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.