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Bringing Up Bebe – The Wisdom of French Parenting

by Tiffany in Book Reviews, parenting

french women dont raise bratsI admire attachment parenting philosophy quite a bit and that is primarily what guided me when my babes were little. I have mentioned in the past though that my endeavor to be a good, attached parent kind of lead me to a place were I was lost, frazzled, and on the verge of a divorce. I felt like I was a slave to my kids every need and only now with more modern books on AP, like Mayim Bialik’s Beyond the Sling am I seeing warnings to make sure that marital and personal relationships as well as career not be sacrificed to the AP Gods. It is really easy to let AP or other similar parenting philosophies turn into permissive parenting with the parents being afraid to be the authority in their own homes.

And yet despite my love of AP, some of my authoritarian upbringing always popped up and it made me feel selfish and guilty. Should I really just be flat out saying no to this request or should I be looking for a compromise that will show that I am respecting my child’s wishes and desires as an individual? Should I be down on the floor playing Legos with my child to show I am a playful parent or is it okay to do what feels right to me…which is require him/her to self entertain (and quietly) so I can enjoy a cup of tea and a phone call with an old friend? I was constantly questioning how instinct was leading me to react/parent/discipline and how I felt I “should” be parenting because this or that book on AP or cooperative parenting said I should.

In hindsight I wish I had just listened to my instincts more. This is not because I think I made mistakes (though I am sure they are many) but rather because I let parenting become my career and my life as a stay at home mom and my self worth became largely wrapped up in that. With two boys on the autism spectrum that is just a recipe for disaster. It was only after my family almost broke in half that I realized that if mama isn’t happy and satisfied in her own personal and professional life…no one is going to be happy.

I decided to make it my goal to devote more time to to self care. I didn’t ignore my kids or my husband but I carved out time for myself each and every day, sometimes several hours of the day and did stuff just for me. I went to the library, I went to the movies, I got pedicures and manicures, I went to the gym 4-5 days week, I went thrift store shopping, and I refused to take kids with me if I didn’t want to. Heck, I took a solo two-day vacation and have another booked in a couple months. Previously, I always hated it when I heard women say they were trying to find themselves but I understood it perfectly after that year was up. The pre-child me, who had many and varied interests, was back in full force.

Anyway, that was a really long winded intro to telling you about a parenting book I recently read and throughly enjoyed.  The book is Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. It was written by Pamela Druckerman, who is an American living in France and raising three kids there. She wrote the book after seeing how much differently American children behave than French Children. While her 18 month old was bouncing off the walls in a French restaurant and making her consider eating at home forever more, the French babies and children were happy and chatty yet largely docile. French parents were not frazzled and stressed, instead they seemed to really enjoy parenting. After finding a study that showed American parents were twice as likely to consider themselves unhappy with child care when compared to French parents Druckerman decided she wanted to know what French parents were doing differently.

I must say that I absolutely loved the book and it gave me so much food for thought. So much about AP and other child centric parenting philosophies, like radical unschooling, lead parents to focus on the needs and wants of their children to the exclusion of everything else. Radical unschooling even boasts the idea that you never say “no ” to your child…you always find a way to say “yes”. Hearing no will kill their spirits or something. French parents also believe that children should be respected and their wishes honored but only in balance with the needs and wishes of everyone else in the household. French parents believe in teaching their children from infancy how to exhibit self control and deal appropriately with frustration and the dreaded “non” or “no”. The reason those French babies and children were not acting up in the restaurant is because they had already had many months or years or training to wait and be “sage” or in control of himself or herself. And rather than being dull and sparkless children you get happy children who also have amazing manners and self control. This is in contrast to the American idea that exerting that kind of influence or restricting our kids in such a way will kill their spirit and crush them emotionally.

The French seem very rigid and structured in many ways and yet they also believe in letting their children devote time to nothing but pleasures and fun. They believe in speaking to their children respectfully and like they would any other adult, even from the time they are infants because they believe that all babies are rational and capable of learning. That aspect is very AP friendly even if some of their other ideas are not (no co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, etc.). In many ways they are AP parents who just never let the the household become child centric in any fashion and parents who are not afraid to be the authority in their homes. And amazingly enough all the French seem to be on the same page with this. The way the French children are parented at home is the same way they are cared for in government run creches (or daycare), which sound amazing BTW. If France is what right-wing Americans have in mind when they talk about socialism, then we need lots and lots more of that evil socialism please!!!

