Why are French parents superior to the American ones

by Alenka


Fascinating article, definitely food for thought: “Why French Parents are Superior”. The American author, living in France, is analyzing her own parentings styles, comparing her experiences of child rearing with that of French mothers surrounding her and pinpointing to the downsides of American approach. Here is a summary of her new book:

Pamela Druckerman’s new book “Bringing Up Bebe,” catalogs her observations about why French children seem so much better behaved than their American counterparts. Pamela Druckerman’s new book “Bringing Up Bebe,” catalogs her observations about why French children seem so much better behaved than their American counterparts.

What do you think? Firmer, louder “no”, wider eyes, more times for yourself. Sounds terrific, doesn’t it?

I looked at a variety of comments to the article: “Liberating!” “Tried the wider eyes approach and my toddler seems to respond better.” “My whole family feels better!” Sounds terrific.

Here is a quick list of Pamela Druckerman’s suggestions:

French Lessons

  1. Children should say hello, goodbye, thank you and please. It helps them to learn that they aren’t the only ones with feelings and needs.
  2. When they misbehave, give them the “big eyes”–a stern look of admonishment.
  3. Allow only one snack a day. In France, it’s at 4 or 4:30.
  4. Remind them (and yourself) who’s the boss. French parents say, “It’s me who decides.”
  5. Don’t be afraid to say “no.” Kids have to learn how to cope with some frustration.

Yet, I wasn’t impressed. First of all, the way the author generalizes the “American” way of brining up children and “French” – seems very stereotypical. Throwing in a single bundle parents who try to use words and reason with their kids and parents who spank, parents to return to work weeks after little ones are born and parents who stay home throughout their lives, parents who have help from relatives and who raise their kids all by themselves, parents who prefer to drag their kids to a different activity every second and parents who leave kids to the mercy of TV – all extremes, good a bad ones, all are packaged into a single definition: “American Parent”. I am not familiar with many French parents, especially the “sniffy Parisians” as the author puts it, but something tells me, that bundling all of them up is neither fair nor just.

Setting limits, respecting parents, having specific times for meals – I find it important parts of the culture in those areas where I live too. In some families. I find too much of those in some families. I find too little in others. Some kids are better at greetings and respecting others feelings, others are not. Funny thing is, I can see that it is not only up for a parent: in my own family my older one has a tremendously low sensitivity to everything – textures, sounds, colors, foods… feelings and pain. His own and other’s. When it comes to pain – it is great: I am always joking, that my kid is made of rubber and if he cries – it is the time to go to emergency room. When it comes to feelings – it frustrates me: even if it is not your fault that your brother is crying, his feelings are still important enough to comfort him and help him feel better. Saying good-buys, thank yous, paying attention to directions also often come with a great struggle. On the other had my little one is all sensitivity: we have to cut labels and routinely stop during hikes and walks to take off shoes, socks and remove invisible dust from his feet. Textures and lumps in his food cause gagging reflex. He really wishes he could eat it – and he can’t. I know the feeling – I’d rather starve to death, then eat something that feels unpalatable. A bump on my little one’s forehead in the morning, is going to be tenderly “ice-packed” all until evening. A scratch from three days ago, will be remembered and still require to band-aid even after it is hard to see where it was. Same goes for feelings – he is the one greeting and thanking, he is the one giving out hugs, he is mommy-temper soother – as soon as my temper begins to rise, he’ll be at my side petting my arm, smothering me with kisses. If mommy or daddy are mad at his brother – no matter who is right, he’ll be by his upset brother’s side, supporting him in whatever comes.

The point is: same family, different kids.

I can go for days without a meal. So does my older child (we have specific times for meals, but if on a vacation there is a glitch – he isn’t going to notice). My own mother needs a snack every 20 minutes. A cup of coffee. A toast. A little apple. My own tiny peanut-like older one, eats like an elephant. Pretty much as much as my husband. His huge bulky friend needs to eat every 30 minutes… but eats like a bird. Nibbles. 30 minutes later he is falling apart – he needs his tiny little snack again. To his parents – it is very unusual for their family. Me, knowing my mother, it is not. Moreover, I’ve read many times that many little portions are more healthier then a few big ones.

The point I am trying to make is that “3 meals a day, one snack at 4:30″ is not necessarily the healthiest attitude (as neither is French cooking – delicious, yes, but not healthy). I am not a proponent “eat as you please whenever”, neither we really have a concept of snacks around our house – just regular meals; but different metabolisms require different approaches and we set meal times accordingly. While I cook the same set of foods, my kids eat it at different times of the day to address their specific needs.

Different personalities require different rules. In my friend’s family, in a total disarray and chaos, her daughter is always a delight for a newcomer – she’ll greet, thank, and be English-queen-visit ready any day. Her baby brother is a totally different story: energetic, curious, self-reliant and non-familiar with any rule-systems (not because there are non, merely by choice), he comes out of a doctor’s well visit overthrowing their file system on a floor and his mother is only thankful that he didn’t have enough time to break anything. Totally different temperament regardless of the family rules.

