Tuesday, February 21, 2012

French and American Parenting: Vive la Différence!

Whenever something in one culture (or civilization) is deemed superior to another, it raises my suspicion and when it compares France and the U.S., it picks my interest.
Not long ago, I came across this provocative essay in the Wall Street Journal:

While Americans fret over modern parenthood, the French are raising happy, well-behaved children without all the anxiety. 

An American journalist thinking French parenting is superior? Really?

The article was actually adapted from a book just recently published by the same author, Pamela Druckerman, an American journalist raising her kids in Paris: Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, which has caused A LOT of media reaction in the Anglos-saxon world:
 The NYTimes, Time, Huffington Post, Wash. Post, the Atlantic, the Economist, the Globe and Mail, the Sydney Morning Herald, US Today, MSNBC, and Slate (which had a while series of letters on it)

Essentially Pamela Druckerman's point is that French children are usually much better behaved than their American counterpart.
Not only that, but the French mothers also seem to enjoy their motherhood, - including their pregnancy - better than American mothers (she cites a 2009 study to support her claim).

She identifies four distinct elements that may explain this:

  • A better social system in France: 

The French have all kinds of public services that help to make having kids more appealing and less stressful. Parents don't have to pay for preschool, worry about health insurance or save for college. Many get monthly cash allotments—wired directly into their bank accounts—just for having kids. (WSJ)

  • A greater reliance on authority

The French parents know how to say ‘non’ and are unapologetic about saying it, or ça suffit (that’s enough). (The Economist)

  • An emphasis on patience,

Which results in delayed gratification (especially when it comes to eating, with a stress on fixed meals, including a sit-down lunch at midday):
For instance, babies are not picked up at the first snuffle from their cots; children are expected to wait until parents have finished a conversation before getting their attention. (The Economist)

  • A stricter framework or ‘cadre’.

Children must arrive and depart at a set time; they must eat quietly at the table at the scheduled hour; and they must nap when told to nap. The rest of the time they can do whatever they choose, ambling around the playroom undirected. 
Children are allowed to get bored—and learn to amuse themselves. (WJS)

It is always interesting to see how foreigners see you, because - oh the irony! - in France, people have been complaining precisely about the opposite: the lack of authority of today’s parents (with the “king child”, “l’enfant roi”, the impatience of today’s kids and the absence of ‘cadre’. (see this Le Monde essay in French)

This is often said in a nostalgic tone of the “good old days”, before the permissiveness of the 70s and the (greatly missundertood) works of French pyscho-analyst François Dolto, who considered the child an individual (Shocking!) who should be listened to and talked to.
A recent poll shows that 67% of French parents believe they don't have enough authority over their children.

As the Economist pointed out, Pamela Druckerman’s view is somewhat tainted by her social milieu of bourgeois life in Paris and her conclusion might have been slightly different had she lived in the tough projects of the banlieues outside the city center.

That being said, her points are still worth discussing. Looking at the way other cultures raise their kids may help you understand the particularities of your own and put it all into perspective.

It is a fact that indeed in France, parents do onthave to pay for preschool, worry about health insurance or save for college, compared to the United States and it is uncommon for professional women in France to become full-time stay-at-home moms, and all this must certainly have an impact.

But I agree this is only part of the difference and not necessarily the most interesting one.

A French perspective on American Parenting:

A French person visiting an American family is often struck by certain ways of parenting:

The most obvious one has to do with food ( an important deal in France, even today): there are not necessarily fixed mealtimes in the U.S. – especially for lunch – the family does not gather for all the meals, even on week-ends, and kids easily go to the refrigerator to take food whenever they want, and there is a greater variety of “special foods” in the home for the kids who snack at all sorts of hours. Still today, all this would be frowned upon in most French homes.

American parents also seem to be more constantly engaged with their kids who are allowed to interrupt adults in mid-sentence more often than would be usually accepted in France. To a French observer, it seems that American parents have a harder time saying ‘no’ to their children.  Plus, it is rare for American parents to scold their children in public – and when they do, it is looked upon with disapproval whereas this is not uncommon in France.

It also seems that American parents are under more pressure: Not only do American parents (and mothers mostly) have to be engaged in their kid’s life, including their school, they’re also constantly reinforcing their kid’s self-esteem and stimulate them with all sorts of after-school activities.
And so self-sacrifice is accepted as a necessary part of parenting to a point that is unknown to tthe French, whose lives do not strictly resolve around their children do not.

According to this family psychologist, the way the French are raising their kids is the way Americans did before the revolution of the 60s and the parenting books about the right methods. This is again very ironic as it is the same line of argument the French use to explain that education has done down the loop.

Cultural perspective:

