This is my review of the book, Bringing up bébé, by Pamela Druckerman, an American living in Paris with her English husband, one daughter and twin boys.
Ms. Druckerman was shocked to discover that all that she thought she knew about child training, learned in the USA, was considered bizarre and impractical by mothers in France. What’s more, French parents appeared to get much better results, with much less fuss, than American parents. French parents don’t yell at their children, don’t seem stressed, their children are calm and well behaved and hardly ever whine or fuss.
French parents believe it is important for a child to learn that others do not exist solely to satisfy his or her every whim. It starts when mother and baby come home from the hospital. Parents do not jump up in the night every time they hear a whimper from their child. They wait just a little to see if the baby is just half awake and will go back to sleep by itself, or if the baby really needs their attention. They do not let them cry and cry, but this little pause is the beginning of teaching the baby that Mom and Dad have lives of their own. By three or four months the baby is sleeping through the night.
Before long the child is eating the same food as the parents, at the same times: 8:00 AM, 12:00, 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM. The food is pureed at first, but a child is taught that he cannot leave the table until he has tried a little of each food. A French mother does not cater to her child’s whims about food. “C’est moi qui décide.” (I am the one who decides.) She expects that a child might have to taste a new food up to a dozen times before he develops a taste for it. The child knows his mother is going to keep on serving that new veggie, fish or cheese and soon learns to adapt and like it. Sweet treats are only available at the 4:00 PM snack time. No amount of whining will make them available any earlier or later. So there is no point in whining.
French parents talk to their children a lot, even when they are babies, explaining to the child how he or she should behave, until it is embedded in the child’s mind and conscience. This establishes a framework of acceptable behaviour. Within that framework the child is free to do pretty much as it pleases. A child learns that he cannot move or adjust those limits and accepts them. French parents do not tell their children to “be good.” They say “sois sage” (be wise), encouraging the child to take responsibility for his own decisions and actions.
Children are taught to say please and thank you. But it is even more important to say hello and good-bye to everyone, adults included, when entering or leaving someone else’s home and when others come to their home. This politeness makes the child acknowledge the importance of others and discourages anti-social behaviour.
North American guidelines for writers of children’s books say that a publisher will reject a manuscript where an adult helps a child resolve a problem. In France it is considered normal that a child needs the help and guidance of parents and other adults. Having a parent say “no” or “not yet”, or having a baby in the family that gets more attention than an older child, these frustrations are healthy, normal and essential to a child’s growth.
Ms Druckerman recounts an incident that happened when her boys were toddlers. One was very active and hard to control. The boys were playing with another little boy in a park sandbox while the mothers visited. Except that this one little boy kept running away and would ignore his mother when she called him to come back. So she would run after him and haul him back. The French mother commented that they could hardly visit that way. She told Ms Druckerman that she needed to speak to her boy with more authority. She tried, but it had no effect. The French mother told her, “You have to believe that you really do have the authority.” The next time her little boy started running away, Ms Druckerman summoned up a voice of authority from deep inside her. Her little boy stopped, looked at her, came back and settled down to play happily in the sandbox.
The way some North American parents talk, one would think that spanking is the only effective child training method, and if we can’t do that there is no hope that we can raise well-behaved children. This book shows that there is so much more to effective child training. I wish my parents had known these things. I wish I had known them when my daughter was growing up. I wish my daughter would learn them and teach them to her children.