Pamela Druckerman Tells Mommyish Why French Parents Do It Right

pamela druckerman bringing up bebeWhen it comes to parenting, we can all learn from the French. That’s the premise of Pamela Druckerman‘s new book, Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Druckerman is a former New Yorker who’s raising her three children a 5-year-old girl and 3-year-old twin boys in France. And she can’t help but notice how French children are not only polite and self-contained but also stellar sleepers, adventurous eaters and masters at the art of conversation.

Meanwhile, French mothers appear all relaxed and calm and gasp! they’re capable of carrying on an adult conversation while the kids play happily in the sandbox. If this all sounds too good to be true, pick up a copy of Druckerman’s book; she’ll have you convinced in no time.

We caught up with Druckerman to find out what exactly the French are doing that we’re not.

Dining out in a restaurant is hell for most American parents. It’s like a war zone! Meanwhile, the first chapter of your book is called “French Children Don’t Throw Food.” How is that even possible?
French parents don’t think as going to restaurants with the same kind of dread. I actually got the idea for this book when I was sitting in a restaurant. I was having what I thought was a typical experience: My toddler was extremely impatient, tearing apart sugar packets, refusing to eat anything except bread, and my husband and I were taking turns running after her. It was unpleasant, but we took it for granted that that’s what life with a toddler is like.

Then I looked around and realized this is not typical for French families. What’s more typical is that children know how to enjoy themselves in a restaurant and sit at the table and eat all kinds of different foods. They’re used to that. In fact, French kids are on their very best behavior in restaurants. Parents expect that. For French kids, eating is something you do sitting at a table. Now that happens with my son. If I pass him water with a banana, for example, he’ll immediately go to the table, sit down and eat it. In moments like these I realize my kids are a little bit French!

It seems that French children have better eating habits in general.
Yes, snacking is another big area that’s different. If you go to a French park at 10 in the morning I’m sure it happens but I’ve never seen a child having a mid-morning snack. At 4:00, they have le goûter [a late afternoon snack, usually something sweet such as cake]. These kids are not walking around hungry everyone’s just used to not snacking.

Most French kids will have chocolate once a day; it’s just a regular part of their diet. The French strategy is to let kids have sweets sometimes for example, candies for special occasions like birthday parties but with things like chocolate and hot chocolate, they get a little bit at a time, and that satisfies them.

New studies on willpower and how to lose weight show that the secret is not telling yourself you will never have cheesecake again. Rather it’s to say, I’ll have a bit on the weekend. It’s that idea of delayed gratification. That’s what people in France do intuitively. It’s what mothers tell me is their dieting secret: They’re careful during the week and then they’ll indulge on weekends.

Speaking of dieting, I’m amused by the three-month rule you write about in your book that unspoken rule that women have three months to lose their baby weight. It’s so different in the States! Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
There’s no corporal punishment if you don’t bounce back! [Laughs.] On one hand, there’s lots of social pressure to take off the baby weight. On the other hand, you go back to feeling like a woman. There’s no French equivalent of MILF or yummy mummy. There’s no reason why a woman can’t be sexy just because she happens to have kids.

What’s even more intriguing to me is how women get back their pre-baby identities. In France, you can be a very involved mother and have interests and take time away from your kids. In fact, it’s better for both the mother and child to have some separate space.

One of the greatest frustrations my friends have is the inability to hold a five-minute conversation, uninterrupted, when the kids are around. French parents rarely seem to have this problem. What are they doing that we’re not?
From the time that kids are babies, they’re taught how to play by themselves. French parents carve out time where they’re not hovering or trying to stimulate the baby but rather leaving him on his own. Mothers will even speak about giving babies some privacy! With older kids, I see French kids interrupting their moms, who will then say in a very polite way, ‘I’m sorry, darling, I’m in the middle of a conversation. I’ll be with you in a minute.’ They’re making the child aware that someone else is there and has needs, too. Eventually, it’s going to sink in.

Would you say that French parents are more strict?
There’s some ambivalence [in the U.S.] about being strict with kids. We believe that we should do it, but we worry about damaging our children by restricting them too much. French parents are more convinced that being strict is a really good idea. It reassures the child. And they believe the child can cope with frustration, that it’s a really important life skill.

Some mothers explained that on weekends, they tell their kids, ‘Don’t come into my room until I come out.’ The first time I heard that, I never imagined that something like that was even possible. All I thought was, ‘What would my kids do all by themselves?’ But it’s not like these moms are emerging from their bedrooms at 1:00 in the afternoon it’s more like 8:30 in the morning. It just gives them some time to themselves.

They’re very strict about bedtime, too. French parents believe they’re entitled to have adult time every night. They’ll say to their kids, ‘You must stay in your room, but inside your room you can do whatever you want short of drawing on the walls.’ I think that combination of being very strict about certain things but also giving kids freedom is very appealing to children. They know what the rules are but they’re given a lot of autonomy and trust. Not every French parent achieves perfect balance, but that’s the cultural ideal. It gave me fresh ideas as an American mom. [tagbox tag=”parenting style”]

Having a child in France doesn’t require choosing a parenting philosophy. You write that everyone takes the basic rules for granted. I love that. It seems American are obsessed with labels (Tiger Mom, Urban Hipster Mom, Helicopter Mom…).
In terms of actual parenting styles, there are fewer differences [among French parents]. There are no Mommy Wars. You have disagreements, but it’s not as pronounced or virulent as it is in America. Middle-class French moms more or less agree on the basics of how you should raise your child. The things they agree on are very pragmatic choices, based on what works.

Can you give me an example?
Take sleep. Pretty much everyone I interviewed told me that their baby slept through the night at two or three months old. And they all do the same thing to make it happen. When baby cries at night, they don’t immediately run in to pick him up. Their thinking is that if you give baby a chance, he can learn to correct sleep cycles on his own. It’s based on the idea and this is an important philosophical difference that even a very little baby is rational and can learn things. He’s helpless and needy, but you can teach him certain things, such as how to sleep. Being up half the night with an 8-month-old baby does not show that you’re a devoted mother here in France it shows that your child has a sleep problem.

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