This psychologist may have a point but I doubt things used to be the same way in our two countries even then because as Paige Bradley Frost in the Huffington Post  rightly observes, our two cultures value different things:
Where the French value tradition and solidarity, Americans value innovation and individuality. Where they seek to cultivate qualities of patience and intellectual uniformity we strive for entrepreneurialism and originality.
American middle-class parents see our children as vessels of limitless potential.
French children go to school to be trained in the time-honored traditions and lessons of French society. French schoolchildren are not so much taught how to think as they are filled with knowledge. They succeed through memorization, competition and by giving the one (and only one) right answer.
French home life is like this, too -- structured and based on age-old models
With their kids, the French deploy an authoritarian model based on respect for elders and upholding tradition.
A "good mother" in the U.S. (a virtually unattainable state of grace) is, by definition, a deeply involved and engaged mother. A sit-on-the-floor, clap your hands, dig in the sandbox, finger painting kind of gal.
Self-sacrifice (like giving birth without an epidural or breastfeeding into toddlerhood) is seen not as a hallmark of a devoted mother but of an overly burdened woman who needs to get a life. Only about 55 percent of French women breastfeed at all and most wean their babies after three months.
French parents are not expected to abdicate their adult lives and ambitions in order to raise their children. Au contraire: They continue to view themselves as adults with separate lives that do not revolve strictly around their children.
More than 20 years ago, Raymond Caroll, a French anthropologist who lived in the United States drew similar observations in her book, Cultural Misunderstandings; the French American Experience, but she went further in her cultural explanation. She actually concluded that the French and American situations are almost entirely reversed:
The French childhood is an apprenticeship, during which one learns the rules and acquires “good habits”, it is a time of discipline, of imitation of models of preparation for the role of adult.
In France, your behaviour with respect to your child is constantly subject to the judgement of others. Scolding your child in public is a way to show others the efforts you are making to bring to your child correctly.
A child in France is a link between his parents and society. Parents in France must answer to society for their behaviour toward the child. You have an obligation to the society and not just to your child.
French parents train their children to “defend themselves well”, at least verbally.
For French teenagers, the prize for this long apprenticeship, for these years of obedience and good conduct is the freedom to do what they want. The fact that the adolescent continues to be fed, housed, and clothed by his or her parents in no way affects his or her “independence”:  they are independent if they know what they want and do what they want, no matter how things look from the outside.
The American situation is almost entirely revered: your obligation is towards your child rather than society. They’re like a seed that needs to be attended to. To be a good parent as an American, I must give my child every chance, every “opportunity” possible and the “let nature take its course”.
American childhood is, on the contrary a period of great freedom, of games, of experimentation and exploration, during which restrictions are only imposed when there is a serious threat of danger.
The idea is to give children plenty of room to make their own mistakes and to find their own solutions.
American parents avoid as much as possible criticizing their children, making fun of their tastes, or telling them constantly “how to do things”.
American teenagers insist more on the exterior signs of independence: they earn money, proving they are capable of taking care of themselves, showing that they are capable of putting to good use the chances their parents mage every effort (to the point of sacrifice) to give them. It is important for the teenager to leave home.
Since Americans do what they want from childhood, it is much less important for them to “know” what they want very early on – they can change careers and not settle down too soon. 

This may lead to more daring hypotheses:

1) Our view of parenting may be partly based on our (cultural) view of nature.

The garden à la Française is based the principle of imposing order over nature by showing harmony and symmetry, which requires time and patience.
The English gardens, as well as the American pastoral emphasize an idealized view of nature, which includes the wilderness (as in the Hudson River School).
Here’s what Raymonde Caroll said about raising a child the French style:
clearing a patch of ground, pulling out the weeds, cutting, planting, and so on, in order to make a beautiful garden which will be in perfect harmony with other gardens.

Whereas the American style consists in “planting a seed without knowing for sure what type of seed it was, and devote (yourself) to giving it food, air, space, light, a supporting stake if necessary, care, water – in short all that the seed needs to develop as best as it ca. I attend to an needs that may arise, and I try to guess what type of plant it will be. I can hope for the best of course. But if I try to give it shape to my dreams, to transform my tomato seed into a potato, for example, I am not a “good parent”.”

2) It may also be linked to the founding religions that have shaped our national cultures, even in secular France.
Catholicism emphasized discipline (nature is sinful), exterior signs of contrition, and a vertical view of society (from top to bottom) un which the truth came from the priest (the priest was after all also a teacher, before France became a republic).
Protestantism, and especially its Calvinistic branch emphasised salvation by faith, a direct relationship with God, the value of self-sacrifice, individualism and a more horizontal view of society where pastors are elected members of the church.

This naturally leads me to say a few words on the topic of teaching:

Teaching the American or the French Style?
As Raymonde Caroll also observed in her book, in America:
…the teacher will not allow him-or herself to criticize a student’s work in public. A teacher who makes curt, scornful or even joking comments about each paper might be considered sick or deranged and in any case, inept at teaching.
The professor does not take the questions as sign of hostility, a challenge to his or her authority but treats it as a sign of intellectual independence, or a sincere desire to better understand the question or participate in the discussion. American students spontaneously turn to the professor rather than to their classmates, thereby recreating the relationship they have established with their parents. 
This is a valuable observation but it must also be emphasized that things are changing in France. Even the old French idea that “French schoolchildren are filled with knowledge and succeed through memorization, competition and by giving the one (and only one) right answer.” is being challenged by the new reforms. This is in part due to the more convergence of teaching methods in Europe. But old habits die hard, and it is difficult to have children “spontaneously turn to the professor rather than to their classmates”.

As a teacher myself, I like to think that I take the best of both worlds. I certainly welcome questions form my students for instance, and I try to work WITH them. At the same time, I realize how French I can be – for instance, I probably make joking comments, and use the sort of irony that would be inappropriate in the United States and if my students laugh, that’s because they are also French. It would probably be hard for me at this point to adapt to the American cultural environment - I would have to watch for my words and would probably get parents upset at me for being politically incorrect. I, on the other hand, would find it probably difficult to have parents so involved in the school life, including in my teaching.

Overall, of course, there is no “superior” way of raising a child. There are just different ways, and even in this global environment, there will remain differences and that is good. Vive la difference!

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