Is French Parenting the Best Parenting?

When I choose Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman for the first PAIL book club I had no idea what to expect; I didn’t know anything about French parenting or what is espoused. All I knew was the book was getting some buzz and it looked interesting. I was pleased that so many others were interested in reading it too.

I must admit, I liked the book, or better said, I easily identified with the tenants of French parenting. Since I had my daughter and was thrust into parenthood myself, I’ve frequently felt that I feel differently about parenting than other mothers I’ve met, or follow in the blog world. While I’ve always felt different, or “other”, I wasn’t quite sure where the disconnect was occurring, I couldn’t articulate how my idea of motherhood differed from the messages of those around me.

Reading Bringing Up Bébé was the first time I’ve easily connected with a parenting “philosophy” of any kind. I walked away from Sears and Sears’ The Baby Book thinking I was a freak of parenting nature. Since then I’ve read a lot of other parenting “manuals,” picking and choosing that which best encompasses my own ideas and ideals. Bringing Up Bébé was the first book that seemed to consistently (but not completely) touch upon the kind of parenting that feels right for me.

Not everything in the book made sense to me. I must admit, I’m glad I didn’t experience the societal pressures most French woman feel to keep their weight down during pregnancy and lose it all immediately afterward. While I admire the French practice of not abstaining but also not overly indulging, it seems to come with some tight strings attached and I can imagine the pressure there to look a certain way is quite damaging to many. As someone who suffered from eating disorders for the better part of a decade, I don’t really want to have any part in that.

And of course I took everything I read in the book with a grain of salt. The author–who I liked well enough but never felt any special affinity toward–was obviously making a lot of declarations based on her own personal experiences in Paris (as she willingly admits), which means her claims are really only relevant within that small, limited sphere of reference. Having said that, I do think her personal assessment of French parenting authorities mixed with reactions to what she saw around her was interesting and eye opening; if nothing else it serves as a good jumping off place for further discussion about parenting in general, and especially in the United States.

So, now for my reaction to some of my favorite French ideas about parenting, as presented by Druckerman in her book.

“The Pause.” Ah the pause. To me it makes so much sense: wait and see if your child can soothe herself before swooping in to do it for her. The pause is not a call to ignore your child’s cues but to be aware of her cries and determine if she might be able to find comfort herself. The pause teachers your child that you will always be there for her when she needs you, but you’ll first give her a chance to try for herself. This seems to be the underlying philosophy of all French parenting.

Cadre, or Parental Authority. One of the central tenants of French parenting is an understanding, from the beginning, that parents have authority. The focus is on being authoritative, not dictorial. I know in the United States we’ve moved away from parental authority, giving children increasing control over their own lives. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, but it has to be done in the right way. As we all realize, children do not know how to make intelligent choices about all aspects of their own lives, if they did, they could function by themselves and wouldn’t need us.

In the book, Druckerman talks a lot about setting firm boundaries and giving children freedom within those boundaries. I believe that is a wonderful way to provide children with the security necessary to practice decision making. One example of this is bedtime. It is common that French children go to bed a certain time but once they are in their room they have control over when they actually go to sleep. This is a great example of freedom within boundaries; some concessions are made, but only within a pre-established framework. I look forward to giving my own daughter that choice when she is out of her crib.

Bonjour. I found the French custom (or requirement) of saying “bonjour” when they enter a room to be quite fascinating. I couldn’t think of any American equivalent; there is no pleasantry that so quickly and definitively marks a person as belonging — or not — in our culture. In fact, I believe politeness is a lost art in the U.S.. Teaching politeness is very important to me. I request my not-yet two year old daughter say “please” when she asks for something and “thank you” when I give it to her. I believe “please” and “thank you” are a reminder that we are not operating in a vacuum, that there are other people around us and they should be acknowledged. They place importance on those around us and their needs.

The balance of child’s and mother’s needs. I think the idea I felt most comforted by in the book was the basic belief that a mother’s needs are as important as a child’s. Of course a mother is responsible for attending to her child’s needs but when a mother can take time for herself, she is urged to do so. As a mother I feel like we judge each other on our willing–and able–ness to sacrifice for our child(ren). Discussions about motherhood quickly become a contest of who has given up more and if you lose, you risk being labeled selfish. I can’t imagine living in a culture where instead of trying to convince other mothers of your superior sacrifice, you could share ideas for preserving your former self, or even nurturing it.

Patience and independent play. I found it interesting that patience is a skill French parents give priority to teaching; I had never realized that we do not give priority to this skill until it was pointed out that someone else does. I would venture to guess that in our children’s future, patience will be even more scarce, and therefore more valuable, than it is today. It’s important to teach children that instant gratification is not to be expected in all, or even most, circumstances. I’m already teaching my daughter patience; many times a day I require her to wait a minute before I give her what she’s asked for. When we go to the playground and she wants to leave immediately to visit the dog park, I require her to stay for at least five minutes. She has almost always forgotten her dog park obsession within two minutes of the wait. I hope that by instilling the skill of patience my daughter will be a happier, more well adjusted child and woman.

I also believe in the power of independent play that the French espouse. Research shows that children cannot be pushed to achieve milestones and they learn best when they are given freedom to explore for themselves. Giving children the opportunity to entertain themselves benefits them greatly; when they can pass idle time happily they will be happier more of the time. And parents will be too! My daughter knows that I cannot always be with her. I ask her to entertain herself in her playroom during different times of the day: when I’m cooking, when I’m cleaning up after dinner, when I’m tidying in her room, when I’m showering, when I’m doing anything that require I be away.

