Tiger Mom meets Croissant Mom

Here is a report/story of why French parenting, which focuses more on delayed gratification, has something to teach American parenting.

After a few more harrowing restaurant visits, I started noticing that the French families around us didn’t look like they were sharing our mealtime agony. Weirdly, they looked like they were on vacation. French toddlers were sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables. There was no shrieking or whining. And there was no debris around their tables.

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….

Yet the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. “For me, the evenings are for the parents,” one Parisian mother told me. “My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it’s adult time.” French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves….

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)…

Delphine said that she never set out specifically to teach her kids patience. But her family’s daily rituals are an ongoing apprenticeship in how to delay gratification. Delphine said that she sometimes bought Pauline candy. (Bonbons are on display in most bakeries.) But Pauline wasn’t allowed to eat the candy until that day’s snack, even if it meant waiting many hours….

Could it be that teaching children how to delay gratification—as middle-class French parents do—actually makes them calmer and more resilient? Might this partly explain why middle-class American kids, who are in general more used to getting what they want right away, so often fall apart under stress?

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I think there is something here. But these type of comparison pieces always seem like they take the strength of one thing and compare it to the weakness of the other thing.

    I have friends that are missionaries in France and one of the things that they have been successful in outreach is doing parenting classes. The image I have (and I am no expert, just a little bit of exposure) is that French parents are a bit distant.

    So you don’t have some perfect model of parenting, we have humans that are trying. We can do better, we can learn from one another. But there isn’t going to be a magic bullet that solves all parenting problem. Because, well, we are human and there are no magic bullets to make humans perfect.

  • Holly

    What is the average French family size? Fewer kids means less chaos….

    But still – good points!

  • Steph

    Hold on. There’s more going on here. I notice she talks about babies and toddlers and I can’t comment there, but there is universal preschool in France. I attended two years of preschool and one year of kindergarten and that goes a significant way towards socializing your behavior. That is particularly true because French schooling is more formal. In elementary, you stood to attention by the side of your desk if the principal came in. You sat in class according to your class rank/performance. Then everything changes radically in middle school, and you have substantially more freedom and responsibility than in the US. The point is, the mentality is different not just in families but also in schooling (and its socializing effect), and there are some negatives attached to that.
    When it comes to the home, you have also got another cultural dynamic to examine. In general, having company is a more formal affair in France, and more rare than in the US (my other context), and the living room/dining room are considered formal spaces. Here in the US, we are used to big everything, so big teepees and big plastic kitchen centers are accepted. The largeness and obtrusiveness of those items would be less acceptable in a French home. The restraint is seen in other ways (smaller wardrobes, but more careful ones, for example).
    I remember life growing up in a working class neighborhood (as an immigrant/child of missionaries) let me see people that threatened children with death if they touched their motorbike, and I knew slapping was an acceptable form of discipline, where it was not in my home. I didn’t get the impression that throwing exaggerated threats at someone else’s children would earn you rebuke from other adults, even if they didn’t like it, but that may have been just my rather tough (but not toughest of the tough) neighborhood.
    As delighted as I am to see a positive light thrown on life in France and a different way of doing things, I feel absolutely no compulsion to train my infants to be “good” and not cry at two months of age.
    It’s entirely too easy to take one’s friends or one’s observations and turn them into “the French way.” I’d rather see a study and its results.
    Also, the French are very outspoken (or if a French person is inclined towards being outspoken and critical, there is certainly more room for that kind of person in society). Having one’s parenting criticized is common, and it’s again too easy to assume the criticism is offered from the perspective of “the French way” and not just the perspective of a rude person. I don’t know if the author of this article describes receiving such criticism, but I recently read another one that did, that was circulating around Facebook. There are many ways to parent, even in France.
    I will say that spending time together as a family, nuclear and extended, seems overall to be more valued in France, that kids will live at home longer, and they will kiss their parents goodnight even as young adults and teens.
    So anyway, a similarly limited, experience-based counter-perspective from me.
    Oh, and we had no team sports, music groups (band, choir), and so forth in French schools, and so you must pay for all those sorts of things. Life is expensive and everything costs and so, yes, people do enroll their kids in activities, but they will tend to focus. For example, music study was very serious, done at a conservatory, with “solfege” first (mandatory music theory) and not our casual learn-from-the-lady-next-door approach. Again, less is more approach.

