According to Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bèbè, the French not only have us beat in the world of fashion, fine dining, wine, and culture, but they’re better parents as well. Druckerman claims French babies generally sleep through the night by 4 weeks, toddlers in restaurants sit patiently through 4-course meals, and parents set firm boundaries so they can enjoy a café and adult conversation while children amuse themselves quietly in the background. Her essay, “Why French Parents Are Superior,” echoes these same themes. How does Druckerman’s advice relate to AP? Is French parenting really superior?
For me, the answer is no. Let me start by saying that I adore France and the French people. I lived in France for a year as an English teacher, and as I write this I am in France again for a language study program. The French gave us Voltaire, Monet, Renoir, and a rich literary history such as Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Candide, The Phantom of the Opera, The Three Musketeers, and The Man in the Iron Mask. I find their language beautiful and nuanced. Their cuisine and their wine are superb.
However, as an AP parent and an avid people-watcher, I have come to disagree with Druckerman on many levels. French parents aren’t better. The French parenting I’ve observed is just as varied as American. Some parents are strict; some are not. Some parents have well-behaved children; some do not. While I’m sure we can learn some things from our fellow parents across the Atlantic, Druckerman’s overall view of French parenting does not fit well with AP. Let’s explore why.
Le pause. First, many French babies are sleep trained. Druckerman doesn’t call it sleep training; she calls it le pause. French parents don’t rush immediately to pick up their babies at the first hint of a nighttime squawk. Rather, they let them fuss to see if the baby will go back to sleep on his own, and only pick him up if he wakes up and really begins to wail. While I can agree a few minutes of fussing between sleep cycles is normal, Druckerman never really defines le pause. Is it one minute? Two? Ten? According to this review, it’s five to ten minutes. Ten minutes of a crying baby is not a “pause” to ascertain if baby will go back to sleep. It’s the beginning of sleep training. More alarmingly, according to Druckerman, if French babies don’t faire ses nuits (“do their nights”) by about 4 months, sleep training begins in earnest.
Dr. Sears and Dr. Popcak, gurus of the AP community, both strongly advise against sleep training. Here, Dr. Narcia Navraez, professor of psychology at Notre Dame, discusses how cry-it-out and other sleep-training methods negatively impact babies’ mental and emotional health. Babies whose parents respond quickly to their cries learn that they are in a safe place and that their needs will be met, leading to greater confidence and independence later in life. On the other hand, babies who are left to cry learn the opposite, leading to insecurity, fear, and mistrust. These children often become withdrawn, anxious, and depressed. While I can certainly emphasize with French parents’ desire to get a full night’s sleep, I prefer to prioritize my child’s desire for nighttime comfort and connection over my own convenience. Sleep training at a young age can lead to lack of trust and connection with caregivers, which leads me directly to my next point .
Lack of Connection. In my observations, in general French children are less connected to their parents than children in an AP home. This is not to say that French parents don’t play with, laugh with, cuddle with, and care for their children; they do. Yet I see some troubling signs. I’m currently living with a single French mother with a daughter exactly the same age as mine (3.5 years). This mother co-sleeps, but she only breastfed for 6 months. She expressed amazement and dismay that I breastfed for 18 months, so I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d actually let my daughter breastfeed for much longer than that. According to a 2014 study, French women breastfeed considerably less time than their Western counterparts. Only 10% of French babies are exclusively breastfed by 3 months, and only 39% are breastfed at all by that age. By six months, only 23% of French babies receive any breastmilk, and at a year the number drops to 9%. While the original article is in French, an English summary can be found here.
From these numbers, it’s safe to say a high number of French children are sleep trained and formula fed. While I don’t have numbers to back this claim, I’ve observed a lack of connection. French children often have les doudous. Le doudou is a toy or blanket the child sleeps with and carries for security. The daughter in my home cannot leave the house without her doudou, which is a scrap of blanket. She takes it to preschool, she takes it to spend the night at her uncle’s, she takes it to bed. We can’t even go out to dine at a neighborhood restaurant without the doudou. While many American children grow very attached to toys, my daughter never did. Sure, she had a favorite bear, but we never went through a phase where she could not leave the house without it. My daughter nursed for both nutrition and comfort on demand, and so she felt confident enough and connected enough to me that she did not need a plush toy or blanket for security. Of course, children with differing temperaments may naturally gravitate more toward a comfort toy, and some well-attached children may have security toys or blankets while others do not. The important thing is for security toys to augment, rather than replace, parental comfort. I wonder if so many French children, allowed to breastfeed and snuggle until they feel secure enough to self-wean and grown in independent on their own time, would need a security toy to sleep or leave the house.
