Are The French Outdoing Americans At Parenting?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, just in time for Valentine's Day, we will hear about the spiritual power of chocolate and we will talk with a pair of MIT-trained brother and sister chemical engineers who have turned their scientific minds to crafting the perfect cupcake. That's in just a few minutes.
But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for some common sense and savvy advice.
And for many Americans, having kids means surrendering to years of plastic toys littering the floors, tantrums interrupting meals and the demands of child rearing moving to the very center of family life.
Does it have to be like that? Well, one of our moms this week says weary American parents could do better by going French. Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist who lives in Paris. Her new book is "Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting." And it has set off something of a French-American war of words about child rearing.
Writer Pamela Druckerman joins us now. She's a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a mom of three, twin boys and a girl. Welcome, Pamela. Thanks so much for joining us.
PAMELA DRUCKERMAN: Thanks so much for having me on, Michel.
MARTIN: Also with us is Judith Warner. She is also an American journalist and she is also the author of another attention-getting book that compared the French and American parenting experience. You might remember it from 2005. It was called "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety." She and her husband have raised their two daughters in France and the United States. She's here with me in Washington, D.C. Judith, welcome to you.
JUDITH WARNER: Thank you.
MARTIN: And also with us, Mathieu Garcon. He is a French dad who's spent quite a lot of time in the States and he's a freelance photographer and he has two boys. Welcome to you, also. Thank you so much for joining us.
MATHIEU GARCON: Thank you very much and thank you for inviting me.
MARTIN: So, Pamela, you open the book with this very funny scene. At least, some of us thought it was funny. Maybe you didn't think it was so funny. It wasn't so funny at the time. You and your husband are on vacation with your then 18-month-old daughter and she's a hot mess. I mean, she's running out of the restaurant. She's throwing food. But you noticed that the French children were sitting still, eating whatever their parents gave them. So what did you conclude was the difference?
DRUCKERMAN: Well, from that moment, that was sort of the moment when I realized there's something different going on here. And then I started to think about all the other things that I'd seen in France. And it certainly isn't the case that no French children ever throw food or French children behave perfectly or that French moms do everything right.
But I started to notice that there really were some differences in daily life. For example, French mothers seemed to be able to sit down and have a cup of coffee with me when they came over with their kids to visit, whereas the American moms were sort of chasing their kids and resolving spats the whole time. And French moms were telling me that their kids could sleep through the night at two or three months old. Whereas with my American friends, it was nine months, a year old.
There seem to be this kind of guiding idea in France that there's a compromise between the parents and the children that the mother and the father don't have to readjust their lives completely around what the kids need. That children can learn to wait. They can learn to sit at the table. They can - there isn't as much of an emphasis on sort of building skills early. I mean, I didn't meet sort of parents who were anxious - French parents who were anxious for their kids to learn to read at two or three years old or even to swim.
There was more - just the whole backdrop for family life was a lot calmer. There's still, you know, in France, a lot of guilt, a lot of stress, but the volume is turned down on all of that.
And, for me, as an American, it was really kind of a revelation that so many things I had taken for granted, like the fact that my child would need to snack during the day quite a lot or that she would eat only kids' foods were completely upended by the experience that I had, sort of, little by little, discovering what goes on in France and kind of looking at scientific studies and just kind of gradually peeling back the layers. And I discovered that France has its own Dr. Spock.
DRUCKERMAN: Her name is Francoise Dolto.
MARTIN: Well, let's hold that thought for a minute there. Judith, you have a broader theory about the whole experience of being a parent in France and the United States that I want to talk about later. But I just want to ask, do you want to cosign - I just want to ask, do you cosign what Pamela says about the difference in French parenting styles just on the face of it? Since your girls were born in France, do you think - is what she's saying true?
WARNER: I think it is true. I had, in a sense, the opposite experience as Pamela, in that what happened in France was considered normal for me because that's all I knew. That's where I had my children. That's where my friends started having children. Those were the ages that I was there, so I didn't really have the experience of American parenting beforehand.
And then I came here and was really shocked by the way that children didn't listen to adults, by the way - the same thing always strikes people, I think, is the snacking, the eating all day and just the general chaos and the takeover of adult life by children.
MARTIN: Mathieu, save us here. You are French.
MARTIN: And despite your French parenting skills, you actually had a similar scene to Pamela's in a restaurant with one of your sons where...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: I don't know that he was throwing food, but he - what? Got stuck behind a table or you had to pull him out by his feet or...
