The Truth About French Parenting (and I Would Know)

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

As a French parent who speaks Americanese on the Twitters (you should follow me here by the way), I must have been asked countless times what I think about the latest parenting meme: the idea that French parenting is superior to American parenting.

The basic gist is that French parents know how to be more strict, kowtow less to their children, and as a result their children are better behaved.

Oh boy.

Depending on your perspective, I am either the worst or the best person to ask about this, because I view the first 20 years of my life as a constant fight against the education ideas that rule in France. Now that I have a child, my almost monomaniacal obsession is how to protect her from French parenting and French education, which is why we are considering Montessori schools and homeschooling/unschooling rather than put her in French schools. (Let me rephrase that: I am considering setting myself on fire rather than put her in French schools.)

The way French education works, and I don't know if I could put it in a more charitable way, is that it seeks to mercilessly beat any shred of nonconformity out of children (the beating is now done mostly psychologically) so that they may be slotted into a society that, itself, treats nonconformity the way the immune system treats foreign elements.

I can only encourage you to read an excellent blog post by Liz Garrigan, an American expat living in Paris. I feel compelled to excerpt liberally:

[French parents] are much more willing to wage emotional and physical warfare with their children than my friends and I are (and remember, I'm representing not an American perspective but an international one). It obviously can't be said that all French parents are the same, but what passes for acceptable here as a means to make children compliant is unacceptable to every expat parent, no matter the nationality, I know.

I've seen a woman on the sidewalk grab a teen's hair and pull him to her violently, a woman beating her son in the car seat to make him shut up, and perhaps more damning than anything else, I've seen French parents simply ignoring their children. Entire coffee klatschs here are dedicated to recounting deplorable French parenting we've witnessed.

There is no doubt that French children are more behaved when they are being judged by their behavior than their American counterparts. French children know their parents don't mind exercising very unpleasant means of punishment should they fail to mind their Ps and Qs.

You should read the whole thing.

Last Sunday my wife and I had lunch and the table next to us was two families with children. The children were segregated from the parents, and the only time when the parents paid their children any mind was to yell at them, including one exasperated father yelling at his daughter "You're breaking my balls!" This was normal--if other patrons glanced with disapproval, we missed it. And mind you, this was at a nice restaurant in the swanky suburb where we live, a family that had all the outward signs of affluence and high education.

It's true that French children throw fewer tantrums than their American counterparts. But at costs that seem unacceptable to me.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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