Like many Americans who move to France, I have always been surprised to observe the differences in behavior between French and American kids. Seeing a 9-year-old confidently take the RATP bus alone to her music lesson. A 4 year old patiently guarding her baby brother in the stroller at the front of the store while their mom dashed for once forgotten item at the back of the Monoprix. Kids sitting at dinner tables, engaging in conversation.
So you can imagine my delight when I saw that Bringing Up Bébé had just been published. I had met author Pamela Druckerman at the American Library in Paris a few years ago. And we've kept up a bit since then. I was delighted when she was able find time for me to interview her. I just had to know more about the creation of this latest tour de force in deciphering the differences between French and American cultures.
Polly-Vous Francais: You write about so many wonderful epiphanies in Bringing Up Bébé. Was there one "aha!" moment in particular that stands out? A personal favorite?
Pamela Druckerman: I think it was the moment when a French girlfriend of mine saw my daughter, who couldn’t even stand up on her own at the time, pulling books off our bookshelves (for some reason she always pulled down the travel books - go figure). I hadn’t thought there was anything I could do about this irritating habit of my daughter’s. She couldn’t even talk! But my friend got down on the carpet with my daughter and said, very gently: We don’t do that. We leave the books on the shelves. Then she showed my daughter how to push them back in. To my surprise, my daughter never pulled the books down again. After that, I realized that I could teach my daughter things like that, and she could integrate them. It was a revelation.
PVF: How did you settle on the title? Were there other contenders for the title?
PD: I wanted to call the book Paris is Burping. My editor said what editors say when they are trying to be polite: "Let’s make it a chapter title."
PVF: Nice! I like that one. [Thinking how to translate that title...] And will the book be translated into French? Would you consider returning as a guest on (my favorite French TV show) Le Grand Journal to discuss the differences between French and American parenting?
PD: Yes, the French edition is scheduled for January 2013. Title TBD. Do you handle bookings for Le Grand Journal? :)
PVF: No, but I sat in the audience once. I hope they invite you back for a debate about French/American parenting styles. That would be an entertaining conversation! For example, which of the French parenting methods do you think you've had the hardest time accepting or adopting?
PD: I can't get used to the 5-day field trips for first graders. But I'm going to have to. My daughter starts primaire next year. And though I say “It’s me who decides,” I don’t always automatically believe it. I have to sort of rev up my inner CEO. I’m naturally picky, but I’m not naturally bossy.
PVF: Which was the easiest?
PD: It was cutting out snacks, except for the one in the afternoon. It made the rest of the day flow better. Now when my kids sit down to eat, they're actually hungry.
PVF: Do you think there is a difference between French and American attachment objects (infamous doudous in France, in U.S., blankies or what-have-you)?
PD: I'm not sure. French parents do tend to have long Freudian explanations for why their kids have attachment objects. Whereas American parents would just say the blanket or the stuffed animal is comforting.
PVF: Okay, what about French children and correct posture? Any observations? How about faire la bise?
PD: I didn't look at posture at all (though I’m sitting up straighter as I write this). Please do tell, and I'll get that into the paperback! As for "faire la bise," I probably should have mentioned that too. What are your views?
PVF: Well, I once observed a French friend feeding her 18-month-old in his highchair. She simply cooed "Tiens-toi comme il faut, mon trésor" ("sit up straight, sweetheart") before she would give him the next bite, and it worked like a charm. La bise, of course, will take a whole chapter to discuss: up to what age a child must give a cheek kiss to a visitor, etc. So much to think about! All things considered, if you could start out your own childhood again, would you rather be raised à la française?
PD: I would change nothing at all about my own childhood. And I'm not just saying that because my mother is probably reading this.
Seriously, I think like many American women I wish I had developed a healthier relationship to food early on, instead of a guilt-based one. I wish I had learned how to savor one cookie, instead of needing to eat all eight of them.
PVF: Are there any French movies that might have some examples that illustrate the difference between French and American childhoods? (The Elegance of the Hedgehog comes to mind, but perhaps others)?
PD: On a recent flight to America I watched a wonderful French film called Un Heureux événement about a French couple that meets and has a baby, and how this affects their relationship. At one point during the mother’s pregnancy, she asks the doctor whether it’s okay to swallow semen. The doctor replies: Yes, it’s very nutritious. But of course it shouldn’t be the baby’s only food!
PVF: Hahhaha! Excellent. Okay, er, switching gears here, tell me, where do you write in Paris? Favorite spots? Favorite parks to go avec enfants?
PD: I write at home or at an office that I share with seven French journalists. I'm their token foreigner. I also write in cafes sometimes, though it’s hard to find one with the right combination of laptop friendliness, good coffee, good writing vibe, and a power outlet.
With kids, I love the Tuilleries, which has in-ground trampolines and a very imaginative, sculptural playground. One of the great things about Paris is that there are playgrounds all over the place. There’s usually at least one within walking distance. And there are wonderful film festivals just for kids.
PVF: Do you think that WWAFMD* will become a household mantra?
PD: Well since I had to read that acronym five times before I figured out what it stood for, probably not! I do think a new conventional wisdom about parenting is gradually emerging in America, and that it overlaps in some ways with the French style (date nights, having kids eat more interesting foods, teaching patience…). But whatever the next phase is in America, it's not going to be a carbon copy of French or Chinese or Eskimo parenting. It will be its own house blend.
PVF: Pamela, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. This might seem totally random as a closing question, but I personally think it's related: Do you think French dogs are exceptionally well behaved, too?
PD: How did you know? That's my next book! Though if French dogs were really were so well behaved, they wouldn't leave their poop on the sidewalk.
*What Would A French Mother Do?
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