How Do the French Parent?
From chic style to seemingly effortless weight control, there are plenty of aspirational books about French women available. The latest addition is Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, which introduces yet another cultural difference: the French parenting style.
It’s during a dinnertime on vacation that Druckerman, an expatriate living in Paris, first notices the difference in parenting styles. While her 18-month-old daughter dominates the dinner—fussing, whining, and forming a disruptive center to the meal—the French families at the same restaurant calmly eat through three courses. Druckerman is struck by the contrast with her daughter's behavior. This question forms the starting point of her investigation into French and American parenting techniques, complete with interviews with mothers, parenting experts, and pediatricians.
Bringing Up Bébé is written with a friendly and engaging style—Druckerman researched the topic extensively, but the book mainly traffics in anecdotes. It reads more like a mom memoir than a scientific, statistical analysis. Druckerman is an approachable narrator; she's curious about differences in parenting styles, eager to be a good parent, and often exhausted and overwhelmed by her kids. Bringing Up Bébé covers from conception through parenting in the toddler years and beyond, deftly exploring both French and American assumptions about what it means to be a good parent.
French Parenting Techniques:
To some extent, it’s unrealistic to attempt to apply a French parenting style outside of France. Druckerman explores, for instance, the impact of the nationalized preschool system on children's socialization and eating habits, and how that impacts kids' behavior at home. It's an interesting discussion, but not necessarily applicable to parents outside of France, who do not have access to nationalized daycare. But some of the overriding philosophies guiding French parents are potentially more applicable, and may spark thoughts and questions about your own parenting values.
Below, see some of the major parenting principles Druckerman outlines:
Boundaries: French parents establish clear expectations for what’s appropriate and expected from children in a variety of social situations: eating, greeting friends, etc. Parents are in charge; they use language to establish rules and boundaries, saying things like “it's me that decides." The French family is not considered a democracy; French parents have “authority without seeming like dictators.”
Schedules: Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the French and American parenting style is a reliance on scheduling to bring order to family chaos. French parents "take it for granted that babies” will sleep through the night by the time they are six months. How do they work this magic? By use of observation—before picking up or soothing babies at night, French parents implement “the pause,” or a waiting period between the baby’s cry and the parent’s response. Many times, the baby will naturally fall back asleep without parents getting involved and over time, babies will get used to sleeping through the night. When babies sleep through the night, it has wide implications for the whole family; as Druckerman writes, "when babies sleep better, their parents reported that their marriages improved and that they became better and less-stressed parents."
With food, too, a routine is implemented rather quickly—without calling it a schedule, all French babies tend to nurse or have formula at the same time. And, as they grow older, outside of a four o’clock snack time, French children don't tend to have snacks, eliminating the need for baggies of cheerios and unexpected stops for quick meals. The lack of snacking also ensures that at mealtime, kids are hungry and parents do not need to cajole them to eat.
Balance: Parents everywhere are concerned with maintaining a balance between family and work life—for the French, this balancing act is seen as vital for the happiness of the entire family. Catering to children at the expense of family or work, or overemphasizing a job over family is seen as equally problematic. This philosophy takes effect during pregnancy, when "The point in France isn't that anything goes. It's that women should be calm and sensible." Children and their toys don't dominate a French home, and motherhood is not seen as a woman's central identity; it's merely one important component.
Image Courtesty of Penguin.