American journalist Pamela Druckerman, who lives in France, was on vacation with her husband and 18-month-old daughter. They were frantically attempting to have a meal, ordering all the courses at once while their daughter raced around. That was when Druckerman had what she describes as a “thunderbolt moment.”
It seemed that the French families were having a vastly different dining experience.
“Their children were sitting happily in their high chairs, they were eating all kinds of food and they weren’t robotic,” she recalled. “They were chatting very happily with their parents.”
Druckerman, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, wondered: What French parents were doing differently?
The result is Bringing Up Bebe, in which Druckerman set out to find the secret behind raising children who are good sleepers, good eaters and well-behaved. The book is a must-read for parents who would like their children to eat more than white pasta and chicken fingers.
Q: After your ‘thunderbolt’ moment, what else did you realize was different about French parenting?
A: The fact that when French families came over to play, the child seemed to be able to play by themselves without interrupting all the time. The fact that my French friends said their babies slept through the night by 2 or 3 months-old, whereas for my American friends it was much later – for my daughter, it was 9 months old and we had to let her cry it out. The French friends said they never let their babies cry it out and were horrified by the very idea. It just started to dawn on me that there is something to this. I started to look at some of the research and a number of American academics have studied the differences. One study found that French mothers find parenting less unpleasant than American mothers do.
French parenting gave me a window into a whole different way of thinking about my relationship with my kids, a much higher level of trust of my kids and their ability to do things by themselves. The main thing I got is this idea that from a very young age babies are rational. That doesn’t mean they can operate tractors; it does mean you can teach them things. One of the things you can teach them early on is how to sleep. That was a major philosophical shift that I had to make. Once I did, a lot fell into place.
Q: You write a lot about “cadre.”
A: It literally means frame or framework. It’s kind of a model for French parenting. It’s the idea. They’re consistently strict about certain things and actually quite relaxed about the rest. The inside of the frame is empty. It’s a combination of being really consistently strict about a few things, but on the other hand trusting kids with a lot of freedom and responsibility that actually make them feel empowered.
I did find the common ones are respect and politeness towards others. In France there are four magic words - please, thank, hello and goodbye. (Greetings) force them to realize they are not alone in the world. It rescues them from their own very natural selfishness and the same thing for not interrupting. If a child interrupts they’ll say very politely, ‘Sweetie, I’m in the middle of a conversation, I’ll be with you in just a moment.’
Q: In France crèche (day care) and kindergarten are subsidized, and the children are fed incredible meals.
A: I totally understand how fussy eating happens, and I’m pretty sure it would have happened to my kids if we’d been in the U.S. because kids are put in this kind of culinary ghetto where that’s all anyone expects of them. It’s no wonder kids end up picky eaters.
The French idea is part of a child’s “education” – to introduce him to all kinds of flavors and to bring him around to appreciating all these different kind of flavors. The principle I was told again and again is, ‘You don’t have to eat everything you, just have to taste it,’ and eventually they’ll come around. They’ll introduce new foods a lot of times in a really playful, positive way. Vegetables are not treated like a vitamin delivery system. They’re seen as delicious and interesting. Of course if you put a plate of broccoli and a hamburger and French fries in front of a French kid he’s going to pick the hamburger every time but that doesn’t mean that’s all you should serve.
Q: Having subsidized day care and free kindergarten from the age of 3 takes away a lot of the stress of parenting.
A: Absolutely. I don’t want to underplay how much the structural differences make things easier for French parents and especially for new mothers to have time to themselves. Also there is a national paid maternity leave.
Q: Can you spot an American parent in the playground?
A: Yes, the American parents are much more involved. I’ve never seen a French parent go down a slide. They tend to be on the sidelines letting the kids play by themselves. The American parents tend to be involved in the children’s play.
Q: Is there any aspect of French parenting that you don’t like?
A: I really love the American emphasis on creativity and exploration. I had a mother ask me, ‘Is your daughter able to draw inside the lines when she colors?’ and I thought, ‘I don’t want her to color inside the lines!’
The point of my book is not that I think everything is great about the French way; it’s that I think we can learn certain lessons, and we can pick and choose from both models.