What I’m Reading: “Bringing Up Bebe,” The Sage Child

In French parenting, according to the book Bringing Up Bebe, there is a term that describes an ideal quality in children: sage.

“Sage (sah-je)—wise and calm. This describes a child who is in control of himself or absorbed in an activity. Instead of saying “be good,” French parents say “be sage,” (Bringing Up Bebe).

However, as the author describes, the term means much more than good behavior.

“When I tell Bean [the author’s daughter] to be sage, I’m telling her to behave appropriately. But I’m also asking her to use good judgment and to be aware and respectful of other people. I’m implying that she has a certain wisdom about the situation and that she’s in command of herself. And I’m suggesting that I trust her,” (Bringing Up Bebe, p. 60).

Understand that French parents do not expect their children to be robots. In the same way that the cadre allows children to have freedom within limits, a sage child can still have fun:

“Being sage doesn’t mean being dull. The French kids I know have a lot of fun,” (Bringing Up Bebe, p. 60).

But it is because of their sage quality that French children are able to have fun:

“In the French view, having the self-control to be calmly present, rather than anxious, irritable, and demanding is what allows kids to have fun,” (Bringing Up Bebe, p. 60-61).

The author discusses the history of the term and how the idea of sage has evolved:

“In France, the idea that kids are second-class beings who only gradually gain status persisted into the 1960s. I’ve met Frenchmen now in their forties who, as children, weren’t allowed to speak at the dinner table unless they were first addressed by an adult. Children were often expected to be ‘sage comme une image’ (quiet as a picture), the equivalent of the old English dictum that children should be seen but not heard,” (Bringing Up Bebe, p. 86).

Today, children are still expected to be quiet and respectful, but within reason:

“It suddenly seemed that by shutting kids up, parents might be screwing them up, too. French kids were still expected to be well behaved and to control themselves, but gradually after 1968 they were encouraged to express themselves, too. The French parents I know often use sage to mean self-controlled but also happily absorbed in an activity. ‘Before it was ‘sage like a picture.’ Now it’s ‘sage and awakened,’’ explained the French psychologist and writer Maryse Vaillant, herself a member of the famous ‘Generation of ’68,’” (Bringing Up Bebe, p. 87).

So what is there to learn from this? Essentially, teach your children that there is a time and place for everything. Teach them that they should be quiet at the dinner table simply to show good manners, but if they have something to say, allow them to express themselves. It’s all in the name of teaching our children to be wise, calm and self-controlled.


  1. I saw the author on several talk shows promoting her book, and I thought that the premise of the book was quite silly. What she observed in France and described as French parenting is what many parents in the United States do as well: here, it is just known as “good parenting”. Expecting children to be quiet at appropriate times and always respectful is something that the vast majority of my friends already do. Being a parent is a skill that must be developed; in every country, there are people who are good at parenting and those whose skills need further development. In the excerpts that I’ve read from the book, I’ve not heard any new, earth-shattering theories or techniques: it seems to me (without reading the entire book) that the skills that she presents in her book could be learned by observing any good parent.

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