Druckerman on French Childrearing

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This made news some time ago, but I took my time getting to it: Pamela Druckerman, an American expat in France has apparently studied how American and French parenting practices differ, after noticing that, in general, French children give their parents far less trouble in restaurants than American children do:

Though by that time I'd lived in France for a few years, I couldn't explain this. And once I started thinking about French parenting, I realized it wasn't just mealtime that was different. I suddenly had lots of questions. Why was it, for example, that in the hundreds of hours I'd clocked at French playgrounds, I'd never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum? Why didn't my French friends ever need to rush off the phone because their kids were demanding something? Why hadn't their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had?

Soon it became clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents were achieving outcomes that created a whole different atmosphere for family life. When American families visited our home, the parents usually spent much of the visit refereeing their kids' spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build Lego villages. When French friends visited, by contrast, the grownups had coffee and the children played happily by themselves.
Her conclusions, as far as I could learn them from a single article, sound reasonable and, assuming they are correct, reflect well on certain aspects of French child rearing:
When Pauline tried to interrupt our conversation, Delphine said, "Just wait two minutes, my little one. I'm in the middle of talking." It was both very polite and very firm. I was struck both by how sweetly Delphine said it and by how certain she seemed that Pauline would obey her. Delphine was also teaching her kids a related skill: learning to play by themselves. "The most important thing is that he learns to be happy by himself," she said of her son, Aubane.

It's a skill that French mothers explicitly try to cultivate in their kids more than American mothers do. In a 2004 study on the parenting beliefs of college-educated mothers in the U.S. and France, the American moms said that encouraging one's child to play alone was of average importance. But the French moms said it was very important.
It is interesting to compare this firmness about psychological boundaries to the gist of a Michael Hurd column I read some time back about how to "Be a 'Child Whisperer'".
[Cesar Millan] exposes errors like "the dog is my baby." The objective fact is that it's an animal, with certain instincts and a certain set of parameters within which one must work. They need limits and boundaries, and they don't get their feelings hurt. But they do mirror anxiety when the owner is a not an effective "pack leader." Dogs don't want neglect or abuse, but inconsistency and a lack of boundaries can be almost as damaging. Wow -- sounds like young children, doesn't it?
Druckerman has written and recently published an entire book, titled Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, based on her observations. After reading this article, it looks to me like the book might be a worthwhile read.
-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,
I remember growing up when we would get a pickup game together in the neighborhood - baseball or football - and play until it was almost too dark to get home.

Now-a-days it seems like every impulse toward entertainment has to be channeled toward some institutional outcome. Dance class, Little League, Babe Ruth so that very few suburban kids know how to spontaneously put together a pickup game - referee themselves - and actually have fun.

I don't know if this is because of the perceived danger of child abduction, or helicopter parents or some other change in the cultural norm from decades ago.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

I would say that helicopter parenting, which is an outgrowth of a modernist fetish for risk avoidance, has quite a bit to do with these trends.