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Are French Parents Superior to American Parents?

What’s wrong with American parenting and why are we so quick to cling on to trendy new methods of parenting?

Have you read the latest parenting article de jour, “Why French Parents Are Superior” by Pamela Druckerman? I’ve seen it shared at least four different times by friends on my facebook page.  The article itself has received over 41,000 likes on facebook and over 1,000 comments.  Clearly, it’s striking a chord with American parents.  

If you haven’t read it, the article, in a nutshell, claims that French children, as a result of better parenting, are much better behaved than American children.  They behave in restaurants, eat well, don’t interrupt and have respect for their parents’ authority.  Unlike American children who are in a constant state of negotiation, snacking, testing boundaries and lack skills in patience and independent play. 

I don’t doubt that what Pamela Druckerman has observed about French parents and children in her many years living in France and raising children there is true.  I also agree with a lot of what she says about the behavior of American children and the American parenting style. 

But, before we all jump on the bandwagon of trying to imitate yet another “superior” method of parenting, perhaps we should ask ourselves why we are so fascinated and easily taken with other cultures, experts, articles and books telling us how we should parent. 

Do French parents obsess about the latest parenting technique de jour as we American parents do?  Does any other culture of parents obsess about parenting they way that we do in America?  I certainly can’t answer any of these questions.  I think it’s tricky to generalize about any culture.  Nothing is ever as black and white as we so often want, but I must admit that I, as an American parent, obsess and often feel guilty and insecure about my parenting and how I’m shaping this little person for whose happiness and well being I’m responsible. 

One stand out piece of information that Druckerman shares in her article was based on “a 2009 study, led by economists at Princeton, comparing the child-care experiences of similarly situated mothers in Columbus, Ohio, and Rennes, France. The researchers found that American moms considered it more than twice as unpleasant to deal with their kids. In a different study by the same economists, working mothers in Texas said that even housework was more pleasant than child-care.”  Wow, that’s a harsh statistic and probably fairly accurate.

The 2,086 comments left after Glennon wrote a post on her Momastery Blog called, “Don’t Carpe Diem”, talking about the daily stress and lack of joy she experiences in raising her three small children, further support that this is a sentiment felt countrywide.  Two of my friends, after reading this post, said that they cried because finally, someone actually admitted to and articulated the unhappiness that often accompanies child rearing.

In full disclosure, when my husband comes home from work at the end of the day, I prefer to make dinner by myself rather than play yet another round of pretend something-or-other with my daughter.  My tank for three-year-old play is empty by the end of the day.  In fact, it rarely feels full.

I love and cherish my daughter with every cell in my being.  She is my life and my first devotion.  But could that be the problem with my lack of enthusiasm and ability to really be in the moment with her and my constant state of guilt that I’m not doing a good job as a mother?  My life is too monochromatic with my daughter being the only color. 

Balance is key to individual happiness and good parenting.  I also think that the key to happy parents is having help in raising one’s children.  Raising children is a huge and all consuming responsibility that, unfortunately for most American couples, falls entirely upon our four shoulders.  Most of us don’t live near grandparents who can lovingly and energetically share the task of raising our children on a regular basis and provide that much needed balance in family life.  The foundation of community and family in American culture is crumbling.  Where is the American “village”?

I wonder how many French parents are raising their children without any regular help from family.  From what I’ve witnessed and experienced about European culture in general, I’m willing to bet very few.  Could this be why French parents are more confident about their parenting and why French children are better behaved?  They are all less stressed? 

Maybe American parents are so quick to read the latest parenting book or adapt to another culture’s parenting style because we are so desperate for life and child rearing to feel easier and more enjoyable.  Perhaps the key to having respectful, secure children who can wait all day to eat that treasured bon-bon their mother bought in the morning has more to do with belonging to a larger community.  A community whose members are able to consistently model more patience and respect because the job of raising these children is spread across more shoulders.  I think that the key to raising happy, well-behaved children is directly linked to happy and well-behaved parents.  Good parenting is about so much more than just teaching your child independent play and patience, it comes from a much grander foundation of well being, balance and support. 

toni noll February 14, 2012 at 06:23 PM
Nicely written! I think its good that american parents are willing to read articles and look for parenting help. If you ask me it shows how much they care about doing their best for their kiddos.
kelleyward February 14, 2012 at 06:23 PM
I appreciate this article. I wrote on my blog Life is Like A Blog Of Chocolate "What American Parents are Doing Right" because I'm tired of all the negativity about American parenting styles. If you are interested in reading it go here... http://www.lifeislikeablogofchocolate.com/what-american-parents-are-doing-right/
Tony Dondero (Editor) February 14, 2012 at 11:12 PM
Thanks for your comments, Toni and Kelley. Mom Talk is regular feature on Patch that runs every other Tuesday.
Christa Gardner February 15, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Great article! This does, in fact, seem like a syndrome in American family life. Thanks for bringing such vital yet sensitive issues to light for reflection and dialogue.
Hazel M. Wheeler February 20, 2012 at 10:41 PM
I really appreciated the sentiment in this article. None of the concepts in Pamela Druckerman's NY Times piece are new to many of us, not by a long shot. Being consistent, making clear limits, following through on our corrections of poor behavior as well as actively teaching correct behavior: it's not as if other cultures have a monopoly on these foundations of effective parenting. I do believe that part of the reason many parents don't enjoy being parents is because we are told that we should be 'everything' to our children. There's a lot of mythology around the idea that a child who has everything when they want it will thrive because they will believe their needs are being met; yet in these conversations we sometimes fail to differentiate between 'want' and 'need', thus allowing children to control the situations around them. Once again, this response is refreshing. It's great to see wise women not becoming swept up in the tide of trendy parenting books or fetishizing one 'sort' of parenting or another.
David May 12, 2013 at 10:38 PM
I think that sibling adoption studies are converging on an important truth, namely that the manner in which parents raise children makes very little difference to how they turn out. That sounds prima facie weird to me and many others, but I can't find gaps in the methodology or the way they arrived at the conclusion. The most sensible lesson from this is that as long as you stop short of negligence, you basically can't "mess up" your kid, so your sole aim should be to have a good time. Wring out whatever pleasure you can out of your role as parent. Read to them when *you* like, and make it something you can also enjoy. Cook what you like. If they don't like it, well, I'm sure there's some valuable lesson in it for them. Don't worry, they're not in danger of starving. Make sure they understand the difference between their entitlement and you doing them a favor. They're certainly not entitled to big swaths of your time. If they're stressing you out, tell them to go away. Make autonomy the reward for good behavior. Ultimately, I find this far more respectful than the servile doting that I see many parents do. In the end, it all leads to more or less the same place. Once you know that, you should take the easy road there.

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