French parents don’t get stressed?

Why French Parents Are Superior by Pamela Druckerman – WSJ.com

Someone posted this link to Facebook and it’s getting a lot of press right now. It’s an excerpt from a new book by an American mother living abroad and how she feels that the French put stricter boundaries on their children, discipline with more “conviction,” and therefore, their children sit quietly in high chairs in restaurants and leave their parents free to enjoy adult conversation. In other words, yet another indictment of overparenting culture, which Druckerman, in “Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,” suggests is particularly American.

After Druckerman and her husband decide to take a trip to a coastal town in France with her 18 month-old, she writes:

“We quickly discovered that having two restaurant meals a day with a toddler deserved to be its own circle of hell.

Bean would take a brief interest in the food, but within a few minutes she was spilling salt shakers and tearing apart sugar packets. Then she demanded to be sprung from her high chair so she could dash around the restaurant and bolt dangerously toward the docks.

Our strategy was to finish the meal quickly. We ordered while being seated, then begged the server to rush out some bread and bring us our appetizers and main courses at the same time. While my husband took a few bites of fish, I made sure that Bean didn’t get kicked by a waiter or lost at sea. Then we switched. We left enormous, apologetic tips to compensate for the arc of torn napkins and calamari around our table.

After a few more harrowing restaurant visits, I started noticing that the French families around us didn’t look like they were sharing our mealtime agony. Weirdly, they looked like they were on vacation. French toddlers were sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables. There was no shrieking or whining. And there was no debris around their tables.”

Remember the picture I posted of the debris field around our table that I tried to contain with linen napkins while on holiday? How we felt like we were the only ones, despite being in a family resort? How we spent a small fortune on room service to avoid the exquisite torture of dining in public with them?

Normally it would be easy for me to dismiss her by saying, well, yeah, but she doesn’t have twins. But guess what? Later on she does have twins. Boys, in fact.

So six months into our life abroad, with my Euro-American twin sons and their Continental accent, I read the excerpt with fascination. Clearly, there’s an inherent problem with the sweeping generalization of “us” (i.e., American parents) vs. “them” (French parents) in her argument. But I understand they are trying to sell books piggy-backed off the success of “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” and sound very controversial. (Stay tuned for my forthcoming book, “French Women Don’t Read Self-Help Books.”) Nothing gets Americans more defensive than saying another country is superior, right? I would be curious to know if there is less Ativan or Zanax prescribed (and paid for) by the French National Health Insurance.

Why would it be just the French who are immune to this modern age of anxiety, and not say, Spanish parents, or Italian ones? Here in Dublin, the parents of other children where the boys attend creche are Italian, German, and Danish, in addition to being Irish (this is a reflection of the location–we are near the embassy zone–as well as how diverse the population of Dublin is, with people from all over the EU). I do not notice any pronounced difference, except perhaps, that European toddlers tend to wear scarves.

The biggest demarcation appears to be socioeconomic class. You know, the class that (ahem) has the leisure to write about, blog about, and read about parenting as if it was a hobby or project one was trying to get better at. Which to me is overparenting in and of itself, no? (And I am very, very guilty of this, which also has much to do with having children later in life and stopping work to be with them.) In fact, this book sits upon a very tall stack of parenting how-to books, a cottage industry that thrives off making you afraid you are doing something wrong, thereby engendering anxiety. My mother certainly never sat around and read books like “Positive Discipline” while raising the four of us. Those worrying about foreclosure or dealing with chronically ill children certainly are worried about other issues than the latest trend in parenting. Isn’t that what they say our anxiety is, evolutionary adaptations run amok because in reality, we have very little of actual and pressing danger to worry about?

People have often asked us if there’s a culture shock being here, and we tell them it’s negligible. There was much more of a culture shock when I lived in Japan. The only difference I have ever observed has more to do with parents in cities and parents in small towns. Living here in Dublin is somewhat similar to the transition we would have felt, I think, if we moved back to NYC after leaving small-town America. But again, that’s really about class in certain pockets of cities.

