Why French Parents Aren’t Superior


This week I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about Why French Parents are Superior by Pamela Druckerman who recently published the book Bringing Up Bebe. Upon first reading it, I, like many others, was feeling a bit overwhelmed and confused about my own style of parenting. Of course, it was February vacation. Roozle was home. Eating crackers for breakfast and watching Mary Poppins on my laptop while MCB and I scrambled around the house to get ready for the day without too many tantrums caused by a disrupted routine. I felt judged. Quickly, though I realized, I wasn’t alone. There were lots of other mothers looking at this article and lucky for me, they have the time and resources to do a much better job of saying what I really want to say. She is wrong. Her definition of superior is different than mine and one I want nothing to do with.

It turns out, these magical French children are amazing in restaurants and give loads of time to their parents to chat on their own, but 80% of those same parents admit that they hit their children from time to time. So it seems, not only do these amazing children have occasional tantrums (because tantrums are normal), but they are strongly disciplined for it. In a way that I am very much uncomfortable with.

Elaine Sciolino writes in her New York Times review of Druckerman’s new book, “One way French parents try to keep their children in line is with an occasional whack on the side of the head, the arm or the bottom. More than 80 percent of French parents, according to polls over the last decade, slap or spank their children from time to time.”

The thing is, I don’t want to hit my child. I don’t want to not ever play with her or explore with her. As it is, our time together is so limited, I try to spend as much time with her as I can. There are certainly times that she wanders off and does her own work. We encourage that, and she is a Montessori student anyway, but for the most part I would rather work side by side with her. Both of us learning from each other as we go. I have plenty of time at work or after bed for conversations with grown ups. I didn’t choose to become a parent for that.

She also points out some other common practices in French parenting: formula feeding, cry it out, and automatic epidurals. Druckerman herself also mentions that the French children only eat four times a day and how that teaches children to wait. Really? If my daughter is hungry for a healthy snack at 10am and I give it to her, I am raising her to be impatient? That is ridiculous. Roozle is learning patience all day long. Through her experiences. Not because she is hungry.

What seems to be a part of the French Standard for parenting, according to this article, is absolutely not what I want for my family. And the fact that all these items were off the table but that the French were deemed Superior just based on the fact that their children can eat quietly in restaurants and don’t have tantrums is wrong to me. If my child were afraid to be spanked, she would probably act a little better at a restaurant too, but the truth is, I will take the tantrums any day if losing them meant that I ever had to hit my child.

Additional Reading

Book review of Bringing Up Bebe

Building Self-Control

“French methods like forcing children to follow schedules and wait for attention. But in the school system, this strict approach translates to a rigid curriculum with an emphasis on memorization.” Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang

Who Says American Parents are Inferior?

What’s Behind a Temper Tantrum?

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  1. Interesting response. I personally think the answer is somewhere in the middle. I grew up in Africa and I’m raising my kids in North America and trying to find that happy medium.
    I like that children in NA get a lot of parental attention and respect for their individuality. However, I also find that NA children have a sense of entitlement that I have never seen anywhere else (and I’ve lived in Europe and various parts of Africa and travel often). Tantrums may be normal part of growing up but I think NA children are over the top. I can’t believe the way children here talk to their parents. Even the whole teenage rebellion, attitude thing is a baffle to me. I was a teenager myself less than 15 years ago and I never acted or saw anyone around me act the way NA’s seem to assume is normal for teenagers.
    I am especially intrigued by the attachment parenting style and especially when proponents suggest that it is somehow the way of indigenous people. People in parts of Africa wear their children because they have no choice. Childproofing isn’t an option for a woman who must work miles a day with her child and works in a marketplace surrounded by strangers, sharp objects, dirty water etc. So, she wears her child. But, she also sets very clear boundaries for her child around feeding etc. She may breastfeed for longer than a year but that’s largely because milk may not be easy to find. And, it’s a safe alternative to the water supply etc. If you think the French style of upbringing is harsh then you need to see the level of boundaries and rules children in these communities live by. Spanking is not occasional but the primary mode of discipline.
    So, I think it’s completely phony to try to extrapolate anything from these contexts and apply it to a NA context.
    To my mind, I feel like the movement towards these kids of babyled parenting models is a huge problem. Children in NA think they rule.
    I’m not saying the French model is superior but I certainly don’t think the NA is either. The answer is somewhere in the middle.
    I think it is important for my child to learn self sufficiency, to entertain themselves and to respect adults. I do not spank my children but I also do not make excuses for bad behaviour. I set clear expectations. If we are out at a restaurant, I do not expect my children to be throwing things. At the same time, I ensure that the meals are ordered promptly, that they have books etc to entertain themselves and I pay attention to their attention thresholds. But, I clearly state my expectation and there are consequences for bad behaviour e.g. withdrawing privileges, time outs etc.
    Children need clear boundaries, they need to learn to memorise some things, they need to be creative but they also need to know that they cannot always do what they want. They don’t run the show.
    sorry for the diatribe. My baby just woke up so I can’t read this over. I hope it makes some sense. I don’t have all the answers but I know that the predominant NA babyled paradigm is problematic just as I think spanking is also

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  2. I love T’s response to this. I agree that children in our country are entitled and I think it’s a huge concern that kids in our culture are given a LOT of power at a very young age. Power that they do not want and do not know what to do with. I can’t stand eating at restaurants when kids are throwing food or being loud. When my kids ac that way in a restaurant, I take them outside immediately. And I never had to spank them to get that point across. But I also have rules, expectations, and i don’t buy the whole tantrums are normal thing. yes, kids have tantrums – they get tired, overwhelmed, or are growing and changing. And parents are there to create the boundaries and consequences for that behavior. I hardly think French parents are doing it better but I certainly don’t think we have the answers here in the US. I think the answer is, indeed, somewhere in the middle.

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  3. I have been really fascinated by this book and the associated article, and I enjoyed reading your response, as well as these comments. I too think, like T, that there is a balance somewhere. Or rather, there is a lot to be gleaned from cultures,experiences, and scientific inquiry around the world as we make parenting decisions. One thing that concerns me, though, is when we get defensive about our American or individual path and then use facts that just don’t make sense in supporting our arguments. The fact cited in the ny times review (and in this blog), that 80% of French parents admit to smacking their kids, may be true, but it doesn’t support the idea that “the french aren’t so great after all” because it is also true that 90% of Americans admit to the same thing. (ref
    : http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=to-spank-or-not-to-spank). I’m not on the side of corporal punishment here, but just suggesting it is not the most valid argument to use — somewhat of a red herring.

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  4. Great post and interesting responses. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue; I admit that article had me feeling confused too and a little defensive.

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  5. I don’t want to and will never hit my kids either. I’d love to read a study that follows these French children into adulthood. I bet the French are a repressed lot. Being admonished for crying out in pain in the ER? Are you kidding me?

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  6. I hear what you’re saying, but I think your interpretation of the article is missing the point. You seem to suggest that there’s a choice between hitting children or enjoying your time with them unconditionally. That seems like a reductive conclusion. I have my criticisms of the “French parenting” methods mentioned as well, but as a parent of a young child, I also think it’s very important to teach him that he lives in a world with other people…and that means first learning that he doesn’t get to dictate the terms of what goes on at every moment, in the world as well as in HIS world. That’s the positive side of the article, as I understood it.

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