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How to be a French Mom: An Interview with Pamela Druckerman


Michel asked me to interview Pamela Druckermam about the “bébé” phenomenon which he finds quite interesting both as a Frenchie and a pediatrician. Druckerman is famously the author of Bringing Up Bébé, a memoir that caused lots of discussion among stressed out American parents. This year she returns to the well of Parisian maternal wisdom with a new pocket guide to laissez-faire parenting, Bébé Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting.

I really enjoyed talking with Pamela and wish we could have talked more and more… Here’s what I learned:

Q. What’s the tip American parents appreciate most?

A. “Don’t attend children’s birthdays; they’re for kids.” When I mention this tip this to audiences, there’s usually a collective sigh of relief. Also, “Guilt is a trap.” We American parents – especially moms – are used to thinking of guilt as obligatory, and as a sign that we’re good parents.

Q. What tip do Americans bristle at most?

A. The books only been out for two or three days, no body’s bristled at anything yet (laughs). No one has said, “Are you kidding?” Most of the responses I’ve gotten have been, “This is just common sense.” People have said, “This is exactly what I’ve been doing but I didn’t get the social reinforcement. “

Q. Is it easier to discipline your kids when the whole culture is behind you?

A. There’s a real appetite for the kind of things I’m saying in this book which I’m calling “French”  but can go by other names as well. You could call it “Retro 1970s Parenting” in some respects, some of it’s Montessori. A lot of writers, not just me, are giving it different names, but saying more or less the same thing which is that a household that is entirely centered on the kids is unnecessarily sacrificial for the grown-ups.

It’s very difficult for the grown-ups to maintain and it’s also possibly not even good for the kids…

Statistically, you see that marriages are suffering in America, marital satisfaction has fallen, non-parents are happier than parents; you see that parents become more unhappy with each additional child. It’s impossible to name a single source for that but I think it’s not an enormous leap to say that part of that comes from the intensive style of parenting that’s developed. This need we feel to not just give kids some stimulation but to give them stimulation all the time. It’s a kind of fear that we have that kids can’t cope with frustration, that we need to be emotional mediators of the world a lot of the time; that kids will be damaged somehow if they have to be without us for even a short amount of time. All that has made middle-class parenting in America a very anxious experience for everybody in the house.

Q. Americans love to have choices– we have all kinds of parents here, Attachment Parents, Free-Range Parents, Strict Parents…

A. Yes. There are lots of different parenting philosophies– but I think that behind that illusion of choice, there’s an overarching message in America that whatever you’re doing, you’re not doing enough. Whatever you’re choising you may not be picking the right thing. They’re all overlaid with anxiety….

Q. Which tips have had the biggest impact on your life?

A. They’re probably in the realm of food: “You don’t have to eat it all, you just have to taste it” and “Serve vegetables first.” These two tips – which I got from French parents – largely explain why my kids are decent eaters.

Q. The tip you find hardest to stick to?

A. “Be patient about teaching patience.” I’ve taken to heart the idea that patience is like a muscle that gets stronger with practice, and that it’s my job to help kids develop this muscle. But in the heat of the moment, I sometimes find it hard to remain calm. Also, I work from home, so it’s very tempting to snack. I need to work on delaying gratification myself.

Q. Is sleep training at all controversial in France like it is here?

A. Letting babies “cry it out” for long periods is controversial. But gradually teaching babies to sleep using what I call in the book “The Pause” (and which I only fully understood thanks to Dr. Cohen) is considered just common sense.

Q. Is there anything Americans get right?

A. OH YEAH! My God, I would hate it if the book came across in any way as saying that French parents do everything right, they don’t! And American parents do a lot of things extremely well. I try to take the best of each culture– I’m sure I’m not succeeding (laughs). It’s an imperfect experiment. But one thing I love about America is this kind of hopefulness and spirit of possibility and literally entrepreneurship. The French are famously not the most hopeful people. It’s quite a pessimistic nation. There’s a sense that the best days are behind us… that everything is getting worse including parenting. That’s the local conversation in France: it’s all going to pot!

Ceridwen Morris is the co-author of From The Hips: A Comprehensive, Open-Minded, Totally Honest, Uncensored Guide to Pregnancy, Birth and Becoming a Parent. She teaches childbirth and newborn care classes at Tribeca Parenting.

Pamela Druckerman