My neighbor, a German mom of two boys, told me that, “Ten years ago, there weren’t the big cars. You didn’t see Range Rovers trying to drive around these narrow streets. With the big sunglasses. And the big bags.  Suddenly, all the mums were carrying coffee and big purses and wearing big sunglasses. And they all went blonde.”

This was her humorous way of explaining the sudden wealth many people living in Dublin found themselves in during the Celtic Tiger years, and the attendant status anxiety. Apparently, it made everyone think they should look like Nicole Richie pushing a pram.

“Bringing up Bebe” seems like it might have been better suited to an anecdotal op-ed instead of a book. And I do wonder how much her being an expat, particularly an American one, carried its own issues that didn’t have anything to do with parenting.

I am curious what fellow parents out there think about this, especially European ones. The book is written from an American point of view. What do, say, Irish parents think about French ones? Or Italian? Or Spanish? Those of you who also parented while abroad, did you notice any cultural differences?

(As a postscript I should mention that I’ve started saying, “That’s not possible,” to my sons’ varied and unending demands in case she’s on to something.)

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18 thoughts on “French parents don’t get stressed?

  1. Great commentary E. I read this article as well so I was very curious to know what you had to say about it. I am not a European mom but still I have to give my two cents on the matter. First of all, of course I say “pshaw” to this claim. I mean, are you kidding me? I hardly think the French are exemplary for raising generations of bright, kind, exemplary young things any more than any other culture. In fact, I’ve heard more about race riots, fighting the abolishment of the 35 hour work week, and Carla Bruni’s pregnancy than anything else. Oh wait, that’s saying more about the American media than French culture. All kidding aside, I’m sure there is a lot that can be imparted not only from the French but just about any culture that exists in our world today. Undoubtedly there are valid components to this book, but I still chalk it up to yet another that is trying to fuel off the “French do everything better” series, exactly as you mentioned.

    • Thanks, Viv. I am hoping we hear from C on all this, since she lived for years in the U.K. with very similar benefits as noted below. I also want to mention an email I got from a friend who prefers to remain anonymous:

      i think the lady is slightly onto something and also slightly off her rocker. Perhaps she needed to be firmer with her voice to get her children to listen to her but I agree with you that her generalization is a bit skewed. I strongly believe children who can sit still in a restaurant are ones with a certain temperament and not based on having only 3 meals a day and encouraged to wait for the meal. It is my opinion that’s bullshit, just like some children sit and play with a single toy for 30 minutes, others bounce from toy to toy in a matter of minutes. We are entering a world of fast satisfaction- smart phones, texting, cell phones, etc. Rarely do grown ups wait for anything anymore. Of course that will trickle down to our children.

      She raises such a good point. We are in a world of instant-gratification. How will children of any culture learn patience when everywhere it is rapidly disappearing?

      She also mentioned “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which I haven’t read.

      Another friend posted this Guardian piece on her blog, which is funny but then it becomes too easy to dismiss Druckerman as yet another stupid American. That’s why I would really love to hear what other Europeans think of the French and parenting.

  2. Someone reposted this commentary about it and I thought it was interesting. “Maybe the serenity of French parents owes something to a society that makes paid maternity leave, subsidized daycare, and gourmet school lunches a priority?” I’m lucky enough to have a kid that does a pretty great job (so far, at 18 months) of sitting through meals out. I think she’s just nosey like me and likes to people watch and ease drop on the other tables. 🙂 Thought provoking post, thanks!

    • Thanks, Jenn for posting that. It’s why I’m so eager to have other European parents respond, or expat parents. In Ireland, as in many parts of the EU, similar social benefits apply: longer paid maternity (compared to the U.S.), subsidized childcare (monthly money for having a child, as well as an early childhood education scheme, which pays for 3 hours of preschool when kids are of a certain age). As for the gourmet food, my children could have a Michelin-rated chef cooking for them but would prefer frozen pizza, hot dogs, and ice cream any day. Then again, regarding the social benefits, our taxes are significantly higher here than in the U.S., so if one was to really do the numbers, it might come out as a wash.

