We (Don’t) Need To Talk About Pierre: The Benefits of French Parenting?

Judging from the amount of forwards to my inbox, Pamela Druckerman’s “Why French Parents Are […]

David Zahl / 2.6.12

Judging from the amount of forwards to my inbox, Pamela Druckerman’s “Why French Parents Are Superior” has some relevant things to say. The article is another in a line of Wall Street Journal humdingers about parenting, and also the first time I’ve come across the brilliant new term, ‘kindergarchy.’ The gist of Druckerman’s argument is that French parents produce more well-behaved kids (or at least more self-controlled ones) because they are less worried about saying No to their children, that they believe that one of the parents’ primary tasks to teach the child about patience, and that temperament is not some unassailable category that has to be catered to. In fact, the article points out one of the key ironies of American parenting – that we are over-involved in every aspect of a child’s life except ones where we should be, that we might be exonerating ‘personality’ in a way that actually hampers it, that what a child naturally ‘wants’ may not necessarily be what’s best for them, etc. Do the post-Christian French have a better (implicit) grasp on original sin? Gulp. I’m not sure, but they certainly appear to be more at ease with allowing their children to experience negative emotions – they simply do not equate tears with guilt or judgment to the same extent. People will inevitably conflate this with the Tiger Mother approach, but this one is not only far less achievement-obsessed, but comparably hands-off as well. Indeed, there’s something ‘actively passive’ about this approach. Indeed, that most biblical of virtues, waiting, appears to have somehow kept its standing in culture that’s largely moved on. It’s certainly food for thought.

I was also struck by the distinction between discipline and education, that American parents ‘discipline’ while French parents ‘educate.’ One is clearly freighted with moral meaning (reward vs punishment – i.e. Law), while the other, education, has a more gracious, Beyond Deserving connotation. And at least according to the reports Druckerman cites, the second approach is more effective. Not surprisingly, it is also more tenable for parents, producing far less exhaustion, and indeed, an increased desire to spend time with their kids. And we all know that we are better parents when we’re actually enjoying our kids (a feeling which, sadly, can’t be contrived). My only skepticism here has to do with the actual French/European families I’ve spent time with, which have never struck me as particularly warm.

Of course, like all parenting philosophies, we get into murky territory when we theologize things too much. Lord knows any form the ‘should’ takes will have its advantages and drawbacks. We are not God, after all. Then again, as a wise man once said, we might as well be… No pressure:

I discovered a 2009 study, led by economists at Princeton, comparing the child-care experiences of similarly situated mothers in Columbus, Ohio, and Rennes, France. The researchers found that American moms considered it more than twice as unpleasant to deal with their kids. In a different study by the same economists, working mothers in Texas said that even housework was more pleasant than child care.

Yet the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. “For me, the evenings are for the parents,” one Parisian mother told me. “My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it’s adult time.” 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.

I’m hardly the first to point out that middle-class America has a parenting problem. This problem has been painstakingly diagnosed, critiqued and named: overparenting, hyperparenting, helicopter parenting, and my personal favorite, the kindergarchy. Nobody seems to like the relentless, unhappy pace of American parenting, least of all parents themselves.

When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. “Ah, you mean how do we educate them?” they asked. “Discipline,” I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas “educating” (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat.

In a 2004 study on the parenting beliefs of college-educated mothers in the U.S. and France, the American moms said that encouraging one’s child to play alone was of average importance. But the French moms said it was very important.

[Americans] tend to view whether kids are good at waiting as a matter of temperament. In our view, parents either luck out and get a child who waits well or they don’t. French parents and caregivers find it hard to believe that we are so laissez-faire about this crucial ability.

After a while, it struck me that most French descriptions of American kids include this phrase “n’importe quoi,” meaning “whatever” or “anything they like.” It suggests that the American kids don’t have firm boundaries, that their parents lack authority, and that anything goes. It’s the antithesis of the French ideal of the cadre, or frame, that French parents often talk about. Cadre means that kids have very firm limits about certain things—that’s the frame—and that the parents strictly enforce these. But inside the cadre, French parents entrust their kids with quite a lot of freedom and autonomy.

Authority is one of the most impressive parts of French parenting—and perhaps the toughest one to master. Many French parents I meet have an easy, calm authority with their children that I can only envy. Their kids actually listen to them. French children aren’t constantly dashing off, talking back, or engaging in prolonged negotiations.


