Are The French Really Better Parents? A Different View From Paris

As an American mom raising my own children in Paris, I agree that the French do parent differently. Very differently. But the relevant question here is notis it different but?
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They dress well, produce more than a thousand varieties of cheese, and have a former supermodel for a first lady. Now the French are better parents, too?

So claims Pamela Druckerman in her new book, "Bringing Up Bebe," the latest installment in the foreigners-are-better-parents genre. The book recounts Druckerman's personal experience raising kids in Paris and compares American parenting to the French model.

Not surprisingly, we Yanks don't fare well.

French children, she claims, don't throw temper tantrums, play contentedly by themselves, and sit quietly at mealtime without throwing food. French parents achieve these and other impressive feats by establishing authority, setting firm boundaries and -- most importantly -- cultivating the invaluable attribute of patience.

She describes a virtual parenting utopia where mothers are calm and collected (not to mention well-dressed), obedient kids don't throw tantrums and parents are deeply satisfied with family life.

But does French-style parenting provide a truly enviable and replicable framework for American parents?

As an American mom raising my own children in Paris, I agree that the French do parent differently. Very differently. But the relevant question here is not how is it different but why?

The answer is simple. Our two cultures value very different things. Where the French value tradition and solidarity, Americans value innovation and individuality. Where they seek to cultivate qualities of patience and intellectual uniformity we strive for entrepreneurialism and originality.

Our parenting styles serve different goals. So it should come as no surprise that we go about it in different ways.

From the first days at their kids' preschool through high-school graduation, American middle-class parents see our children as vessels of limitless potential. Given the right encouragement and opportunities, little Jack and Emma could grow up to be whatever they choose! So, we look for schools and activities that use the latest teaching models, employ the best teachers and most of all, praise, support, encourage! We hesitate to say "no" for fear (albeit somewhat absurdly) of crushing their little spirits and landing them, one day, on the therapist's couch.

In France? Non. French children go to school to be trained in the time-honored traditions and lessons of French society. French schoolchildren are not so much taught how to think as they are filled with knowledge. They succeed through memorization, competition and by giving the one (and only one) right answer.

Unlike in the U.S., academic success is still essential for professional excellence in France. Without the right degrees from the right schools, a French man or woman has little hope for a truly distinguished career. In the U.S., one can drop out, invent something in a garage, end up on the cover of Time magazine and even change the world.

Young teachers in France who try new methods are viewed with suspicion, not admiration. I was recently chatting with a group of French moms about a new teacher's approach at our kids' school. "It's not the way we were taught," several of them said with alarm. It was therefore suspicious and unwelcome.

Parents in France are not invited to volunteer in the classroom and parent-teacher conferences happen by appointment. Even in the earliest grades, teachers are feared and classrooms are run with an almost militaristic precision. Fun isn't really part of the deal. Teachers teach, parents work, and kids play. Everyone has their own sphere and their own separate job to do.

French home life is like this, too -- structured and based on age-old models. Parents don't devour the latest parenting books (there aren't many) or rethink their approach to discipline in search of a better method. You're not going to catch a Parisian mother calling herself a "bad mom" because she forgot the snacks or didn't pack an extra diaper. In fact, she's not going to say it at all. It's just not French.

With their kids, the French deploy an authoritarian model based on respect for elders and upholding tradition. They use methods that many American middle-class parents today view as outmoded and even dangerous. Despite Ms. Druckerman's claims, most French parents I know consistently raise their voices (and even their hands) to their kids to teach them who is boss.

And while French children are often quite obedient in their parents' presence, their penchant for self-control diminishes quickly when they're away from mom and dad. I have watched many a petit francais go wild in my living room and respond to my admonishments with surprising defiance. American parents, however, often have the opposite experience: Our kids are angels at school and at friend's houses but become deaf mini-tyrants at home.

Ms. Druckerman goes on to cite studies that show French women report greater satisfaction with childcare than their American counterparts. But of course! Who wouldn't find parenting less stressful and more enjoyable in a culture that heaps benefits and assistance upon its parents and families?

She cites the relevance of these benefits but quickly shifts focus to our shared values of reading to our kids and exposing them to activities as evidence of common ground. But this misses the point. National support for mothers and families - of both the material and social variety - shapes the way we view our responsibilities as parents. Its impact on the culture of parenting cannot be overstated.

The French expect the state (through free, high-quality daycare, schools and healthcare) to offer a helping hand in raising their kids. They are shocked by the idea of exorbitant preschool tuition and the financial burden healthcare places on many American families. Most even receive a monthly cash per-child payment that increases for each additional child they have. Americans famously want their government to keep its hands off.

We therefore define "good parenting" in vastly different ways. A "good mother" in the U.S. (a virtually unattainable state of grace) is, by definition, a deeply involved and engaged mother. A sit-on-the-floor, clap your hands, dig in the sandbox, finger painting kind of gal.

Mothers I know in France simply do not do these things. This notion of motherhood strikes the French as patently absurd. This is what preschool and extracurricular activities are for. Self-sacrifice (like giving birth without an epidural or breastfeeding into toddlerhood) is seen not as a hallmark of a devoted mother but of an overly burdened woman who needs to get a life. Only about 55 percent of French women breastfeed at all and most wean their babies after three months.

French parents are not expected to abdicate their adult lives and ambitions in order to raise their children. Au contraire: They continue to view themselves as adults with separate lives that do not revolve strictly around their children. As Ms. Druckerman correctly points out, the French rigorously guard adult time and space; hence no toys in the living room, no toddlers in the parent's bed.

So, before we abandon American parenting practices in favor of the French, we must ask ourselves what end we hope to achieve and what supports we're willing to put in place to help parents achieve it. Do we truly want to change the culture of American parenting? Then we must first be willing to change American culture itself.

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