I didn’t get a chance to read the Wall Street Journal article on French parenting that’s been making the rounds on the internet until yesterday. I knew that it was huge when my mom forwarded me the piece last night — she only reads the Korean newspaper, and has never forwarded me anything in her life!
The article by Pamela Druckerman, an American mother of 3 living in Paris, seeks to discover why French children are so much better behaved than their American counterparts. They don’t throw tantrums. They sit quietly at restaurants. They play independently. They even sleep through the night at 2-3 months of age. French parents appear to utilize two parenting concepts that we’ve recently touched on: benign neglect and executive function.
French parents place a very high importance on benign neglect:
“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.
American parents, on the other hand, constantly play with their children:
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.
French parents not only practice benign neglect, but they also encourage independent play (which cultivates executive function), and do not hyperschedule their children’s lives:
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.
French parents reinforce executive function skills not only through independent play, but also through self-control and delayed gratification:
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.
While Charlie does throw his fair share of tantrums, he’s also increasingly independent, and we can enjoy the company of friends without having to constantly entertain or engage him. But unlike the French parents in the article, I often feel guilty that I’m not spending enough time with my kids, while also feeling guilty that I’m not getting enough work done — and that must affect the way I parent. I think this “guilt” is a pervasive sentiment in our culture that doesn’t exist as much in French culture. That absence of guilt is perhaps what enables French parents to more easily encourage the type of benign neglect (independent play) and executive function (delayed gratification) discussed in the article than American parents.
I don’t know if French parents are superior (Mr. Bee and I have actually been planning on living in Paris for a year when Charlie and Olive are older), but I do believe in benign neglect and executive function and try to incorporate them into the way I parent.
Do you think French parents are superior?