NEW YORK So youre visiting someones home with your child and hot chocolate is served. As the hostesss kids sip the delicious concoction politely and silently, your own little dear takes a gulp and promptly spits it back into the mug.
Admit it, parents: Something similar has happened to you.
But for Pamela Druckerman, an American mother in Paris, it wasnt just an isolated incident. That embarrassing moment with her daughter, Bean she would have kicked her under the table, but couldnt be sure which pair of legs were hers was one of many during her early years as a mother in France: years of fearing her children would act up, melt down or otherwise commit a serious faux pas at any moment.
Because, as Druckerman explains in her new book, Bringing Up Bebe, French children dont spit into their mugs. They dont have tantrums in the park, they dont shun their vegetables, they dont forget to say bonjour or au revoir, and they most certainly dont throw food (in fact, French Children Dont Throw Food is the books title in Britain.)
Are children in France born polite? Do they come out of the birth canal saying, Bonjour, Maman, and apologizing for the discomfort theyve just caused?
Clearly not, but Druckerman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, set out to determine just what French parents are doing right. Boosted by the fact that France and parenting are both subjects people love to talk about, Bringing Up Bebe, written in a winningly chatty and humorous style, debuted at No. 8 on The New York Times best-seller list earlier this month and hit No. 1 on The Sunday Times hardback nonfiction list in Britain.
The book has also drawn attention through comparison to Amy Chuas Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, last years provocative account of Eastern-style parenting. Chuas book was excerpted in The Wall Street Journal under the title, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, and Druckermans under the headline Why French Parents Are Superior a phrase that doesnt sit well with everyone.
First Tiger Mom. Now, I dunno, Fromage Mom? Jen Singer wrote recently on her blog, Mommasaid.net. Nowadays, it appears that everyone is better at parenting than Americans are.
She added: Heres the dirty little secret about their superior parenting philosophies: Theyre not about the kids. The so-called French parenting method seems to make life easier for parents who want to socialize.
In a recent interview at a Manhattan restaurant, Druckerman stresses that she isnt trying to present the French style as perfection. I dont have any magic bullets, she says. I was just trying to tell my story.
Her story is, though, overwhelmingly favorable to the stricter French parenting style, and judging by comments on the Internet, not all American moms disagree.
Kat Gordon, a mother of two sons in Palo Alto, Calif., read the excerpted article and immediately wrote on Facebook, I smell a best-seller. She meant it as a compliment.
It sounds like French mothers are experiencing more joy and feeling less frazzled by parenthood, Gordon explained in a telephone interview. Thats something all mothers should want if we can get over our defensiveness.
Gordon recalls an incident when her older son, Henry, was 2½ years old. Her in-laws were over for dinner, but Gordon, whod worked all day, was being pulled away constantly by Henry, and she felt conflicted and guilty. Her mother-in-law set her straight.
Henry should always feel that youre available to him, her mother-in-law said. But he shouldnt feel entitled to you.
Druckerman touches on just that theme. French mothers, she writes, love their children as much as anyone, but dont see them as their entire life project, to the exclusion of professional satisfaction, adult leisure time and quality time with a spouse.
If your child is your only goal in life, its not good for the child, one French mother tells her. Guilt is a trap, says another.
Druckerman writes about how many French babies, at an extremely young age, sleep through the night, thanks to La Pause: Parents wait a bit when the baby fusses. Maybe the baby can sort it out alone.
This helps with more than sleep, Druckerman says: Its also a crucial building block to developing patience. I had always assumed that some kids were good at waiting, and others werent, she said in the interview. I didnt realize one could teach a child to wait.
Similarly, Druckerman always assumed some kids were picky eaters and others werent. But the French, she discovered, simply teach their children to appreciate adult tastes, from their first year.
Forget chicken nuggets. The author attends a planning meeting for meals in Paris creches, or day care centers, and it sounds like a morning meeting at a Michelin-starred restaurant: Four-course meals are de rigueur for 3-year-olds, with perhaps a fish in dill sauce, a side of organic potatoes a langlaise and a cheese course, bien sur, before dessert.
But that doesnt explain why French children, according to Druckerman, so rarely have tantrums, at least in public. She explains that theyre given a strict cadre literally, a frame to guide them. A nonnegotiable: saying bonjour and au revoir. Its not mere politeness, but a way of acknowledging the world doesnt revolve around them.
To one fellow American mother in Paris, it all sounds good, but doesnt quite work that way.
Elizabeth Brahy, a mom of two whos lived in France for 17 years, thinks French children only seem better behaved because their parents are very strict with them sometimes overly so. But when away from adults, she says, theyre not nearly the same.
They toe the line when theyre with their parents, she says, essentially because they are scared of getting in trouble. But away from them, theyre worse behaved than American kids.
And where Druckerman admires how French parents stay at the perimeter of the playground while their kids play independently, Brahy sees something different: You go to the park, and you see these kids running wild, pushing and shoving and stealing toys, and no one is disciplining them.
Its not all negative. The things that work really work, Brahy says. For example: Its healthy that parents here have lives apart from being parents. In America, parents put their kids first and live by the kids rhythms.
Ami Salk agrees. A mother of three children who has been in Paris for 23 years and teaches professional writing to corporate employees, Salk feels confident saying something many American moms wouldnt: My kids are important, but theyre not more important than me. I also dont think theyre more important than my relationship.
Salk recently brought her three kids to the United States for a summer visit. She was appalled at the behavior of some American children she encountered some who never said hello or acknowledged her presence.
They never took off their headphones, she says. American kids, she observed, also tend to snack all day something that doesnt happen in France. Then theyre not hungry at mealtime.
On the other hand, she says, Everyone thought my kids were great. They said hello when introduced. They said goodbye when they left. They ate almost everything. Address them, and they responded.
What it comes down to, Salk says, is really a contrast between a traditional parenting style one that she had as a child in the U.S. in the 1960s and a modern one, that has in some ways gone awry.
Druckerman would agree wholeheartedly. One of her favorite bits of feedback, she says, came from a mother in England, who said that shed been feeling guilty about her occasional trips alone to get her hair done.
She wrote that my book had freed her, Druckerman says.
That made me cry.