The Wall Street Journal recently posted an essay on their website with the inflammatory title “Why French Parents Are Superior.” The piece is actually an adaptation of Pamela Druckerman’s new book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Given that just last month the WSJ also published an essay on “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” (I kid you not), as part of the “Tiger Mom’s” 15 minutes of fame, American parents are justified in feeling that they’re under attack. But maybe we can all glean a lesson (or even a reminder) from the French, because overlooking Druckerman’s wild generalizations, she does raise some valid points about parenting.
She begins by reporting that French toddlers sit “contentedly in their high chairs,” eating (not throwing) whatever is placed on their trays. Apparently, they also don’t have temper tantrums, interrupt their parents’ conversations, or demand to be entertained. How am I to believe that French parents aren’t experiencing these perfectly natural toddler behaviors? After all, my days as an educator and my classes in child and adolescent psychology tell me that toddlers are stuck between wanting to assert their new-found independence and having mom tell them what to do, so they’re constantly pushing the envelope and determining limits. But French toddlers don’t go through this normal developmental stage? Well, maybe not as…severely.
So what exactly are the French doing so much better than us? First, “…the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive.” Parents care deeply for their children, but they do not answer to them. There is no French equivalent of “helicopter parenting,” something most teachers dread! I can attest to the fact that many well-meaning, loving American parents cannot seem to let their children—teenagers!—manage their educational experiences (taking notes, remembering homework, studying for tests) on their own. In rejecting the American mode of overparenting, French parents take time for themselves, which one can imagine would make them less likely to lose their patience with their children.
At the other end of this relationship, French children are expected and encouraged to entertain themselves. Druckerman writes about dropping her daughter off at a free, public preschool in France only to find that the kids were not engaged in adult-led songs, games, or activities, but rather played amongst themselves. As Dawn has written in “Preschool Pressure: Are You Feeling It?” Americans, in contrast, expect the preschool experience to be utterly enlightening—“their child’s ticket to an Ivy League college.” Shouldn’t our kids be able to play on their own? Doesn’t this encourage vital independence?
The second major theme of Druckerman’s essay is the emphasis French parents place on learning to wait. She claims this is why French toddlers “sit happily at a restaurant,” because they must wait to eat until mealtime. I know I have struggled with trying to teach my daughter that we sit at the table for three square meals and an afternoon snack. And just because we picked up her favorite food off the shelf at the grocery store, does not mean we will open it right that second and begin consuming it. If we wait to eat at the “appropriate” time, we are teaching our children about the value and pleasure of food and the importance of sitting down at the table as a family.
Of course, no family is able to achieve these ideals all the time, but delaying gratification with food may certainly teach young children to delay gratification in other areas, too, creating noticeable behavioral differences. Druckerman asks, “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?” (Read: fewer tantrums?) I think it’s possible.
Her final point is that French parents have an “easy, calm authority with their children” that Americans lack. She writes of her own fear of damaging her child by reprimanding him too forcefully, only to find that adopting a more authoritative tone was no more damaging but much more effective. Although Druckerman has grossly oversimplified French and American parenting styles, the lessons she shares can serve as reminders for us that we are, in fact, the bosses of these little people who rule our lives, and they do best when we set our expectations high.