For me, there are few things not to love about the French. And I’m not talking solely about food or wine. So, I was psyched to read an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about the joys of French parenting. The headline says it all: Why French Parents Are Superior.
If you’re not a francophile like myself, an article head like that seems so, well, French. After all, the French are known for their high estimation of their cultural worth and an annoyingly condescending nature. (Part of why I love them, I have to admit.) But having spent a significant amount of time in France, I can say this article is pretty much spot on.
My first real experience as an adult observer of French parenting came when I was living in Paris in my early 20s. I was invited for dinner at a 30-something couple’s apartment. They had a preschooler and an infant. Around 7pm, the mother announced that it was time for the children to eat. The preschooler quietly and politely ate her meal. However, the baby was completely uncooperative. Screaming, fussing, and totally refusing a bottle. After about 15 minutes of futile attempts to quiet and feed the infant, the mother said very matter of factly that she was going to put the baby to bed for the night. I remember thinking, “Without dinner?” And then the French logic kicked in. The mother said, “This is the time we eat. If the baby doesn’t want to eat, fine. She can go to bed. But this is the time we eat.” (Only it was in French.)
At the time, there were so many things that were foreign about that whole scene. At that stage in my life, I couldn’t imagine having kids. In fact, I was ridiculously weirded out by especially tiny babies. And then there was the whole French-ness about it. I mean, I had never heard of an American mother doing such a thing. In fact, all I ever heard about was how new moms were always up at all hours of the night, breastfeeding or fetching bottles.
But there is a simplicity in the French parenting ethic that somehow completely escapes us as American parents. Maybe we just try too hard. The French have that sort of breeziness about them that allows them to do things like wear totally mismatched clothing and still look chic. Maybe it’s the same with parenting.
Unlike the article’s author, I have not spent the last three years studying French parenting principles and techniques. But I do agree with a number of the points that the writer makes about what makes French parenting effective:
- Family is about the parents first then the children.
- Independence is a virtue in a child.
- Structure and routine are paramount.
But I’m not fully subscribed to a couple of the writer’s other theories. First, I whole heartedly believe that discipline is alive and well in French parenting–and I dare say it is dealt much more swiftly and severely than most American parents can imagine. I’m not talking corporal punishment; rather, I’m saying that it seems like most French parents have a much lower tolerance for misbehavior than American parents. Maybe the word I should use is strict. I use a wonderful woman from my French mommy class as an example. At around a year old, she was sending her son to stand in the corner every time he did something she didn’t like. (She was inspiration for starting timeouts at around 16 months with my son.) There’s something that sounds a little horrible to me when I write that, but her kid is a fantastic, super well behaved kid. Obviously no permanent damage done.
I think the writer was also onto something when she talked about the French concept of educating a child. However, I still think she missed the mark a bit. For as much as the French are about education, they are arguably even more obsessed about the idea of formation. Formation is really about a curriculum or training. It’s about mastering a certain topic area or skill. And that’s really the ethic that permeates French parenting. It’s not just about teaching their kid stuff; it’s about training them to behave appropriately in any given situation.
With all that said, I wonder what the real French moms in my French mommy group say about us wanna-be French mamans.