Les Enfants Not-So-Terrible – 4 Reasons Why French Children Are So Well-Behaved

Ever wondered how French parents get their kids to eat normal food and speak so politely to grown-ups? Here are some of their secrets.


How we raise our children to become well-rounded, pleasant and useful members of society is one of our prime concerns as parents. We watch how others do it with a critical eye (often vowing not to follow their example), read endless parenting magazines, and turn to Google in the hope of helpful advice. Sometimes, we’ll see an impeccably behaved young child in public, and wonder what spell their parents have used to illicit such outlandish conduct.

That was certainly the case for American journalist Pamela Druckerman, who had her eldest daughter while living in Paris, France. She couldn’t help noticing how well-behaved French children were – and decided to investigate further. The result was Bringing Up Bébé, Druckerman’s best-selling book that reveals the secrets to French-style parenting.

If you want your baby to sleep through the night, grow up to eat the same foods you do and play nicely with other kids, then maybe you need to follow the French example – here are some key tips.

1Pause for a moment

French babies, it seems, are usually sleeping through the night by the time they’re just two months old. For some of us, that seems like – well, the stuff dreams are made of. How on earth do they do it? Apparently, they use a method called The Pause.

Here’s how it works. Babies’ sleep goes in cycles, just like ours. At the end of each cycle, they cry. Instead of dashing straight in to see what’s wrong or offer a feed, wait for a few minutes. There’s every chance your little one will self-soothe and go back to sleep on their own. The theory is that this helps babies to connect their sleep cycles – when they learn to do this, the French call it ‘doing their nights’.

Nobody’s suggesting you leave a clearly distressed baby to howl. But if it’s just a waking cry, leave them for anything from two to five minutes to see what happens.

2There’s no such thing as kids’ food

Children in France aren’t offered chicken nuggets and chips while their parents tuck into boeuf bourguignon; they get to enjoy their own plateful. This is because, ever since they were small, they’ve been expected to eat the same meals as the grown-ups. Granted, if your child is already used to nursery food it’s more difficult to change their habits, but it’s not impossible.

Offer your child whatever you’re eating at mealtimes. Stay calm and good-humoured, and don’t cave in and give them different food if they refuse to eat it. Remember – no child will deliberately starve themselves. The French serve all kinds of things to their kids; they don’t insist every mouthful is consumed, but they do insist everything is tried at least once. If your child refuses to eat something, serve it up a different way on another occasion. Better still, ask them to help you in the kitchen and talk about different ingredients and ways of cooking them.

3Learn to communicate

Even babies can express their feelings through their behaviour, say the French – we just need to follow their cues. Watching your child for long periods of time makes you sensitive to their moods and needs.

As they get older, model good behaviour in how you talk – and listen – to your child. Don’t be condescending, and don’t issue commands. Show interest in their opinions. The French also believe in ‘the four magic words’ – always say hello and goodbye, please and thank you at the appropriate times.

Essentially, talk to them as though they were an equal. They’ll grow up to be polite, empathetic and considerate – who doesn’t want that?

4Patience is a virtue

How come French children are so well-behaved? Well, one of the main reasons is that they’re taught to deal with frustration from a very young age. Druckerman says parents should let children look after themselves for a few minutes, instead of dropping everything to solve their problems.

If your child ‘needs’ you to do something and you’re busy, explain they’ll have to wait until you’ve finished brushing your teeth, feeding the dog or whatever. If you’re talking to someone, don’t let them interrupt you – make them wait until you’ve finished. And remember to extend the same courtesy to them in turn.

Boost their self-confidence by setting high expectations of your child’s abilities – teach them how to get toys down from the shelf or pour themselves a drink so they don’t need to keep asking you. Show you believe in them, and don’t get angry when they have the inevitable occasional mishap.

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