Firm no’s… I am not a fan of no’s. There is time and place for them, that’s for sure. The situation that the author describes at the playground is as follows: the child finds the gates inviting to run outside, so his mother yells, drags him bag every time. In a matter of minutes the situation repeats. This seemed troublesome for my American view of an authority as well: I believe in firm limits that set safety. Even if she would spank her child, it seemed that the limit wasn’t clearly set, neither inforced. While firm voice is important, the limit was still unclear. In the same situation, I believe a gentle but firm “We play inside the gates, not outside” would be more efficient then any form of “no”: it explains the limit, the rule. If it doesn’t work, I believe a child of every age deserves an explanation: “Outside is for cars and and people rushing. Inside is for playing. We play INSIDE the gates.” Again, no need for a “no”: it teaches the child how to access the situation, not just follow somebody else’s command! I might point to the cars and explain how dangerous running to the street might be. Or point to the crowded walkway and explain how easy it is get lost. If it wouldn’t work again, I’d offer a choice: “Either you play INSIDE the gates, or we have to leave the playground.” And then, I’d follow it – leave the playground. Not punitively, as in “You see – you were such a bad boy that mommy was forced to leave!” But (if I still can manage it), as calmly as I can: “Today we have to go home, but we’ll come back tomorrow to try to play INSIDE the gates again.” I also believe in second chances – my older son would often plead for a “last chance”… and I usually offer it: I want him to have a chance to do it right, to finish the day on the good terms, to feel good about himself. If it doesn’t work (still happens), then I’ll leave for that day. In our case, usually it works. In his 6 years of life we had a public tantrum just once. If the situation gets out of hand, we try to leave before it escalates to that level.

May be that day I wouldn’t enjoy “the leisurely conversation”, but I believe it would provide my child with a benefit of respect – I explained the limit, why it is there, and what are the consequences. And, obviously, follow it. Letting him run outside on one day, because I am just enjoying the company of other mom too much, and demanding strict obedience on another – is useless. Again, being an American parent, positive parent, non-punitive parent, never resorting to any kind of punishment – I believe that establishing clear, kind, safe limits WHEN THEY ARE NEEDED (sometimes we are asking too much!), and enforcing them consistently – is the key to kids comfort and sense of security just as much as my sanity.

When it comes to playing with their kids, I am always amazed whenever I find families, where parents can get down on children’s level and engage in lego building, or a dollhouse play, or a mascarade! I wish it was as often as the author describes. I know very few families who can comfortably engage in playing with their kids. Most of them seem to be “too French” they are too busy with their own conversations, gyms, work, morning coffee. What tells kids better how important they are to us? Definitely not the bank accounts. Personal time, personal attention, just talking to them is more important then having a college fund to begin with. Engaging into an independent play or activity is very important. Every day I offer my children a chance to spend some time by themselves, enjoying something (no TV, no video games) by themselves. They love this time. And then they come back to me for more interaction, learning, fun together. I don’t teach my kids to engage into independent play for the sake of my “personal time”. I do it for the sake of their self-fulfillment and having a chance to find what truly interests them, what they really like.

Unlike so unfairly generalized “French parents” in the article, I am also a huge believer in early education. Why not? It doesn’t mean we can’t teach values of respect for others and basic rules of communications along the way. Not two mutually exclusive concepts.

French parents enjoy tremendous benefits for having kids: free preschools, extra government sponsored donations to their bank accounts just for having kids, etc. There is a reason for it – France, just as most countries in Europe, has a tremendously low birth rate. Just as the author stated, the parents are very concerned with their own personal time, making sure that kids are not disrupting it… and while it is a wonderful idea for all the parents to have dedicated “parent time”, and I strongly believe that all parents need to have that, I don’t think we need to research French families to assert that to us.

So, I’d rather pick up and reread one of the wonderful books of Barbara Coloroso Kids are Worth It, or How to talk to your kids so they can listen by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish, or Kids, Parents and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, and invest time in learning about children’s personalities, how to address it, understand it and help them grow up to be happy, adjusted, independent and confident adults. Seems more worth of time, then examining how French’s family’s widen their eyes to make their “no’s” more firmer.

Share what you think!


  1. AK

    Sadly, this author of this publicity stunt book wouldn’t really know the American way of bringing up her kids, with her only credentials being that she’s American. While she has 3 kids, they are in full time daycare and she as a Filipino nanny taking care of them. So, perhaps HER children don’t behave very well because they are attention seeking and are desperately trying to get their mother to pay attention to them.

  2. zra

    I am French and I assure you that the generalization the author makes is equally wrong from our point of view.
    However, as a new mom living in North America and surrounded by attachment parenting believers, I find myself sometimes missing the more, hum, selfish parenting way of French moms.

    If there is one thing I find extremely draining here in America – and never felt as much in France – it’s the amount of guilt/sacrifice you are expected to make/feel in order to be a “good mom”. I know plenty of French children who go to day care all day and who are very happy. And so are the moms. But in order to feel this way, I think you need to have a good school system and a environment that doesn’t pressure mothers to be there 24/7, to co-sleep, to breastfeed, etc… I guess this is the only truth I can think of in this joke of a book. That it’s ok to focus on yourself as much as on your children, that it’s even good for them to feel you have other interests in life, that working is extremely important, that school is extremely important. etc…

  3. Alenka Post author

    I agree with you – this guilt is eating us up. And I couldn’t agree more about adult’s necessity for personal time – kids eventually grow up and we will still need to have a life. Besides, I personally start going crazy after a long day with kids, concentrating only on them. Necessity of an adult conversation with somebody who is above grade school, who doesn’t have to discuss kids robots, leprechauns, curious George, or superheros – is an absolute necessity for myself. Moreover, I strongly believe that parents need time by themselves and for themselves. I noticed, that such times makes the things that we do with kids afterworlds more productive, creative and even fun! It is just finding this time is sometimes the problem, but we are constantly trying, and I hope, so do you!