When it Comes to Parenting, How French are You?

Jan 14

389772164_53572df652_oGenetically, I am a European mutt: 3/8 German, 1/4 Czech, 1/4 Irish, the rest, I think, a combination of English and Swedish. What I’m sure of is that I’m 0% French. And never have I been more sure of that fact – not even while smiling dumbly in response to the question of a passerby in the Marais – than while reading Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé.

In Bringing Up Bébé, Druckerman, an American journalist living in Paris with her husband and three young children, examines how the French have managed to create “a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents.” In Paris parks and preschools, she sees parents who are “involved,” but not “obsessive” or “at the constant service of their children,” and who “want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time.” In short, she sees women and who aren’t just moms and dads – and she wants to figure out how they do it.

In addition to a number of public services that support parents (from subsidized early childcare and public preschool to universal healthcare and publicly funded colleges), she discovers a number of commonalities that define French parenting: a rejection of the glamorization of suffering (a French friend tells her, “In the U.S. sometimes I have the feeling that if it’s not difficult for you, you have to feel bad about that” – to which I say, “Touché, mon ami”); an adherence to a cadre, inside of which a child has great freedom, but outside of which a parent will not tolerate bad behavior; a refusal to allow a child’s demands and playthings to take over a family’s physical and emotional space; an insistence on good manners; a rejection of the concept of “kids’ food;” an embracing of a parent’s authority (along with the delicious phrase, “It’s me who decides”; all combined with trust and respect for one’s children.

It all seems so civilized, so palatable (and, likely, so oversimplified: can behaviors one American woman observes among some middle-class Parisian parents really apply to millions of others across France?). But despite my hesitations, while reading I found myself  imagining the ease with which I could implement some of these tactics with my brood. But then I got to the chapter entitled “Wait!” in which Druckerman highlights the way in which French parents deal with one my trickiest parenting bugaboos: meeting the needs of all three kids, not to mention my own, my husband’s, and those of others.

In this chapter, Druckerman explains what she calls “La Pause,” a technique by which French parents save their children from monomania and themselves from pint-size tyranny by saying no and teaching their children how to wait from an early age. According to one French family psychologist, “As small children you have needs and desires that basically have no ending. This is a very basic thing. The parents are there – that’s why you have frustration – to stop that [process].” She continues, “If the parent can’t stand the fact of being hated, then he won’t frustrate the child, and then the child will be in a situation where he will be the object of his own tyranny, where basically he has to deal with his own greed and his own need for things. If the parent isn’t there to stop him, then he’s the one who’s going to have to stop himself or not stop himself, and that’s much more anxiety-provoking.”

To me that makes a lot of sense. I’ve spent much of the past three years feeling like a chef trying to tend to several pots boiling over at once. In my reluctance to frustrate anybody or leave anybody feeling angry, I’ve run myself ragged and swept many of my own needs – many as small as having a two minute exchange with my husband over the grocery list – under that proverbial rug. Teaching my kids to deal a little more frustration is something I definitely need to work on.

This weekend one of my oldest and dearest friends and her two daughters stopped by for a visit. My own daughter was in a particularly needy mood. Each time we tried to start a conversation, she interrupted us with a question or interjection. After humoring her a few times, Druckerman’s book snapped into my brain. The next time she insisted we look at one of her “guys,” I told her, “You need to wait until F. is done with her story to show us your dog.”

Did she like it? Nope.

Did I get to hear the rest of my friend’s story? Yup.

Hey, it’s a start.

Are you good about saying “No” and “Wait a minute” to your kids? What other techniques do you use to keep your kids from ruling your house?

Image: Untitled by throw her in the water via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Heidi @ love each step January 14, 2014 at 7:12 am

This makes complete sense. My mom often tells me that I need to stop being the “cruise director.” When I think about what that really means, I can step back and allow them to manage some of their own time and set boundaries for them too. I spent much of the summer two years ago allowing them to be bored and fighting my impulse to organize their days. And you know, after a few weeks of whining and a little discomfort for me, it worked! They became more creative and self sustaining.


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 4:05 pm

I think back to my own childhood a lot and I definitely don’t remember my mom, who was and is a great and loving mother, orchestrating our fun. The expectation was that we could handle our own play and we pretty much did. Like you, I’m always amazed at what happens when I loosen the reins a bit. My kids seem to be expert players – even (maybe especially?) without my constant coaching!


