What French Parents Do That Americans Don't
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: American Pamela Druckerman thought she had a pretty good handle on what it means to be French, at least the stereotypes - you know, good taste in wine, a sophisticated sense of style, and a preoccupation with fine cuisine.
Then she got married and found herself living with her English husband in Paris. A daughter followed and when Pamela finally found time to take a breath, she uncovered another surprising aspect of French life. Wherever she looked, the French seemed to be employing a certain je ne sais quoi that was making their kids behave better than American children.
Pamela Druckerman has written a book about all this. It's called "Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting." And she joins us from our New York bureau.
Pamela, thanks for being with us.
PAMELA DRUCKERMAN: Thank you for having me, Rachel.
BEARDSLEY: OK, so let's start off. Describe the moment when you realized that the French might have some kind of parenting wisdom that you could learn from.
DRUCKERMAN: It really was kind of an epiphany. I was on vacation with my husband and my daughter who was 18 months old. We're at a restaurant and she was refusing to eat anything but sort of pasta and white bread. And I suddenly looked up and I realized that the French families all around us were having a very different experience - that their kids were sitting in their high-chairs, enjoying their meals, eating their vegetables and fish and all kinds of other things, and talking to their parents.
And this wasn't - they weren't being seen but not heard. They were enjoying themselves.
BEARDSLEY: What answers did you find? Is it just that French parents weren't giving their kids a choice? They were just saying, hey, listen - it's this complicated vegetable medley or nothing.
DRUCKERMAN: First of all, there is no category of food called kids food. Kids and adults, from the start, eat the thing.
BEARDSLEY: There's no, like, hot dogs and French fries on the menu for the kids?
DRUCKERMAN: You can find chicken nuggets in the frozen food department but that's not what kids eat all the time. My daughter went to what's called the creche in France, it's the public daycare. And I sat in one day on the lunch there with two year olds.
There's a four-course menu every day. It starts with a vegetable dish and then there's a main course. There's a different cheese every day. So, I discovered to my shock that my daughter eats blue cheese. There are two things in that. One is that, I think, starting with vegetables is a really good idea, and we do that now. And the other trick that French parents do is they say to their kids you don't have to eat everything, you just have to taste it. We assume that, I think, a little more that kids have inherent likes and dislikes whereas the French view on food is the parent must educate their child and that appreciation for different food is something you cultivate over time.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Which also speaks to another issue that you get at in the book - the idea of patience. What do the French do that's different?
DRUCKERMAN: You know, I notice this when I go to the park in France because I would usually arrive with a big bag of stuff to entertain my daughter the entire day, whereas the French mom on the blanket next to me would have just one ball. And she would talk to her friend and the child would be happy. I guess that's what surprised me is my child would need me to interact with her all the time and French children seem to be able to play by themselves in a way. I see that when people come over, when friends come over to the house, that the American families really seem to be constantly refereeing disputes between kids or getting on the floor and building Lego villages with their kids. Whereas, when my French friends come over, the moms sit at the table, we have a cup of coffee, we have a conversation and the kids are in the other room having a great time but playing by themselves.
MARTIN: But I have to say that image of the French mom in the park talking with her friends and she's got one ball for her kid - that paints a picture of someone who's not exactly thrilled about parenting, maybe ambivalent, or perhaps, you know, that's just the American take on this. But do you see it that way? Can you see it from the other side, how an American parent might say, well, listen, that parent just isn't as excited about playing with their kid and I really like engaging with my child?
DRUCKERMAN: The French view is really one of balance, I think. That's what French women would tell me over and over is it's very important that no part of your life - not being a mom, not being a worker, not being a wife - overwhelms the other part. You know, just one mom was saying that she loves taking her kids to the merry-go-round because she puts her kids on the ride, she turns off her cell phone, she sits on the bench and she just basks in the sun. She says it's like a spa holiday. And I thought, you know, I know that merry-go-round. It's near the Eiffel Tower, because I spend my whole half-hour waving to my daughter every single time she comes around. As an American, you know, first I was really surprised by this kind of approach to parenting but after a while, I realized, you know what, my daughter is proud of her independence. And I think that's really something that I've taken from the French parents I know, too, is that self-esteem comes from developing skills and being able to do things by yourself and from accomplishment and not from this kind of constant encouragement from parents.
MARTIN: So, I have to ask: no one really likes to be told how to parent. It's a very sensitive topic, no matter if you're French or American. What has been the reaction among your American friends who have kids to your book?
DRUCKERMAN: The response from readers to my book - and it's only been out a couple of days - has been just overwhelmingly positive.
MARTIN: Even from your friends - have said, Pamela, you're kind of criticizing how we parent over here but I get what you're saying. I appreciate your take.
DRUCKERMAN: Well, I'm criticizing myself. I'm, I think, maybe the more extreme example of an American parent. So, I guess the book is really a memoir. It's my own story of how I partially became converted to some French ways of doing things but also held on to the things that I like about America. I'm never going to get the balance right but I am trying to sort of pick the best of both.
MARTIN: Pamela Druckerman joined us from our New York bureau. Her new book is called "Bringing Up BeBe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting." Pamela, thanks so much. We appreciate it.
DRUCKERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.