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.