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How the Wisdom of French Parenting Is Changing My Life

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French Peasants Finding Their Stolen Child by Philip Hermogenes CalderonEven at one and a half, Thomas is his own person. And he’ll make sure you know it, too. He has to try everything for himself first, before he’ll let anyone help him. (When given the chance, he tries to change his own diaper by putting on a new one over his pants.) He wants to do everything Adam and I do, down to cleaning and cooking. And he wants to make choices for himself.

While it’s wonderful getting to know our son a little better every day, this willfulness was taking its toll. We wondered, “Where is the line between helping Thomas and enabling his bad behavior?”—and “Are we turning our child into a spoiled brat?”

That’s when I turned to Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman. I assumed the book would be a step-by-step parenting guide like What to Expect. Instead, I found a heartfelt memoir about the experiences of an American parent raising her children. I was deeply touched by the story and I wanted to make the vision she shared part of our family, too.

What makes Bringing Up Bébé so special?

To be completely up-front, I know that “the wisdom of French parenting” alone won’t solve all my problems or cure my depression. (In fact, France has the second-highest level of diagnosed depression–after the U.S.) But the book gave me two gifts that are already making me a better, happier person.

First of all, Bringing Up Bébé reminded me that I have needs, too—and that’s okay. While being a parent requires a certain amount of sacrifice, my family is happier when my need to have some time to myself and my desire to feel beautiful are satisfied. Being a mother doesn’t have to mean being a perpetual martyr.

Secondly, the book validated the instincts Adam and I have had about parenting all along. My father-in-law likes to say that a parent’s job is to make himself obsolete. We help Thomas learn to do the things he wants to do, even if that means watching in horror when he burns himself helping me cook. (He now knows how to make PB&J and scramble and egg, and he is much more attentive around the oven.) It isn’t that I believe everything I read in books is true, but having a book support my gut feeling took away the guilt of parenting differently than many of my friends.

What exactly is “the Wisdom” of French parenting?

Bringing Up Bébé boils down to three main principles:


The cadre is the basic structure of a family: everything from routine and structure to deeply held religious and philosophical beliefs. When a family has a clear cadre, they share a common vision of what life can and ought to be like—even when it falls short of the ideal.

As a teacher, I can vouch for the importance of cadre for all school-age children. Kids want to behave when they know that their good behavior is for a reason, that their actions contribute to the well-being of a group. And they thrive in classrooms and homes when they know they’re a part of a community.

A key feature of the cadre is équilibre for every member of the family. We all have needs, desires, and aspirations. A mother’s need for time alone is no less meaningful than a toddler’s desire for attention. Sooner or later, we all have to learn that sometimes other people come first. When a child learns it sooner, it helps him understand that he is a member of a family instead of the center of it.

Sage—Wise and calm

French parents don’t tell their children to “be good,” an innate judgement of a child’s value. Instead, they tell their children to be sage. A small child may find it difficult to know whether an individual choice is good or bad in abstract sense. (In fact, the skill of discernment takes a lifetime to learn!) Instead, sage asks a child to measure his actions against an objective standard. Are his choices wise? Are they calm? Even small children can learn to recognize when they are in control of themselves.


In the classical sense, discipline and éducation are the same idea. (Discipline comes from the Latin discipulus, or student.) Whether we call it éducation or discipline, a child’s upbringing helps him slowly learn habits for the way he views and acts in the world.

Of course, when most of us speak about discipline we actually mean punishment, a sometimes-arbitrary comeuppance for things we do wrong. (Meriam-Webster On-Line actually claims that the older use of discipline as instruction is obsolete.) Éducation preserves the sense that parents and educators discipline children for a reason, with a clear goal in mind–to help kids become better, happier people.

The French éducation rests on a few basic ideas:

  • Complicité—Complicity. The notion that, even from the earliest days of an infant’s life, a child and parent work together to help him grow into a sage individual.
  • Attend—Wait, stop. A phrase parents use to ask their children to put their needs on hold for just a minute because they need to value others’ needs, too. Attend literally means to pay attention, to be mindful of the people and events around you.
  • Doucement—Gently, carefully. A phrase parents use to remind their children they can control themselves and their actions.
  • Autonoime—Autonomy. The idea that children are ultimately happiest when they learn to do things by themselves. Parents should not cultivate co-dependence by doing everything for their children.

