France-Amérique: Who are these “parents under the influence” you describe?
Cécile David-Weill: Without realizing it, many parents adopt the same behaviors they experienced during their childhoods. They believe they are raising their children according to a parenting philosophy they have chosen, but their emotions get in the way of these decisions. We are quick to recognize the role of the subconscious in our romantic lives, but we think we have more free will when it comes to bringing up children. However, this is false. Raising a family is a breeding ground for involuntarily reproducing patterns from when we were young. In my book, I give the example of a mother who became disproportionately angry when her children were boisterous. She was able to rid herself of this automatic reaction after making a connection between her behavior and how her father was when she was a child.
How did these unexamined emotions make you a “bad mother”?
I had a typically French upbringing with parents from a generation that spent little time with their children. We did not receive much affection, but plenty of structure. Foolishly, I tried to do the opposite. I gave my children lots of love and attention, but not enough structure. In my obsession with being a perfect mother, a universal quirk but particularly present in America, I constantly worried about not doing enough. But this concern was very toxic, as a worried parent does not enjoy being with their family, and children pick up on it.
What do you think of the American trend of books commending the French style of parenting?
I would find it hard to agree with the idea that the French do everything better than others. After all, I start my book by saying how I failed as a mother! That being said, books such as Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé offer an accurate description of how French parents retain their lives as independent adults without letting their children take over. For example, French parents find it normal to spend an evening with friends while their children stay in their rooms or entertain themselves.
What would you borrow from French and American parents?
Americans make their children the priority, which is marvelous. They provide enormous affection, but they invest themselves so much that they sometimes make their children responsible for their own happiness. The French encourage critical thinking to avoid appearing entirely emotional, but they tend to complain about their children, which does not foster self-esteem.
What is the main message of your book?
Despite what I originally believed, love and instinct are not enough to bring up your children well. You should examine your own behavior and be wary of your instincts, as they are made up of subconscious, automatic reflexes from the past. The good news is that when you understand your mistakes, you can totally change your attitude and become a successful parent.
Although the French often caricature American children as spoiled, you advise against saying no to children too often.
I have realized that authority is nothing more than the credibility granted to us by our children, and that it is unwise to chip away at it for minor things. You have to choose your battles, ensuring the essential rules of behavior are respected but without being irritated by relatively insignificant issues. There is nothing virtuous about being constantly negative, and children accustomed to being told no find it harder to ask for things, which pushes them to throw tantrums. Of course, the idea is not to allow them to do whatever they want, but simply to consider their desires as legitimate, without necessarily giving into them every time.
=> Parents Under the Influence: Words of Wisdom from a Former Bad Mother by Cécile David-Weill, Other Press, 2020. 288 pages, 15.99 dollars.
Interview published in the March 2020 issue of France-Amérique.