Updated: Jun 24, 2020
In her book Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman, with a good dose of humor and insight, describes the differences she observes between French and American children while living as an expat in Paris. I love this book because, while Druckerman is neither religious nor a traditionalist, and seems to have no preconceived ideas of how kids should behave, she confirms old-fashioned parenting attitudes and practices.
As Ms. Druckerman relates personal stories and anecdotes, she deftly conveys the angst that is all-too common among American moms about everything from safety issues and getting kids to eat, to getting kids into the “right” school so they’ll have a successful career. She describes parents hovering over their children at NYC playgrounds, trying to get them to “experience” certain things and eat bizarre health food snacks; she contrasts this with French moms who pay far less attention to their kids at the playground, and typically offer snacks to their children only at what seems to be the “official snack time” of 4:00 each afternoon.
In France there seems to be a universal understanding of what it takes to have peaceful kids and happy grown-ups. From the first requirement–to greet others with eye contact and a cheerful “Bonjour!”– to the assumption that children past a few months of age will sleep through the night (and they do!), there are unspoken rules of bringing up children that no one seems to question–rules that are practical, based on a generally accepted view of the nature and needs of children.
According to Ms. Druckerman, this is a result of the French understanding of a clear framework or cadre, of boundaries regarding things regarded as essential, with lots of freedom within these boundaries for things that are only regarded as small acts of typical childhood foolishness, or betises.
She contrasts this with the almost obsessive need for American mothers to choose their own individual parenting philosophy, and comments on the sharp lines of disagreement drawn in the US between different parenting camps, otherwise known as the “mommy wars.” Whereas the French families she encounters all seem to share just the right balance of firmness and relaxed indifference regarding their children’s behavior, their American counterparts seem neurotically compelled to monitor everything having to do with their kids, filled with guilt and worry, and rarely if ever able to relax.
The French parents Druckerman encounters embrace the job of parenting with a relaxed and confident ease, and their children are, in most cases, far more well-behaved than any American kids Druckerman sees. We completely identify with her embarrassment at her own child’s behavior in public and share her wonder at children who seem not to feel compelled to throw tantrums, and moms capable of savoring adult conversation without being interrupted by whining kids. She does, of course, see children misbehave in France, but this is handled differently–more confidently and firmly by French parents, as opposed to anxiously or out of fear of psychological damage, as seems all too common in the US.
In her own words, ” . . .It is increasingly clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents are achieving outcomes that create a whole different atmosphere for family life. When American families visit our home, the parents usually spend much of the visit refereeing their kids’ spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build LEGO villages. There are always a few rounds of crying and consoling. When French friends visit, however, we grown-ups have coffee and the children play happily by themselves.”
The cornerstones of the French cadre are respect for all others, the ability to delay gratification and calm themselves–resourcefulness, and the assigning of various responsibilities within the home. All of this is taught calmly and firmly, through repetition, modelling, and gentle coaching. As Ms Druckerman learns and observes, she is amazed to discover that she can implement much of this with her own children.
This is an easy and fun read, as it points out many common misconceptions regarding child-rearing while making us smile, and portrays a happy, guilt-free parenting world that is within our reach! Children really are happier, more confident, and more peaceful when their parents lead them with confidence and calm, and teach them the three R’s of Respect, Responsibility, and Resourcefulness. And hey– if the French can do it, so can we!