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Now, it's the French parents who are better, says one woman

I've had it up to here (the writer draws a line with her finger somewhere above her hairline) with the Wall Street Journal headlines proclaiming the superiority of one parenting style followed by an entire culture. You'd think the editorial team was on the payroll of a publishing house (the writer begs forgiveness for her snark). They're certainly not nuanced or creative when they come to writing headlines.

Today, it's the French parents, who are superior, according to one head-shakingly inferior American ex-pat, Pamela Druckerman. It started when her daughter was just 18 months old and she, and her British husband, took the little girl to a French beach vacation. Quelle horreur! She just was so busy and ran all over the place. The other little French bébés sat there like little silent film starlets, eating fish and courgettes. What gives? She came up with a bunch of rules after "several years investigating French parenting":

  • eat at regular mealtimes and only allow one snack, at 4 or 4:30 p.m. 
  • remind them who's boss (In case you're wondering, YOU.)
  • say please, thank you, hello and goodbye (the article actually says this is to "help them remember they aren't the only ones with feelings and needs")
  • give scary looks
  • say "no."

I have all sorts of reasons to roll my eyes about this. But I'll skip a take-down of the WSJ summary of Druckerman's distillation of all that French mamas do. Because I think that parenting is not a formula. It is not a matter of doing something that will work every time. We all have different children, different contexts for parenting decisions, different skills and areas in which we absolutely fail every time. There are only three things, in my opinion, a parent needs to create fantastic children (and despite my kids' considerable challenges, the majority of the time when we are out in public I get comments like, "your children are so adorable and well-behaved!" -- REALLY. No lie). Of course, it took me lots of Doing It Wrong and desperate, stressed-out trying on of Other People's Parenting Formulas to get here.

1. An environment that allows the children to feel safe and loved and to grow. I think this is where the French strategy comes in with its regular mealtimes. Yes: we all do better if we eat regular meals that are nutritionally complex, and if we don't fill up in mid-mornings on processed flour and bad fats and processed sugars and chemicals. The French society places a premium on eating deliciously-prepared whole foods. When my kids eat good breakfasts and on-time lunches and nutritionally-dense snacks at 4 p.m.; if they get a lot of exercise and plenty of rest; then I too could take them to a white-tablecloth dinner at 6:30 and have them behave so well you'd swear we were ordering in French.

It doesn't take a lot for my children to feel safe. Or -- it does -- lots of deep breaths and calm words from their parents. Few shouting matches. Confidence and happiness and a sense that nothing is the end of the world. The French have a huge leg up here, thanks to social support systems that 2/3 of Americans would call "Socialism" or worse. Short work weeks. Ample vacation time that French families actually take (as opposed to the U.S., where many workers infamously have to be forced to take what little vacation they have before it expires). As Druckerman writes, "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." This sort of social support would have greatly impacted the mother I was six years ago. Today, the mother I am has forced the French system on herself (I quit my full-time job a few years ago; my husband joined the Army to get health insurance; we don't do pricey preschool).

My kids are also most secure and happy when they aren't rushing around. So we don't do music lessons or many sports or playdates. We do errands and the kids play. This is, evidently, French: "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."

2. A parent or parents who model "good" behavior. Here is where the French and I might seem to part ways (but it's probably just a matter of perspective). I think the best way to get the behavior we want from children is to display it ourselves. Now, this is rather more macro than WSJ-article-length parenting philosophies can usually be. And it is the part of my parenting philosophy that I find most difficult to maintain. But it's no secret to any of you who've seen your children parrot both your best and worst behavior. (Yes to both for me.)

The more calmly I deal with frustrations, the more calmly I will see my children deal with frustrations. The more courteous and respectful of others I am, the more my children are as well. I do ask my children to say "please" and "thank you," but I've had far better results simply saying "please" and "thank you" myself. I almost never ask them to say, "have a great day!" and yet they say this frequently. The best I ever see is my oldest calmly telling his little brother, in the midst of a meltdown, that he has something really great to show him. It works more than you think it would and I certainly didn't instruct the family in how to deal with Monroe's meltdowns, nor did I use my severe look.

So maybe the way the French kids can delay gratification and play by themselves instead of demanding their parents' interaction is because that's the behavior that's de rigueur around them. That's just part of their slow food, deliberate, less-hectic world. A photo caption in the WSJ piece is more proof of this, next to a photo of a mother making food while her daughter helps her (making madeleines, if I'm right, of all things) : "Delphine Porcher with daughter Pauline. The family's daily rituals are an apprenticeship in learning to wait."

3. Parents who teach skills instead of setting limits and meting consequences. This isn't part of Druckerman's neat little set of rules, but it's integral to mine (and, I think, important to achieve the alternative to what she describes as "parents [spending] much of the visit refereeing their kids' spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build Lego villages").

