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.
I had the exact same reaction when I read it and being French myself, I really object to the title of the article. It is so dismissive of other cultures!
I believe it’s simply that those parents who follow what human biology wants get the results that we all would like. The further we stray from that ideal, the worse the outcome…
I don’t think the French, or any other culture, have an upper hand on parenting. It’s so much about balance and the temperament of the individual child.
Great thought-provoking post!
My feeling is this. As with everything, balance is key. Structure and discipline, but not so you stifle the child’s creativity and ability to make their own decisions. Every kid and every family is different, so go with what works in the moment, do your best, and try not to obsess about whether you are doing it right or wrong. Because you probably are, on both counts! Great post!
I haven’t read the article but someone just gave the author’s book Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. I haven’t read more than the book jacket, yet but I feel like I am already having the same reaction that you did. Bottom line, we all have to chart our own course and there is no single “superior”. But it would be interesting to hear your conclusions on Kenyan parenting. I’ve spent more time in West Africa but children act the same way there. Thanks for writing! Jennifer
Until I became a mother, I have never felt the extreme contradictions of confidence and self-doubt at the same time. I have felt a certain ‘knowing’ deep within my gut about parenting and yet I have questioned myself on each and every decision and action I’ve taken as a mother. Perhaps the self doubt comes from the availability of information afforded to us living in a modern society. We are inundated by so many different studies, opinions, beliefs, preferences and options that obscure the fact that only we know our children best. And comparisons between the nature of children from different countries are all too evident and they undermine the fact that each child is her/her own person subject to his/her own circumstances and needs. I try my best to peel back the layers of social expectations surrounding parenting and do what I (and my husband) believe is best for our children. Easier said than done, but I try.
“Obviously the balance is somewhere in the middle of the extremes and shifts depending on the temperament of the child.” Spot on! I think THAT type of objective realism is what makes good parenting 😉 Kids aren’t robots, and no one solution will fit all. I love to read and learn about what others do to get positive results, but I know I need to make all decisions based on who my children are and the cultural norms I have established in my household. Great post!
It is so reassuring that there are other mothers in the world out there thinking, “am I doing this right?”
I think my parenting style is “consistent winging it”.
I agree, balance is key. And, like you mentioned, it depends on the temperament of the child.
Does anyone remember that TIME magazine cover where they computer generated a face from all the different people in the world? It would just be so cool if a parenting guide book could be computer generated based on all the parenting styles in the world…and it actually worked! In the meantime, I’ll be consistently winging it…
This article and related book (Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting) have been part of many conversations I have had with other moms here in San Francisco, CA. I have not read it yet but intend to do so (I have it on reserve from our local library – I refuse to buy it!). An interesting tidbit from the article that has lingered with me and other moms is how often our children interrupt us. It is a rude behavior that needs to stop at some point. But how to do it? We are working on it.
In my opinion, every parenting book can teach you a trick or two. You need to find what applies and toss out the rest.
In our house, we have learned that consistency is the key. No wavering, no maybes, be confident & firm and the children will follow.