She also knows that when I have a friend at the park I might not be able to follow her all around; the other day I spent over an hour chatting with a friend while my daughter wandered around the playground, and then dog park, by herself (while I watched, of course). My friend was struck with the fact that most of her friends’ kids can’t do that and commented on how lucky I am to have a daughter who can. Of course, I don’t think it’s simply in her nature to play by herself, I believe she’s learned it from babyhood, because I’ve always given her opportunities to practice.

* * *

There are other aspects of the book I’d love to discuss but sadly I don’t have time or space (and you probably don’t either!) I will conclude with one final thought. As I turned the final page of Bringing Up Bébé I was struck with the novelty of an entire country united in their belief of how one should parent. Of course there are some who want to parent in different ways and I’m sure the societal pressure to adhere to the norm is great, but I wonder what it would be like for there to be an accepted way of doing things.

In this country there is no parenting decisions that doesn’t come up against loud and vocal dissent. It doesn’t matter how you choose to parent your child, someone will find fault with it. There are so many experts and professionals, all saying different things. As a mother I find it exhausting to read so many books and articles, judging the authenticity of every claim. The information we must digest is overwhelming; there are so many opportunities to second guess and even more to judge ourselves and others.

With the mommy wars raging, and trolling like the Time cover a not uncommon occurrence, I wonder if a nationally agreed upon style of parenting wouldn’t be better. Of course, if there were one, and I didn’t agree with it, I’d wish it were a free for all, but I must admit, I’m not a huge fan of the way we do things now. I wonder what it would be like to be free of the mental anguish, I ponder what I could do with all the time I’d have if I didn’t have to consider every choice a hundred times. Having that kind of freedom from parental fatigue is unfathomable. Unless, of course, I move to France.

Did any of these ideas about parenting resonate with you? What do you think it would be like if we had one accepted parenting style instead of countless contradictory beliefs on how best to raise our children?

8 responses

  1. I had almost exactly the same thoughts about this book as you did! I checked it out from the library and after reading it decided to buy it. So far, it’s the only “parenting” type book that didn’t make me feel like a loser who is going to raise a dumb kid. I ignored some of the more annoying aspects of the story/writing and focused on the broad tenets she laid out.

  2. I try to teach my kid to play on his own while I do something else like cook or vaccuum or shower. Our 8 hour day is structured so I can get the bare minimum done and the kid gets his activities. For the most part it works, but of course, when hubby comes home it’s play, play, play til bedtime. Then on the weekend, hubby seems me NOT attending to his every request for attention and thinks I’m neglecting him. Most of the time having a conversation over dinner with him is impossible because our son keeps interrupting and the husband keeps acknowledging him. Sigh, perhaps I should send him an email during the day.

  3. Don’t have time to say much, but I do absolutely agree with everything you say here. I am also trying to teach patience, politeness, self-soothing, self-entertainment and holding onto some sense of my own self. I think babies/kids who can entertain themselves for short periods of time can be happier, since parents can’t ALWAYS be around or actively engaged every second of every day. At the same time, though, being a full-time WOHM, I often really WANT to play with my kids when I am home; though I know that my toddler can entertain himself while we clean up after dinner, I tend to put it off and sit with him until he goes to bed. I am also a “playground hoverer” mainly because playground time forms a large part of our time together & I WANT to be engaged.

  4. I agree with almost all of the ideas, in principle. What I find sad is that it would be so difficult to implement a lot of them here, since we aren’t guaranteed paid leave or quality affordable daycare. I don’t know that we’d be any more successful having one unified system for parenting unless all parents could count on things like that (plus, you know, not going broke trying to pay for healthcare or college). I hope to try things like the pause and the fostering of independent play, definitely. Thanks again for hosting and organizing this – I think it was well worth reading!

  5. There were definitely some good points in the book, but as Amy said, it’s difficult to implement many of them without the fabulous creche system that France has in place. That said, I think “the pause”, and the politeness aspects (Bonjour being necessary) are good ideas that we can use here. You know, if we are so disposed. No judgements if you don’t 😉

  6. “I easily identified with the tenants of French parenting.” – agreed!

    The pause is a huge concept I hope take from this book. That, and independent playtime… balance…. etc.

  7. I seriously can print your post out and hang it on the wall – that’s how much I agree with everything. My son is only 3 months old – but already people comment on how well he does on his own. Some envy, some secretly scorn me for “abandoning” my baby, I’m sure. But I do believe that being able to entertain oneself is essential.

    The “pause” thing is the way I approached things from the get-go. He’s been sleeping through the night since he was about 4 weeks old (at the time it was about 5 hours straight; now it’s 8 hours straight).

    And while many people might say it’s cruel for the baby to wake up and not find their mama next to them, ready with some milk, I do not agree.

    My baby is happy, calm and content – what else is there to judge whether I’m doing the right thing?

  8. This post is interesting – I was nodding along and agreeing with everything you said. I did think the book was so interesting even while taking certain things with a grain of salt – I’m really glad I read it. Your points about sacrifice, though, are outside of my experience. Maybe I haven’t been a parent long enough or I just don’t have very many mom-friends (most of them, luckily for me, are from blog-land!). I haven’t been exposed to the type of competitiveness about sacrifice you’ve experienced. I see it portrayed in the media, of course, but I haven’t seen it in real life. I hope it stays away 🙂

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