Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

Autonomy is something fundamental that your child needs. (Francoise Dolto said that by age six, a child should be able to do everything at home that concerns him.)

Awakening is about introducing a child to sensory experiences, including tastes. It doesn't always require the parent's active involvement. It can come from staring at the sky, smelling dinner as it's being prepared, or playing alone on a blanket. It's a way of sharpening the child's senses and preparing him to distinguish between different experiences. It's the first step toward teaching him to be a cultivated adult who knows how to enjoy himself. Awakening is a kind of training for children in how to profiter - to soak up the pleasure and richness of the moment.

Babies are designed to cry when they need something and mothers are designed to respond.

But in real life, the ideal Parisian woman is calm, discreet, a bit remote, and extremely decisive.

French parents are very concerned about their kids. They know about pedophiles, allergies, and choking hazards. They take reasonable precautions. But they aren't panicked about their children's well-being. This calmer outlook makes them better at both establishing boundaries and giving their kids some autonomy.

French parents do offer a few sleep tips. They almost all say that in the early months, they kept their babies with them in the light during the day, even for naps, and put them to bed in the dark at night. And almost all say that, from birth, they carefully “observed” their babies, and then followed the babies’ own “rhythms.” French parents talk so much about rhythm, you’d think they were starting rock bands, not raising kids. “From zero to six months, the best is to respect the rhythms of their sleep,” explains Alexandra, the mother whose babies slept through the night practically from birth.

[French] Parents see it as their job to bring the child around to appreciating this [food]. They believe that just as they must teach a child how to sleep, how to wait, and how to say bonjour, they must teach her how to eat.

Frenchwomen don’t see pregnancy as a free pass to overeat, in part because they haven’t been denying themselves the foods they love—or secretly binging on those foods—for most of their adult lives. “Too often, American women eat on the sly, and the result is much more guilt than pleasure,” Mireille Guiliano explains in her intelligent book French Women Don’t Get Fat. “Pretending such pleasures don’t exist, or trying to eliminate them from your diet for an extended time, will probably lead to weight gain.

gâteau au yaourt (Yogurt Cake) 2 six-ounce containers plain whole-milk (not reduced-fat) yogurt. Use the empty containers to measure the other ingredients 2 eggs 2 containers sugar (or just one, depending on how sweet you like it) 1 teaspoon vanilla Just under 1 container vegetable oil 4 containers flour 1 1?2 teaspoons baking powder Crème fraîche (optional) Preheat oven to 375oF. Use vegetable oil to grease a 9-inch round cake pan or a loaf pan. Gently combine the yogurt, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and oil. In a separate bowl, mix the flour and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients; mix gently until ingredients are just combined (don’t overmix). You can add 2 containers frozen berries, a container of chocolate chips, or any flavoring you like. Bake for 35 minutes, then five minutes more if the cake doesn’t pass the knife test. It should be almost crispy on the outside, but springy on the inside. Let it cool. The cake is delicious served with tea and a dollop of crème fraîche.

Give willingly, refuse unwillingly,” he writes in Émile. “But let your refusal be irrevocable. Let no entreaties move you; let your ‘no,’ once uttered, be a wall of brass, against which the child may exhaust his strength some five or six times, but in the end he will try no more to overthrow it. Thus you will make him patient, equable, calm and resigned, even when he does not get all he wants.

Hanukah is over, we’re not Jewish anymore,” she tells me.

I don’t want to be Jewish, I want to be British,” she announces in early December.

In the United States, a four-year-old American kid isn’t obliged to greet me when he walks into my house. He gets to skulk in under the umbrella of his parents’ greeting. And in an American context, that’s supposed to be fine with me. I don’t need the child’s acknowledgment because I don’t quite count him as a full person; he’s in a separate kids’ realm. I might hear all about how gifted he is, but he never actually speaks to me. When I’m at a family luncheon back in the United States, I’m struck that the cousins and stepcousins at the table, who range in age from five to fourteen, don’t say anything at all to me unless I pry it out of them. Some can only muster one-word responses to my questions. Even the teenagers aren’t used to expressing themselves with confidence to a grown-up they don’t know well. Part of what the French obsession with bonjour reveals is that, in France, kids don’t get to have this shadowy presence. The child greets, therefore he is. Just as any adult who walks into my house has to acknowledge me, any child who walks in must acknowledge me, too. “Greeting is essentially recognizing someone as a person,” says Benoît, the professor. “People feel injured if they’re not greeted by children that way.