Lady Jennie January 14, 2014 at 7:41 am

It’s funny because I feel like I cater to my kids way less than French moms. I mean, I can see what she’s saying when I look around me – she’s not off-base – but I also see a lot of pandering to small desires – a lot of over-protection (a LOT), and a “child is king” mentality. So maybe I am more French than the French moms. ;-)

Seriously, the area where I am weak is in the area of food. I don’t force them to wait until meals enough. I don’t push them to eat things they don’t like enough (like leek tartes). I know I have a lot to learn in this area.

This is my incoherent observation of her book vs the reality I see around me.


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 4:09 pm

I thought of you so often while I was reading this book! I can’t say that I’m surprised that your experience as a mother in France has not matched Druckerman’s. I suppose that we parents tend to see strengths in others where we feel most insecure so perhaps a lot of what she saw says as much about her as it does about the French in general – or maybe she just happened to befriend the most competent and confident parents in the country! ;)


Shannon January 14, 2014 at 8:34 am

Isn’t it funny how there are all these different ways of raising kids – different techniques, different theories – and we are all trying to reach the same basic goal of happy, healthy, responsible, kind adults?
I haven’t read this book and I don’t really know what techniques I used/am still using to raise my kids. I am grateful that, whatever it is, thus far, it seems to be working, so I try not to overthink it. I do know that it is hard and wonderful and frustrating and rewarding to raise kids, even in France, I expect.


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm

“Isn’t it funny how there are all these different ways of raising kids – different techniques, different theories – and we are all trying to reach the same basic goal of happy, healthy, responsible, kind adults?”


Sometimes I’ll read about parenting in another culture and I have no interest in emulating them. But I guess what intrigued me so much about the “French way” is that Druckerman describes them as having the same values as I do, but without as much of the hair-pulling-out. But you’re absolutely right: there’s no Rosetta Stone – and what works for one kid often doesn’t even work for his sibling. (Please see my children, Exhibits A-C.)



slamdunk January 14, 2014 at 8:52 am

It certainly is a balancing act. I do like the emphasis from Druckerman on manners as I believe it to be a neglected area. It is easy for me to look around at other children and complain about lack of manners–much more difficult to see my own kids and what I have not emphasized enough in relation to good behavior.

We could use some more “wait your turn” emphasis here as well.


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Manners is a big one for me personally, probably because it was important to my own mom. According to Druckerman, not saying “please,” “thank you,” “hello,” and “goodbye” are deal breakers. (I’m still working on the “please” and “thank you” with my kids; I don’t think they’re quite ready for a trip to France!) :)


lisa January 14, 2014 at 9:53 am

Hmmm, we may be more French than the ancestral tree shows. I see much merit in this approach. We try and implement a lot of these theories in the raising of Peanut. Notice I said we try! Manners and respect is top of the list. And although at five, she does a pretty good job, she’ll need years of reinforcement! Food is an area where we fudge just a bit. Our go-to food is noodles, but to Peanut’s credit, she does eat things like gumbo, ham and beans, edamame, peppers, calamari and shrimp!


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Sounds like a little gourmet in the making!

(For what it’s worth, I subsisted pretty much entirely on a diet of noodles and cheese until I was about 21 and now I eat a wide range of foods and cuisines. So I’m not convinced that how kids eat as kids determines how they’ll eat as grown-ups. But I suppose it can’t hurt to have a good foundation!)


Jessica Smock January 14, 2014 at 11:09 am

There was so much about that book that I liked. Except I’m not sure that it’s exactly French parenting that she is describing. I did a series of reviews about Christine Gross-Loh’s “Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.” She focuses a lot on Asian parenting and on eating habits. There are so many common themes across cultures of “good parenting.” It sells more copies to make French parenting into a specific “thing,” but it’s really about being consistent and firm.


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 4:19 pm

I suspect you’re onto something with your observation about what sells books. I have to imagine that it was no coincidence that this book came hot on the heels of the Tiger Mom (who, by the way, blurbed it on the back cover).


