This post is part of Stress-Less Parenting Club's first workshop. Check out previous challenges here, and if you haven’t signed up yet, go to the purple box on the right side of this page to receive our weekly newsletter.
When we first kicked off Stress-Less Parenting, we asked our members to submit questions for Pamela Druckerman, the leader of our first workshop and author of Bringing Up Bébé and Bébé Day By Day. The questions poured in, ranging from how the French approach sleep training to what exactly entitles a father to a man cave. But we saw in a recurring theme -- just how, exactly, do the French manage to stay calm in their parenting? As Pamela reveals those secrets, she's also careful to note that calm doesn't equate carefree. "There is plenty of stress in France," she told us. "It’s not that it’s this magical, stress-free country. I just think they’re shooting for a different target, and that alone makes a difference."
We've shared Pamela's responses to questions about teaching children patience and getting them to eat better already, but we wanted to share more of her answers as we enter the final week of the workshop.
Q: The French parents I knew [while living in Europe] were not necessarily serene and calm in their parenting. Not a lot of smiling. Do we really want to give that up?
PD: I agree that Paris is not the most cheerful place. France is a famously pessimistic country. But I don’t think you have to love everything about France to borrow what works in their parenting techniques. Of course, all French parents aren't serenely calm in their parenting, but the conventional wisdom is that you should be calm, and that the best parenting comes from calm. Whereas, I think in America, anxiety is validated. Your anxiety is an indication that you’re worried enough about your kids' well-being, and that you’re doing a good job. Even though nobody would spell it out that way, I think if you take a step back, that’s what the cultural message is.
Q: How much of the lack of stress among French parents and kids has to do with all of the safety nets provided by their country?
PD: Yes, I think the fact that there are many more social supports -- starting with national paid maternity leave, a nationally subsidized daycare system -- means that they’re not just talking about family values, they’re actually supporting families. Not to mention national insurance -- everyone is insured, including illegal immigrants. So that helps, no doubt. But I think, policy discussions aside, there are all kinds of things that French parents do, from their attitudes to their daily household practices, that make an enormous difference in terms of how calm the family is.
Q: My toddler laughs hysterically at me whenever I try to discipline her. It is so frustrating. What can I do?
PD: Choose your battles. [If you're] trying to do it all the time, it's not scary; the kid is used to it. ... Even if you haven’t taken yourself seriously as an authority figure, you can still conjure it -- your inner boss. And it does work. They can feel it when it’s real.
Q: How do you say no and mean no right from the start?
PD: You have to lose this ambivalence about being the authority figure and about damaging your child from saying no about certain things. Obviously, taken to an extreme, if you become this beast, it's bad for your child. But to be able to say no convincingly and with conviction is a reasonable thing to expect of any parent.
Q: I have 3 kids -- 6, 4 and 2. The two older boys will play well sometimes, but there are often times when they fight over nothing. How do I handle both the attacker and the attacked? I want to nip this before the house falls down.
PD: I have two boys so I can understand that problem. It’s tricky when there’s violence because you don’t want one of the kids to get hurt. But what I say to them as much as possible when they come running to me because they want me to be the mediator -- and it's partly a way to get attention -- "you two have to work it." We definitely have a no-violence rule in our house that is constantly violated. But tell them that they have to find solutions, or ask them what they think a solution to the problem would be so they’re invested in it and so they don’t feel like it all hinges on you, and give them the time to play together so they can practice their mini-conflict resolution. I don’t think there’s a magic solution. I feel like the French solution to most problems is more freedom, more autonomy, to give them more control.
Q: How do you recommend handling the stresses of co-parenting, particularly when the parents do not see eye to eye on how to discipline the children, speak to the children, etc?
PD: It's hard in America because there are many more divergent parenting philosophies. I think in front of the kids you have to put up a united front. People in France believe it pretty religiously and stick to it because it gives your proclamations a lot more force if it comes from two people. Expect to have, as the French call it, “le baby clash,” and talk about the issues as much as possible. Above all, make time for your couple. Really consider the couple as the foundation of the family and a happy couple being a foundation of a happy family.
Can you go into more detail on French parenting and sleep training at an early age? I keep seeing conflicting advice about allowing an infant at 4 weeks to cry it out. How do the French do this effectively?
PD: The French don't let a 4-week-old cry it out. But they don’t immediately run into his room. Babies are capable of learning things, and what they need to be able to learn to sleep through the night is to connect to their sleep cycles on their own without anyone else interfering. This is another part of the education for the child; they don’t think it’ll happen right away. But you keep doing it. ... If the baby keeps crying, after a few minutes, go in, pick them up, feed them, do whatever he needs. But you give him a chance to learn and grow.
How can you get a busy 3-year-old to bed at a decent hour every night?
PD: You tell them it's bedtime! (laughs) ... A lot of the French solutions are a combination of giving kids more freedom and being strict about a few key things. Tell your kid it’s bedtime, say you have to stay in your room, but inside your room, you can do whatever you want. That combination tends to be more appealing than “go to sleep right now." It's like the tasting rule. You don’t have to eat it all, but you have to taste it.
Q: Is there anxiety about screen time in France?
PD: There is anxiety about screens. ... The French approach to screens is similar to the French approach to chocolate or sugar -- a little bit is OK, but you as a parent decide how much. Certainly for older kids, the number one punishment is taking away screens, I would imagine. [Maybe the rule is] no screens in the room or no screens before bedtime. Reasonable, common sense boundaries that I think American parents would intuitively feel are correct as well, but may have more trouble enforcing.
What's your best advice for making school mornings less stressful?
PD: Give kids as much responsibility as possible for getting themselves ready after a certain age, when they’re able to put their clothes on by themselves. What I always say to my daughter is, "We're going to be late for school. The doors are going to be closed and you're going to have to be escorted to your classroom." Explain the consequences. I don't think that's really a French solution. Don't micromanage the morning experience. Give them the responsibility to do things for themselves.
Can a parent learn how to be a calm parent or is it a function of their personality and society?
PD: Yes, with practice. It’s a habit.
Q: How do I as the only male in a blended family retain some sense of self and sanity? I'm surrounded by estrogen and outnumbered -- the wife, her two girls, and my daughter. The only male is a cat and he's really dumbed down. Do you think he found a defense mechanism? We have 2 dogs, 3 cats, and maybe a male fish in the tank -- if there is, it's the betta, and he's dumb too, hides in a cave kicking back. Do you think my observations lend credibility to me having a man cave?
PD: (laughs) Yes!
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