  3. Your post is very interesting. I live in a part of the US that has a great mix of cultures due to companies in the area. Last year my children’s bus stop consisted of a Scottish family, a Japaneses family, a Chinese family, and a Swiss family. The only cultural difference I noticed was with the Japanese family–it seemed that the child didn’t show much respect for her mother. But I wouldn’t generalize it for all Japanese families. Also, I remember being told by the Scottish mother and the Swiss mother, that they felt American parents were much more laid back and that their children behaved much better than European children. I thought this was odd because I had always been led to believe the opposite. Anyways, great post. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Danielle. I’m glad to know, even from your anecdotal evidence, that some Europeans think American parents are more laid back. Most of us are well-aware of anti-American sentiment (I remember Eurailing in college and many people hoping to pass as Canadian by sewing the flags on their backpacks) when abroad and can end with a strange inferiority/pride complex.

  4. It’s very interesting, I think it’s mostly a matter of being laid back. Like you said about our mothers who didn’t care to read parenting books and had a much more laid back approach, and i know i sure as hell behaved in a restaurant. clearly with Europeans having a better quality of life ( support, maternity leave, free preschool, plus the adult naps, wine drinking and cigarette smoking) they are just probably naturally more calm about the whole situation.

    I haven’t had a nap or a cigarette in 6 years so if you are at the table next to mine In a restaurant, forgive me my disgruntled attitude towards parenting….

    Also, whether it’s a marketing thing or not, they are skinny and we are fat…..just sayin

    • “I haven’t had a nap or a cigarette in 6 years so if you are at the table next to mine In a restaurant, forgive me my disgruntled attitude towards parenting….”

      Hilarious. My mother also smoked so maybe there needs to be a study about the correlation btwn overparenting and the cessation of smoking. Freakonomics peeps, are you listening?

  5. This:

    “You know, the class that (ahem) has the leisure to write about, blog about, and read about parenting as if it was a hobby or project one was trying to get better at. ”

    And yeah, the first thing I picked up was that she was comparing what I think is a very narrow swath of American parents to, I’m guessing, a narrow swath of French parents. I lived in south France for a while, and even traveling from there to the north, I saw French cultural differences, nothing to say of even the micro-cultural differences I saw from family to family. I saw a pretty typical array of differences in parenting and dealing with children as I see in the US. And the US – purely guessing – is comprised of plenty of cultures within cultures. I think it’s just a bit…lazy?…to write a book based upon these kinds of generalizations, but at the same time, I get it. “We’re all different and can learn from each other” doesn’t sell as many books.

    I just wrote on the topic. Sort of my “here we go again” reaction – not that these kinds of things put me in a tizzy anymore. But I do get bothered that so many new parents go through the kind of anxiety they do. I think that some of this may have to do with people being separated physically a bit more these days from their families. I grew up in a house with my grandparents, my maternal grandparents lives five miles away, the rest of my family was within an hour away. I think previous generations had more of a family “clan” that taught/modeled the expectations for “how to parent”, and there wasn’t as much room for outside influences to say, “No, this way is better”…there was a whole clan to convince, not just one young parent.

    Nowadays, I think families feel more adrift in parenting and on their own – for better and for worse. When the family clan was potentially wrong about something (“Back in the day, we all rode around in the back of pick-up trucks on the highway, and we turned out okay.), it was harder to make a decision contrary to that. However, all the other truly sage advice and immediate experience is also not there. I think more new parents feel as if they have to re-learn this parenting thing from scratch.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience of France, Josette. I agree with you about having extended family around can be helpful for some people (of course it all depends on the kind of family and the dynamics, because some women I know would have increased anxiety as parents if their own were around all the time second-guessing their decisions). I grew up with a ton of extended family as well. Your post is very funny by the way.

