Parenting secrets from Paris

A book by Pamela Druckerman for parents and educators

by Susanne Wiesinger

cc. The following review describes a time in France that is almost a thing of the past, and many of the author’s observations mainly reflect the classic upbringing of a bourgeois class. The situation has also changed in France. Certain “Americanised” behaviours, which are already an integral part of our pupils’ repertoire, are slowly gaining ground among French pupils too. For example: constant snacking in between meals was still an absolute taboo in the mid-1990s. At the beginning of the 2000s, it also became fashionable among the French – although there is still a fairly clear rule in families to limit eating to the three main meals. But you still find far fewer whinging children at the supermarket checkout than in other US-influenced European countries. French toddlers are generally in a much better mood, except for those who have clearly had a ‘68 upbringing. Nonetheless, the book in question contains interesting and very good suggestions for bringing up children, which parents could implement again today – with a little support.

The book “Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting”, published in the original American edition in 2012 (Penguin LLC US) and in German translation in 2013, was written by the American Pamela Druckerman, who until then had only had experience as a reporter on economic issues in South America – based on conversations and interviews with friends in Paris, where she had moved with her husband. She has children of her own, including twins.
  In her observations of families in Paris, she noticed how well behaved French children are in restaurants, how quietly they wait for their food, and that when they are invited to friends’ homes, they don’t roll around on the floor, but play happily and let the adults have their conversations quietly … Pamela Druckerman observed that US children behave very differently and that American fathers crawl after their four-year-old children on the floor under the table to look for toys, and that American parents don’t say “no”.
  Professor Mischel, who carried out research in the USA in the 1960s on reward deferral in five-year-old children, believes that:
  “Children in France are more disciplined; they are brought up more like I used to be. When French friends come to visit with their children, you can enjoy dinner in peace. With French children, you just assume that they can behave themselves and enjoy the meal.” (quoted from Druckerman, p. 87)

A child who sleeps through the night
early seems to be the norm in France

Parents in France believe that the child can learn intuitively and adapt to the parents’ daily rhythms, and they do not disturb the child by keeping it awake at night – without realising it – in the often-mistaken belief that the child is awake because it is hungry or wants to be taken out of bed. In France, it is a well-known biological fact that babies move a lot in their sleep, that they whimper, cry, sigh and mumble a lot and that all these expressions do not necessarily mean that the baby has woken up or is hungry. According to the famous Parisian paediatrician De Leernsnyder, the baby should have the chance to cope with being alone during sleep and to learn to connect the individual sleep phases.
  According to a French paediatrician, a baby learns to sleep through the night in the same way that it later learns to ride a bicycle. If the baby has slept well through the night or was able to go back to sleep soon after waking or whimpering briefly, this will probably happen more quickly the next day. Parents should take a short break (la pause), according to French wisdom, they should not take the baby out of bed immediately when it makes a sound, but wait up to five minutes and observe whether the child opens its eyes at all… If you take it out of bed immediately, you can’t observe it!
  According to Pamela Druckerman’s accounts from French homes, it is a myth to believe that parents of babies have to adjust to a chronic problem and go without sleep all the time or even for years.
  Magazines for parents-to-be often spread such nonsense, so that US parents are already set up for a chronic problem with sleeping through the night.

How do I explain to a three-year-old
that you don’t throw books around
and how to put them on the shelf?

The book describes how a young French woman explains to a three-year-old child that books should not be pulled off the shelf: Calmly, she says to the child, kneeling on the floor next to him, “That’s not how you do it” and with kind, gentle words she orders the three-year-old to put the books back on the shelf. “Doucement” (gentle) is a word that keeps recurring in the young woman’s mouth, and the three-year-old does not protest at all; he learns that books should be handled “gently” and not thrown around. One book is placed next to the other on the shelf, and the child has now learnt this… it doesn’t protest at all, because it now understands how books are handled.
  Without even the slightest doubt about the three-year-old’s understanding of the process of putting the books on the shelf, the young woman achieves this “miracle”! Together with the child, she puts the books back on the shelf. She shows him how to do it. The three-year-old is attentive and does what the woman says.

