What Makes French Parenting So Unique?
Much has been published in recent years about the superiority of French parenting. Like the child who finds a petrified rock in the sandbox, writers have been all too eager to share their discoveries.
Most of the books and blogs about French parenting are written by American expats or Americans who’ve experienced the style firsthand. And while these musings are largely declarative, we’re not here to judge anyone’s choices. Parenting is largely an individual’s or couple’s choice (or a group if that’s your thing), and we embrace any and all of it as long as it’s good for the children. But there are key differences between how French parents raise their young and how American parents do it.
French kids eat, behave and sleep differently than American children. They spend less time with electronics and experience independence at an earlier age. French kids act out in public far less often than American children, and both nations have way different views on haircuts. If anything, the French method is fascinating and worth consideration, so take a closer look at what makes it so unique.
Only Intervene in Emergencies
American parents are sometimes criticized for being too hands-on, which will sound crazy to parents who are just that. This level of attention is well-intentioned but can distort a child’s understanding of their own needs.
Just because a child is screaming and wants attention doesn’t mean it’s good for the parent to immediately react with sympathy. It’s called “helicopter parenting” because the adult is often hovering over the child’s every move, which can instill in a developing mind that no matter what happens in life, what choices are made, someone (i.e., the parents) will always be there to clean up the mess. French parents, on the other hand, do not react this way unless their children are in danger or injured themselves, which fosters a sense of independence from the start.
How to Handle Bad Behavior
In her book “French Twist,” author Catherine Crawford describes a scenario involving her daughter, a crayon and the hallway walls, and the advice her French friend provided on how to handle the situation. After her daughter scrawled all over the walls in crayon, which would not wash off, Crawford was at a loss as to how to react. She worried that any punishment would later be met with a similar outburst, perhaps even in a public setting.
Her French friend suggested something else — fast-track the girl for art school. We kid! In fact, Crawford’s friend told her to get a bucket of soapy water and sit her daughter down in front of the markings, so she could wipe them off. The friend knew this wouldn’t remove the crayon, but it would send a clear message to the daughter that certain behavior has unpleasant consequences.
Mom Is Chief of the Family
In another Catherine Crawford book called “Why French Children Don’t Talk Back,” she discusses how parenting in America is focused on the child and their well-being. But in France, it’s often about mom — what’s good for the mother is good for the entire family.
Doctors encourage French women to drink wine as long as they are eating at the same time. If a French mother is in a long line at a store, everyone will allow her to skip to the front of the line. And French moms receive pelvic rehab and abdominal therapy after birth so they can restore their figures.
One of the most popular books on French parenting is “Bringing Up Bebe” by Pamela Druckerman, and one of its many tidbits on how the French do child rearing differently than Americans involves something she calls “Le Pause.” It’s how French parents get their little ones to sleep through the night — starting at age 2 months. (Yes, you read that right.)
Any parent knows that their child will make a lot of noises during the night and move around quite a bit. While this is all well and good, some parents believe their baby is sending signals that things aren’t going well. In reality, the child is likely fine and simply adjusting to their surroundings and deciding if everything is OK so they can resume sleeping. While American parents will often rush to their child’s side and pick them up for comforting and feeding, French parents take a pause (a couple minutes or so) to see if the baby simply needs a moment or really does have an urgent matter that needs to be attended to.
More Independence at a Younger Age
A big part of French parenting is teaching independence at a young age. French parents are more inclined than American parents to allow their kids to do things that are easy for adults, but more difficult for children — like making a gateau au yaourt (yogurt cake) from scratch. This gives youngsters a sense of accomplishment when they complete a task and learn something new.
At a playground in France, you might also see parents not helping their kids climb up to the slides or use the swings. The kids will do this stuff on their own and, sometimes, have a hard time of it at first. But to make a self-sufficient person early on, French parents believe their kids should experiment, fail and succeed on their own merits.
Food for the Heart and Soul
When author Karen Le Billon and her family moved from Canada to France, the biggest transformation for everyone was mealtime and diets. Her kids were used to bland, processed foods, which is the antithesis of French cuisine.
Starting at school, her children learned about healthy eating habits and actually ate high-quality food. It was wholesome, made daily and void of junk — in fact, vending machines are banned in French schools and kids are only allowed to drink water. They even call the cafeteria the “school restaurant,” and meals are ingested at a pace that is good for the body. French kids also snack far less than American kids, making meals all the more important.
To improve eating habits, Le Billon, who wrote “French Kids Eat Everything,” advises parents to firstly never call their kids “picky” eaters. Have them taste everything you prepare, and make them part of the preparation process, so they know what the food looks and smells like when it’s raw and cooked. Help your kids associate food with taste rather than health, and stick to a schedule of three meals a day with few in-between snacks.
Etiquette Is the Foundation of Respect
One of the major takeaways in “Bringing up Bebe” is the four essential words that French children learn and why it’s important for them to know these words.
For most American children, “please” and “thank you” are the only requirements. This means that, at an impressionable age, we are told if we want something we must ask for it politely and acknowledge that we received it. If we don’t, then we’re labeled as rude. What this ignores is the most basic of all interactions with other people — “hello” and “goodbye” — and how important that is to socialization and functionality as children grow up.
