Bringing Up Bebe
One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
The secret behind France's astonishingly well-behaved children.
When American journalist Pamela Druckerman has a baby in Paris, she doesn't aspire to become a "French parent." French parenting isn't a known thing, like French fashion or French cheese. Even French parents themselves insist they aren't doing anything special.
Yet, the French children Druckerman knows sleep through the night at two or three months old while those of her American friends take a year or more. French kids eat well-rounded meals that are more likely to include braised leeks than chicken nuggets. And while her American friends spend their visits resolving spats between their kids, her French friends sip coffee while the kids play.
Motherhood itself is a whole different experience in France. There's no role model, as there is in America, for the harried new mom with no life of her own. French mothers assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children and that there's no need to feel guilty about this. They have an easy, calm authority with their kids that Druckerman can only envy.
Of course, French parenting wouldn't be worth talking about if it produced robotic, joyless children. In fact, French kids are just as boisterous, curious, and creative as Americans. They're just far better behaved and more in command of themselves. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are- by design-toddling around and discovering the world at their own pace.
With a notebook stashed in her diaper bag, Druckerman-a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal-sets out to learn the secrets to raising a society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents. She discovers that French parents are extremely strict about some things and strikingly permissive about others. And she realizes that to be a different kind of parent, you don't just need a different parenting philosophy. You need a very different view of what a child actually is.While finding her own firm non, Druckerman discovers that children-including her own-are capable of feats she'd never imagined.
Why did you decide to write a book about French parenting? Don’t tell me that French women don’t get fat and are better at raising their children.
About a year and a half after having a baby in France, I had a kind of epiphany. I was with my daughter and my husband in a restaurant at a French seaside village, and I realized that she was the only child who was whining, throwing food and refusing to eat anything but white bread and French fries. The French kids all around us were sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food or eating fish and even vegetables. And they weren’t being “seen but not heard.” They were chatting happily with their parents.
Once I started thinking about French parenting I suddenly had lots of questions. Why did most of the French moms I met claim that their babies slept through the night by two or three months old, but that they never let the babies “cry it out?” Why was it that when my American friends came over, the parents usually spent much of the visit refereeing their kids’ spats? But, when French friends visited, the grown-ups had coffee, and the children played happily by themselves?
French parents aren’t perfect, and neither are their kids. I live in Paris, so I see family life here in all of its busy, messy normalcy. The middle-class families I interviewed and observed are in some ways very similar to my own. They’re zealous about talking to their kids, showing them nature, and reading them lots of books. They take them to tennis lessons, painting classes, and interactive science museums.
And yet family life for them seems to be less of a grind, and more of a pleasure. I just didn’t know how they made this happen. What were they doing differently? So this isn’t really a traditional parenting book, which starts with a theory about how to get certain results. I started with the results, and worked backward to see how French families got to be this way.
What are their parenting secrets? Tell us how they get babies to sleep through the night so early?
When I started talking to French parents about sleep, one mother said she was embarrassed to tell me how long it took her son to sleep through the night. Eventually she admitted that he was four months old. In France, this is considered very late! Most parents told me their babies started “doing their nights” – that’s the French expression – by two or three months old.
But they couldn’t really explain how this happened. Most claimed they just followed the baby’s own rhythm. I eventually figured out that French parents typically do something that I call “The Pause” (It’s the American in me who needs to brand it). Starting when the baby is a few weeks old, the parents don’t rush in and pick him up the moment he cries at night. Instead, they watch and wait for a few minutes. They want to see if the baby might learn to connect his two-hour sleep cycles on his own, or whether he’s just making noises in his sleep, so that picking him up would wake him up.
Behind this is an important philosophical difference. Americans tend to think that babies are helpless blobs. The French believe that even a tiny baby – though he’s needy and vulnerable – is also a rational person who can learn certain things, such as how to sleep. French parents are really gentle about teaching their babies this skill. If the baby keeps crying, they pick him up! But they’re sure that soon enough, the baby will learn how to sleep long stretches. And they think that having a baby who sleeps well is better for the child, and for the whole family. Any sleep-deprived parent can tell you that they’re right.
What are some other differences between French and American parenting styles?
Many French habits, like The Pause (I considered calling it “La Pause,” but that sounded pretentious), won’t sound entirely new to American parents who, like me, have read lots of different parenting guides. Most of the “secrets” of French parenting are already out there. But in America, we’re flooded with information about competing, often contradictory parenting styles. New mothers often feel they have to pick one. Then when problems arise, they worry that they’ve picked the wrong one.
What the French are really good at is clearing away the clutter of competing ideas, and homing in on and sticking with the few things – like The Pause – that really do work. There aren’t “mommy wars” in France, or lots of warring parenting philosophies. Everyone more or less agrees on the basics. That alone makes becoming a parent less stressful.
It isn’t just that the French agree on the best way to raise kids. It’s that in many realms – sleep, food, praise, patience – the French are doing, through intuition and tradition, exactly what the latest scientific research recommends. Science is even starting to prove that babies are rational!
What about French mothers? Are they really so perfect?
Well they are skinnier, especially in Paris. There’s a lot of social pressure to lose the baby weight by three months post-partum. But what impresses me about French moms is that they manage to reclaim their pre-baby identities. My French girlfriends think the American expression “Milf” is hilarious. In France there’s no reason why a woman wouldn’t be sexy, just because she happens to have kids.
The French way of parenting does seem to produce a calmer, higher quality of life for the parents but what about the children? Well behaved doesn’t necessarily mean well-adjusted and happy, right?
