Given recent rubs in U.S. and French relations — Bush administration diss’s of “old Europe,” congressional renaming of French fries (“Freedom fries”), and the on-going European debt crisis — one might turn the famous and famously skeptical biblical phrase, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” into, “Can anything good come out of France?”
Pamela Druckerman, an American writer living and raising kids in France, offers an enthusiastic “Yes” to that question in her insightful and entertaining book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. (Druckerman is in town on Monday, March 5, for a 7 p.m. book reading and signing session at Elliott Bay Book Co.).
Early on in Bringing Up Bébé Druckerman offers this observation: “It’s increasingly clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents are achieving outcomes that create a whole different atmosphere for family life. When American families visit our home, the parents usually spend much of the visit refereeing their kids’ spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build LEGO villages. There are always a few rounds of crying and consoling. When French friends visit, however, we grown-ups have coffee and children play happily by themselves.”
In case the foregoing scenario might suggest otherwise, Druckerman assures us, “French parents are very concerned about their kids. They know about pedophiles, allergies, and choking hazards. They take reasonable precautions. But they aren’t panicked about their children’s well-being. This calmer outlook makes them better at both establishing boundaries and giving their kids some autonomy.”
Take boundaries, for instance, as it relates to the matter of snacks and eating. French kids don’t snack all day. While American parents can hardly imagine going anywhere without a bag of Goldfish, Cheerios, raisins or apple slices, as if starvation were imminent, there is by-consensus only one official snack time in France. It happens at 4:30 p.m. It’s called the goûter (pronounced gooh-tay, handy glossary included). What this means, among other things, is that when French kids sit down to eat, whether at home or in a restaurant, they are hungry.
This plays into Druckerman’s puzzled observation, in her opening vignette, that “French children don’t throw food.” Eating out with their families, they eat and they talk. They are “cheerful, chatty and curious.” What’s up with that?
Not only does the one snack a day as opposed to all-day munching or grazing mean that kids are hungry when they sit down for dinner (where vegetables are served first), it also means they have learned to delay gratification and develop self-control. “Could it be,” asks an astonished Druckerman, “that making children delay gratification — as middle-class French parents do — actually makes them calmer and more resilient? Whereas middle-class American kids, who are in general more used to getting what they want right away, go to pieces under stress?”
Moreover, French parents seem to think that for their kids to spend some time alone each day, time that is unstructured, is a very good idea. Otherwise how will children learn to entertain themselves, to develop resilience and cope with frustration?
In some ways what Druckerman is observing is another instance of good intentions gone awry. The American parenting patterns that seem to be working less well than their French counterparts are fueled by the desire to give kids time and attention, to respond to their needs and wants, and to see that their young lives are as full and enriched by activities as possible. The intentions are good. But the results? Well, the results often seem to be kids that need constant attention and planned activities all the time but are a little short on internal resources.
How did we come to this pass? And how did the French avoid it? In a word, "calm." French parents seem calmer, less anxious, less apprehensive about getting it all absolutely right.
A corollary of this is the more highly competitive nature of life and parenting in the U.S. American parents, at least of a certain socio-economic class, see parenting as yet another competitive sport with the "Harvard" or "Stanford" sticker on the car the winner’s prize.As another illustration Druckerman reports that while in the U.S. we have two so-called magic words, "please" and "thank you," the French have four. To the equivalents of our two, they add “bonjour,” (hello or good day) and “au revoir” (good-bye). Moreover, French children are expected to address all adults with a respectful "bonjour" and "au revoir." It’s a small thing, but it’s a way of getting a kid out of him or herself.
We place a lot of emphasis (and take a lot of pride) in their kids acquiring skills early, whether its playing a violin at 4, reading at 3, or writing their first short story, for publication, at age 5. French parents — not so much. They tend, without a lot of thought about it or anxiety, to focus more on how kids operate in a group, on social skills, as well as their ability to think and speak reasonably well.
As another illustration Druckerman reports that while in the U.S. we have two so-called magic words, "please" and "thank you," the French have four. To the equivalents of our two, they add “bonjour,” (hello or good day) and “au revoir” (good-bye). Moreover, French children are expected to address all adults with a respectful "bonjour" and "au revoir." It’s a small thing, but it’s a way of getting a kid out of him or herself, noticing and appropriately acknowledging others. In an interview on KUOW with Ross Reynolds, Druckerman said this simple practice has a way “of rescuing a child from his or her own selfishness.”
Beneath the many contrasts Druckerman draws is a deeper one, between a traditional and non-traditional and more individualistic society. Certain traditions — the goûter, what Druckerman dubs La Pause (not jumping when children burp or fuss), and respect expressed in greetings — are just part of the taken-for-granted world. Less traditional, Americans tend to be making it up case-by-case and as they go with the help of an astonishing, and often self-contradictory, array of experts purveying advice, methods and plans. The reliance on experts and their frequently changing advice, as opposed to shared practices and inherited wisdom, is both fueled by and produces our higher American levels of anxiety.
Another difference is that parents in France seem to think of themselves, perhaps without using the word, as their children’s educators. They are teaching their kids things like trying different foods, developing taste, exercising patience, coping with time alone, going to bed at a fixed time, and practicing little social graces. It’s their job. Moreover, the assumption is that kids need formation. They don’t arrive socialized. It’s what parents do. American parents seem, by contrast, to be less self-confident in their parental role and more likely to take their cues from the kids themselves. Again, good intentions that may have gone awry.
Druckerman’s fun read is of value not just for what it offers about child-rearing, but for its implicit comments on some of the more problematic aspects of adult life in America these days.
One of Druckerman’s conversation partners, another ex-pat, observes, “Certainly the impression one has is that self-control has gotten increasingly difficult for kids (in America).” Not only, however, for kids.
In that in-between time when my wife and I were expecting our first child, I confesssed my anxiety about the blessed event and my new role to an octogenarian neighbor, wise and diminutive, Katherine. “Will I be a good father? I’m a little worried,” I asked my sprightly, grey-haired friend.
Katherine laughed with a kind and knowing chuckle and said to me, “Just trust yourself; you’ll be fine.” It wasn’t rocket science, but it was good, calming advice then, and perhaps now as well.