By Elisa Murray
If you could suggest American parents emulate just one aspect of French parenting, what would it be?
I should say, from the start, that my book in no way is an argument that American parents should be like French parents. The parenting culture in America is always changing, and in France as well. What I capture in France is a snapshot of a living breathing culture that’s evolving too.
But in terms of takeaways, [there are some] definitely in the realm of food, such as the idea of not snacking, except for once a day [in the afternoon]. So when you do sit down for a meal, this child is very hungry and more likely to eat what’s put in front of him. Another French idea that we’ve adopted at our house is to serve the meal in courses, and offer vegetables first, when the kids are hungriest.
I really like the French idea that that’s part of the parent’s job -- to teach the child about all different flavors and that the reason why [your children] don’t like a certain food is that’s it unfamiliar.
Other key takeaways?
Certainly with sleep. That’s a really important difference -- the fact that it’s the norm in France for babies to sleep through the night at two or three months old. In addition to doing the Pause [a tactic described in the book to wait a few minutes after a baby starts crying at night before responding], there is an idea that you should talk to your baby about sleep. It comes from Françoise Dolto, who is the Dr. Spock of France. She says the child is rational from the moment he is born, which means you can teach him things, such as how to sleep.
One of the most interesting parts of the book was your description of the support that parents receive, from highly subsidized and excellent child care to national health care. Do you have a larger point you’d make about that?
I’m not a policy specialist, and this book is not a sort of platform. But living in France, I was very much struck by how dramatically the knowledge that you’re going to have access to subsidized, high-quality childcare changes the lives of women in particular. There’s this feeling that you’re not alone and there isn’t this competing rhetoric the way there is in America where we say women should be able to work and work full-time but there is also social pressure to be home with your child or to not put your child in care early on. It helps explain why [French women] have one of the highest birth rates in the European Union.
What can French parents learn from Americans?
One thing that I want my kids to have from their American side is that American optimism and sense of risk-taking, this belief that you can reinvent yourself. In France, there is much more respect for tradition and the past. French kids have to decide what they’re going to be when they grow up before they’ve grown up, when they finish high school, and I really like that American kids don’t necessarily have to do that.
You seem to be talking a lot about well-behaved children as the desired outcome of parenting. True?
If you ask most French parents what they want the outcome to be, they would say that they want [their kids] to be “awakened” -- a French word that means being alert to the world, engaged, comfortable in their own skin. They wouldn’t say they want [their kids] to be well behaved.
One of the points of the book is that children are capable of being calm enough to enjoy things in some settings, or that it’s harder to enjoy yourself if you don’t have ... if you don’t know how to cope with frustration and be calmly present.
And what’s the “proof” that this is the best way? Any long-term outcomes to point to?
I think the style of American parenting that I talk about in my book, which sociologists call “concerted cultivation” -- I don’t think we know what the outcomes are for it yet because we don’t really have “graduates” of it yet. That’s where some of the doubts about it are coming from. We don’t know if it’s good for kids, and I think we have a sense as parents that it’s not good for us as adults.
What I like about the French approach is that it’s not as focused on outcomes; it takes into account more what the actual experience of parenting and being a kid is like.
Have you been surprised by the media reaction?
I’ve received amazing responses to the book from readers. A lot of positive responses from people who have read the book and say that it’s really helped them. I think one of the big criticisms of the book is that it seems like common sense.