Overall I think the book has a lot of value and the arguments made for stricter households, proper manners, and not becoming a slave to your children are well worth the read. I didn’t agree with everything of course, such as not breastfeeding past 3 months, but most of it I quite heartily agreed with. It was also a true pleasure to read. How many parenting books keep you up at night long past bedtime?? A resounding A++ and I really hope there will a follow up that deals with parenting French teens, since I am one year away from that milestone.

equilibre (eh-key-lee-bruh) – Balance. Not letting any one part of life – including being a parent –  overwhelm the other parts.



  • I loved this book too (even though, like you, I disagreed with some of the routine practices of French women – like anesthetic being standard for birth, little breastfeeding, etc).

    You said: ” Radical unschooling even boasts the idea that you never say “no ” to
    your child…you always find a way to say “yes”. Hearing no will kill
    their spirits or something.”

    What’s so interesting about that is that the opposite is true. Creativity and freedom often come from structure! I got sucked into a non-coercive parenting movement very briefly once, and although I never fully embraced it, it took YEARS for the cult-like message to leave my mind. It was horrible. Parents were never to say no, everything was to be worked out via a common preference. A nightmare for the parent, to say the least.

    The sad part is that it’s nearly impossible to create the balance that French women enjoy because so much of it is due to their government benefits (free high quality daycare, extended maternity leave, job security) and cultural memes (if everyone in the country is behaving just as you are to raise good little Francois, it’s so much easier!).

    Some of the things I wrote about in my review of the book: I love the emphasis on respect and manners. It absolutely makes me CRINGE the way so many American kids ignore adults, don’t speak to them or make eye contact. None of that in my home!!

    I’ve long said that it’s my job to make sure my children are “charming”. If they aren’t, and if I don’t enjoy their company, then I am doing something wrong. They don’t become likable and charming without ever hearing the word no.

    Also, there is much research that points to *self control and willpower* being second only to IQ in importance when it comes to a person’s success in relationships, career and life. How do kids get this self control and willpower?

    Since reading the book I’ve become even more interested in French women, reading everything I can on the subject. I read French Women Don’t Get Fat years ago and loved it, there’s so much we can learn from them about eating.

    I have come to the conclusion that any kind of guru-led parenting is just a bad idea. Whether the guru is William Sears or the Ezzos matters not. If we as parents are uncomfortable with that’s going on in our homes we must make changes.

  • Janelle

    Thank you for this post!  I have been struggling with finding a balance between AP and my own feelings that my daughter is slightly out of control without more boundaries.  I have ordered the book and can’t wait to read it.  

  • I’ve had some of the same balance issues when it comes to parenting as well… the only book I’ve found that “worked” for us… and that I haven’t sold back to the used bookstore is Scream Free Parenting. It actually sounds somewhat similar to this book. I’m looking forward to reading this one. 

  • Skye Fay

    I suppose I have a hard time with considering extended breastfeeding and cosleeping child centric.  I think they are based on what works for my family as a whole.  While I do disagree with permissive parenting, and becoming a “slave” to my children I also feel that children are the future.  They are the reason this world is continuing on at all and they deserve a fair bit more than most people/parents, French or American afford them.

    Also, I once read (and I think it is a Ghandi quote) that “habitual” and “natural” are not the same thing.  There are many things that feel natural only because they are habit, like yelling at my son or deciding one too many times a week that it is okay to be lazy and sit on the couch eating chips and watching TV.  While my children need to learn things like respect and consideration, and I do need time to myself to relax there is a difference between doing things that are good for us, and doing things that feel good or instinctual because they are habitual.  Sometimes the right or natural thing doesn’t feel that way because it is no longer habitual in our culture.  A previous commenter touched in this in saying that is is easier to do things when everyone else around you is doing the same thing and there is infrastructure (like child care) that supports your philosophy and lifestyle.

  • Meagan

    Very interesting. I’ve never read the book, but I’ve heard about it. I’ve always used the On Becoming Babywise books although I don’t agree with everything in the books {I’m not sure you can find a book you agree 100% with unless you write it yourself}, but I take what works for us and use it. I leave the rest behind.

    I think the most important thing is the training a child in self-control and respect for others. That’s one thing I’ve noticed a lack in with a lot of AP families. The kids are wild and they don’t know to care for other people. In order to be a contributing, productive part of society, it’s important to learn how to control yourself, be responsible for your actions, and respect other people and their things. I’m glad to know that this book talks about these things. I’ll have to read it. Thanks for the great article!

  • Julia

    Thanks.  I liked this article.  I plan to get the book and read it.  I have two adult children who were very well behaved 6 and 7 year old when they came to my ex-husband and me the first time.  Since then, I have worked with children and have thought there must be a balance between physically abusive discipline and being overly permissive.  I go to eat occasionally with a family with two boys one who is out of control.  I am not sure what caused this difference.  I agree with one writer who said America needs something different.  We have too many out of control children.  Anyway, this is longer than I ever intended.  I will email this to a couple of people as well.