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7 responses to “We (Don’t) Need To Talk About Pierre: The Benefits of French Parenting?”

  1. adam shields says:

    I am all for putting an end to helocopter parenting, but this afticle seems to idealize french parenting in was that doesn’t seem real. I have visited france have friends that are missionaries in france, etc. Clearly I don’t want to claim t be an expert. But while some of this seems true, there is a flip side that is ignored. I see french parents scream at and belittle there children in ways I find inappropriate. And I would say french and american children are both spoiled, just in different ways.

    The problems with comparisons like this is that it takes one good point and compares it with another’s badpoint. Always seems to be of limited value.

  2. Alex Large says:

    A wise children’s educator reminded me that the word ‘discipline’ comes from the word ‘disciple.’ The whole point of discipline for a child, like a master to a disciple, is to teach or educate. But the modern connotation of the word is that it inherently involves some negative method (spanking, punishment, physical abuse, shame) to bring about teaching. But it doesn’t have to. When kids do things wrong, it is an opportunity to teach them the right way, not necessarily punish them for doing wrong.

  3. Melina says:

    The two main ideas I took away was the idea of education vs. discipline and also the importance of delayed anticipation. Studies show that children who are able to delay their desire for instant gratification are found to be more successful adults in terms of careers and relationships. Between the ages of 1 through 5 you foster this ability in your children, in result they experience a much higher threshold to engage in tasks that are not necessarily gratifying in the short term, rather oriented towards long achievement. Lastly, your teaching your children to approach life calmly rather then reactionary.


  4. honeybee says:

    I’ve been an expat in western Europe for 15 years, and I can attest that, in my experience, French children are not only well behaved, but they have a poise, quiet confidence and self possession that is remarkable. This can be seen even in young toddlers. British and American children, on the other hand, are a nightmare.
    Unlike Adam, I have never seen a French parent scream at their children in public.

  5. Stokes says:

    As parents of a three year old and three month old, we’re definitely going to have to read this. Does the book have a how to section? Let us hope

  6. Cindy says:

    How funny…my Chinese parents’ approach seems to have been remarkably similar to the French one (though there definitely was a sense of discipline…based on conversations with French friends, I’m pretty sure there is a sense of discipline in French parenting as well). It was very clear to me that my parents were in charge, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of talking back the way I hear so many American kids doing…the disrespectful things I hear kids say to their parents just make me cringe! Yet I had tons of freedom to do what I wanted, within a framework. It made for a pretty nice childhood! 🙂

  7. Hawley says:

    Dave, I’m SO glad you wrote about this – and love your insights. It’s interesting to consider your focus points of discussion, and to note that what I took away from it was similar to some other comments but there were also other things I took from it that weren’t mentioned. After reading the article, I thought of how so many of my mama friends are constantly monitoring their children – applauding their polite request, admonishing their rude behavior, correcting their lashing out, not allowing them to steal a toy from another kid… I don’t know what I think about it yet, as disciplining our daughter is something that we are only now really wrestling with how to do in a broader sense. But Matt and I were actually just discussing today that we don’t want to be constantly editing our children. Yes, I love that my daughter regularly says please and thank you, but it’s a happy habit almost rather than making me feel like I am forcing something on her. To me, this article seemed to express a little bit more faith in the ability of the child to behave well, as well as maybe a bit more grace? As in, you don’t have to be extraordinary in France (as I think most Americans want their kids to feel “unique” and “special”), and you’re simply expected to partake – not to have a certain response, per se, but one that acquiesces, ultimately, to the parent. I was quite struck by the commentary on food, and how french children aren’t forced to eat their whole plate or misled to believe something is delicious because parents feel their child needs to eat it for reasons of health or whatnot – but that the parents primary goal with feeding their child is to have them taste, experience, and hopefully enjoy. I found that to be quite compelling. I certainly agree that French culture tends to be a bit less friendly than American culture, but I think any broad generalization of a country will surely have it’s exceptions. If you visit the American South, people are so friendly, smiley, inviting… but if you go to the Northern states, people are often considered to be brusk, rude, unfriendly… Yet the American stereotype is one of being friendly. Of course, we none of us are perfect and I guess that’s what I found appealing about this look at parenting: it seemed to me to be more about parents striving for balance, authority/comfort/confidence in their role, and not making the child an idol. That being said, I haven’t yet read the whole book – but I look forward to reading it and seeing what I take from it. Of course, I’ll also be thinking of what you’ve shared. Cheers! 🙂

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