In France, the four essential words are “please,” “thank you,” “hello” and “goodbye” (or “si’l vous plait,” “merci,” “bonjour” and “au revoir”). This means that, in addition to being polite when you ask and receive something, you are also acknowledging that a person exists by greeting them when they arrive and leave.
A Society That Cares
For reasons that seem backwards and cruel, “government assistance” is a wedge issue in America, the world’s wealthiest nation. In the U.S., if you think the government should pay for things like healthcare and housing, you’re an anti-American socialist who should move to Norway.
But in France, things are different. It’s one of many first-world countries, particularly in Europe, that offer incredible state-sponsored programs for parents (and they still have profitable enterprises). Benefits include 16 weeks of fully paid leave for moms, with their jobs waiting for them upon their return. (If it’s your third kid, it increases to 26 weeks.) Families also receive a monthly allowance, and there is a national childcare system staffed by workers who are paid well that also provides meals to children.
In America, well … let’s just say nothing like this exists.
The Freedom of One Choice
It’s true that individuality is less valued by French parents than their American counterparts, and that extends to hairstyles. But while many American parents would scoff at the notion of limiting their kids to one or two hairstyles, it’s part of the discipline-building approach that French parents prefer.
French parents believe individuality and choices like which hairstyle to sport largely start in adulthood. So, most French kids are limited to one hairstyle, whereas in America it can change from week to week or even day to day. And color choices are open for interpretation. American parents feel this is another way for their children to express themselves.
Me Time and Gut Instincts
Unlike Americans, French parents are not dog-earring every book about how to raise a child. They are mostly acting on instinct, says Dominique Misrahi, a French mom who’s lived in the U.S. since 1999 and never read Pamela Druckerman’s popular books about French parenting.
Misrahi’s observations about American and French mothers include that French women make time for their social and professional lives after their children are born, whereas American moms prioritize their kids’ social calendars, development and well-being over their own. And instead of reading every book about every hair on a child’s head, instinct guides French parents.
In France, many parts of parenthood are private — like birthing choice. Some Americans are prone to oversharing or declaring that their option for whatever is the best option period. This is on full display when it comes to parenting.
American parents talk at length about birthing choices, breast milk versus formula, when to start sending kids to school, how much this stroller costs or this crib and so on. They dish advice like they’re experts. And if you’re not listening, not taking notes, you must not really care about your child’s development. French parents just don’t do this, and it’s because their lives do not revolve around the existence of their children.
This is a really crucial area for French parents. True family time must include different activities from other time spent together.
French families eat dinner together nightly, at a table and without the distraction of electronic devices. Their weekends are full of activities, but not necessarily activities that are designed solely for the child’s benefit. And adults have their own time for their own interests that the children must respect. This sets boundaries and expectations, as well as introduces the notion of waiting, teaching kids to know when it’s their turn to ask for something or suggest an activity.
Playtime vs. Downtime
The difference between playtime and downtime is crystal clear in France. American parents often want to let their children express themselves no matter the situation. Sometimes, that means belting out the theme song from “Frozen” at 11 p.m. even though they should’ve been in bed two hours ago.
For French parents, they make sure their kids know when it’s appropriate to play and when it’s time to behave and be respectful of Mom and Dad’s time.
American parents tend to overstuff their children’s lives with enriching activities so as to avoid FOMO (fear of missing out). This can not only water down such enrichment activities, but it creates a huge amount of stress for both parents and children. Parents feel like their kids won’t succeed unless they are musically trained and also play every seasonal sport, while learning at least one new language. Children feel they must do everything, plus 50 percent more, so they don’t fall behind their peers.
A quality family life in France is paramount to dance lessons and soccer games. And French parents create it by focusing on a solid foundation (i.e., a healthy home) and moderation.
The Power of the Off Button
Our world is dominated by electronic devices and the internet, and this is nothing new. American parents will often give their kids a tablet or smartphone early on, so they can play games or watch movies. And as long as there is an educational element to the content, parents feel OK about this.
That’s a big no-no in many other countries, including France. French parents definitely understand the modern world and the importance of connectivity, but they set reasonable expectations around screen time and rarely use devices as a means for distracting children or occupying their time while parents do something else.
French parents lean on their own parents for help raising their kids much more than American parents. One of the main reasons this happens is because French parents greatly value their heritage and want their children to know where they come from.
That’s not to say those things are unimportant to Americans, but we certainly don’t have as much reverence for the past as other cultures do. And if we aren’t estranged from our parents or otherwise don’t have strong relationships with them, we might live thousands of miles away and only see them a few times a year at best.
Don’t Let It Bring You Down
By now you might feel like you’ve been doing everything wrong as an American parent. That’s far from the truth. French parents aren’t perfect, American parents aren’t either, and not everyone is so enamored with the French method of parenting.
Take French writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who in The Atlantic described his nation’s educational system as trying “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.”
There’s also Liz Garrigan, an American who blogs about living in Paris, who did not particularly like “Bringing Up Bebe” or the notion of superiority in French parenting. “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,” she wrote.
These anecdotes aside, the key is to find a balance that works for your family and be open to the way other cultures operate because you might learn a thing or two about yourself, your partner and your children.