  • Steph

    I just read the full article. Very interesting. It would be nice if she weren’t learning to parent in France but had actually more experience with it in both France and the US or Britain (husband is British). I’ve had my kids seem like the only ones acting up in a restaurant too, and that was in the US.
    So many other dynamics to mention. Apartment life. We couldn’t disturb the neighbors (no flushing after 10 pm). That affects your parenting of young kids, I am sure. No running or shoes in the house/apartment. Whole other mentality about meals, from the social aspect to the concept of snacking to the orderliness of the meal/its structure. So, it’s not just about parenting. I do think the point about disrespect of parents, French kids’ being more respectful of parents, is well-taken.
    What amuses me is the part at the end, at the playground, where another parent coaches her on how to be firm. Many American parents could offer similar coaching, but see, we just wouldn’t. We wouldn’t tell somebody else how to parent. It seems to have been advice well-, not rudely, proffered. Yeah for mentors.
    I just don’t know how you can zero in just on parenting. The schools are structured differently too. (No classes starting at 7:53 and ending at 8:41.) And two hours off at lunch time in elementary school, up through grade 7 or 8. More humane, in that specific thing, in my opinion.

  • Amos Paul

    Steph,

    A minor note. Paragraphs here are ever so much easier to read with an added

    line break

    or two.

  • Mark

    That is absolutely fascinating. I am not a parent, so cannot really comment from the inside. But I think the principle goes well beyond parenting. We demand instant gratification for ourselves (“I want my coffee five minutes ago thank you very much!”), and its expected of us in every aspect of life; in the workplace and even in our social circles. Much as I love technology and the ability to communicate across the world in a matter of milliseconds, doesn’t it put pressure on us to always be at the beck and call of whoever might want our attention?

    If I ever do become a parent, I hope that I will have learned better for myself the value of patience and delayed gratification, so that my kids can learn some of the same.

  • Diane

    I too find this quite interesting. Children can learn. I often would marvel at how quietly my quite active children would sit at restaurants, and I believe this is because we are Quaker and our faith tradition emphasizes quiet listening for God’s voice. Our children learned at a young age to sit quietly without piles of toys, paper, coloring books, crayons …
    Steph, Thank you for balanced comments. It’s easy to idealize another culture. Otherwise, in general I think the overly-child centered parenting of US society is a form of narcissism that feeds a siege mentality that validates only caring for “me and mine.”

  • Peter

    I grew up in France in a French family of 8 (5 kids + 1 foster kid), and I live in the US since more than 5 years. And this article describes accurately how I grew up. Right now, I am regularly interacting with both an American baby and a French baby, both 1 year old, and it always shocked me how they will react differently in the middle of a party.

    The first one might be scared if he doesn’t have his parents right around him, and is inclined to cry if picked up by somebody that he doesn’t meet regularly. the French one will happily play by himself and be picked up by everybody under minimal supervision.

    I think that this is how I got taught about independence and freedom. Freedom is not about doing whatever we want, it’s about doing whatever we want/can in a delimited frame (spatial, temporal, social…). Freedom is not about what we can put on our credit cards, it’s about what’s on your bank account.

    I got “kicked out” of the family house and encouraged to go to the US after college, and this is exactly what I needed from my parents. And I love my parents for having done that. But I was not happy at all about that decision at first. I feel that they didn’t do that for them, and they cried when I left, but they did that for me, giving me the freedom of being far from them and of not being happy about their decision.

    And this brings me to the last point. I think that French parents (and in my family in particular) try to teach their kids how to be independent and free, even free to be angry at them, because it’s about the children, not about the parents. And I love my parents for doing that. In the US, I think that sometimes parents want to create a dependence relationship with their children, and they are doing everything the children wants in order to get the children’s love back. And I know some parents that are now requiring their 25-year old children to love them, and those children are mad at them for that.

    This last statement is pretty strong, on purpose, for the sake of the debate. Feel free to debate further.

    No parenting is perfect, but some parenting is less worse than others.

  • James

    On the idea of French families being able to enjoy the evening out as a family…that’s not a US problem, it’s a parenting problem (this could be said of much of the article, at least in my humble opinion, because I apparently must be French without knowing it…ha): Our daughters thoroughly enjoy going with us to eat out, and are very well behaved. I don’t think we’re super-parents or have secret voo-doo. Of our friends who can’t do this, I can tell you some common denominators I see:

    - Families that don’t eat together at home don’t know how to enjoy it under what they feel is a spotlight in public.

    - Parents that don’t raise their children to be courteous in their manners at home can not reasonably expect them to in public. That’s just an unreasonable expectation of the child.

    - If you fluster easily and will give in when you do, they’ll play that card. Every time.

    - If you aren’t relaxed, they won’t be, and they’ll act out. Lighten up.

    - If you’re a helicopter parent that is going to get up and hover over them every few seconds. Please stay home.

  • Steph

    Amos Paul, duly noted. Thank you.


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