Q and A with Pamela Druckerman, Author of ‘Bebe Day by Day’

Here is the thing about “French parenting”: many of us, people who will never, ever look good with a scarf tied around our necks, can get just a little defensive when the French are held up as an example.

And here is the other thing: if “French parenting” really is the advice distilled by Pamela Druckerman, Karen Le Billon and (in a forthcoming book) Catherine Crawford, then it sounds pretty good. Who wouldn’t want to be a society of “good sleepers, gourmet eaters, and mostly calm parents?”

That’s from the book jacket of Pamela Druckerman’s a short guide to the world she introduced (and described being blindsided by) in “Bringing Up Bébé.” When I saw that there was more to be said on the topic of French parents, I had questions. Pamela, by phone from Paris, had answers. I have no idea if she was wearing an expertly tied scarf.

I was inspired by “Food Rules,” the distilled version of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” After I wrote the first book, I got letters — people asked for something that was a little more instructive. People said, “I’m a new mom, I barely made it through the book the first time,” or “I want to give it to a friend, or my husband, or my mother.” I just wanted to cut out the back story and the voyage and distill the advice.

Mostly I’m just disappointed, because everybody is doing it just exactly right and I think, oh, I didn’t need to write this book after all … I mean, I do see differences. But it’s not about judging other people. Really, all the American impulses I describe in the book are deeply embedded in me. I do realize that things are different in France, and I see how easy it would be, if I moved back, to slip into the American way of doing things.

When we’re in the U.S., my kids instantly start snacking all the time. I don’t know how it happens. There is just more food available all the time. There aren’t all these little different varieties of snack foods in France.

There’s just a general assumption, that we’re really starting to doubt, that being focused on your kids all the time is good. That’s why my book resonates, I think — there’s a growing conversation here around whether it’s good for kids to be the focus of everything, and the French take it for granted that it’s not. So there’s this idea there that we can strive for — the idea that kids can adjust to their parents’ needs, too. Plenty of American parents know that, but the sacrificial approach is really validated, and we’re very outcomes oriented, so we don’t talk as much about the quality of the years you’re going to spend under the same roof as we do about what you do to get to a certain outcome.

A lot of these things are things that people already know, or already doing. I think people liked it because it was validating, and just a reminder. I mean, honestly, since I got the book in hard copy, sometimes I flip through it and I’ll see something and go oh, yeah, I need to be doing that! I need to be working on that!

Like, don’t let the kids interrupt, and conversely, you shouldn’t interrupt them. It’s a small change, that you can make that, for me, at least, over time radically changed my quality of life. I think kids in France, and certainly in my household, don’t necessarily stop interrupting when you tell them, but they gradually become more aware of other people and that means that you can have the expectation of finishing a conversation. And not being able to finish a conversation or a thought or a cup of coffee is a frequent problem that people in America take for granted is not going to go away.

Not on that one. It’s just so taken for granted here. The French would say it’s so banal.

There’s other things in the book, like teaching kids patience and exposing them to frustration, that the French do worry about, and write about in parenting magazines. I don’t at all mean to imply that all French kids are perfectly behaved, because they aren’t. But some things that are the norm in a American household, like letting children customize what they have for dinner, or there are so many extracurricular activities that the family can’t spend any time together — in France, those things would be seen as a problem.

Rule number 82. Your Bedroom Is Your Castle. Because I love sleep. And because it’s a really simple thing that over time works. And I like it — I quote a friend; she said, “My parents’ room was a sacred place, different from the rest of the house. You didn’t just walk in, you had to have a good reason. Between them there was an obvious pleasure that implied something unknown for us, the children.” It’s important for a child to understand that there’s a part of your parents’ lives that doesn’t involve them.

Keys. I don’t like rules, because rules you have to follow. Keys. I like 61, “Cope Calmly With Tantrums.” I worked really hard on that one, because it’s something I didn’t really talk about in my first book, and I got so many letters — “What do I do when my kid has a meltdown? What’s the secret French recipe for coping with that?”

And the last thing I would want to say is that the French would say there are no recipes — no rules. Because your child is changing all the time. You just — you digest these ideas, and you use them in the way that works right for you and your family. And I hope that comes across in the way I wrote this. There are no rules.

Strange. I’m always hoping no one is following me around with a camera.

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