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Commentary: A French model for American parents: Opinion

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One item in the annals of American exceptionalism is how exceptionally badly behaved American children are. We who hang around international airports often marvel at how European toddlers wait calmly while their American cohorts run down the halls or lie sprawled on the floor in a screaming tantrum.

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This is a generality, of course, but you know it's a solid one.

Journalist Pamela Druckerman has experienced the difference as an American mother of a toddler living in Paris. She discusses French parents' seemingly miraculous ability to civilize their young children in her new book, "Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting."

What makes the story appealing is the author's own humble story of doing her best to discipline her toddler but obviously getting something very wrong. At a French seaport restaurant, Druckerman wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "Bean would take a brief interest in the food, but within a few minutes she was spilling salt shakers and tearing apart sugar packets. Then she demanded to be sprung from her high chair so she could dash around the restaurant and bolt dangerously toward the docks."

Every meal became torture, as the pint-sized tyrant wrecked her parents' vacation. Druckerman found it "weird" that the French families seemed be having a good time. "French toddlers were sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables," she wrote. "There was no shrieking or whining. And there was no debris around their tables."

Clearly, toddlers are not uncontrollable savages. Nor did French parents beat them into submission. But they knew the insanity of trying to "negotiate" with tiny ones.

The secret sprung from a very different mindset about raising children. The objective wasn't disciplining them but educating them. French parents established early on that they were not the children's servants and that "no" meant "no."

The last point is most interesting, because American parents seem quite able to say "no." The problem is they don't do it with conviction.

French children learned early on that they are not the center of the universe. They must adjust to family mealtime schedules. Meanwhile, the parents feel entitled to adult time, during which the children are expected to play quietly -- and do.

I'm amazed to call friends who, when their children demand attention, put me on hold, not them. One mother lets her teenage offspring interrupt phone conversations.

We're not talking about that gruesome "tiger mom" stuff, whereby the children are insulted, threatened and hounded into performing feats of brilliance -- academic or otherwise -- for the glory of the parents. The French, however, do spend much time reading to their children and showing them things.

These principles are familiar to fans of John Rosemond, the child-rearing expert especially beloved by American conservatives. And consistent with Rosemond's views, child-centered homes breed less happy parents. In a Princeton study comparing child care experiences of mothers in Columbus, Ohio, and Rennes, France, American mothers found child-rearing twice as unpleasant as their French sisters.

But what conservatives should also consider is their government's potential role in making parenthood less stressful. The French government provides paid maternity leave, well-run day care and preschool. Probably nothing would boost America's middle-class birthrate like a modicum of help for working parents.

But I digress. With much of American family life fallen into chaos, we would do well to look elsewhere for guidance on ways to do things. America is not the best at everything.

Froma Harrop's e-mail address is fharrop@wctrib.com.

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