Justine January 14, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Hmm…just by what you posted here, I would say I’m quite French – no kid foods, confinement of kid things only to certain areas, taking care of ourselves first and not feel like we have to sacrifice our own happiness for theirs – but I do have trouble saying a firm no sometimes. I am more willing to keep the peace by finding alternatives and reasoning, whereas My Guy is stricter and more protective of his parental what-I-say-goes role. Because we differ on that aspect, we frustrate one another the most when it comes to setting boundaries with our kids.

Being raised in an Asian household, I’m not a stranger to strict boundaries – it’s implementing them that’s difficult for me when I’m trying to balance what worked for my parents and what I didn’t like as a child on the receiving end of their methods.


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 4:23 pm

So interesting, Justine. Although I’m raising my kids two towns away from where I grew up, I feel like I really struggle with being too soft on them, even though I feel like my parents were pretty strict (and that, probably not coincidentally, my brothers and I were all well behaved and relatively happy). Forget the books; maybe I just need to get my mom over here to play Super Nanny so that I can learn how she did it all those years ago!


pamela January 14, 2014 at 2:50 pm

I commit all these sins! I love the waiting. I so agree with this:

I’ve spent much of the past three years feeling like a chef trying to tend to several pots boiling over at once.

YES. Thank you for this great insight into our American “suffering.”


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 7:52 pm

I thought that line about suffering was fascinating – and not so far from the truth!


Elizabeth Grant Thomas January 14, 2014 at 4:03 pm

As you know, I loved this book. I especially loved the idea of the cadre as an “organizing theme” of parenting (provide a few simple, nonnegotiable rules that are vital to the health, safety and positive development of the child, with tons of freedom beyond that). I was also completely fascinated by the idea of La Pause, which I have implemented to (pretty good) success since reading the book. I had zero success with serving a cheese course, and it is next to impossible to keep Abra in a chair at mealtime without extreme intervention on our part. When someone finds the solution to that one, please let me know.

Great review, Kristen. You should submit it somewhere for publication!


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Thank you, dearie. And thanks for nudging me to read this book at long last!

You know, the cheese course sounds like a great idea to me. (I have fond memories of a meal I ate in a nice restaurant in Montreal that featured a gigantic cheese chart. I’m salivating just thinking of it.) The only problem we’d have in our cheese-loving house is that nothing else would get eaten the rest of the meal due to the sheer anticipation of cheese!


Perfecting Motherhood January 14, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Well, having been born and raised in France, I think I’m fully qualified to comment on this subject. :-)
I have seen both the American and the French parenting in action, and I can tell you that neither is perfect and a good parent will stick to somewhere in the middle. As I’ve discussed the topic of our parents with my French friends, we all remark that very few of us have good relationships with our parents as adults, so the French parenting is awful in that aspect. Children are still meant to be seen, not heard. It may be different today but many parents didn’t do a lot of activities with their children, and mostly allowed free play for hours at a time. I’m all for freeplay but you need to balance with parent-child time if you want to create a strong bond with your children. I think the American parenting has gone way too far when it comes to praising the kids. I’m definitely raising my kids the French way when I tell them that things can be hard sometimes, and they have to persevere rather than give up. They won’t get an award from me for just showing up, that’s for sure. I think most American parents are a lot friendlier and affectionate with their children and that’s huge. Most French kids don’t get hugs from their parents, ever, and it’s very sad.
Alright, I’ll stop my rant here. I think you have to choose what works best for your family and your personal philosophy. Commonsense is the key is most cases, I think.


Kristen January 14, 2014 at 7:57 pm

So grateful for your perspective here, Milka. I was hoping you’d weigh in. It’s particularly interesting to me what you have to say about French parent-child relationships once the child is an adult. As you say, it seems like the answer is some common ground between helicoptering/hyper-praising and complete laissez faire/hyper-criticism.


Perfecting Motherhood January 15, 2014 at 9:01 pm

It’s definitely is a cultural difference, but the French are very critical and complain a lot about everything and anything. That includes their own children, and as you said, too much of this hyper-criticism can have very negative consequences on the parent-child relationship. This is something you really don’t want to adopt as a parent here!


Cecilia January 15, 2014 at 8:35 am

I loved this book, as it made me really think long and hard about the things I was doing (or not doing). Like you, I really started paying attention to the whole idea of “frustrating” the child. I believe it. I was plenty frustrated growing up, partly because my mother was strict, and partly because our circumstances created so many opportunities to become frustrated. I do believe I became a better person because of those experiences though. With my much more privileged child, I’m trying to be more conscious about delaying gratification and setting boundaries. It doesn’t help that he is so strong-willed either and I’m the type that wears down easily! I read just the other day an expression that one mother uses: “Asked and answered.” If her children ask the same question a second time, the mother says, “Did you already ask it?/Did I already answer it?/Then it’s done.”

