Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Très bien!

Popular new book extols the virtues of French-style parenting, which focuses on 'education,' and a willingness to say 'non'

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At Fabienne Boulanger's house, children say "please" and "thank you."

They sit at the dinner table until everyone is finished -- there are no menu substitutes for picky eaters -- and only then, after they've asked permission, may they leave the table.

And they're expected to carry their dirty dishes into the kitchen.

"Those are the things we insist on," says the Winnipeg mom, who has been approached on airplanes by strangers impressed with the in-flight behaviour of her offspring.

Some parents might wonder how the heck she does it -- her boys are seven, five and two -- but according to the latest provocative parenting book, Boulanger has a cultural advantage.

French? Mais oui.

In Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, author Pamela Druckerman argues that the French are rearing happy, well-behaved children without all the stress, drama and frustration of their North American counterparts.

The recently released book has been called the "antidote" to last year's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in which Amy Chua explores the discipline-based Chinese parenting approach.

Discipline? Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Among French parents, apparently, discipline is a narrow and seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. What they do is "educate" their children -- and not just when les enfants are naughty.

French children, Druckerman found, sleep through the night sooner, sit politely through a three- or four-course meal (even in restaurants), rarely have tantrums, don't refuse to eat vegetables and don't throw food (in fact, the book's title in Britain is French Children Don't Throw Food).

"Soon it became clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents were achieving outcomes that created a whole different atmosphere for family life," the author, who lives in Paris with her British husband and three young children, writes in an essay (titled Why French Parents Are Superior) adapted from her book that ran in the Wall Street Journal.

French parents aren't perfect, Druckerman says, but they have some parenting techniques that really work. And while the ones she followed for the book seemed to have middle-class values similar to her own -- they talked to their kids, read to them and took them to all sorts of lessons and extra-curricular activities -- their parenting styles differed in that they "managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive."

Druckerman goes so far as to call France "the perfect foil for the current problems in American parenting " -- overparenting, hyperparenting, helicopter parenting, and, her personal favourite, the "kindergarchy."

One of the big so-called French parenting secrets, turns out, is their ability to say "non" with authority.

Boulanger, 36, hasn't read Bringing up Bébé. And she makes it clear she does not consider the French way superior.

But the former au pair -- she spent a year working in the United States -- who moved to Winnipeg seven years ago, concurs that French parents are "definitely stricter."

For one thing, they don't spend a lot of time justifying their rules.

"We don't spend that much time explaining things over and over. We say 'In this house, that's the way it is, and when you go over to a friend's house you're going to act the same,'" says Boulanger, adding that North American parents tend to give their youngsters much more leeway, most notably in restaurants.

"Sometimes they let them do whatever they want because they're kids," she says, "and we're not comfortable with that."

Brigitte Parent, who has three grown kids who were all born here, says the difference in parenting styles is evident every time she returns home for a visit.

"Kids have more responsibilities in France, and are expected to help out mom and dad," says Parent, who is married to a Franco-Manitobain. "In Canada, the kid is like, not the king, but they have a lot of freedom."

In her essay, Druckerman talks about the French ideal of the "cadre" -- the strict framework of rules within which children are given a lot of freedom and autonomy. The cadre is built on such tenets of politeness and patience.

One of the keys to a French child's education (again, not in the school sense of the word), she says, is the simple act of learning how to wait.

"Could it be that teaching children how to delay gratification -- as middle-class French parents do -- actually makes them calmer and more resilient?" Druckerman writes. "Might this partly explain why middle-class American kids, who are in general more used to getting what they want right away, so often fall apart under stress?

Winnipegger Pascal Legrand, a Grade 1 teacher who came to Canada 25 years ago and whose daughter and six-year-old grandson live in France, says the North American emphasis on individualism and self-expression is a relatively foreign concept when it comes to educating children in his homeland.

"Here, we do push kids to be creative and come up with their own ideas, while in France, it's learn first and create later -- as in when you're older," says Legrand, 51.

"Over there, it's more like, if you want to learn, close your mouth."

Not surprisingly, given all the claws that came out after the release of Tiger Mother, Bringing up Bébé, a New York Times bestseller, is similarly causing an uproar. France, some say, is merely the country du jour in the new international trend of touting superiority in parenting. And Druckerman, detractors say, is just the latest author to exploit and profit from America's parental insecurity.

In an article in Forbes magazine headlined "Bringing up Bebe? No Thanks. I'd Rather Raise a Billionaire," Erika Brown Ekiel accuses the book of being "filled with examples of children absorbing socialism," and essentially an affront on American values.

"Most of the parents Druckerman profiles discourage their children from standing out, speaking up or getting in the way of their parents' good time," she writes. "The advice they dole out is focused on keeping one's child in his place, rather than enabling him to imagine and construct one of his own.

"Personally, I have no interest in raising a child who knows her place and stays there."

Boulanger, meanwhile, admits she sometimes wonders if she and her husband are too strict. But there are already signs her boys' Canadian "education" will be much less strict than her own.

"Since moving here, I've changed a lot. Sometimes, I find myself explaining and explaining," she says. "I think both ways have good in them. You have to try both and see what works."

Rules of the game

-- Children should say hello, goodbye, thank you and please. It helps them to learn that they aren't the only ones with feelings and needs.

-- When they misbehave, give them the "big eyes" -- a stern look of admonishment.

-- Allow only one snack a day. In France, it's at 4 or 4:30 p.m.

-- Remind them (and yourself) who's the boss. French parents say, "It's me who decides."

-- Don't be afraid to say "no." Kids have to learn how to cope with some frustration.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2012 C1

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