Shall I take some parenting advice from the French?

Maybe it’s due to the heatwave or end of term but Ed’s behaviour has taken a bit of a nosedive! He’s generally pretty good and I’m often posting angelic pictures of him but, of course that is not always the whole story.

This morning for example, as we were getting ready to go out, Ed had a tantrum as he didn’t want to wear the shorts I chose. My husband, (who is away!) always follows through with a decision (very French it turns out) and Ed would have to wear them. I decided to follow through too, meaning that I had to get Ed in the car while screaming, (probably waking up the whole street!) throw in the shorts behind him and drive off. It took a good 30 minutes for him to calm down.

Admittedly, things get a bit more ‘relaxed’ when I’m in charge: eating in front of the TV or I might not challenge Ed if he doesn’t say thank you etc. My husband is much ‘stricter’ than me and I admire this but have cringingly said to Ed, ‘I’ll tell Daddy.’ So, we’ve decided to crack down on a few things – playing quietly in his room when he wakes up (this didn’t work this morning and with Daddy away he came in to my room at 5.30!) eating only at the table, being polite etc.

Like most parents, I’ve read a few books over the years about raising children and usually pick and choose the advice. I decided to have a read of Pamela Druckerman’s ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’ to see if anything inspired me.

When American Pamela Druckerman moved to Paris with her British husband she was surprised how French children acted in restaurants, ‘There just seems to be an invisible civilizing force at their tables.’ She believes there is a very different parenting philosophy in France and has done her research by observing and talking to parents. She also spoke to French and American paediatrics and read books by renowned French parenting ‘gurus’ from Rousseau to Dolto.

In her introduction, Druckerman notices that French living rooms, ‘haven’t been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens.’ Also, that, ‘French kids don’t snack’ and ‘When French friends visit, we grown ups have coffee and the children play happily by themselves.’

She believes that, UK and US parents are ‘paying more attention to the upbringing of children than can be possibly good for them.’ She adds that, ‘France is the perfect foil for the current anxieties in British and American parenting.’ French mums are more physically separate from their children – from about the age of three, French parties are ‘drop-offs’ French parenting guru Francoise Dolto asks, ‘Why does a mother do everything for her child?’ In our culture there is too much guilt whereas French women realise that ‘the perfect mother doesn’t exist.’

What follows is a summary of observations and advice from her book. Whether I believe it or plan to take some advice from the French…’On verra!’:

Attitudes to Pregnancy and Birth

‘We (UK and US mothers) typically demonstrate our commitment by worrying and by showing how much we’re willing to sacrifice even while pregnant. French women signal their commitment by projecting calm and flaunting the fact that they haven’t renounced pleasure.’

‘In France, the way you give birth doesn’t situate you within a value system or define the sort of parent you’ll be.’ In France more women have epidurals whereas in England, mothers who ‘deliver naturally’ (without an epidural) ‘strut around like war heroes.’

Sleeping Through the Night – ‘The Pause’

After speaking to mothers, Druckerman was still left in the dark about why most French children slept through the night at only a few months old. She spoke to a famous French paediatric who advices, ‘When your baby is born, just don’t jump on your kid at night.’ ‘Give your baby a chance to self-soothe. Don’t automatically respond, even from birth.’

Apparently, it’s normal for babies to cry a bit when they’re learning to connect with sleep cycles – It’s not necessarily a demand for food or distress. Using, ‘The Pause’ in the first two months means that a baby can learn to fall back to sleep on their own. ‘That means parents don’t have to resort to ‘crying it out’ later on.’

Another reason for ‘The Pause’ is to teach them patience. They have to learn to cope with some frustration. French parents know about sleep cycles – 50-60% of babies sleep is ‘agitated sleep’ – so ‘before we assume that our own children sleep like no others, we should probably think about science.’


‘Whenever I go to Britain or the US, I realise that miserable, screaming toddlers are just part of the scenery of daily life.’ But French children are taught delayed gratification as it can improve the way we deal with stress.

We should encourage children to play on their own – when the child is playing, then leave them alone. ‘In the US it seemed like the kids were in charge. It’s a basic thing to have needs and desires but, ‘learning how to cope with frustration turns them into happier, more resilient people.’


