A few days ago a good friend sent me this article provokingly titled “Why French Parenting is Superior” Maybe you’ve read it? I’m a bit out of the loop here in Western Kenya, but I’m assuming it’s getting a lot of attention because even my 24 year-old male colleague had heard of it.

Anyway, the article starts off with the author’s observation, after several years living and raising kids in France, that French kids are simply better behaved. They sit quietly at the table, acquiesce to parents’ demands and know how to play peacefully by themselves. This is laid out in stark contrast to the tantrums and power struggles seen all over American playgrounds.

So, what’s going on here?

First, the author asserts that the French view their role more as “educators” than “disciplinarians,” which gives them more patience and a slightly different perspective in the face of tantrums.

In addition, French parents simply “lay down the law” a bit more firmly, but still lovingly. They impose structure (e.g. no eating outside of mealtime) consistently and reliably, and as a result, their children are patient and well-behaved.

First reaction: Maybe this is all true but as outsiders, there’s often something we miss. I make a lot of assumptions living here in Western Kenyan based solely on conversations and observations that may or may not be true. And I’m often wrong.

Second reaction: OK. Even if her observations are true, superior French parenting entails nothing I didn’t learn by watching a few episodes of Nanny 911.Consistency, boundaries and empathy are key. But they are incredibly difficult to achieve. Is an entire country really getting this right? Or is the “firm tone” and “stern look of admonishment” that the author insists is the answer to getting a compliant child really backed up by the threat of a thwacking at home? And is that even OK?

Third reaction: (In total contradiction to the first two) I totally relate to this. I’ve yet to see a Kenyan toddler throw a tantrum even approaching the ferocity and duration of my son’s outbursts. I’ve never seen a Kenyan mother ask her child to do something and be told “no.” Figuring out how this happens has been a nagging quest of mine for the year and half I’ve lived here. And I don’t think I’ve totally figured it out.

I know some of you are thinking that the answer is simple: Children simply fear the consequences of their actions – knowing they will be dealt with firmly by their parents – and fall in line.

Many of the nearly 1,000 comments to the article echoed this same thing, saying basically: “Hey lady, this is not rocket science. And this is not unique to the French. A generation or two ago parents lived by the “spare the rod and spoil the child” meme, and children were better behaved.

Is it really that simple?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe firmness and unbending structure gets you more compliant toddlers and well-adjusted adults, but take it too far you get adults who might be less able to think for themselves and, in the extreme of physical punishment, even traumatized.

Maybe more “free range” permissive parenting gets you unruly toddlers but creative and self-assured adults; but take this one too far and you get entitled adults with a poor sense of boundaries.

Who knows? Obviously the balance is somewhere in the middle of the extremes and shifts depending on the temperament of the child. This is why parenting well – especially when we have the range of possibilities not available to previous generations or to many around the world — is so head-spinning and difficult. As evidence of this shift, a popular mommyblog I read recently had this tagline:

“I don’t know what I’m doing either.”

How do you orient yourselves given the array of choices we seem to have as parents? What do you use as your guideposts for disci… um… educating your kids?

This is an original, first-time post from our new writer and now mother of two in Kenya, Mama Mzungu. You can also read about her ex-pat adventures on her blog Mama Mzungu.

The photograph used in this post is credited to Anthony J. It has a Flickr Creative Commons attribution license.

Mama Mzungu (Kenya)

Originally from Chicago, Kim has dabbled in world travel through her 20s and is finally realizing her dream of living and working in Western Kenya with her husband and two small boys, Caleb and Emmet. She writes about tension of looking at what the family left in the US and feeling like they live a relatively simple life, and then looking at their neighbors and feeling embarrassed by their riches. She writes about clumsily navigating the inevitable cultural differences and learning every day that we share more than we don’t. Come visit her at Mama Mzungu.

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