Family Matters

Bringing Up Bébé: Are French Parents Really Superior?

Author Pamela Druckerman praises the French for imposing discipline and order on their kids. But do these high expectations come at the expense of hugs and kisses?

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A year ago, Amy Chua, a.k.a. Tiger Mom, roared onto the pages of the Wall Street Journal, enflaming American parental sensibilities with tales of denying her children playdates, rejecting her daughter’s handmade birthday card and forcing her to practice piano without bathroom breaks. The title of her essay? “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.”

This week, the Journal again served as ground zero in the parenting wars, hosting an essay by Pamela Druckerman, who used to work for the newspaper but now lives in Paris, where she noticed that children behave quite a bit better than they do stateside. She decided to write a book about it — Bringing Up Bébé came out Tuesday — and a portion of it was adapted for the Journal. The title of the essay? “Why French Parents Are Superior.”

In the essay, Druckerman wonders:

Why was it, for example, that in the hundreds of hours I’d clocked at French playgrounds, I’d never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum? Why didn’t my French friends ever need to rush off the phone because their kids were demanding something? Why hadn’t their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had?

MORE: Take This, Tiger Mom!

Much of what Druckerman observes has merit, and she expounded upon it during our lunch in New York City this week (to which she arrived looking every bit the part of the stereotypical Frenchwoman in all black, capped by a black beret). Key differences between French children and Americans, according to Druckerman: French kids eat more varied diets than American children do. They sleep though the night — the French call it “doing their nights” — earlier than the average U.S. infant. They’re more self-sufficient, able to amuse themselves without the help of their parents.

And they have mastered the art of patience: they’re not as prone to rude interruptions, in part because they’ve been instructed in how to delay gratification. For example, Druckerman told me, when she bakes a cake in the morning with her children — a 5-year-old girl and 3-year-old twin boys — they follow French custom and refrain from tasting it until about 4:30 in the afternoon, the designated goûter, or snacktime. (This particular observation, in my opinion, is not so meritorious. As someone who regularly bakes with my kids, I can say that much of the fun derives from that first shared bite. Why postpone the culinary pleasure?)

Perhaps I’m just not a big fan of these types of parenting books. To me, they smack of absolutes — do this and don’t do that — and exaggerated comparisons: French babies sleep, but American babies don’t; French children play nicely at playgrounds, while American children dissolve into teary messes. I don’t buy it. Every group has its outliers, and children are no exception. Telling someone how to parent is like telling someone how to dress — everyone has their own individual style, and who’s to say that skinny jeans are better than bellbottoms?

Toward the end of our lunch, even Druckerman acknowledged that it’s shaky to proclaim one way of parenting better than another. Her book’s subtitle is “One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” Yet Druckerman notes that her book “is full of these ambivalences” about struggling to muddle through and to make sense of the way different cultures raise their kids. She says she discovered that how children behave — just like beauty — may be in the eye of the beholder. “At the end of the book,” says Druckerman, “I write that I think my kids are horribly behaved in France and very well-behaved in America.”

MORE: Behaving Badly? Blame It on Mom

Below is a portion of our conversation:

Healthland: What inspired your book?

Druckerman: I was on vacation and noticed that my daughter was the only child in the restaurant being generally unpleasant. She was picking up salt shakers and eating for five minutes, then insisting on getting up from her high chair. I realized that French families had a very different experience. Their children were eating all kinds of food and enjoying themselves. I started to think maybe there was something to learn here.

Like what?

What strikes me about the French way is not that they have mind-blowing new solutions but that they focus in on one technique that really works. Sleep is one and waiting is another. French babies sleep through the night at about 10 weeks, but all of the parents said they didn’t let their babies cry it out. They start with the belief that even a tiny baby is a rational person who can learn things, and one thing they can learn is how to sleep through the night. It’s a skill parents teach their kids. They do what I call “the pause:” when babies cry at night they don’t immediately rush in and pick them up. They want to see if the baby can connect his two-hour sleep cycles. Or maybe the baby is just a very noisy sleeper. French parents think it’s much better for the whole family, for the baby and for the parents, if the baby sleeps through the night early on.

French parents think they have to teach their kids to delay gratification. French kids don’t snack. One effect of not eating between meals is that when it’s mealtime, they’re actually hungry.

And French mothers more than American mothers prioritize teaching their children how to play by themselves. They think it’s an important life skill to not need to be constantly stimulated. When a friend who is an American mother comes over we never seem to finish a conversation because the kids keep coming over. When a French mom comes over, they take it for granted that we will get to have a conversation and finish our cups of coffee and won’t have to constantly referee.

Do their kids just not bicker?

They do.

What other differences did you notice between French and American parents?

There’s a lot more trust in France. In America there are so many competing parenting styles and it can be hard to leave your kids in someone else’s care because of the way someone has chosen to feed their kids or take care of their kids. Parents in America tend to be vigilant about their child’s safety. Their fear of crime is out of proportion to the actual probability of something happening. French parents are less panicked about kids’ safety.

Are there aspects of French parenting you did not like?

Some parents are too strict. They don’t listen to their kids and they are too authoritarian. I find I’m more affectionate with my kids than French parents are. I think they are more hands off. They don’t feel they have to constantly interact with their kids.

They can also take underpraising too far. The French think self-esteem comes from accomplishment, not praise. In school, you’re more likely to get negative feedback or no feedback. The only thing my daughter’s preschool teacher said about her the whole year was that she was calm. I wanted a little more feedback.

Have you been successful at transforming your kids into patient, waiting little beings?

No, not at all. We’ve done really well on food. We do this thing where we don’t snack except at goûter. And we serve the veggie dish first when the kids are hungriest and then move on. … Getting them to wait is a work in progress. What I am doing now is part of a long process of civilizing my kids.