Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Seth Wenig/Associated Press
NEW YORK – So you’re visiting someone’s home with your child and hot chocolate is served. As the hostess’s kids sip the delicious concoction politely and silently, your own little dear takes a gulp and promptly spits it back into the mug.
Admit it, parents: Something similar has happened to you.
But for Pamela Druckerman, an American mother in Paris, it wasn’t just an isolated incident. That embarrassing moment with her daughter, Bean – she would have kicked her under the table, but couldn’t be sure which pair of legs were hers – was one of many during her early years as a mother in France: years of fearing her children would act up, melt down or otherwise commit a serious faux pas at any moment.
Because, as Druckerman explains in her new book, Bringing Up Bebe, French children don’t spit into their mugs. They don’t have tantrums in the park, they don’t shun their vegetables, they don’t forget to say “bonjour” or “au revoir,” and they most certainly don’t throw food (in fact, French Children Don’t Throw Food is the book’s title in Britain.)
Are children in France born polite? Do they come out of the birth canal saying, “Bonjour, Maman,” and apologizing for the discomfort they’ve just caused?
Clearly not, but Druckerman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, set out to determine just what French parents are doing right. Boosted by the fact that France and parenting are both subjects people love to talk about, Bringing Up Bebe, written in a winningly chatty and humorous style, debuted at No. 8 on The New York Times best-seller list earlier this month and hit No. 1 on The Sunday Times hardback nonfiction list in Britain.
The book has also drawn attention through comparison to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, last year’s provocative account of Eastern-style parenting. Chua’s book was excerpted in The Wall Street Journal under the title, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” and Druckerman’s under the headline “Why French Parents Are Superior” – a phrase that doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“First Tiger Mom. Now, I dunno, Fromage Mom?” Jen Singer wrote recently on her blog, Mommasaid.net. “Nowadays, it appears that everyone is better at parenting than Americans are.”
She added: “Here’s the dirty little secret about their ‘superior’ parenting philosophies: They’re not about the kids. The so-called French parenting method seems to make life easier for parents who want to socialize.”
In a recent interview at a Manhattan restaurant, Druckerman stresses that she isn’t trying to present the French style as perfection. “I don’t have any magic bullets,” she says. “I was just trying to tell my story.”
Her story is, though, overwhelmingly favorable to the stricter French parenting style, and judging by comments on the Internet, not all American moms disagree.
Kat Gordon, a mother of two sons in Palo Alto, Calif., read the excerpted article and immediately wrote on Facebook, “I smell a best-seller.” She meant it as a compliment.
“It sounds like French mothers are experiencing more joy and feeling less frazzled by parenthood,” Gordon explained in a telephone interview. “That’s something all mothers should want – if we can get over our defensiveness.”
Gordon recalls an incident when her older son, Henry, was 2˝ years old. Her in-laws were over for dinner, but Gordon, who’d worked all day, was being pulled away constantly by Henry, and she felt conflicted and guilty. Her mother-in-law set her straight.
“Henry should always feel that you’re available to him,” her mother-in-law said. “But he shouldn’t feel entitled to you.”
Druckerman touches on just that theme. French mothers, she writes, love their children as much as anyone, but don’t see them as their entire life project, to the exclusion of professional satisfaction, adult leisure time and quality time with a spouse.
“If your child is your only goal in life, it’s not good for the child,” one French mother tells her. “Guilt is a trap,” says another.
Druckerman writes about how many French babies, at an extremely young age, sleep through the night, thanks to La Pause: Parents wait a bit when the baby fusses. Maybe the baby can sort it out alone.
This helps with more than sleep, Druckerman says: It’s also a crucial building block to developing patience. “I had always assumed that some kids were good at waiting, and others weren’t,” she said in the interview. “I didn’t realize one could teach a child to wait.”
Similarly, Druckerman always assumed some kids were picky eaters and others weren’t. But the French, she discovered, simply teach their children to appreciate adult tastes, from their first year.
Forget chicken nuggets. The author attends a planning meeting for meals in Paris creches, or day care centers, and it sounds like a morning meeting at a Michelin-starred restaurant: Four-course meals are de rigueur for 3-year-olds, with perhaps a fish in dill sauce, a side of organic potatoes “a l’anglaise” and a cheese course, bien sur, before dessert.
But that doesn’t explain why French children, according to Druckerman, so rarely have tantrums, at least in public. She explains that they’re given a strict cadre – literally, a frame – to guide them. A nonnegotiable: saying “bonjour” and “au revoir.” It’s not mere politeness, but a way of acknowledging the world doesn’t revolve around them.
To one fellow American mother in Paris, it all sounds good, but doesn’t quite work that way.
Elizabeth Brahy, a mom of two who’s lived in France for 17 years, thinks French children only seem better behaved because their parents are very strict with them – sometimes overly so. But when away from adults, she says, they’re not nearly the same.
“They toe the line when they’re with their parents,” she says, essentially because they are scared of getting in trouble. “But away from them, they’re worse behaved than American kids.”
And where Druckerman admires how French parents stay at the perimeter of the playground while their kids play independently, Brahy sees something different: “You go to the park, and you see these kids running wild, pushing and shoving and stealing toys, and no one is disciplining them.”
It’s not all negative. “The things that work really work,” Brahy says. For example: “It’s healthy that parents here have lives apart from being parents. In America, parents put their kids first and live by the kids’ rhythms.”
Ami Salk agrees. A mother of three children who has been in Paris for 23 years and teaches professional writing to corporate employees, Salk feels confident saying something many American moms wouldn’t: “My kids are important, but they’re not more important than me. I also don’t think they’re more important than my relationship.”
Salk recently brought her three kids to the United States for a summer visit. She was appalled at the behavior of some American children she encountered – some who never said “hello” or acknowledged her presence.
“They never took off their headphones,” she says. American kids, she observed, also tend to snack all day – something that doesn’t happen in France. Then they’re not hungry at mealtime.
On the other hand, she says, “Everyone thought my kids were great. They said ‘hello’ when introduced. They said ‘goodbye’ when they left. They ate almost everything. Address them, and they responded.”
What it comes down to, Salk says, is really a contrast between a traditional parenting style – one that she had as a child in the U.S. in the 1960s – and a modern one, that has in some ways gone awry.
Druckerman would agree wholeheartedly. One of her favorite bits of feedback, she says, came from a mother in England, who said that she’d been feeling guilty about her occasional trips alone to get her hair done.
“She wrote that my book had freed her,” Druckerman says.
“That made me cry.”