  6. I can’t really comment on the book because I haven’t read it, but I am a bit skeptical about the ‘science’ she used. After all, it always looks like other people’s kids are more behaved than your own when you go out. You are generally more sensitive to your own kids’ screams, their tantrums, etc. I often look at other families and think that they look so peaceful, but I suspect they are also gritting their teeth or hissing threats at the children.
    Speaking from the UK perspective, I can tell you that I have found British parents, in general, to be more laid back in their approach than their American counterparts. The overparenting thing seems less pronounced.
    Also, most of my British friends do not eat dinner with their kids at home, me included. I prefer to feed them early and then wait to have my own meal, which is when I relax. This is pretty common. Seems less common to do this in the United States. I don’t know whether this is a good thing, but it gives me a chance to relax and actually enjoy my food.
    And I certainly set boundaries when I tell the kids, ‘this is my time’. I repeat this non-stop and I am pretty firm about it, but I don’t think it has made them that much better at waiting. Maybe it’s because I’m not using the right tone…

    • We don’t have dinner with the kids, either. S comes home around 7:15 and they eat around 6. Sometimes I sit with them, sometimes I don’t and am doing other stuff in the kitchen.

      And it’s helpful to know you don’t really think the childcare/maternity benefits made any difference to your approach. It is very true that we are more sensitive to our children’s tantrums, etc. As I mentioned in another post, being really away from them last week was such a healthy thing in terms of seeing that. When I’m in it, I feel like such a spectacle, which becomes its own stress. But really, not that many people are paying attention. I wonder if being an expat made her even more sensitive.

  7. I have been wondering whether we are snacking our kids to death. I read the above and assume there is an idea that 3 meals are better than grazing. I know my mom didn’t schlep tons of snacks with her and I am fine. I also was not taken to restaurants beyond Friendly’s until I was older and able to sit. I am going to take this as an opportunity to rant. here we go:

    1. i think that parents of all nationalities should leave children behind when going to a nice restaurant. Pay for a sitter or go somewhere more suited to kids

    2. Kids should not be in restaurants past their bedtime

    3. you have to follow through on threats. Tonight at our lovely 4:45pm dinner at Souplantation a friend told her daughter that if she got out of her seat again there would be no dessert. Well she got out of her seat and still got dessert. I was aghast. I would have gotten dessert myself and for the others but not for my kid. I think we give warning after warning and then do nothing and that is a recipe for disaster.

    Back to snacking though my mom thinks it is crazy that we all go around with water. “why not just get a drink when you get to where you are going?” My kids cannot drive a mile without a snack and water and I am realizing that it is super annoying, not to mention disgusting. I cannot tell you how many times I have found unidentifiable items in the car that turn out to be cheese sticks.

    • Ha! Souplantation.
      Yes, the excerpt does mention something about French children eating 3 meals a day with one very regular snack and thus they learn to be patient. But I thought eating smaller portions and more regularly was better at maintaining blood sugar levels? Agree with you on all the other points.

  8. What a great post. I saw this author/mom recently as she discussed her book and was intrigued. She does have some points as do your commenters here. Consistency, setting boundaries/expectations and following through – with a decent diet – and learning appropriate behavior for various situations ( in small doses) seems to be in the right direction. It may be a problem that there is less family support and parents are all working ( long days in day care stresses kids and they form certain behavior patterns). New parents always worry. This method seems better than the “Tiger Mom” approach for raising well balanced children. Enjoyed the read

  9. Funny– I saw the Time article about this book this morning and the comments were so much more entertaining than the article. Which, I can only imagine, is the point. Believe it or not, I read “French Women Don’t Get Fat.” It was an ill-timed gift right after my daughter was born. I’ll probably skip the parenting book, but look forward to “French Women Don’t Read Self-Help Books.”

  10. Interesting article!
    I’m a Sydney-based French blogger, promoting healthy eating, fitness and exercise based on the principles of the French Paradox.
    My blog Mademoiselle Slimalicious is NOT a dieting blog. It focuses instead on eating for pleasure, with moderation and balance, making healthy food choices and maintaining a level of fitness by being naturally active.

    I actually did interview Mireille Guiliano (author of French Women Don’t Get Fat) on my blog, you may want to have a look at it.

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