A Review of Four Years of French Parenting

My three-year-old pranced into the dining room and took a look at our plates. “Are we having RADISHES?!” she asked.

“Yep,” I said.

She tore off through the house. “GUYS! WE’RE HAVING RADISHES FOR DINNER!”

This was pitched to the extreme degree of delight that only a highly sanguine three-year-old can muster.

I share this illustration to show some of the fruit of having read Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé and Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything early in my parenting career. (Another anecdote: my friend used the same books to wean her strong-willed toddler from refusing all sustenance but crackers and fruit; by age four, he was eating whatever they ate.)

I grew up extremely limited by my stubborn and absolute refusal to eat salad, radishes, beans, onions, bell peppers, any form of nut, any condiment. Added to this history, my personal strategy for helping kids learn to eat was something like the Beast’s“You don’t like it? Then GO AHEAD AND STAAAAAAARVE!”

So when my kids consume all the above foods gladly and on a regular basis, I know I owe an untold debt to these two books.

I discovered French parenting by reading this life-changing article while pregnant with our second—and crying with joy and relief. From Facebook posts I had warped in my head, I thought that all parents were supposed to sacrifice their sanity on the altar of childhood. But Druckerman’s article showed a style of parenting in which kids could be enjoyed—not as relentless taskmasters, but as members of a functional family, and it gave me hope.

So I read these two books and, though I’d never before been a Francophile (I’m more the Anglo- kind), fell in love with the ideas. I applied them as best I could, and almost five years later, here are the pros and cons that I can see from having done so.

PROS

Eating. In France, there’s no such thing as “kids’ food,” so kids eat whatever parents eat and learn to like it. That translates to no short order cooking, no fights over meals, and no child who drives her friends’ parents crazy because of her suspicion of spaghetti sauce that looks “different” (ahem. That was also me). I valued mealtimes and didn’t want them to become fights, so this paradigm really appealed to me.

The French food rule is, “You don’t have to like everything, but you do have to try it, and you don’t get anything else.” This is always delivered pleasantly. If the food is tasted and refused, parents simply remove it with no fuss, saying, “You’ll learn to like it when you’re older.” This introduces the concept that I think we may have forgotten in our country (or was it just me?): tastes can be acquired.

Also, no snacks except for a planned, sit-down one in the middle of the day: they’ll be hungry if they use their right to refuse. Generally they choose to eat the food rather than wait for breakfast the next morning.

The results? Delivered as promised. Asparagus, cauliflower, fish, poached eggs—all are enjoyed. More than that, my kids are always game to try new things (octopus or oysters at a restaurant? SURE!). I repeat, this would not have happened without these two authors in my life. I did what they told me to do, and it worked!

The world and what it does not revolve around. Perhaps the most-needed idea I absorbed from these books is that the children can contribute to the family’s function–not pause or usurp it–from a very early age.

In France, children are expected to know that the family has needs outside of them (like “Mommy and Daddy need sleep”) and that they, even at their young ages, must contribute as they can to its needs. A practical upshot of this mindset is that most French babies sleep through the night by 2 months old. I have high praise for French sleep training, because the two babies who came after I read these books are STILL better sleepers than the firstborn, with whom I just “figured it out.”

I really like this for my kids, not only for Mommy’s self-care, but also because it takes a little step toward developing empathy.

CONS

“Kid Food.” French food training had an unintended side effect: my kids were reluctant to eat “kid food.” Chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, even pizza—all of these took a while for them to like. Now, this may be more of a pro to some of my readers, but it can make birthday parties awkward.

Though strangely, none of my kids ever had trouble with cake…

They’re coming along just fine with most “kid foods” now that they’re older, but it did teach me something: “kid foods” are just as much an acquired taste as bleu cheese (which my three-year-old LOVES, by the way—she calls it “strong cheese”).

Technique. The biggest con of French parenting, for me, is that it made me trust TOO much in a technique. Yes, it’s a highly effective technique—but the older my kids get, the more I realize that everything about sensitive parenting defies technique, and the more I try to force one method to work out, the more miserable I will be.

For example, I used to ask parents of siblings, “What do you do if one of them won’t share?”

They would shrug. “It depends.”

This always baffled me. I wanted a tried-and-true verbiage-plus-consequence stamp for each kind of infraction. Of course, now I also shrug and say “It depends.” It depends on the kid, the situation, the provocateur, the previous behavioral patterns, how much sleep everyone had, and how close it is to lunchtime.

When I try to stamp any one moment with my “pre-set plan,” usually that’s when everyone gets the most frustrated. And unfortunately, French parenting became my pre-set.

These books, because of what they are, can only provide principles. It was I who turned them into stamps. I would initially get stressed when my three-year-old resisted miso soup. I would fret that, in America, we don’t have all the cultural infrastructure in place to support these techniques. I would get inordinately frustrated when one of my kids behaved badly at a restaurant (“French kids don’t do this! What am I doing wrong?!”).

Technique-driven parenting led me to forget for a time that my kids’ biggest problem is not food training. It is the capacity for evil inside their hearts. No technique can ever root that out. Only grace can. Only a Person can. There’s no technique that can develop that relationship; if it happens, it will not be because they ate bleu cheese.

Overall, the benefits of French parenting have far outweighed the negatives. If nothing else, French parenting has taught me that the way “everyone parents” in my community isn’t how I have to do it. It’s also taught me to learn from other cultures about parenting, like from this article about Latin American kids helping more with chores than ours do. There are entire countries who think differently than our mom groups, whether we’re discussing gluten or formula or discipline or swaddling. And that knowledge is very freeing, no matter what your parenting style is.

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2 thoughts on “A Review of Four Years of French Parenting

  1. Hi Shannon,

    This article is extremely encouraging! We are about one month away from having our first child. I read Druckerman’s book and the principles all made sense to me, and my husband and I are planning to implement the advice about the “cadre” and mealtimes, among other things. So it’s great to hear this actually works in real life!

    I love your blog by the way! Keep up the excellent work!

    Like

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