  • You know, I’m not sure the gurus are the problem.  I think how people interpret the gurus is the real problem.  Because all too often I hear people say “Dr. Sears advocates so-and-so” and, well, I own something like five of the man’s books.  Give me a break, I can go back and read him for myself–the problem’s in the interpretation.  Except when the guru IS wrong, like the Ezzos and Babywise (shudder), but most people aren’t following the Ezzos.

    The really, really funny thing with the AP movement is that of course Dr. Sears is a major “guru” within it, and yet, I once checked out an old book of his from the library, and early in the book he cites Jean Liedloff as an inspiration.  Well, I’ve read Liedloff.  She went down to South America and spent time with some relatively isolated Indians who, as with the French, were producing happy, sane children with excellent self-control.  And just as with the French, they led relatively structured lives (well, for tribal people, compared to us until recently), were not afraid to tell their kids “no”, and would even yell when they saw a child going too far in the misbehavior.

    Mind you, I don’t think it all comes down to parenting technique.  I have since read someplace or other where a Paleo blogger was wondering whether Liedloff’s tribe didn’t have better luck with the kids because everybody was eating a better diet in the first place.  I wouldn’t be surprised;  one of the major causes of child misbehavior in our culture is bad diet.  (I constantly hear high praise about my daughter’s behavior, but if she eats a lot of gluten or a lot of sugar, it’s Mr. Hyde time.)  Similarly in France, they eat more of what I would call junk than those Indians did–i.e., white bread–but at the same time they also eat more animal foods than we do, including organ meats.  I’ve read enough of Dr. Weston Price’s work to appreciate just why that matters.

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  • Tia

    Not just in France do these rules apply, in my opinion it is like this in most of Europe. I live in England and all those ‘rules’ apply here too. I assumed it was a the same in most countries until all the news about American parents admiring French parents, did I realize it was so different in the USA. I find it is very effective this way of parenting.

    • Elle

      I agree with you. I read the book and enjoyed it, but I think the author is a little too bent on the idea that it is “french” parenting. I think it is generally European, and even relates to how south american culture raises their children as well. Pretty much all first world nations except the U.S…? It seems only in the states that children have turned into the reigning royals of parents’ households. I am a U.S. citizen and live in the states, but when I travel or visit with friends who are not from here their children (whether they are European, Central or South American) behave the way Druckerman describes French kids.

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  • emilie

    I am an AP mother in many ways, but I think the problem with the AP literature out there is it doesn’t practically take you beyond the first year (which is its own unique developmental stage), so many parents are stuck in what you have aptly described as letting children take over and parents fearful of their own authority. Yikes. I have really appreciated Gordon Neufeld (author of Hold On to Your Kids) in this respect, as he uses attachment theory but in a way that is practical for the post-baby years and supports parental authority as well as the parent-child relationship. In some ways it is similar to what you describe here (though with some very notable exceptions).
    Btw, I live in Quebec, and it has a very similar socialized system to the French. I came here (an American) pretty pro-socialism, but after two years of it I can say it is pretty horrid. There are a few pros, and I don’t support what the US has currently got going, but there are much better models of a socialist-capitalist mix without having to resort to the French style. If you don’t fit/buy into the system wholeheartedly, then you’re stuck with dissatisfaction or a sense of invisibility (or even reprimand). And everything is somewhat mediocre, b/c no one is allowed to get better treatment than anyone else… so everyone is stuck with a sub-par system. This means you end up with diseases, etc. that linger far longer in hospitals and cities than they should, a mess of a school system, terrible roads and increased pollution, having to pay to recover from childbirth in a room that does not include 4 other recovering families, underfunded universities. I’m no Republican, and i know there are serious issues and discrepancies between rich and poor communities that need attention, but I wouldn’t go running into the arms of French socialism, either!

    • Thanks for your insight and for commenting!

  • Old School is Cool

    I got a kick out of your sting at Conservatives and their hate of this “evil socialism”.

    This is the way Americans (who used to be mostly European Immigants) parented for generations.
    We also ate like Europeans (its not exclusive to the French.)
    Then the 60’s happened.
    Political Correctness Parenting and the “self esteem crushing” myth ruled all. It was just one of the ways society was “sticking it to the man” and the way we’ve always done things.

    The “evil socialism” you refer to is the Government of France. They have caught on to the Political Correctness bandwagon, and incase you missed it, college students were marching in the streets Demanding their “rights” to be guaranteed jobs and money and full benefits without earning it.

    Entitlement tentacles have a long reach and are pervasive.