Why the French are better parents

Author Pamela Druckerman on her new book, ‘Bringing Up Bébé’

by Anne Kingston

Why the French are better parents

Stephan Gladieu/Getty Images

Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist living in Paris with her husband and three young children. Her new book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, was released this month.

Q: Isn’t “French parenting” a paradox in that there’s no “French parenting” philosophy?

A: Exactly. French parents don’t think that they’re doing anything special because they’re all doing more or less the same thing. And it’s a balance between what North Americans view as old-school parenting where parents have a lot of authority, and a much more modern form of parenting where they speak to children and listen to them but don’t feel they must do everything children say. No one part of your life—not work, not being a parent, not being a spouse—should overwhelm the other parts.

Q: And that begins with a far more relaxed approach to pregnancy?

A: Definitely. When I found out I was pregnant, I was delighted but anxious. American books and websites all warned me about the most minute risks—like getting a manicure. In France, the emphasis is on enjoying your pregnancy. French women are a lot less panicked about whether cheese is pasteurized or not. The attitude isn’t that every bite of food you take is going to determine whether your child is accepted to Harvard Law School.

Q: There also seems to be far less moral judgment surrounding how women give birth or whether they breastfeed.

A: Yes, they don’t even call it “natural” childbirth here, they call it accouchement sans péridurale: giving birth without an epidural. And there is almost no social pressure in France to breastfeed for more than two or three months. What does convince French women to breastfeed is if they enjoy it.

Q: What about co-sleeping?

A: The levels are very, very low. That explains why French babies sleep through the night at such a young age.

Q: You’ve coined “the Pause” to describe that. How does it work?

A: It’s this idea that when a baby cries at night, parents shouldn’t rush in and pick him up; they should watch and wait. They’re listening to see whether the baby might learn to connect his two-hour sleep cycles on his own, because once he learns to do that he can sleep four hours, then six hours, then eight hours. Parents are also waiting because infants are noisy sleepers; by rushing in to pick him up they wake him. The idea is that even a tiny baby is a rational person who can learn. Most French parents tell me that this takes two or three months.

Q: Delaying gratification to teach self-control and patience is common, isn’t it?

A: Yes, a good example is that French children don’t snack, they wait between meals. There’s one official snack time at 4 p.m. called le goûter. And that helps explain why at meal-times French children eat their vegetables, because they’re actually hungry.

Q: But you also write that babies are taught to enjoy flavourful, not bland, food.

A: When my daughter was six months old, I looked for rice cereal and I couldn’t find it because babies start out eating puréed carrots and leeks. Parents see it as their job to educate their children in the pleasure of tasting different flavours from an early age. There are no “kids’ foods”; kids eat what adults eat.

Q: You write about amazing gourmet meals served at your daughter’s state-funded daycare, or crèche.

A: When I told my mother that I was sending my daughter to a state-run daycare she was shocked. To make her feel better, I used to email the menus, which look like menus from French bistros. Two-year-old kids eat blue cheese and braised endives with gusto, and talked about the food. That’s a big part of the French secret: to engage kids with preparation of food, and discussing food. The main principle is you don’t have to eat it all, you just have to taste it. The French genius is that they hone in on one or two things that really do work, like the tasting principle, and they don’t change lanes if it’s not going well.

Q: What aspect of French parenting is difficult for North Americans to wrap their heads around?

A: French experts say it’s important to be authoritative but not authoritarian. French parents know how to say non, and mean it in a way I have trouble doing. North American parents are afraid of damaging kids by limiting them, and they’re not sure where limits should be. The French are very strict about a few key things but they actually give kids quite a lot of freedom.

Q: So much is subtle, like les gros yeux, or big eyes. Could you describe that?

A: It’s this look that French parents give their children when they’re misbehaving. They use it—and this is critical—rarely, but when the kids get the big eyes they tend to stop.

Q: French children also have to say “bonjour” to adults. Why?

A: A child is obliged to say hello to an adult; it’s making the child a person. Parents say that this forces a child to acknowledge that there are other people in the world with needs.

Q: The result appears to be households that are eerily calm and civilized.

A: French children can get just as loud and boisterous as kids in America. But the big difference is that when American parents come to my house, they’re constantly engaged with their children resolving spats, or getting down on the floor and playing Lego. We never finish a conversation, certainly not a cup of coffee. When French families come over, the kids go off and play by themselves and we adults have coffee. If the kids burst in and start jumping on the couch, we tell them to stop, and they stop. American parents don’t expect kids to be able to control themselves. The French view is that kids will take as much territory as you give them, so you have to set limits. One of those for a lot of French parents is, “You’re not allowed to come into my room on a weekend until I get up. You can play nicely in your room until then.”

Q: Your book has a great scene at a Paris playground. Could you describe it?

