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Thinking About French Parenting and My Parenting

The other day I followed a link to an article entitled “Why French Parents Are Superior.” The article was written by an American who lived in France. I had noticed the same thing that she did, American kids are generally demanding and undisciplined. My own kids are often demanding and undisciplined. On the whole the article was mildly interesting, but one segment gave me words for feelings I had about the structure of parenting. To quote from the article:

When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. “Ah, you mean how do we educate them?” they asked.

I love this distinction. In my language talking to and about my kids I try not to use the word “punishment” instead focusing on consequences for decisions. This concept of education takes that idea one step further.

the French ideal of the cadre, or frame, that French parents often talk about. Cadre means that kids have very firm limits about certain things—that’s the frame—and that the parents strictly enforce these. But inside the cadre, French parents entrust their kids with quite a lot of freedom and autonomy.

It is not my job as a parent to make sure my children are always happy. My job is to help them grow. Sometimes this means nurturing and smoothing the way for them. Other times it means that I must make their lives harder. No matter which I am doing, the objective is growth.

The bulk of the article discusses how French parents consciously teach patience and delayed gratification to their children. A young French child is bought a treat at a store, but instead of gobbling it down on the way through the parking lot, the treat is saved until snack time that afternoon. The same is true when French children want to make requests, they are required to wait until their parents have time to attend to them. Thus the French mothers are able to finish sentences, or even entire conversations, uninterrupted.

I was fascinated to see that some of the behaviors I’d been feeling guilty about are actually part of conscious education for a French parent. I tell my kids “Just a minute” all the time, but then later feel bad for neglecting them. Then I am too lenient in another area because I feel guilty for this perceived neglect. Thus my parental frame is crooked and sagging in places instead of being a sturdy structure on which the kids depend.

I’ve long been enamored of having three meals a day plus a snack at regular times. In between the kitchen would be closed (and spotlessly clean, naturally.) In theory this would teach all of us a healthy relationship toward food. Instead of responding to immediate hunger and grabbing what ever is most convenient, our food choices would be carefully planned. I love the idea, yet I doubt this will ever happen in my home. Life is about choices and I choose to be a mother, business manager, writer, and a dozen other things before I choose Cook and Meal Planner. On the other hand, my parenting frame for homework is rock solid this year. I’m also pleased that in the past couple of weeks we’ve been fitting daily chores back into the lives of the kids. It feels like a miracle that chores are fitting with homework. So when I notice that once again they’ve foraged themselves a meal of tortilla chips and cream cheese, perhaps I can be pleased with their self sufficiency and trust that we’ll find time to focus on healthy eating again soon.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to pay attention to how often I teach my kids that waiting a little bit will not kill them. I’m also going to notice the times when my kids wear me down with negotiation. I think the negotiating skills are valuable, but sometimes I need to be better about sticking to my “no.” Most importantly I’ll remember that while American kids are nuisances in restaurants and French kids are not, both French adults and American adults handle restaurants just fine. There may not be a “right” path and a “wrong” path through conscientious parenting. Many paths can lead to well adjusted adulthood.

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11 comments to Thinking About French Parenting and My Parenting

  • Janci

    These are awesome thoughts.

  • Finally! Validation for ignoring my children! :D

    Funny how holding the frame is the hardest part.

  • Kerri Farrer

    I love how often your posts make me stop and think about my life. I appreciate it Than you.

  • Will you read the book?

    I just read the article, and to me it raises more of a question than it answers: how do the French achieve obedience?

    My clever, determined, strong-willed two year old son and I have recently moved in with my parents while my husband is away. My father seems to think that my mother and I are too willing to make allowances for my son and cater to his wishes. My father recently heard about the French way of parenting, though he didn’t know the source was a WSJ article, and told me we should be more firm with our little boy. For my part, I think my father scolds my son too much, is inclined to disproportionate punishments (though he doesn’t put them into effect), and sometimes picks fights with my son.

    I’ve been in the situation described at the end of the article, of having the little boy run repeatedly out of the fenced play area. I’d like to know how to “speak with more conviction.”

    • I probably won’t take time to read the whole book. My time is at a premium right now. The basic concepts are probably more useful to me than any specific instructions.

      When my strong-willed daughter was two I had to physically hold on to her to prevent her from running away. Gradually I learned that sometimes we had to have major confrontations where I refused to back down. I picked those battles carefully. She learned that holding my hand in a parking lot was required and the car seat was non-negotiable. I would insist upon these things no matter how big a tantrum she threw or how public the place where she tantrumed. She stopped battling those issues. Unfortunately that still left a hundred potential battles per day. It was hard.

      She is eleven now and it is less hard. Over the years I’ve learned more about how to insist and she’s learned more how to listen. We talk things through even though it is often in the aftermath. One of the things she taught me is that a strong-willed child depends upon having a strong-willed parent who can require them to be safe and learn even when they want something else.

      I highly recommend the book “How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk” It taught me lots of skills that have applied across all four of my children, despite their differences. It gives concrete steps for setting boundaries while simultaneously making allowances for the child.

      Good luck.

    • “how do the French achieve obedience?”
      As a young French father, I must say I’d like the answer too. ;-)
      From what I’ve gathered, from talking with my own parents, preschool teachers and a Freakonomics podcast on parenting, the key is consequence, just like Sandra said.
      You say your father doesn’t go through with the punishments. I think that’s the key. If you don’t hold true to your word, you’re losing credibility and authority. If you repeatedly don’t go through with punishments, the child understands there’s nothing to fear and you lose your hold on him. What my fiancée and I try to do is to treat our words as law : it binds everyone, not only our son, but us as well. It’s easier said than done…

      As for the original article, I must say it’s a very idealistic version of what I’m seeing as a French parent. Firstly, it’s not as easy as the author states and even with very dedicated parents, there are different temperament and sometimes, nothing can be done to make a child patient. Secondly, it’s becoming less and less true with each passing year. A friend of mine who’s a preschool teacher recently told me that more and more parents have less and less authority over their children, which leads to more difficult children, more negotiating and more tantrums.

  • Jebofu, I’m relieved to know that it’s not as easy as the author states and there is no secret technique I’m missing that magically gets results.

    Sandra, is the book you mention by Adele Faber? It looks like it’s highly rated on Amazon. If that’s the one, I’ll read it.