Differing Social Expectations. The social expectations in France are different than in the United States. Druckerman expresses amazement at the well-behaved French children sitting patiently through (she claims) nutritious, 4-course meals. I haven’t observed that. I’ve observed French children screaming and standing on chairs in restaurants. I’ve heard parents admonish them 5, 10, 15, 20 times in the same patient, quiet tone without any change in behavior. The difference is, the people around the baby (both restaurant patrons and waiters) smile indulgently, as though to say, kids will be kids. At dinner one night, the 3-year-old stood on the bench and waved and shouted to people. The elderly couple behind us laughed and smiled, and the waiters laughed it off. We breezed out without leaving a tip, nor was one expected. In the U.S., parents are not given this much grace. Other patrons expect children to act like adults, and if they are going to act like children, the parents should keep them home. It’s unfortunate, but the pressure on parents in public dining is immense. No one would smile indulgently if my daughter behaved like that in public, nor would the waiters smile and wave away my apologies.
Likewise, French parents I’ve observed are fairly lax with expectations. Yes, the preschools do serve nutritious, vegetable-rich, varied meals, but I’ve also watched the daughter in my home eat nothing but a plate of fries for dinner. Her cousin, a bouncy 2-year-old, was told 6 times by his parents and older sister to stop touching a public plant. Each time he ignored the request and each time he was gently and calmly reminded again. Clearly, he was in charge and he knew it. These children interrupt, scream at their parents, yell commands to adults (I’ve been yelled at to “Stop talking!” and the mother just chuckled about it and stopped our conversation), and cry the moment they don’t get their way. The parents rush in, apologizing for choosing the vanilla instead of chocolate ice-cream cone or for letting the building blocks accidentally touch. When they announce it’s bedtime, tantrums and wails of “Non!” are regular occurrences.
Clearly, in the U.S. most adults would not consider these behaviors acceptable. Normal, perhaps, but certainly not to be encouraged. For us, it’s a behavior to correct, not to ignore. While I appreciate that our French counterparts accept that their children are not adults and should not be expected to act like adults, setting clear boundaries for behavior and gently guiding them to better choices is always preferable to passive parenting without guidance or consequences. So yes, French mamans do enjoy their café au lait or espresso while chatting, ignoring or tolerating the frequent screams, interruptions, and demands. Yet this is not to say French children are better-behaved, only that their bad behavior is treated differently. As an AP parent, I prefer to spend the time necessary to teach my child the correct behaviors than ignore them so I can chat with my friends.
Secular vs. Christian Values. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, France is largely a secular nation. Once strongly Catholic, France is now one of the most irreligious countries in the world, with about 50% identifying as atheists or agnostics and only 10% identifying as regularly practicing Catholics. In Druckerman’s book, French parents have several stated goals: teaching patience and delayed self-gratification, encouraging autonomy, protecting adult time in the evening, and children “finding their path in the world.”
Clearly, these things are not enough for a Christian parent. I don’t want my daughter to just find her own path in the world, I want her to find the path to Jesus. Like all parents, I want my child to be polite, bright, happy, and engaged, but I also want her to serve others, honor God, study the Bible, attend Church, and live a holy, Christ-filled life. While I’m online researching community service projects to take my daughter to this summer and fun Bible lessons to familiarize her with the Word, French parents seem to be more concerned with training their babies to give them an uninterrupted night’s sleep and letting their toddlers amuse themselves so they can enjoy a coffee in peace.
In the end, Druckerman’s book is not for me. Nor, I think, is it for any AP family. Druckerman has some interesting observations on French culture and ideas about parenting, but in the end, let’s take the book for what it is: a sociocultural memoir, rather than a guide to attached, secure, loving, Godly parenting.
Jana Thomas Coffman lives in Alabama with her husband, Chris, and their daughter, Kaylie. Jana and Chris are an NFP (Natural Family Planning) teaching couple through the Couple to Couple League. Jana is currently working on her Ph.D. with an emphasis in Spanish and Linguistics and a minor emphasis in French.