An American mom living in Paris wrote a book praising French parenting. I wanted to hate this book.
I had suffered (and I do mean suffered) from the endless overt and covert criticisms from my nanny, my in-laws and my own husband about how I was raising my, err, our child. These weren’t always outright criticisms. Some were nudges and insinuations, like from the nanny- that I would become a slave to my child because I responded too much to her when she was a toddler (I did overall truly love our nanny, don’t get me wrong). Or, similarly, that Juliette’s toddler tantrums were because I didn’t say “no” enough to her when she was a baby (from my MIL).
So a book by one of my fellow countrywomen saying that French parents were right (!) did not sit well with me from the get-go. But Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman surprised me. Or maybe it didn’t surprise me that much. Because her story (except the part about having twin boys after her first daughter!) was eerily similar to mine. Granted, I don’t live in Paris and I’m not a jet-setting author (yet, hee hee ;) but her reactions to the French parenting and day care experience mirrored my own.
She had me at “Me, too.”
First of all, I couldn’t help but like this girl. She was admittedly neurotic and felt a bit alienated by certain aspects of French society, just like me. She put into words some things I’d instinctively felt. Like how Anglophone women bond with mirroring, saying “me, too” about all the things they have in common, whereas it is sometimes hard to strike up conversations with French parents at the playground (I do, though). She was married to a foreigner, but less foreign than mine, because her husband is British. But she too had that natural desire to please and win over everyone she met, including her rather discreet in-laws.
An ounce (or a pound) of truth
So once she’d convinced me that we were on the same wavelength, I was much more inclined to listen to her. And what she said rang true most of the time. Like her, I had noticed that French parents have a set of expressions and boundaries they seem to impose rather naturally. This is the famous cadre she mentions a lot. A cadre is a frame, and her theory, which is backed up by careful observation, is that French parents establish this from the beginning by saying things like:
“You don’t have the right to do that” (take a candy without asking, for example). There is a nuance between this and “You can’t” which is more restrictive. You don’t have the right implies it’s a rule we didn’t necessarily make ourselves but must respect.
“Wait.” Of course, Anglo parents say this, too. But maybe not firmly enough, she says. And “wait” is a better alternative to constant “nos”.
“Deux minutes” or “two minutes.” Similar to “wait”, a French parent or Juliette’s teachers, would say this, especially if a kid interrupted an adult conversation. It implies the adults have the right to finish first, but the child will be listened to after.
Talk to your child and she will understand
Citing a famous French child psychologist, Françoise Dolto, she says we must explain things to children and they will understand, even as babies. With the famous “you don’t have the right to do that” expression, French parents often give a brief but confident explanation of why we can’t touch a certain thing. It implies, Druckerman writes, that children are rational beings capable of understanding. Not sure that this would defuse a tantrum, but I find that now, especially, if I explain things to Juliette before an outing, she will assimilate it much better. To be fair, I think Dr. Spock said basically the same thing.
This is definitely part of French culture. Kids at the school cafeteria all have to at least taste each dish. That way they can decide if they like it or not. I have witnessed with my own eyes that Juliette is more apt to eat beets in vinaigrette or pears because she tried these at school. We do tend to eat in courses in my house, too, and serving grated carrots in vinaigrette as a starter ensures she gets some veggies.
I said I didn’t hate this book. I didn’t say I agreed with every little thing. I can identify with Druckerman’s experience and she fairly accurately summarizes the French parenting philosophy. But I have also seen parents who don’t follow these unspoken rules. I have seen an idiot who pulled his little boy’s pants down in the supermarket parking lot to whip him hard several times. I have seen my share of grocery store melt-downs. And parents who feed their kids junk. I don’t think I’m as enamored with French parenting or schooling as this author. I think there’s a slight “children must be seen not heard” phenomenon at work in France that irks me a bit. American parents cherish, maybe too much sometimes, a child’s freedom of expression. But that’s not always a bad thing. And French kids may be more well-behaved in restaurants in general (Druckerman’s pet example), but they are not perfect. And American adults turn out pretty polite and friendly, despite or because of (you be the judge) a slightly more indulgent upbringing.
I may unconsciously use some of these French expressions and philosophies now in my parenting style. But you’ll still find me on the floor playing Lego during a friend’s party (not the whole evening) with my kid and letting her have the occasional snack between meals or one piece of candy (ok two!) after school. Cause you can take me out of America, but you can’t take the American out of me.