10 February 2012


As a former child (some would question the use of "former"), as a parent, and as a grandparent, I was pleased to discover an article which sheds some very relevant light on the parent-child relationship.  American Pamela Druckerman lives in Paris, and has observed the similarities and differences between French and American families.  Given the throes of anguish that American parents seem to endure on a regular basis, I hoped that a comparison with another culture might be enlightening.

I wasn't disappointed.  In Why French Parents Are Superior, adapted from her new book Bringing Up Bebe, Druckerman relates personal anecdotes to describe her own struggles, and to contrast her early experience with the seemingly effortless parenting which produces happy, well-behaved French children (not to mention confident, sophisticated adults).  She sought the advice of French parents, and also delved into studies comparing French and American parenting.  Her findings make intuitive sense.  Here are a few of her thoughts ~

"Middle-class French parents have values that look familiar to me.  They are zealous about talking to their kids, showing them nature, and reading them lots of books.  They take them to tennis lessons, painting classes and interactive science museums.  Yet the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive.  They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this.  'For me, the evenings are for the parents,' one Parisian mother told me.  'My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it's adult time.'  French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time.  While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are ~ by design ~ toddling around by themselves.

"Of course, the French have all kinds of public services that help to make having kids more appealing and less stressful.  Parents don't have to pay for preschool, worry about health insurance or save for college.  Many get monthly cash allotments ~ wired directly into their bank accounts ~ just for having kids.   

"But these public services don't explain all the differences.  The French, I found, seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids.  When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats to understand what I meant.  'Ah, you mean how do we educate them?' they asked.  'Discipline,' I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment.  Whereas 'educating' (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

"One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait.  It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old.  Their parents don't pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep.  It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant.  Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat.  (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)

"One Saturday I visited Delphine Porcher, a pretty labor lawyer in her mid-30s who lives with her family in the suburbs east of Paris .... Delphine said that she never set out specifically to teach her kids patience.  But her family's daily rituals are an ongoing apprenticeship in how to delay gratification.  Delphine said that she sometimes bought [her daughter] candy.  But Pauline wasn't allowed to eat the candy until that day's snack, even if it meant waiting many hours.

"When Pauline tried to interrupt our conversation, Delphine said, 'Just wait two minutes, my little one.  I'm in the middle of talking.'  It was both very polite and very firm.  I was struck both by how sweetly Delphine said it and by how certain she seemed that Pauline would obey her.  Delphine was also teaching her kids a related skill ~ learning to play by themselves.  'The most important thing is that he learns to be happy by himself,' she said of her son, Aubane.

"It's a skill that French mothers explicitly try to cultivate in their kids more than American mothers do.  In a 2004 study on the parenting beliefs of college-educated mothers in the U.S. and France, the American moms said that encouraging one's child to play was of average importance.  But the French moms said it was very important.  Could it be that teaching children how to delay gratification ~ as middle-class French parents do ~ actually makes them calmer and more resilient?  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?

"After a while, it struck me that most French descriptions of American kids include this phrase 'n'importe quoi', meaning 'whatever' or 'anything they like'.  It suggests that the American kids don't have firm boundaries, that their parents lack authority, and that anything goes.  it's the antithesis of the French ideal of the cadre, or frame, that French parents often talk about.  Cadre means that kids have very firm limits about certain thigs ~ that's the frame ~ and that the parents strictly enforce these.  But inside the cadre, French parents entrust their kids with a lot of freedom and autonomy.

"Authority is one of the most impressive parts of French parenting ~ and perhaps the toughest one to master.  Many French parents I meet have an easy, calm authority with their children that i can only envy.  Their kids actually listen to them.  French children aren't constantly dashing off, talking back, or engaging in prolonged negotiations."

Here are four lessons that appear as a sidebar in the essay ~

  • 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.
  • Remind them (and yourself) who's boss.  French parents say "It's me who decides."
  • Don't be afraid to say 'no'.  Kids have to learn to cope with some frustration.
Druckerman's essay includes an embedded video, an interview in which she talks about her book, and about what she's learned from French parenting.  It is useful to have a face and voice to attach to her experiences and thoughts.

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