Along with waiting for attention from their parents, French children are also used to waiting for food. Druckerman’s research found that most parents feed their babies and children at 8am, 12pm, 4pm and 8pm – roughly the same times as adults.

In French creches the menu is often lunch in four courses with seasonal fresh food. ‘The children eat with gusto.’ In the UK/US ‘Kids menus have practically identical offerings.’ ‘The reigning view seems to be that kids have finicky limited palates’ but ‘this belief is self-fulfilling.’

The answer she says is: perseverance with food. Continue to offer a range of tastes and textures and talk to children about the food. ‘If you keep trying things you eventually come around to liking most of them.’ The French consider ‘chocolate as just another food group.’ No food should be classed as ‘bad’ or ‘good.’

Swimming Lessons

When learning things, the American/UK question is often, ‘How can we speed these stages up?’ ‘We assign ourselves the job of pushing, stimulating and urging our kids from one developmental stage to the next.’ Apparently, swimming lessons in France for babies and young children are simply ‘getting them used to the water.’


Always a contentious subject, Druckerman observes that for UK/US mothers, ‘The length of time that we breastfeed is a measure of performance.’ French mothers don’t breastfeed as much. However, ‘French mothers may be relaxed about breastfeeding but they aren’t relaxed about getting back in shape after they give birth.’ Again, a contentious issue! But Druckerman believes that, ‘Among Anglophones, there can actually be peer pressure to stay frumpy.’

Saying Bonjour

This is something I found really interesting – French parents teach their children to say a meaningful hello ‘Bonjour’ to people. In France, ‘It isn’t accepted that kids can have this shadowy presence.’ ‘Greeting someone is essentially recognising someone as a person.’ Both for the kids and the adults.


Can feel ‘disempowered’ by ‘elaborate rules.’ For French women, ‘their unhappiness doesn’t manifest as rage against their partners.’ French women accept that there are differences between the sexes. ‘French women don’t harp on men about their shortcomings or mistakes. So, the men aren’t demoralised.’ She suggests that we should drop the hope of fifty-fifty equality. (So, maybe I’ll try to hold my tongue when my husband gets home from his weekend away soon!)

It’s Me Who Decides

The French way is to be, ‘certain about your authority.’ In the UK/US ‘children are like, ‘little Gods’ or ‘child kings.’ French people say, ‘It’s easier to loosen the screw than to tighten the screw.’

But instead of just saying ‘no’ and ‘don’t’ all the time, try, ‘you don’t have the right to do ….’ ‘I don’t agree with you…’ The French believe that, instead of viewing this as ‘discipline’ think of it as ‘education.’ ‘It’s about gradually teaching children what’s acceptable and what’s not.’

‘The current trend in parenting is to shield children from emotional and physical discomfort. But many French people, including their experts believe that they should be ‘autonomous as early as possible’ and that ‘children shouldn’t be given unconditional praise.’

2 thoughts on “Shall I take some parenting advice from the French?

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  1. Interesting ideas. I went to a very old fashioned pre prep school (in UK) as a young child and a lot of this reminds me of the Victorian values instilled in us there. I’m saying there was anything wrong with it; it certainly taught us ‘manners’ but there was definitely an undertone of fear of adults/authority that still creeps in to my consciousness as an adult :-/

  2. All very interesting. As I have worked in France for 16 years and holidayed many times I agree with much written above. To put it in a ‘nutshell’ the French parents expect their children to fit in with their life…and eating habits.. they do not make having children change their way of life. So for example kids are often seen out late at night in pushchairs or eating at restaurants. Although to be fair in recent years aided by smart phones at the table. And yes even the chavvy French kids appear happy to say ‘Bonjour’ with a smile of their face.
    Personal example: Many years ago we took our very small grandchildren skiing in France. We stayed at an hotel with half board, so evening meal was around 8pm. Can you imagine that 3 and 5 year olds would sit through a prolonged 3 course meal. Well not a chance I thought. But hey by about the third day there they were patiently waiting for their food. Good exercise and lack of snacks and of course being heavily outnumbered by loud noisy adults did the trick. Infact they had merged in to our life and all the better for it, as of course they knew the pecking order.
    I do think us Brits over indulge our children and thus they believe that love comes in the form of ‘things’ rather than just being there, Being a kind jolly mummy and daddy who enjoy a nice meal, a glass of wine, and expect their kids to join in their life seems the way forward.

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