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'Bébé' Author Talks French Parenting

In her memoir Bringing Up Bébé, American journalist and Paris mom Pamela Druckerman pulled back the (no doubt chic) Parisian curtain and let U.S. moms in on a few parenting secrets. If you've ever wondered why French kids eat a variety of foods or rarely interrupt their parents, Druckerman revealed what she learned as an American mom living in Paris.

Druckerman's latest book, Bébé Day by Day, to be published Feb. 12, gives us the lowdown on her top 100 parenting principles she's learned from les Parisiens, from day care recipes to bedtime philosophies.

Are French kids perfect? In this Q&A, Druckerman gives us the answers.

You’ve written a new book. Why? What’s in it?

Bébé Day by Day is the offspring (the bébé, if you will) of my previous book, Bringing up Bébé. The first was a journalistic memoir describing how I stumbled upon French parenting, then attempted to apply some of its ideas in my own family. In the new book, I’ve distilled what I hope are the 100 smartest and sanest principles and tips I’ve learned from the French. Alongside the 100 keys are drawings (by the fabulous French illustrator Margaux Motin) and delicious recipes from Parisian day cares. Even I can make the from-scratch chocolate cake.

I decided to write the new book, because after Bringing Up Bébé was published I received many letters from readers asking for more specifics, or for a kind of manual that they could give to spouses, grandparents and babysitters. Some told that me they’d dog-eared and highlighted BUB, and that they’d like to have all the main points in one place. What they were very politely saying was: with all due respect to your personal journey, we’d like to know what to do!

What is the wisdom of French parenting?

The French believe that it’s important to be very strict about a few key things, but then to give kids as much freedom as possible about the rest. You can really see this at bedtime. Many French parents tell me that at bedtime, their children must stay in their rooms. But within their rooms, they can do what they want.

I introduced this concept to my daughter, and she really liked it. She didn’t focus on the fact that she’s confined to her room. Instead she kept saying, proudly, “I can do whatever I want.” She usually plays or reads for a while, then puts herself to bed. The French don’t try to micromanage their children’s lives, and they aren’t scheming from the crib to get the baby into Harvard one day. They give children a lot of autonomy; but what rules there are, the child has to obey. In my own experience, this fosters self-reliance and mindful behavior that I might never have imagined in such young children.

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What are the most important tips that parents should follow from French parents?

I wouldn’t say that parents should follow any of them. They’re not rules. They’re more like a framework to put parents more in the “French” mindset, and arm them to make decisions for themselves.

One of the book’s overarching ideas is that a household centered entirely on a child is no fun for parents, but it’s probably not even good for the child. One of the keys is: Don’t let your child interrupt you. When this happens in France (and of course it does), parents try to politely say, “I’m in the middle of speaking to someone, I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Notably, this is followed by an equally important key: Don’t interrupt your child (for instance, when he’s happily playing). In other words, the respect should be mutual. French parents believe that being able to cope with boredom and be absorbed in an activity and play is a valuable life skill, which strengthens with practice.

Which key is the most difficult int he book for you?

One of the principles in the section on authority is: “Sometimes your child will hate you.” The French believe that it’s your job as a parent is to sometimes say “no” and really mean it. When you do this, the child may get angry. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should concede, or that you’re doing something wrong. French parents try to be sympathetic to the child’s anger, without giving in. They don’t want to fall into a cycle of perpetual negotiations with a 5-year-old.

Of course, the French approach isn’t just about saying “no.” French experts say that kids need to learn to cope with frustration, but of course they also need lots of love and attention. And they need respect. Another equally important principle in the book is, “Say ‘yes’ as often as you can.” (I sometimes have trouble with this one too, but everything tends to flow better when I apply it.)

So French kids are perfect?

Of course not! And French parents, themselves, don’t follow all the principles in the book. But it’s what they aim for. The 100 keys do sum up the middle-class conventional wisdom in France. It’s what parents generally aim to do, and what parenting magazines, psychologists, day care workers and experts generally say they should do. There are households in France where kids really rule the roost, but the French consider this a big problem. They call these children “child kings.”

RELATED: French Kids Eat Everything!

What about French mothers? Are they all impossibly chic?

Well they do tend to be skinnier, especially in Paris. There’s a lot of social pressure to lose the baby weight by three months postpartum. But what impresses me about French moms is that they manage to reclaim their pre-baby identities. My French girlfriends think the expressions “Milf” and “yummy mummy” are hilarious. In France there’s no reason why a woman wouldn’t be sexy, just because she happens to have kids. And they believe that after the hectic first few months, the mother and father should “find their couple” again. Another of the keys in the new book is, “Your baby doesn’t replace your husband.” I quote a French psychologist who says, “The family is based on the couple. If it exists only through the children, it withers.”

Talk to us about cooking with your children. Do you create weekly menus?

Gosh no. I tend to improvise. I usually dash to the supermarket or a food shop at the end of the day, looking for inspiration. But my guiding principle is a French one: variety; i.e., not falling into a pasta-and-red-sauce rut. French parents believe that if a child is used to eating all kinds of foods, she’ll be more likely to eat a balanced diet. They also think it’s more social: you can take her anywhere, and she’ll find something she likes. Above all, they’re convinced that a child’s world expands as she discovers different tastes, and that it’s their role as parents to lead her on this journey. You’ve got to admit it’s a nice idea.

The French way of parenting does seem to produce a calmer, higher quality of life for the parents. But what about the children? Well-behaved doesn't necessarily mean well-adjusted and happy, right?

I would never have written either Bébé book if I thought the French way of parenting made children joyless and obedient. French kids are just as boisterous and playful as the Anglophone kids I know. But in my experience, they’re generally more even-keeled. They can hear “no” without collapsing. In the many dozens of hours I’ve clocked at French playgrounds, I’ve rarely seen a child except my own throw a temper tantrum.

The other big lesson that French parents have taught me is that, sometimes, there’s nothing you can do. The perfect mother doesn’t exist. And that’s OK.

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