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.

It's telling that the only place I can remember encountering children "better behaved" than French children was in the Soviet Union, where my parents briefly worked and lived when I was a child, and where parents were simultaneously shocked and delighted to see a child who thought it was normal to express himself, take part in conversation and so forth. When I was a child and my mother would take me to a dinner party or other social event, before we rang the bell she'd mischievously whisper in my ear "Pretend I've brought you up well!"

The answer I usually get when I criticize rigid education is "Yes but over here children are so loud/annoying, throw tantrums, etc." I get that. Every American I know seems to have a horror story about somebody's child in a checkout line being an awful brat. And the idea that this is wrong explains the grasping for answers and the craze around "French parenting" (and "Tiger Mothers" before that).

To be sure, children should have boundaries and should have rules to obey.

American education, flawed though it may be, leaves more room for children to express their individuality. I liked this response by Erika Brown Eikel in Forbes, noting that America probably has a more entrepreneurial spirit because it has more relaxed education.

(There is a bit too much French bashing in the piece. I can actually name several self-made French billionaires, for starters. And let's get some things straight while we're at it--both Ms Eikel and Ms Garrigan seem to be confused about breastfeeding in France--a) no, breastfeeding in France is not discouraged, far from it; when my wife became pregnant, the government sent her a nice brochure touting the benefits of breastfeeding, including positive effects on her silhouette, which sent both my feminist and anti-paternalist sirens blaring, and b) no, breastfeeding is actually not better, as Hanna Rosin convincingly argued in this publication.)

The thing that strikes me whenever people discuss education, especially of the French kind, is that most people seem to think that the goal of education is to create well-behaved children. I don't think that's true. I think the goal of education is to help children become adults who are psychologically balanced and secure. The question of whether a child "behaves" is not interesting in and of itself, it only potentially matters in light of the adult you want her to become. A child might be adorable, quiet and well-behaved because that is her temper or because she is unusually mature. Or she might be browbeaten into submission by psychological and/or physical abuse which will work itself out in adulthood in ugly ways. Conversely, a boisterous loud child might be a spoiled brat, or might just have an exuberant temper.

American parents seem to be at a loss, grasping for any snake oil remedy that will make their children better-behaved. While that's certainly understandable, I can vouch for the fact that while French parenting might be better at producing well-behaved children, I wouldn't recommend it if you want healthy, happy adults.

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