And yet, watching the video, I see a lot of this sort of thing in the way French parents approach foods. Instead of insisting upon something -- clean plate rules or the like -- French parents approach it as their job to teach children to appreciate different sorts of food. (This inspires me to write another piece about how to teach kids to eat vegetables -- the French way!) And "you must teach your child patience." If this is not teaching skills, I don't know what is.

A necessary part of all these three tenets is "be involved," and this is something Druckerman has noticed from the French: they talk to their children, they read books with them, they look at nature with them, they play tennis and go the museums together. They cook while their children are at their elbows. They talk with their adult friends while their children play nearby. They take them out to dinner. There is a lot of face time, with an equal amount of engaged but not overly structured child care.

Are French parents superior? I think that, rather, French culture and social support is superior, and the children that result from it are the product, not of the perfect parenting formula, but of a culture that leaves the parenting formulas aside and lets the parents have faith in their children and their relationship with them. Apart from the goofy berets and the fist-pounding headlines and the annoying positioning of this book, I think the French are -- for the most part -- right.


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I lots of feelings on this one, which probably won't come out too well in my writing... as my child is now 7, I look back a lot and wish I had done more 'slow time' with him when he was younger. But the reality has also been that he is 'fast' personality and I have accommodated that being him. I do take classes and (try to anyway) plan playdates as otherwise we would spend much time alone at home- which we do enough of as it is. I think what the French and many other societies have on us, is a whole societal social network that is lacking for many of us here. Most new moms feel alone in a world of adults and workers. We cling to newborn playgroups that fade as the kids age. A few lucky ones do have neighbors and the kids can play- I had that as a child but my kid does not. It's simply not the way of our street. Even preschool and now elementary parents just smile in passing- everyone is 'so busy'. It's hard to feel that you are the only one living a non-busy way. It's hard to tell your kid any potential playmates are busy. It is sad to realize us adults don't provide a good example- adults are all busy too. It's hard for me because I don't make friends well and don't connect with others who might be my peers in this. It doesn't help that my kid is 'challenging'. It often feels like others are happier 'on their own' and don't even want to connect. Or else it's just me and mine. I often feel sad for what I cannot give him, a true safe and secure 'community'.

First of all most of the "French" philosophy is more old school parenting/combined with common sense. I have yet to meet any parent, of any nationality who DOESN'T routinely prod their children to say "please" and "thank you", even if the parents themselves are less than courteous.

I do agree about being less of a helicopter parent and giving your child more freedom to explore things on their own---but honestly, my European cousin is the most hovering, over protective mom I've ever met. So maybe it's more a combination of culture AND personal style.

As for the food part---DUDE, it's freakin' France! Getting their children to eat more exotic things is just the tip of the iceberg in how they best us in the dining department. Basically, their children are simply more socialized to respect the dinner table because it's more important over there. Were I a less causal/lazy person, this would probably be the case at my house as well.

Not only is this hardly article worthy, let alone book worthy--the woman who wrote this was just on the Today Show. She was the most pretentious, affected freak I've ever seen----throughout every pre-recorded segment and her live interview she sported a black beret. I'm sure she thought she was hilarious/ironic/whatever. I wanted to smack her.

The last (and most important) element is---do French children grow up to be more successful, intelligent, etc than their US counterparts? No. So just because the little mademoiselles and monsieurs are a bit more courteous doesn't mean a thing.

My nephew was the perfect little student, etc all through elementary and middle school (and constantly held as an example for my daughter). After being expelled from 4 high schools in 3 years, he's now a drop out at 16, wiht a myriad of issues.

The end product is what matters

Oh, also too---anybody else see some irony about the historically most self indulgent culture being all about delayed gratification? Or one known for arrogance/rudeness being all about manners suddenly?

If we want to better examine these things--both the British and the Canadians are generally much more polite and empathetic than we are as a whole. Perhaps we should look at their culture?

I will say that my former SIL, a Londoner, did have a similarly enchanting child and I think my takeaway from the whole thing is that Britons and Europeans are going to dine out, dine out LATE, and dammit their kids are going to sit still and be charming because THAT'S WHAT THEY DO, DARLING. I've heard Catherine Zeta-Jones talk about this and her kids in Bermuda, and it just seems to be a "thing."

I'm a pretty hard core mama, and I have no earthly idea how they pull off these feats of seen and not heard-ism. My mind is boggled. Good on them, though. I'll keep hiring sitters for the late dining nights because the truth is that if I fortunate enough to splurge on a nice evening out, I really am not interested in taking my kids with.

I haven't read the article, but I did spend a year in France as a teenager, living with a French family and going to a French high school. It sucked. I was surrounded by arrogance. And the food? Sure, we glamorize the French food, but reality is that they don't eat like that daily. Yes, evening meals were important as the family comes together to talk about their day. Lunch, we all came home from school and made typically peas and hamburgers. breakfast was laughable - hot chocolate with poundcake drenched in nutella dipped in it. They always teased me for grabbing a yogurt at breakfast. hmmm...