I’m also trying to express greater expectations from my son now, in terms of giving – more contributions to housework, better manners (audible thank you’s, proper responses, etc.), more thoughtfulness in gift giving, etc. I actually regret now that my husband and I didn’t date more, to carve out our own couples time. I think all of this would help to dilute the whole “child is king” mentality. It’s quite a challenge though, to let our child know he is so important to us without letting him believe he is the center of the world.

Very interesting to read all the comments…I could go on all day about this topic!


Kristen January 15, 2014 at 11:41 am

“Asked and answered.” I love that! I could see myself repeating that over and over many times a day. :)

Like you, the idea of accustoming a child to frustration was my top takeaway from the book – and it’s the one I’ve been really trying to work on with the kids. Since I’ve started focusing on it, I notice how often they interrupt me and each other. But I’ve been sort of amazed by how effective a quick, “Excuse me, I’m speaking right now. You can tell your story when I’m done” seems to be. Fingers crossed that they’ll learn their manners in this regard sooner rather than later! xo


Nina January 15, 2014 at 9:04 am

I’m pretty big on making sure my kid knows how to wait, and I even encourage it with my 10-month-old twins. He doesn’t always like it when we tell him to wait until we’re done talking about something but he’ll usually oblige (he’s actually usually more curious what this ‘big serious thing’ is we’re talking about). I’ll also try and include him in the conversation if it’s possible just to avoid the whole issue to begin with.

But yes I encourage waiting because it also develops their delayed gratification (wrote a post on this a while back too). They have to get into that uncomfortable spot to figure out what to do with themselves during the times they have to wait (in line, or in the car, etc.).

It also shows respect for others if he’s not always clamoring for attention.

But here’s the thing: I also make sure to do the same to him. For instance, if I’m talking to him and another adult thinks we’re just blabbing away and decides to cut us off and start talking to me in the middle of his sentence, I’ll ask that adult to wait or motion for them to hold up until the kiddo is done. Goes both ways.


Kristen January 15, 2014 at 11:42 am

Great point, Nina! Since I’ve been paying attention to this with my kids, I’ve noticed how often other adults interrupt each other. I realize once again the importance of “Do as I say AND as I do!”


Farrah January 15, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Glad I just stumbled upon this post! Well, in my opinion- the Dutch as far as I can see sound very much like the French. I have written before posts like ‘Parenting Like The Dutch, Why Can’t I?’ etc. Because I do see a very real difference in the way it was where we lived in SC, to where it does in this small village. The beauty here- though, is that whatever the case I have not felt judged or chided for the way that I parent- and I am trying, really trying- to be more like them. Maybe not knives in the trees or whatever it is that German parents allow- but you know. Basic stuff. But hey, my kids are still 3, 3 & 4 so I think I am granted a little wiggle room too.


Kristen January 15, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Love this, Farrah, especially the point that one thing we Americans may corner the market on is judgment of other people’s parenting decisions. Thanks for sharing your international perspective! xo


C. Troubadour January 16, 2014 at 6:12 pm

I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s been on my list for a while — it sounds like there are many useful takeaways! I wonder what the French have to say about teaching table manners. O. has discovered how to spit food raspberry-style when he doesn’t like the texture, and any addressing it just makes him laugh(!). Not the desired effect …


Kristen January 21, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Yup, table manners lessons are needful here as well. I caught my 6yo trying to pick up his fork with his toes the other day. I’m thinking that’s not on the list of acceptable practices in France. :)


ayala January 17, 2014 at 5:52 am

Interesting :) I have to say I am soft on my children unless it’s necessary to be firm and then I reason with them. They always come first and I have to say that I have been blessed with kind, considerate, and compassionate boys.


Kristen January 21, 2014 at 2:03 pm

I have a feeling your parenting had something to do with that. ;)


Nina January 18, 2014 at 11:30 pm

I love that tactic. I think we for sure use that with four kids, but I never had a name for it. I feel so French. ;)


Kristen January 21, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Mais oui bien sûr!


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