A: Most mothers were sitting on benches around the perimeter watching their kids on trampolines, except for this one mom who had pulled a chair up close and was shouting, “Whee!” each time her child jumped. I knew she was American. There’s this belief in America that we must always stimulate our kids and reinforce their self-esteem. The French say “bravo” to their kids when they’ve done something well, but children are given freedom to play by themselves, and to cope with frustration and boredom.

Q: But isn’t that also about mothers asserting their autonomy?

A: Yes, when they have windows of opportunity to relax, they take them. They’re also strict about bedtime; they tend not to have two-hour goodnights where kids say, “Can you read me one more story or I’ll throw a tantrum?” They have evenings to themselves. It’s also common for French parents to send six-year-old children off during the summer to a colonie de vacance. They think if a mother’s whole life is devoted to the care of her child, it’s not good for the child and it’s not good for the mother.

Q: You write that the artificial concept of “date night” is alien in France.

A: Yes, when the movie Date Night opened here, they called it Crazy Night. At the beginning, there’s a scene where the kids come in and jump on the parents’ bed to wake them; a French reviewer described “these horrible children.” So many of the things that I kind of thought were normal and natural, for the French they seem strange. This idea that kids would be picky eaters who will eat nothing but pasta or chocolate Santas just doesn’t exist in France. Parents would never allow it.

Q: MILFs, or the “yummy mummy,” also doesn’t exist, you write. French women are expected to be sexual post-baby.The state even funds post-partum lessons for vaginal health. Was that a surprise?

A: I was shocked. I had no idea that the French state was so concerned about my perineum!

Q: But there’s also pressure to get back into shape.

A: Three months seems to be the magic number to get your pre-baby body back. You could see that pressure as negative, but it does help you fit back into your skinny jeans. And it’s not just about getting your body back, it’s about getting your pre-baby identity back, and that’s often from going back to work. It’s uncommon for French professional women to become full-time stay-at-home moms. Most women feel it’s much more balanced for the family if women are earning money as well.

Q: Can the French model work without similar state support?

A: The French take very seriously the idea that for mothers to work they need available, affordable child care. That’s critical. But I don’t think that these institutions are necessary to [teach] kids how to eat well and sleep well and to wait. It helps that everyone follows the same formula in France. When everyone around you has a different parenting philosophy, it can make you self-doubting.

Q: Isn’t there now heated debate in France over parenting, with writers like Elizabeth Badinter lamenting pressure to be a North-American-style “good mother”?

A: It’s encroaching a bit. But it seems French women see the train of guilt encroaching, and they’re trying to hold it off. The French would be shocked if they came to North America and saw how far things can go.




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Why the French are better parents

  1. I just love the vacuous generalizations required to make a string of such silly statments. Great fun! LOL

    Not to be confused with reality.

    Many of the practices described are precisely how things work in my household and those of our friends with kids. We’re not french and we live in Ontario.

    So please, let’s stop with the nonsense shall we?

    Cute anecdotes do not make for reliable information upon which to base… well anything really.

    Sheesh.

    • Hey they are trying to sell a book here.  How dare you point out that much of what it contains is common-sense parenting.

      • Whooops! My bad! LOL

        • Phil..this woman is hidden depths…check out Kingston other article on her…she gave her husband a three-some for his 40th birthday…maybe she can teach us old dogs new tricks.

          • Oh la la! LOL

          • Bahahahaha!

    • A similar interview with this author has been in the top five most read stories on the WSJ for the past week.  Some pretty funny comments!

  2. wow widespread generalizations. Of course all french act the same in raising children. what a joke.

    some of the elements in there are practices that parents employ in many cultures.

    Is there an overly paranoid culture in North America where everything is cautioned against? Maybe, who knows. You don’t think this is happening in France, or anywhere else in the World? 

    There’s nothing wrong with awareness. It’s how you react and apply it.

  3. I have spent a great deal of time in France over the past 5 years. I have been amazed how incredibly well behaved children are on trains, in restaurants and even on the beach. They are respectful of others in public and do no infringe on your space or sound. It is a shock, really, after 4 weeks there this winter, to come home to Canada and see children having temper tantrums in stores over cereal choices.

    • I don’t know if it is true or not but you would know better having been to France for extended periods of time. I do know that kids are better behaved in Hungary where I lived and worse behaved in Israel where I also lived for years. I would be interested to know if the comments above come from people with actually experience in France or a broader understanding of how kids are raised in the US/Canada.

    • If they are having tantrums it’s the parents’ fault.  If you raise your children properly from the beginning you will never have such embarrasments, regardless of your country of origin.  I raised my children as human beings that are aware that they live in a world with other human beings.  They know to respect others as well as themselves and they also know not to call their parents, grandparents and teachers by their first names. 

    • I parented just like the woman who wrote the book suggested they do in France.  For the most part my kids were fairly well behaved BUT they did have the occasional temper tantrum in a grocery store..especially when they were tired.  If people gave me a dirty look, I replied “hey you only have to deal with her for 10 minutes, I have to live with her…”  Most were understanding…toddlers have problems with impulse control – it is the nature of the beast.
      I do absolutely agree that parents in Canada rarely correct their childrens’ rude behavior.  Then they wonder why no one including themselves want to spend any time with the “little angels”.
      Those of us who are saying the book is common sense are maybe mis-stating the facts….the book is sensible….sense just isn’t all that common it seems.

  4. My sister, a Canadian, lives in Paris and is married to a lovely Frenchman. They have 2 children, ages 3 and 5 and I would say that this article / book is bang on about the “French way” of parenting. My sister and I have discussed this a lot and there certainly is a “french way” of doing things. For those who don’t think so, talk to a French parent!  It is one reason (among many) why old European cultures are different from North American – where we are such a melange of cultures – their cultural norms are older and more fixed.

  5. My mother brought us up the same way. I come from India!

  6. It is because they say HON HON HON all the time 

  7. While the Poitevins, Bretanges, Walloons, Occitans, Saintongeais, Gallos, Catalans, Burgundians, Corsicans, Alsatians, Bigordans, Picards and Arpitans are indeed far far finer parents than anything the insipid, worrywart anglophones can boast; never ever ever leave a child alone with a Champenois.
    They’ll sell the children to the Gypsies and blow the money on truffles before you can say “Ma chèvre est malade”.

  8. Don’t know what all the fuss is about!  Before the world went mad, this is how most children were brought up.  Babies weren’t picked up at the first cry, didn’t sleep in their parents beds; children were taught to be polite to adults, to entertain themselves, there was no snacking between meals… I could go on!

  9. I think that North Americans can take a lesson from this article.  All I seem to see lately are children misbehaving.  Something to worry about?  Definitely!  I think we have gone too far with letting the child do as he wishes – there is no discipline anymore.

  10. Nice beret, Pam.

    So does this mean the kids there will grow up not to throw temper tantrums over pension reform?

  11. As Republicans Americans, the right wing English in Canada should hate the title and the message of this article. 

  12. Excellent

  13. Having lived in France and even spent part of my time there taking care of a little boy after school (teaching him English, helping with homework etc.) I can also say that many of the well-to-do have some sort of a jeune-fille-au-pair or after-school help.  This means the kids have had a chance to play, have a snack (le goûter), do their homework, maybe even be cleaned up and ready for bed before the parents are home and preparing supper.

    That certainly helps with the parenting.

    I would also say that in a lot of ways French children don’t get to be kids in our North American sense of the term.  Many times they are dressed more like minature adults than like children (I refer to ~5-11 years of age.).

    And as Ms. Druckerman points out, children are sent to either the colonie de vacences, or, I would note, also to relatives who live in the country for a fair bit of time in the summer.  This also relieves French parents of having to worry about how petit Jean or petite Marie is behaving.

    Not to mention the fact that the husbands are having affairs so they are much more relaxed when they get home then coming home straight from the office … ;-) LOL.

    • These husbands having affairs and being more relaxed…what about the mothers????

      • Not to mention…don’t kids drink wine at a young age….

        • True.  Usually watered down until they are teenagers but they are allowed some from time to time.

      • They’re happy to have a husband who does come home and is not all irritated and tense from the day at the office.

        •  Or happy they come home later

  14. Sheesh…I have to rethink this whole parenting thing…if I was having this whole threesome thing with a Brad Pitt look alike and my kids were drinking wine at age 12, I am certain the parenting thing would have gone much smoother….except perhaps my 12 year old would have been jealous over my involvement with Brad Pitt….gee that does interfere with my Thelma and Louise fantasy somewhat….

  15. Re this line:  It’s also common for French parents to send six-year-old children off during the summer to a colonie de vacance.

    What are the rates of child molestation in France just by the way?

  16. I think people are missing a point – it may not be French vs other types of parenting but more that some French parents still act like parents not BFFs to their children. I was brought up pretty much as she’s describing, in Canada in the 60s and 70s. But I certainly do know young parents who make a huge deal out of their kid passing the salt – “Ooooooooo, thank you sweetheart! That was so nice of you to pass the salt to mommy!” I’ve had phones answered by kids who are just downright rude and have not been taught any social skills or respect for adults. It exists. And, been to France, met some very nice kids. Just anecdotal but there you are.

  17. Yes, as an ex-elementary school secretary for 3 decades, the behaviour of many of our children has become appalling   ……. conversations on the student phone, which was right in front of my desk, told the story over and over of how we have ruined our children; the rude and utterly demanding way in which they spoke to their parents would SHOCK you!  Well, maybe not all of you, as some have likely been on the receiving end of some of the verbal abuse.

  18. I think that a lot of parents here in Vancouver have taken the concept of  ‘stranger danger’ way too far.  I am often confronted with a genuinely scared little face when I say hello or I am totally ignored which in my books is rude.     

  19. The French are very polite, at least twice to the Germans.

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