Ah, the French. From their capsule wardrobes to their take on everything from toast to kissing, it seems like they always know a little something before we do. Which is why I was excited to read , former Wall Street Journal writer Pamela Druckerman’s très popular guide to “the wisdom of French parenting.”
It actually ended up being one of my favorite parenting books I read while pregnant, and I went on to adopt many of the philosophies mentioned in the book. Plus, Druckerman has a conversational writing style that will make you think she’s a friend relating her years abroad over a cup of cappuccino.
But in case you don’t have time to deep-dive into the full book, here is a brief overview of the book’s main points.
Druckerman is an American journalist living in Paris with her British husband. When she finds herself pregnant, she becomes increasingly aware of the behaviors of French children and parents around her—specifically the fact that the children seem to be extremely well behaved, rarely throw tantrums, sleep through the night from two months on, and eat just about everything on their extremely diverse plates.
While she initially has a hard time pinpointing what it is French parents seem to be getting right (even her local friends deny following any particular parenting philosophy), careful observation and a bit of research eventually lead Druckerman to compile an outline of the French cadre, or framework of parenting.
From the moment babies are born, French parents don’t immediately spring up at their little ones’ first cries. After a brief (or sometimes longer as the child gets older) pause, they will then move in to .
By waiting a beat before —a term Druckerman affectionately dubs “La Pause,” French parents come to learn their babies’ natural rhythms and , which aids in longer sleep cycles (AKA, full nights of rest from two to four months on).
“To believe in The Pause, or in letting an older baby cry it out, you have to believe that a baby is a person who’s capable of learning things (in this case, how to sleep) and coping with some frustration,” Druckerman explains.
Similar to La Pause, the French believe that children need patience to fully appreciate good experiences in life. Druckerman cites Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment from the ‘60s and ‘70s, in which children were presented with a marshmallow and told they could eat it now, or wait five minutes and then be given two marshmallows.
The children who were able to delay gratification were later found to be better at impulse control and more successful later in life.
Rather than giving in to every caprice, or whim their children present, French parents typically hold their ground—even during the rare tantrum. “French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration.”
French parents are often heard telling their children to “sois sage,” literally translated “be wise” or “be good.” “When I tell Bean to be sage...I’m asking her to use good judgment and to be aware and respectful of other people,” Druckerman writes. “I’m implying that she has a certain wisdom about the situation and that she’s in command of herself. And I’m suggesting that I trust her.”
The nature of the child
Many of the French stem from the idea that children are constantly being trained to be adults. Rather than signing their kids up for lessons to push them to succeed or hiring tutors to try to quickly move children from one developmental stage to the next, the French luxuriate in the wonder of childhood.
They believe experiences should be used to awaken a child’s senses, particularly a thirst for discovery and exploration.
They believe in communicating with children like adults, explaining choices and expectations even to babies, but always having clearly established limits.
Children are likewise expected to learn to function within the framework their parents have laid out, and there’s a strong emphasis on manners and social codes (for example, children are regularly prodded to say “bonjour” to the adults they meet).
Autonomy of the mother
French mothers are seen as women first. They are expected to maintain a strong sense of self in all aspects of life, from the sexual (“perineal reeducation,” or expert-led sessions to strengthen the pelvic floor area, are not uncommon) to the intellectual.
Couples are encouraged to prioritize each other over the children, not out of selfishness, but rather because the French believe it is best for the whole family.
As part of their protected sense of self, many French mothers work, and few breastfeed past the first three months—all with none of the guilt that often plagues American mothers. (In fact, subsidized daycares or creches are extremely popular and encouraged as an excellent way to socialize and awaken the sense of children while mothers work—some mothers apply to a creche as early as from their sixth month of pregnancy!)
Rather than spend every moment solely focused on their children, French women are encouraged to celebrate themselves as well. “Guilt is a trap...the perfect mother does not exist,” Druckerman explains.
The French have many thoughts on food, and it’s considered a and society. “You just have to taste it” is a common rule in many homes. Druckerman praises the diverse palates of the children—they’re rarely picky because they are exposed to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables (never bland baby cereal) from the start.
“The point isn’t that every kid will like everything. It’s that he’ll give each food a chance.” The children rarely snack between meals and the whole family always eats the same meal. Another great tip? The French often serve their children’s meals in courses, beginning with a vegetable dish while little bellies are at their hungriest.
“It’s me who decides”
This is probably my favorite takeaway from the entire book: French parents always consider themselves the authority over their children.
The child isn’t treated like the king, determining what you eat, where you vacation, etc., and parents often boast about how strict they are.” They believe that children can achieve these goals only if they respect boundaries and have self-control,” Druckerman explains.
But don’t worry, the French definition of “strict” isn’t as rigid as you might think. French parents typically mean that they are strict about certain things and pretty relaxed about everything else. It all goes back to the cadre, a firm frame surrounding a lot of freedom.
Autonomy for children too
The French would never be described as helicopter parents. They don’t obsess over worst-case scenarios or attempt to control children in the hopes of keeping them safe. They’re okay with (and even secrets) within the safety of their cadre because this ultimately teaches them how to be adults.
They also don’t make a habit of over-praising children, preferring to give praise when it is earned. As Druckerman writes, “What they conclude is that some praise is good for a child, but that if you praise her too much, you’re not letting her live her life.”
Certainly this won’t be the parfait approach for every parent, but the most important thing is to find a parenting style that works best for your family. C’est la vie!