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Do French parents know best?

Unlocking the mystery of France's astonishingly well-behaved children.


It seems as though I can't toss a croissant without hitting another article about Bringing Up Bebe, a book by Pamela Druckerman. The media has been swarming for weeks around her claim that French parents are superior to American parents.

It all started with Druckerman's essay in the Wall Street Journal in which she shared her observations about why French children seem better behaved than American kids. According to her, you rarely see French children throwing temper tantrums, misbehaving at restaurants, or interrupting their parents in the middle of an adult conversation.

So, the exasperated American mother began to do a little investigating and found several key differences in how the two cultures differ in their child rearing philosophies.

For one, middle-class French parents don't give in to their child's demands. This boundary is set in infancy:  they allow their children to "cry it out" in the crib and don't always rush to pick up their crying baby. They also typically quit breastfeeding when the baby is around three months old. This magic formula has produced babies who sleep through the night at four months.

Another difference Druckerman discovered is that French children do not graze on food all day but instead eat three meals and only one snack late in the afternoon. So, when they sit down to eat at a restaurant, they are actually hungry and spend their time eating instead of throwing food on the floor or demanding their caregiver's attention.

Not that an un petit enfant could get his parent's attention on whim, even if he tried. Druckerman discovered that French parents firmly protect their "adult time" and expect their children to play independently and respect their time and space.  All of these practices seem to produce children who understand delayed gratification and patience. You rarely see a French mom playing with her children on the playground, but you will see the kids playing intently on their own while the moms relax and talk.

I find this concept to be quite a mystery. It is so different from my own parenting practices. After reading Druckerman's observations, it became quite obvious that I am so American, it's almost funny.

I am a longterm breastfeeding, attention giving, snack-wielding mom, and my home is bustling with two rambunctious boys. Both of them were swooped up at the first whimper when they were babies. Nary a tear fell in the middle of the night before I hovered over their cribs, offering a snuggle in the rocking chair.

I am very accessible to my kids. Both of them know that if they need me, they have permission to come find me and slip their hand in mine. It's so nice to feel them lead me to where they need me. I gladly stop what I'm doing to engage in their world, and they are constantly scouting me out to play with them. I can often be found sprawled out in the sandbox, shoveling sand, and I actually enjoy the connection that we have.

Of course, if I'm being honest here, they won't let me talk on the phone for more than two minutes without causing some sort of trouble. They've been known to have bright blue lips from the Popsicles I hand over as a bribe, just to steal a moment of adult conversation.

Perhaps I could learn a thing or two from French mommies, after all.

Do you follow any of the French parenting practices with your children? Do you think that American parents could learn from them? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Genevieve March 15, 2012 at 02:23 PM
Being French myself, I have to say, there is some good and bad in both styles of parenting; my dad's kids is American and he could not understand why I let my son (the 1st child of 3) cried instead of rushing to him and nursed him (that was somehow his obsession, the dad, not the child). While we were still in France, I felt I had the support of my family raising this little boy; then we moved to the States and it was a different tune. I entered a world where kids were/are nursed until a yr old or more, where no child could cry more than 5 seconds, and where I could not have 10 minutes to myself coming home from work (after picking up the kids from day care or schools). I tried to be there for them the "american way", as much as I could, and yet also tried to give them boundaries and discipline the way I and my sisters were raised; I was not raised in a harsh way, but there were times I wanted to spank them or lock myself in the bathroom, just 10mns, just to have peace and quiet. It was difficult to balance 2 different cultures ( not only in parenting), and sometimes still is. But as a mom I survived, and I believe my kids have turned out ok, but only them could tell you.
Stephanie Gross March 15, 2012 at 03:42 PM
We're trying to find that balance as we raise our toddler. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Gail!
Gail Lane March 15, 2012 at 04:02 PM
Thanks, Leigh & Stephanie. I guess confession time is good for the soul, so I must admit, our circumstances were different. The father of my oldest child committed suicide when she was two; I sought out the advice of a child psychologist to give me guidance in how to raise a child that would grow to be self sufficient but confident that we had her back when needed. It went against every natural parental instinct that I had to just pick her up when she fell, quick hug, pat on the pampers and send her back to play. My instinct was to fuss, love, kiss, coddle, band-aids, popsicles and chocolate chip cookies to mend every woe. But, quite literally, I felt her life was on the line. As Genevieve has described, I got a lot - A LOT (shall we say MASSIVE) amounts of criticism from within my own family for what they felt was callous disregard for minor things. We had to retrain ourselves as parents with refreshers as she got older and went through adolescence. We carried the same parenting exercises through to our youngest, even though she didn't manifest some of the same issues. I'm glad to say they are good students, great kids (well, except for the normal teenage drama ... well documented on the Patch) and people that I generally like to associate with.
Tamara Tillman March 15, 2012 at 08:38 PM
I am an attachment parenting Mom of infants... but I do believe that attachment parenting has its limits. Children should be taught delayed gratification, emotional control and all of those good things once they are of age to make those lessons. My personal motto of parenting is the more time you spend holding your baby, responding to their needs, breastfeeding, the less time you will need to spend on your child as they get older. That is - the more your infant knows they can trust you, the more your toddler and older child will trust you to set boundries for them. In other words, trust comes first and then discipline. One place I derive this theory from in the neighboring country of Spain. I have spent a considerable amount of time there and am always very impressed by how well behaved Spanish children are. They are coddled as babies and then disciplined as they get older. More importantly - they go EVERYWHERE with their parents (even out to eat at 12 at night) and the parents don't appear to have overly kid - centered lifestyle. So, of course, the kids learn to behave. They are given the message early on that they are valued members of socity and, as such, expected to act like it. These theories of mine have been heavily backed by research both as a developmental pyschology major and by watching other Moms. My 2 children are very well behaved and I would never think of not taking them anywhere with us (even to fancy restruants)!
Marilee March 15, 2012 at 10:45 PM
I loved the article about French parenting. As a retired teacher, with a Masters in Early Childhood Education, I felt I raised our two children (and taught my students) with much of the same mindset as stated in the article. I did breastfeed my children for as long as I could: one for 9 months, the other weaned herself at 6 months. I remember our pediatrician taught me how to get our first-born to sleep through the night (back in 1981): "let him cry, and learn to put himself back to sleep without adult help. Each night, the crying time will half." Sure enough, the first night he awoke and cried for at least an hour. It KILLED me not to go and comfort him!! I cried, myself! After an hour or so, he wore himself out, and slept the rest of the night. The next night, he awoke and cried for about 30 minutes. The third night, he cried about 15 minutes, and he slept through the night from then on, at 8 weeks. Amazing. From my Early Childhood Education training, I learned to "teach children to become independent adults." I raised my children to be independent, beginning while they were toddlers. I never once heard either one of them say, "I'm bored." They learned to entertain themselves as toddlers, though I loved playing with them, and they continued enjoying independent activities into adulthood. We did many fun things together, but also had our independent fun, quiet time. And we all shared one TV until the kids left for college, a major feat in learning to share!

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