GARCON: Yeah, right. Well, you know, most of the time, I tried not to take my kids to the restaurant because I considered that - I don't want to educate them at the restaurant. I want to speak with my friends. And when I have, you know, the kids with me, I usually take care of them or, you know, so I do not spend the time I would like to spend with my friends.
So, once I was in the restaurant and my son got lost and he started screaming, but no one knew where he was. And he was screaming and screaming and, actually, he was stuck behind the wall. So, I had to move the table - actually, seven tables - and I have to apologize to the whole restaurant because, you know, the kid was just behind the wall. I don't know how he got there. But anyway, he was stuck, so we have to pull it out - pull it out by the legs and it was so funny, actually. But - well, the thing is that, you know...
MARTIN: It's funny now, but...
GARCON: You know - yeah, it's funny now. Right?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: So what happened? Did we contaminate you by all your time in the states? Apparently, you studied. So did you lose your mojo or something or does this raise the question - and I'll ask everyone this. Is the issue that children are just not as present in the public sphere in France? It just isn't the done thing to take your children to fancy restaurants and places like that where adults would generally gather? Mathieu, is that your sense that part of it is that there are more adult spaces?
MARTIN: That Americans think it's a bigger deal to take their kids everywhere?
GARCON: Well, that's right. I don't take my kids to the restaurant, usually, and specifically to the fancy restaurants. But, anyway, it's a time I want to share with my friends or with my wife. And kids are, you know, they will have time to go to the restaurants. And I know, from my experience, from my kids' experience, that they get bored, you know, after five minutes, after their plates, their dishes. I mean, they don't want to finish it. They don't want to - you know, they get bored. They want to just get up and move around and that's impossible. So, I usually don't take my kids and that's it.
GARCON: So, you know, I go with them...
MARTIN: And that's it.
GARCON: ...to the McDonald's restaurant, but that's it.
MARTIN: Oh, no.
DRUCKERMAN: I think that's why it took me until my...
MARTIN: OK. Pamela, I was going to ask you that. Pamela, what do you think? But you have a feeling it's not so much just the kids are banished, but that French parents have a different attitude about the role that children are supposed to play in the family.
DRUCKERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think that's why it took until my daughter was a year and a half 'til I had this revelation about restaurants because I hadn't actually taken her to a restaurant, because I think Mathieu's point is very well taken. And it's something that I saw in a lot of parents that French parents really believe that there is adult time and that they're entitled to take time to themselves, evenings to themselves.
You know, I had French parents tell me they're very strict about bedtimes, of course. They don't want to have this prolonged back-and-forth, one more story, one more song, because they believe that, you know, without guilt, that they're entitled to have evenings to themselves. And I met French parents who, sort of without any guilt, told me they took holidays, vacations by themselves and just mothers would tell me they take time out when - little pockets of time - whenever they can, whether it's sort of when their kids are playing in the park. They're less likely - you know, if you go to a French playground, the parents are sitting on the sidelines and the kids are playing.
And it's not just - and I think - I hope Mathieu will agree with me on this. It's not just selfishness, although it...
GARCON: No, no.
DRUCKERMAN: ...is slightly selfish. It's a belief that cultivating independence and autonomy in children and ability to play by yourself and to not be bored and to cope with frustration is an essential life skill. And knowing that your parents have a life of their own is important for children, because they know that there are other people in the world. It kind of rescues them from their natural self-centeredness.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new book, "Bringing Up Bebe," by American journalist, Pamela Druckerman. We are talking about the premise that maybe French parents have something to teach Americans about, not just about cheese and croissants, but about parenting, as well.
Pamela Druckerman is with us. Also with us is Mathieu Garcon. He's a French dad of two sons. He's spent a lot of time in the States, so we're interested in his perspective on this. He's also a freelance photographer. Judith Warner is also with us, mom of two. She also wrote a very attention-getting book in 2005 called "Perfect Madness."
Judith, you made the point in that book that one thing that's very different between the two countries is the amount of government support that parents get - all parents, not just the few. That French parents have more paid time off, free or low cost child care and preschool. There are stipends for having children. I don't whether all of these supports have persisted in the face of kind of the worldwide economic difficulties.
But do you think that part of is that - I don't what's the chicken and what's the egg. Maybe the reason that there are all those government supports for parents is that they do believe that parents need their own things. Or is there just a different - you know, what's behind that. But there are Americans - you can hear them saying, well, you know, I'd be more relaxed and having coffee, too, if I didn't have to worry about, you know, college tuitions, you know, 20 years down the line. What's your take on that?