There is no secret formula for great parenting. French parenting works, in part, because the French have a widely shared vision of “Frenchness” that they promote through subsidized daycares and preschools and a single, nation-wide school curriculum. Even then, French parenting isn’t problem-free. There are some times French mothers choose their desires over their children’s needs, particularly when it comes to breast-feeding.

Nevertheless, Bringing Up Bébé makes a strong case for more thoughtful parenting by balancing a family’s needs and consciously promoting shared family values. I cannot recommend it highly enough as a memoir or as inspiration for moms starting out a self-rejuvenation project like Twelve Months to a Better Woman.

Month 1Interested in reading Bringing Up Bébé for yourself? Leave a comment by Friday, January 11 for a chance to win an eBook copy. Keep following along with Twelve Months to a Better woman and January, our month of self-care. Be sure you check out the first post in this series to get involved.

16 responses »

  1. I have wanted to read this book for a while. I am still trying to find the balance. I tend to be more erring on the independent side versus the kids ruling the roost.. I need to spend quality time with my kids too.

  2. I heard a lot of controversy and criticism of this book a few months ago and, being very skeptical of parenting books, I avoided it. However, I like the points outlined above, especially the idea of “being sage” as opposed to being good. I always feel awkward with that phrase because good is such a nebulous concept for little ones and holds so much power as a value statement. I had students who truly believed they were bad people because they couldn’t “be good.” Now I’m curious to check the book out!

    • I LOVE that this book isn’t a parenting book. It’s just a memoir describing what one woman likes and dislikes the parenting she observes in France. No research. No advice. Just description.

  3. I’m still looking for balance. I tend to be the martyred parent, and am just now (after 7 kids), agreeing that my husband is right, and I (and he) need to be first sometimes. Homeschooling also, I feel as though my world has become all children, all the time, and that has taken a serious toll on myself and my marriage, obviously!

    My first step has been (just this week, in fact!) to tell the kids that they have 2 days to remove ALL of their toys from the public areas of the house. Bedrooms only. Can you imagine walking across the living room without incurring damage from a lego or a Barbie shoe? 😉 My threat is that any toy I find from here on out is either doomed to the garbage, or the local thrift store.

    • I’m curious to hear how your experiment went!

      It must be really tough to take time for yourself and your husband with seven kids at home. I wish you all the best.

      • So far, so good! I think they saw the (let’s call it resolution) in my eyes. It’s quite a victory, especially with Christmas so recently. Now if I can keep it that way… 😀

  4. I have also been wanting to read this book, and I don’t even have children yet. It sounds like a more peaceful way to parent.

    • I don’t know how peaceful it is. We still have a fair amount of conflict with Thomas just trying to establish boundaries. But it’s nice to preserve my sense of self and an identity that includes more than being a mom.

    • Toddlers and peace are antithetical to each other. 🙂

  5. I’ve had this on my TBR list for awhile, after reading another thoughtful review. You’ve reminded me that I need to get to it sooner instead of letting it linger on my list forever.

  6. I really enjoyed this book…of course, I used to be a French teacher and I lived in France for a year so I was a tad biased, but still…I found that much of the French attitude toward parenting really resonated with me (not the low rate of breastfeeding though). There are no perfect parenting methods, but I think many American parents could learn some good lessons from this book.

    • As a teacher, I struggle to cope with parents who try to fight their middle and high schoolers’ battles for them. I want their students to be competent and independent, but it’s hard to communicate to parents how they’re cultivating co-dependence with their kids.

  7. The idea that mothers have needs and should devote some time and energy to meeting those needs is so important, but so often neglected. I think that if women learned to put themselves (and also their marriages) above the wants/desires/demands (as opposed to true needs) of their children, many marriage and family stresses and problems would resolve themselves.


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