As for being more relaxed - interesting. School is important - it's their job. From the time they are in early grades, it's an all day affair with a break from 2-4p. They have to choose their focus when they are like 10 or something - either math/science, or literature/arts. Then, they are in that track until they graduate. And once you are in that track, it's very difficult to change. Really - a 10 year old knows what they want to be when they grow up? wow. I always thought that was odd.

As with any society, there are positives and negatives. I would say that the community/network in France is something to aspire to. Family was quite important, and grandparents, aunts uncles, etc all quite involved. That was great to experience. But there is an attitude of superiority there that is frankly disgusting. Maybe things have changed since I was there, but let's just say, I have no desire to go back, and certainly wouldn't choose to raise kids there.

Any discussion framed in terms like this one, suggesting that the whole country is raising children much better than another country is simply radiculous. Just think about it, if we talked about French imigrants in the US and said that they are superior parents to, let's say, Vietnamese emigrants or native Americans, we would see right away how wrong this statement is.

I don't think you can talk about national differences in children's behavior without considering environmental toxins and/or the explosion of autism spectrum and related syndromes like ADD and ADHD. The bottom line is that kids who are toxic, allergic, etc. are a lot less likely to be able to sit still at a restaurant. They are less flexible, so they are not as open to trying new things or eating something they don't love. I'll go out on a limb and predict that will have the happiest children and enjoy parenting the most when we look at our children with fresh eyes of compassion. "What's going on with you today?" Also, it's good to remember we are are not trying to raise compliant people, but rather competent, happy people.

You all are so wise! mamasita: I was thinking this too, and sometimes I feel like I'm shrill with my insistence that my kids' problems are due in part to environmental toxins and the stuff I ate as a kid under this sort of parenting regimen (yep, pretty similar to the one my parents practiced, but without all the great vegetables. it was peas and corn from the freezer and overcooked green beans)

Anotheranon: it is completely beside the point, but as soon as I finished writing this post I made hamburgers (buffalo) and peas (mine with onions and blue cheese, but still... :).

Oh another also, too: just told MY mom (age 70) about this. Her response: "AGAIN?????? They were pulling that crap when I was a kid!"

She also pointed out that everyone's an individual and parenting is not and was not EVER a one size fits all thing.

I think the busted a** black beret told me all I needed to know about her method.

Umm, not to hijack, but... *does* anyone have tips for getting a 2-year-old to appreciate (not just eat hidden) vegetables? She did when she was younger, but not now... I definitely think we need an article on this. :-)

@tinuvi - kids' tastebuds change and two year olds are notoriously picky. It's been my experience that the only "tip" is to wait it out. Most parents worry about their child getting proper nutrients and most experts say not to sweat it, not to force them to eat (unlike the French) three balanced meals per day, etc. Eventually, it'll change.

@tinuvi... honestly, I don't hide veggies. There is a veggie offered at every meal, and their always has been. Lunch may just have carrot sticks, but dinner, typically has something like broccoli, cauliflower, peas, sweet potatoes, etc... I have always made it part of the meal and always an expectation to eat them. Sure they went through phases where they said "ew" but honestly, they've always eaten some, and now at age 4 and 6, they love their veggies and always eat them all. I think it's about the choices in your home and on the table. If that's the choice they are given, they'll eat it. They won't starve.

Don't get me wrong - I don't tell anyone to clean their plates. In fact, it's perfectly ok in our house to only eat a small amount of your food. We tell them to listen to their tummies and stop eating when they are full. But, if they leave half their dinner, they know that they won't get dessert, and when their tummies start rumbling again before bed, I am going to suggest a piece of fruit or yogurt and not junk.

I've spent a lot of time in France and around French culture, and one way I've heard the parenting difference explained (that I agree with), is that French parents want their children to fit into society, to be productive members of society, whereas American parents are more interested in society adapting to their own child's particular needs and personality. I can see pros to both goals, and I'll admit sometimes I wish fewer parents (and I'm sure I've been guilty of it too) expected everyone to cater to their own darling. Of course it's ridiculous to make sweeping generalizations of an entire culture's parenting methods. The year that I lived with a 2 yr old French boy and his family, I saw how his poor sleep totally dominated the family! The parents would do anything to get him to sleep, they certainly didn't have any magic bullet. We're all in the parenting gig together, across cultures!

French parents also smack and spank their kids. That's certainly one way to remind them who's boss.

Before you take that book seriously, read this:

@anon---That was REALLY interesting. Especially the revelation that this is a woman who gave her husband a three-way for his 40th birthday and has publicly admitted to infidelity in the past.

I think she has much bigger problems than a fidgety toddler in a restaurant..

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