Always pick up the toddler?

The situation where a mother is busy cooking and can’t pick up a toddler of two or three months is a common one: The nanny from France quoted in the book says here that she does not then pick up the child, but explains to the two or three-month-old child that she is now busy cooking, and she then lets the child cry. Not for eight hours, of course, but she allows him to express his feelings, she acknowledges them, but doesn’t respond to his wishes … and she doesn’t do what the child absolutely wants… That way, the child can learn that other people are there and have their own needs and that these needs are also entitled to attention.
  Even in similar situations, the toddler is not picked up – and above all not picked up immediately! – and is allowed to cry. The French parents do not relate the inevitable cries of protest from toddlers in such situations to themselves; they do not think that they are failing as parents or that they are bad parents. They see putting up with the toddler’s hatred and temporary anger as part of their job as parents.
  French parents do not see it as wrong to say “no” to the child. On the contrary, they consider small daily frustrations to be good preparation for later life. They believe that there is no harm in not fulfilling a girl’s wish to have a chocolate croissant for lunch.

Different opinions on the educator’s no

The Americans and Germans, on the other hand, believe that every need of the child should be fulfilled, because a “no” can have a traumatising effect on the child and the later adult for the rest of their lives, and they believe this on the basis of false theories. Result: In the USA (and in other countries) it is common for children to throw themselves on the ground outside on the boulevard, to have hysterical or anxiety attacks if they are denied a wish, and for the mothers then trying to distract the children from their hysteria with snacks. Without constant snacks, many mothers in the USA can no longer imagine their daily lives!
  French children, on the other hand, do not constantly feel the need for a snack, they learn with love and patience that they have to wait four hours for the next meal, and then they grab it quite courageously and hungrily.
  The fact that children learn this with love and patience means, for example, that a mother gets her child used to fixed mealtimes by carrying him around in a baby carrier and taking him shopping in town. The child is calmed by the physical contact and is also distracted by the shopping. It does not feel the hunger and remains calm.
  The French also have a recipe for other common situations, such as not buying a certain toy: the mother explains to the child in the shop that buying a toy is not on the programme for today – she explains this to him with love (she takes the child in her arms) and tells him – then it’s ideal – an anecdote from her own childhood.
  Children love such anecdotes from their parents!
  French parents recognise that many of their children’s “needs” are “caprices”, childish and unrealistic “whims”, and it is a priority for them that children do not have feelings of omnipotence and that they learn that their parents also have a life of their own. This also teaches them that other people also have their own needs, which must be respected. Mothers in France are unfamiliar with the US concept of “total motherhood”. As mothers, they give up friendships and are only there for their children, constantly chauffeuring them around to their ambitious sports, Chinese or French courses (in the USA for four-year-olds!) – for French women this is (generally) out of the question! In France, the mother keeps her own life, she shows herself to the children as her husband’s partner, as an attractive woman, she often goes back to work just three months after the birth of the child, and the children learn in the crèche to fit into social life, experiment with friendships, learn how to interact with other children – this is the main focus in crèches (from the age of nine months) – and in the “école maternelle” (kindergarten) (from the age of three) they do not practise the alphabet or curved walking sticks in a notebook, but rather polite manners. Colouring, singing, creativity and “discovering the world” take centre stage. Children in the USA are constantly expected to excel, none of that in France! Parents in France are more relaxed about it, and the health statistics prove them right. As an outsider, I am not in a position to judge the extent to which education in France has deviated from these “bon sens” recipes in recent years. However, what does draw attention is that many French people have been saying in recent years that their country has changed a lot to its disadvantage. All the more reason to reflect on French education and to bring many things back to mind, because it is successful!  •

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