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.