WARNER: I think it's a combination of all of that. I mean, the family supports started in the first place as a pro-natalist policy to get women to have more children. But French society actually evolved with the times in the 1970s. As women moved into the workforce and started having careers, not just jobs, society actually embraced this.
And this whole idea that you're supposed to remain yourself once you have children, that you're not supposed to be entirely defined and taken over by your children really speaks itself through the social policy, as well, because they make it possible for women to be able to be mothers and have their professional lives and kind of keep the two going together and not be forced into the draconian choices that we face so often in the United States.
MARTIN: But your argument, too, is that you feel that there's just a sort of competitiveness that people pour into their children in this country. The idea that it's - if I remember - the argument that it's kind of winner take all here and your kids have to be ready. And that's kind of your job as a middle class parent is to get your kid ready for battle.
WARNER: I think that's absolutely right. I think that's been very strong here for a long time now. I do think, however, that that's coming to France, that it has come to France, that in the years of economic difficulty that we've had recently, even going back further than just the current downturn, the same sorts of trends that we've seen here of income bifurcation and sort of greater competition for fewer resources has also been going on in France. And what I've noticed going back in summers is that the competition is growing. The sort of worry about how kids perform is growing.
MARTIN: Mathieu, would you think that that's true? Do you feel that that's - in part, that there has been a more relaxed attitude toward parenting, in part, because parents don't feel that life is a sweepstakes that has to be won and that you think perhaps given all the economic difficulties, perhaps that attitude is changing a bit?
GARCON: Yeah, that's right. You know, the challenge is more and more important because of the crisis. And so we are very concerned about our kids' career and studying. So, I believe that we have to be very close to them and very concerned about their work at school. So, the education is very - must be sharp and we must not leave them, you know, with no education, with no example, with nothing, which is the most important problem, you know, in some - somewhere in France, some districts in France.
There are some schools in France where the parents just left their kids with no education. So, I believe that, as the desperate house husband myself because my wife is a, you know, works a lot and she doesn't - the time I have at home, I take care of the homework at home and I take care of everything. And I want my kids to be - and my wife, of course - we want our kids to be, you know, very - the first - not to be the first, but the best - to have the best future for them.
MARTIN: Pamela, I'm going to give you the last word since it's your book here. So, I'm thinking that chicken nuggets are coming to a menu near you, possibly, given what Mathieu is sort of telling me. But given that, let's just say that that day has not yet arrived. What's your best advice for American parents who've been operating without the kind of context that you have there, where you are currently living in France? Are there ideas that you think you would share with your American friends who are living here?
DRUCKERMAN: Absolutely. I think, you know, some things are changing in France and there is pressure toward a more American-style parenting, but it hasn't arrived yet. And I think one stronghold in France - and this is something I talk about a lot in the book - is around food. And I would say the French style of making kids taste food many times, of serving vegetables first, serving food in courses, of only having one snack a day, really are things that you can do in any country. You know, it doesn't require lots of different cheeses, even, necessarily.
And, also, the French way of getting babies to sleep quickly through the night, which, you know, will sound, I think, very familiar to some American parents. We have so much advice and the French wisdom, in many cases, isn't coming up with something entirely new. It's honing in on the one - sort of editing, honing in on the one thing that really works and sticking with it in lots of different domains.
MARTIN: OK. Judith, I lied. I'm going to give you the last word because you've taken the French style here for a number of years now. How's it going? Is there something you still retain from your early years in France as you raise your kids?
WARNER: I still retain the 4:00 p.m. snack, which my mother found completely fascistic when we lived in France, the notion that you could only have your snack at one precise time each day. But it works and it sort of de-fetishizes sugar, because they have their sugar in a small quantity at one point in the day and then they don't pig out on it all day long.
So I think that Pamela is right to talk about diet since, obviously, obesity is such a problem in the United States, as well as eating disorders. I think that the French really do something right in their focus on balance in food, as in all things.
MARTIN: Judith Warner is the author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety." She's a mom of two and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Mathieu Garcon is a French dad of two. He's a freelance photographer. He was with us from a studio in Paris, along with Pamela Druckerman, author of "Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting," and she's a mom of three. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
WARNER: Thank you so much.
DRUCKERMAN: Thank you, Michel.
GARCON: Thank you.
MARTIN: And I'll hide my cupcake. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.