Personal French Life Experience & Book Review “Bringing Up Bébé”

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As Americans, we’ve all seen unruly children in restaurants, grocery stores, malls, and in public. The parents are embarrassed and upset, the children are crying and miserable or are misbehaving, and everyone in the same place is feeling on-edge and thinking “get control of your kids!”. But the thing is, most parents either don’t know HOW to instill this or if they do, choose not to do it for one reason or another. It’s no secret that MOST American children are very badly behaved.

When I studied abroad in France, I stayed with a host family. It was a family with 4 children ranging in age from 5 to 14. The father was often away in Paris for business while the mother and her children lived in Avignon in Provence (a region in southern France). This mother not only had 4 children, but would also have up to 5 foreign exchange students at any given time. When I was staying with her, there were 5 of us. The first time we ever had dinner at her large, long farmhouse table, she had the kids set the table and put the pudding desserts out. Mid-meal, she asked the oldest, Marie, to go get something from the kitchen. The girl said “Oui maman” and went and got the item without complaining or whining. Even the youngest one, named Pauline who was 5, was very obedient and well-behaved at the table. I was shocked and very pleasantly surprised that kids in France are like little adults and not like little tyrants. I told myself that I wanted to have my kids be like that.

The type of parenting that is employed is a blend between mostly authoritative and slightly permissive. There are rules established that have an actual reason yet aside from that, there is a lot of freedom in what the kids do. They were all very polite, well-mannered, and not messy eaters. I never once saw or heard a French child throwing a tantrum at the store or park. It just doesn’t happen. I think we all should implement more French parenting into our lives. I personally want to lead a simpler life and not be chasing kids all over the place. It stems from the parents wanting to enjoy their lives and to not have the focus of the family to be on the kids. That is not balanced and it makes parents miserable- they are no longer living their own life.

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Pamela Druckerman’s book “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting” (2012) is a solid resource for Anglophone parents who are looking to have their children be more well-mannered, polite, not create such a mess at the table, and how to give the child the structure they need to feel reassured and safe.

French parents know that they are in charge. They say “C’est moi qui décide” (It’s me who decides) to remind themselves of this and so that their children know. Parents know how to have a baby “do their nights” by about 6 weeks of age. The technique is to not respond immediately to a baby’s cries in the middle of the night but to listen and observe and see if the child needs something or is just waking up between sleep cycles (yes, this happens!) If a child is only picked up when they truly need something (ie: crying more than 5-10 minutes), they are likely to sleep through the night (We did this and our son was “doing his nights” at 2 months old).

If a child needs to wait, the parent will say “attend” (wait) to let the child know that something else is going on and they must be patient. Parents use this word early with babies and toddlers to try and get them on the mealtime schedule that adults are on (8am, noon, 4pm, 8pm) as well as employing other techniques like baby wearing to help the infant last longer between meals. You will rarely see a child snacking in France unless it’s the after-school “goûter” (snack).

Children are taught the 4 courtesy words “bonjour”, “au revoir”, “s’il vous plait”, and “merci” (hello, goodbye, please, thank you) early on. Greeting and saying goodbye to adults is an important skill in French culture and teaches kids not to be so self-centered and also allows them to develop “autonomie” which is a highly-regarded French trait. The “hello” and “goodbye” also allow the child to have more of a giving aspect than just saying “please” or “thank you” which implies that the child is being given something or asking for something- a lesser role, which is why bonjour and au revoir are so important.

Children have a lot of caprices (impulsive whim, fancy, or demand often accompanied by whining and tears). Parents need to learn how to say no to such demands because it is damaging to the child to have their caprices granted.

Children are told doucement (gently; carefully) while they are small because parents and caregivers believe that children are capable of controlled, mindful behavior. Usually this word is said around domestic animals, younger children, or if they are playing too roughly with something.

French parents tell their kids to be “sage” (wise, calm, good) instead of the American “be good”. This tends to imply that a child is in control of themselves and are not wild animals. There’s really no equivalent to this word in English.

Overall, French parents know that their lives contain more than just caring for kids. They are an individual, a lover, a worker or stay-at-home-parent (rare), a friend, a sister or brother, an aunt or uncle, a daughter or son, a colleague, and a parent. French parents believe that you can’t ignore the rest of your life just because you had kids. They believe that kids need their own separate identity, interests, and activities. They teach their kids not to come into the parent’s room on weekends until the door is opened, to stay in their respective rooms at bedtime (do whatever they want until they crawl into bed), and how to behave at the table. They also believe that kids need to learn how to entertain themselves and that most Anglophone parents spend too much time neck-and-neck with their kids and that this isn’t healthy or good for the kids (or parents’ !) well-being.

The main message from this book is to have firm boundaries, listen to your child (but still have you be in charge), have no snacks except a small after-school one, have kids ask permission for everything (and grant it often unless a safety risk or eating out of “food times”), feed your child what everyone else eats, have your child try everything on their plate (not necessarily like it or eat it all), don’t short-order cook, treat children with respect but make sure they know you’re the boss, have expectations of them, right any wrong-doings with the “big eyes” that say “hey, you better stop that”, when disciplining or correcting, make firm eye contact with the child, let the child take action (if he gets a sharp knife, tell him to put it down, then tell him it’s unsafe 10 seconds later, tell him he needs to put it down, all said nicely but firmly so the child can be given a chance to obey VS you just going over there and taking it away- this teaches nothing).

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This book helps Anglophone parents learn to be not so neurotic about everything. The author provides points on what she thinks/does versus what French parents do. It’s an amazing thing what they are doing with child-rearing over there and I plan on implementing much of what I read as well as delving into more books on the subject (she has reference points throughout of other books she’s read on similar topics). I believe that if we all stopped being so “praise-y”, letting “child-kings” run around, and actually enforced some rules, set boundaries, had kids entertain themselves, etc that we might have more well-behaved kids. To raise kids well, it’s hard work and a lot of repetition for the first few years, but the benefits that the parents, and ultimately, society, reaps are well worth the benefit. This book retails for $26 but you can get it cheaper if you look at used books online. I paid $13 for mine off Amazon.

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