I realize that i've seen French mothers and nannies pausing exactly this little bit before tending to their babies during the day. It hadn't occurred to me that this was deliberate or that it was at all significant.

It quickly becomes clear that having a child in France doesn't require choosing a parenting philsophy.

Like the French, he starts babies off on vegetables and fruits rather than bland cereals. He's not obsessed with allergies. He talks about "rhythm" and teaching kids to handle frustration. He values calm. And he gives real weight to the parents' own quality of life, not just to the child's welfare.

My first intervention is to say, when your baby is born, just don't jump on your kid at night," Cohen says, "Give your baby a chance to self-soothe, don't automatically respond, even from birth.

One reason for pausing is that young babies make a lot of movement and noise while they're sleeping. This is normal and fine. If parents rush in and pick the baby up every time he makes a peep, they'll sometimes wake him up.

Part of me just wants to force-feed these women some spoonfuls of fatty pâté. But another part of me is dying to know their secrets. Having kids who sleep well, wait and don’t whine surely helps them stay so calm. But there’s got to be more to it. Are they secretly struggling with anything? Where’s their belly fat? If this is all a façade, what’s behind it? Are French mothers really perfect? And if so, are they happy?

The French believe that kids feel confident when they're able to do things for themselves, and do those things well. After children have learned to talk, adults don't praise them for saying just anything. They praise them for saying interesting things, and for speaking well.

The French magazine Parents says that if a baby is scared of strangers, his mother should warn him that a visitor will be coming over soon. Then, when the doorbell rings, ‘Tell him that the guest is here. Take a few seconds before opening the door . . . if he doesn’t cry when he sees the stranger, don’t forget to congratulate him.’ I hear of several cases where, upon bringing a baby home from the maternity hospital, the parents give the baby a tour of the house.9 French parents often tell babies what they’re doing to them: I’m picking you up, I’m changing your nappy, I’m going to give you a bath. This isn’t just to make soothing sounds; it’s to convey information. And since the baby is a person like any other, parents are often quite polite about all this. (Plus it’s apparently never too early to start instilling good manners.)

There are so few years to just be a child.

Walter Mischel says the worst-case scenario for a kid from eighteen to twenty-four months of age is "the child is busy and the child is happy, and the mother comes along with a forkful of spinach...
"The mothers who really foul it up are the ones who are coming in when the child is busy and doesn't want or need them, and are not there when the child is eager to have them. So becoming alert to that is absolutely critical.

WARMING UP TO the crèche turned out to be easy. Warming up to the other mothers there isn’t. I’m aware that Anglo-American-style instant bonding between women doesn’t happen in France. I’ve heard that female friendships here start out slowly, and can take years to ramp up. (Though once you’re finally ‘in’ with a French woman, you’re supposedly stuck with her for life. Whereas your English-speaking insta-friends can drop you at any time.)

We’ve hired a lovely nanny, Adelyn, from the Philippines, who shows up in the morning and looks after Bean all day.

When I ask French parents what they most want for their children, they say things like "to feel comfortable in their own skin" and "to find their path in the world." They want their kids to develop their own tastes and opinions. In fact, French parents worry if their kids are too docile. They want them to have character.

But they believe that children can achieve these goals only if they respect boundaries and have self-control. So alongside character, there has to be cadre.

When I tell her about the expression "MILF" ("Mom I'd like to Fuck"), she thinks it's hilarious. There's no French-language equivalent. In France, there's no a priori reason why a woman wouldn't be sexy just because she happens to have children. It's not uncommon to hear a Frenchman say that being a mother gives a woman an appealing air of plentitude (happiness and fulness of spirit).

Within a few hours of meeting him, I realized that "love at first sight" just means feeling immediately and extremely calm with someone.

Yet the French have managed to be involved without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there's no need to feel guilty about this. "For me, the evenings are for the parents." one Parisian mother tells me. "My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it's adult time.

You don’t say, “I’m sorry,”’ he says. ‘Getting injections, and experiencing pain, is part of life. There’s no reason to apologize for that.’ He seems to be channelling Rousseau, who said, ‘If by too much care you spare them every kind of discomfort, you are preparing great miseries for them.’ (I’m not sure what Rousseau thought about suppositories.)