I would never have written this book if I thought the French way of parenting made children joyless and obedient. French kids are just as boisterous and playful as American kids are. But in my experience, they’re generally more even-keeled. They can hear “no” without collapsing. In the many dozens of hours I’ve clocked at French playgrounds, I’ve almost never seen a child except my own throw a temper tantrum.
You discuss your experiences in applying French parenting methods in raising your own three children. Were they successful?
One realm where we’ve definitely succeeded is with food. I use the French rule: You don’t have to eat it all, but you do have to taste it. An American mom might offer the same food to her kid several times, but then give up if the child still rejects it. The French take this tasting principle to a different level. They keep re-proposing the same food dozens of times, prepared many different ways.
All this tasting turns French kids into little gourmets. From a very young age, French kids eat the same foods that their parents do. The lunch menu at my daughter’s day care looked like the menus at a French bistro – four courses, including a different cheese every day.
Of course French children like certain foods more than others. And they’re not all clamoring for broccoli. But I’ve never met one who ate just one type of food. The extreme pickiness about food that’s come to seem normal in America looks, to French parents, like a dangerous eating disorder, or at best, a wildly bad habit.
I won’t say we’ve been successful in all realms – see occasional tantrums, above.
Many! Where do I start? Of course I taught my daughter to say the “magic words” – please and thank you. I didn’t realize until she was about three that the French have four magic words: please and thank you, plus bonjour (hello) and au revoir (goodbye).
French parents are particularly obsessed with making their kids say bonjour. This sounds like a small thing, but it isn’t. In America, a four-year-old isn’t obliged to greet me when he walks into my house. He gets to skulk in under the umbrella of his parents’ greeting.
In France, kids don’t get to have this shadowy presence. The child greets, therefore he is. Just as any adult who walks into my house has to acknowledge me, any child who walks in must acknowledge me too. This isn’t just for the benefit of grown-ups. French parents believe that saying bonjour makes kids less selfish, and teaches them that they’re not the only ones with feelings and needs. And Bonjour and au revoir put the child and the adult on more equal footing, at least for that moment. It cements the idea that kids are people in their own right.
My husband and I aren’t French (he’s British). We didn’t grow up knowing all these little habits and assumptions that French people just absorb, and often can’t fully explain, about how to raise kids or do anything else. Trying to work out these rules was often like solving a mystery. I felt like a detective, working from clues. I brought my background as an investigative journalist to bear on babies! A lot of that struggle is in the book.
You write about the differences in American and French parenting culture and your own straddling of the two cultures. On one hand you are happy for your daughter Bean to be learning gourmet eating habits and the French language “a la Parisienne,” on the other hand you do want her to feel “a bit American.”
I admire a lot about French parenting. I’ve tried to absorb the French way of feeding kids, of wielding authority, and of teaching my kids to entertain themselves. I’ve started speaking at length to babies, and letting my kids just “discover” things for themselves, instead of pushing them to acquire skills. In moments of crisis and confusion, I often find myself asking: What would a French mother do?
But of course I want my kids to feel American too. We come back to the US as often as we can. It drives me crazy that the French don’t teach kids to swim until they’re six or seven. I was swimming when I was three! There’s a spirit of optimism and risk-taking in America that I want my children to have too. And I think it’s nice that when we’re back home, my kids are the focus at family gatherings and dinners. I just don’t think it would be good for them to be the center of attention all the time. I don’t think I need to choose between the “French” and the “American” ways of raising kids. I’m inspired by the French example, but I’m trying to choose the best of both.
What is the “wisdom of French parenting?”
The French believe that it’s important to be very strict about a few key things, but then to give kids as much freedom as possible about the rest. You can really see this at bedtime. French parents tell me that at bedtime, their kids must stay in their rooms. But within their rooms, they can do what they want.
I introduced this concept to my daughter, and she really liked it. She didn’t focus on the fact that she’s confined to her room. Instead she kept saying, proudly, “I can do whatever I want.” She usually plays or reads for a while, then puts herself to bed. The French don’t try to micromanage their children’s lives, and they aren’t scheming from the crib to get the baby into Harvard one day. They give the kid a lot of autonomy and free time; but what rules there are, the child has to obey. In my own experience, this fosters self-reliance and mindful behavior that, as an American parent, I might never have imagined in such young children.
The other big lesson that French parents have taught me is that, sometimes, there’s nothing you can do. The perfect mother doesn’t exist. And that’s okay.
So, do you think you’ve become a French mother?
The other moms at school probably don’t think so! In Paris, I’m conspicuously American – often the last parent still hanging around the classroom in the morning after drop-off, and the only one at the parents’ meeting asking how soon the kids are going to learn to read.
But when I go back to the States, I feel that I’ve become quite French. It’s also like that with my kids. When I’m with them in public, I usually think they’re badly behaved compared to the French kids I know, and pretty good compared to the Americans. They don’t always say bonjour and au revoir, but they know that they’re supposed to. Like a real French mother, I’m always reminding them of it. I’ve come to see this as part of an ongoing process called their éducation, in which they increasingly learn to respect other people, and learn to wait. And this éducation seems to be gradually sinking in.
I’m still striving for that French ideal: genuinely listening to my kids, but not feeling that I must bend to their wills. I still declare, “It’s me who decides” in moments of crisis, to remind everyone that I’m in charge. Sometimes my kids actually believe this.
I’ll never be a Parisienne. I’m an American in Paris. But that’s quite an interesting thing to be. I’ve learned quite a lot on the way.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: