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.