French parents here. Kids need to take their own time to reach developmental milestones. And things can get tricky when a parent interferes with that natural progression.

The first year, babies are learning how to eat, sleep, move and babble. At age two, toddlers are beginning to understand their place in the world and assert some independence. At age three, most children still do parallel play, and much of their play is imaginative. At age four, the imaginative play still guides them, and it does so as they become more social. At age five, kids start school and begin the job of learning.

Parental interference can take many forms. Some parents encourage their babies to walk early by holding them up or allowing baby to hold the parents’ fingers while “walking.” This could potentially rob the child of the bi-lateral integration that happens with the crisscross movement involved in crawling.

Some parents attempt to speed up the learning process by teaching abstract academics (math or reading) to a three-year-old. When a child is taught that the world has abstract rights and wrongs, imaginative play takes a back seat. This could rob the child of creativity or even the ability to think critically.

Some parents sign their children up for activity after activity. When a four-year-old child spends more time in the car than on the playground, he doesn’t learn crucial social skills that happen at this age.

When it comes to my own kids, I think that I have allowed this natural progression. I have talked about William’s academic abilities, but he sets that pace, not me. At age two, he started taking an interest in learning his letters, but as soon as he hit age three and started playing imaginatively, that interest in letters came to a screeching halt. At age 7, school is his job, and our only extracurricular activities are piano and occupational therapy. Otherwise, he plays.

For Lucas, I follow his lead. It is only recently (almost 4.5 years old) that he’s shown interest in academics. The Leapfrog Letter Factory video is his favorite. At the same time, he plays very imaginatively with his brother and with friends at school. Learning social skills is definitely his focus, and the job of learning is starting to emerge. He has one extracurricular activity, a “sports sampler” class. We don’t do it because I expect him to become some sports prodigy. We do it because he loves it.

How naturally do your kids hit their milestones? Do you let your child set the pace or do you try to speed things up a bit?


  1. Glad you shared this. Again, oh how I enjoyed Bringing up Bebe! I would love if you would continue to post on your thoughts about it. I’m really interested in their statements on nutrition and sleep and how they parallel Babywise. Anyway, I have thought a lot about this tendency to push our kids ahead. It is my natural tendency to want to hurry – to get my girl potty trained, to get her learning her letters and numbers, and start school at home with her. She’s now 2 1/2, and she’s taught me a lot. I’m realizing how much she’s learning just on her own through play. She would rather play outside or be read to or color then have me force lessons on her. And it saves me a lot of work too! :) I’ve really struggled though, because there’s a lot of pressure to start preschool activities at 2 or 3! I see on blogs what other moms do and I start to worry I’m not doing enough! I would love to hear more about how you followed your son’s lead, when you did guide, when you held back. And what do you use as structured play (keeping with the routine and boundaries of BW) but still keep it “unstructured” and “unpushed”?

  2. Maureen says:

    Hi Leigh,

    Sorry for the delay. I too, loved this book. I need to write more about it. As for what we did, I paid special attention to his interests. It can be so easy to get caught up in pushing our kids ahead and “keeping up with the Joneses.” When William was 2, he showed an interest in learning his letters, so I went along with it. We both enjoyed it and I would use our reading time to point out letters. Right around age 3, he started to show more interest in imaginative play. I place huge importance on imaginative play, so if he wanted to stop learning letters, that was fine by me. And I’ve never been one to get involved in his play, as the book suggests, so it worked fine with our schedule. Whether he was in room time, having free play time, or if we were on a walk, he could use his imagination all day long. There were (and still are) times when I have to put a stop to the imaginative play, especially if they’re acting out a book or movie and it’s too physical for a public place. But for the most part, their play is very imaginative and works with our day.

    I will say that I’m not sure he retained any of the letters he learned when he was 2. By the time he got to pre-K, we weren’t really starting over, but it had been a while, so he needed a refresher for sure. He picked them up quickly though. I say this to say that it doesn’t seem important to me to learn academics at an early age, especially if it gets in the way of imaginative play.

    Now that he’s in school, I can still follow his interests. I’m thinking about homeschooling next year, and that would definitely allow me to follow his interests, especially with the Charlotte Mason method we’re exploring. But that’s for another post!

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