I read a fabulous book at least 9 months ago called Bringing Up Bebé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Ok, I didn’t actually read it, I listened to the audiobook. (Let me tell you, an audiobook is a GREAT way to get through a book when you find it challenging to carve out time to read. I listened to it in the car.)
The author is an American woman who has a baby in Paris and begins noticing some pretty stark contrasts between the average French child and the average American child. Average French child: well-behaved, eats well, sleeps through the night from an early age, etc. Average American child: tantrums, very limited diet, persistent night wakings common through first year, etc. She starts investigating (she’s a journalist, after all) to see what accounts for the big differences. In this book, she tells her story of raising her children in Paris — the good, the bad and the ugly…as the saying goes.
I very highly recommend this book. I got a lot of great concepts out of it, and so I’m writing this book review all these months later just based on some of the things that have stuck with me. In addition to the great content, the book is also very entertaining. Kudos to the author, Pamela Druckerman, for her excellent storytelling. My husband, by the way, also really enjoyed this book.
Keeping in mind that I read this book quite awhile ago, forgive me if some of the details get a little fuzzy. And, my little bullet points simply do not do justice to the fullness of the book, so definitely read the whole book yourself! That being said…. some things I learned:
The Pause – French babies learn to sleep through the night at 2-4 months old. Around that age, French parents teach their babies to be comfortable alone in their cribs in the middle of the night and to soothe themselves to sleep. How do they do this? The author labels it “The Pause.” French parents don’t rush to the crying baby (once the baby turns a couple months old). They pause for a few minutes (say, five) and wait to see if baby will go back to sleep on his own. If baby continues to cry, French parents go in, soothe baby, talk to baby about how it’s nighttime and therefore time for everyone to sleep, and put baby back to bed. Eventually baby learns to connect his sleep cycles instead of waking up and crying between cycles. Rushing in too quickly interrupts that process of learning to connect sleep cycles. Letting baby learn to go back to sleep also helps baby learn patience (wait until morning to eat).
Food - French children appreciate food. Their parents aim to cultivate a love for all different foods right from the beginning. If baby doesn’t like a food on the first (or seventh) try, keep at it. If baby doesn’t like a food prepared a certain way, try a multitude of other preparation methods to win her over. Expect her to like things. Even more sophisticated flavors. Don’t let her eat the same three things at every meal because that’s what she “demands.” And the French do not snack except for a standard 4pm snack called “Le Goûter” (pronounced “luh goo-TAY”), unlike American children who tend to eat snacks throughout the day. (Though not in the book, let me add that the French also generally eat a diet with more fresh whole foods and saturated fats — like butter and cheese — which keep you satiated and reduce cravings for snacks/junk food.) And without constant snacking, French children are hungrier at mealtimes and therefore more apt to eat rather than fuss or play with their food. The book also talks about the food served in the state-subsidized daycare centers (crèches) and the incredible amount of planning and debate that goes into the meal-planning in order to expose the children to a wide variety of foods. Again, cultivating the love of food from a very young age. I found this section on daycare food quite fascinating.
Independence – French parents give their kids a lot of independence. They let their kids make a lot of decisions for themselves. In elementary school, kids go away on week-long field trips without their parents. Parents often put their kids in daycare even when one parent is home full-time, so their child can learn independence and socialize with other kids.
Socialization – In the US, it’s common for parents to teach their kids to say “please” and “thank you.” In France, parents generally add “hello” and “goodbye” to the list of must-learn good-manners words. Though this may seem like a small thing, the author explains how “please” and “thank you” are used when the child is in a subordinate position to an adult — when asking for or receiving something. “Hello” and “goodbye,” however, put the child on equal footing with the adult they are speaking to, thereby acknowledging that the child is a person, worthy of acknowledgement and expected to interact with others as their own person. This point really stuck with me. Although I had already considered “hello” and “goodbye” important to teach, this explanation made me even more conscious of the importance and therefore more consistent in teaching my 3-year-old. As mentioned above, daycare seems to be another important part of socialization of French children. Among other things, the children enjoy 4-course meals and learn proper table manners at daycare. (On a side note, jobs at these daycare facilities are highly competitive and require a high level of education and certifications.)
Frustration/Patience - French parents will intentionally let their kids be frustrated. Rather than rushing in to save their kids from the distress of frustration, they let their kids learn to cope with frustration…to learn how to handle themselves in those situations. The kids thus learn how to cope, gain confidence in their problem-solving skills, and learn patience. This frustration/patience thing is also seen in teaching their babies to sleep through the night from an early age. As I mentioned in the food section above, French children are not allowed to snack except for the 4pm goûter. Parents may purchase or bake pastries in the morning that the children need to wait until goûter to eat, rather than gobbling them up immediately as would be more common for American children.
Explain Everything - French parents spend a lot of time explaining things to their kids, like why they need to do or not do such-and-such (rather than just saying “do this” or “no”). They painstakingly create a framework (i.e.boundaries) for their kids to live within and then hold their kids to that framework. They create a few firm boundaries (like behavior expected at mealtimes and bedtime) but give lots of freedom within those boundaries. (E.g. Child wants to wear tank top and shorts in the house in the middle of winter. Fine. But when it’s time to leave the house, it’s time for appropriate clothing.)
Big Eyes – French parents have a way of carrying authority with their kids. When their children do something they’re not supposed to do, the parents will firmly tell them to stop and then give the child the opportunity to comply. If the child continues, the parent will use a firmer tone and then wait again for the child to comply. They use a technique one woman described as “the big eyes”: what you may know as “the look.” In other words, giving your kid “the look” as you’re telling them what to do or not do…that look that says, “You better listen to me if you know what’s good for you.”
Child Not King – French parents do not solely exist to be parents. Mothers are women, not just mothers. Life does not revolve around all of the children’s extracurricular activities. And when the kids go to bed, it’s adult time. In France, women are expected to “get their figures back” by the time baby is about three or four months old. Doctors can prescribe — and French national healthcare actually covers — “abdominal reeducation” (i.e. postpartum abdominal physical therapy). French women are also much more likely to leave their children with a babysitter in order to have lunch with friends or do other activities without having their children along….and…they don’t feel guilty for doing so, whereas many American mothers probably would feel guilty.
Something for the French to Work On – One other thing that stood out to me from this book is something that the French really need to improve on — breastfeeding. The French do not consider breastfeeding important. More of an inconvenience. If a French woman chooses to breastfeed, she commonly stops by the time baby reaches three months. Educational campaigns touting the health benefits for babies have been unsuccessful. The author suggests (or perhaps it was a doctor she interviewed that suggested…) that educational campaigns should emphasize to French women how breastfeeding can benefit the mothers as well as babies in order to create buy-in. This lack of interest in breastfeeding is part of the concept stated earlier regarding French women being women and not just mothers. Breastfeeding definitely keeps a woman solidly in that mother role and it is more difficult to have that separate woman role. Breastfeeding puts the mother’s body into a functional (rather than sexy) mode. With the amazing health benefits (for both baby and mother), I find it sad that the French do not embrace this aspect of parenting.
The French are not perfect parents. Who is??? But, we can definitely learn a lot from them. I’m working on applying some of these concepts to my own parenting. Of course, easier said than done. Creating new habits and default actions takes a tremendous amount of work. I’ll say it again…this was a great book and I definitely recommend you read the whole thing yourself. So much great stuff in there.
Have you read this book? What do you think of it? Leave me a comment.