French parents don’t raise brats?

There’s a new “the French do it better” fad right now thanks to the new book “Bringing Up Bébé” by Pamela Druckerman, an American expat raising her kids in France. She claims the French have the right idea when it comes to parenting and the rest of the world has been getting it wrong all this time.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve read enough reviews, and her article in the Wall Street Journal, to understand the premise. French parents, Druckerman claims, know how to set boundaries. They know how to say no, how to teach patience, and how to properly balance “kid-time” and “adult-time.” French kids also don’t snack and they don’t eat special kid food. They grow up with the same refined, varied palate of their older relatives.

The fact that kids in France might eat foie gras instead of hot dogs has nothing to do with parenting and everything to do with the entire cultural mentality. You won’t find special children’s’ menus in many restaurants in France. School lunches are typically sit-down, well-balanced, three-course meals… not fish sticks and fries. But which came first, the chicken fingers or the oeuf cocotte? The overall French attitude towards food is so fundamentally different from ours that it’s no wonder French kids grow up eating differently.

The same can be said about French parents’ ideas about kid-to-life balance. When I was in college, I spent a semester living with a host family, an elderly couple who had several grandkids including a rambunctious 8-year-old. The whole family would occasionally come over for special Sunday night dinners, meals that would last for hours, late into the night. When the sleepy-eyed little girl would come begging to be taken home to bed, she’d get shooed away until the parents were finally ready to leave. I imagine most American parents would be running for the door at the stroke of bedtime. It’s a choice these parents are making. So who’s making it better, the French or Americans? Better for whom, the parents or the kids?

The idea that French children are, as a whole, better behaved is simply inaccurate. Last year, I spent seven months working in French primary schools. Believe me, I met plenty of little diables. Kids will be kids. They punch each other on the playground. They cheat on tests. They talk back to teachers. Not all of them, of course, but the ratio of good kid to bad kid just isn’t that different from France to America.

Now let’s just say, for argument, that there are a disproportionate number of quiet, patient, adult-like children in France. How do they get that way and at what cost? For starters, discipline in France hasn’t “evolved” the way it has in America. Spanking is still acceptable. I once saw a teacher try to separate a group of extra chatty friends. When yelling didn’t work the first time, he grabbed the kids by their shirts and literally dragged them away from one another. If that were America, the teacher would have been fired and the school probably would have had a hefty lawsuit on their hands.

I was also disheartened to see that many of the well-behaved French kids don’t know how to just be kids anymore. They have no imagination. They don’t know how to think for themselves. They literally won’t draw outside the lines, unless they’re told to. If I instructed my class to color a picture blue, every kid in the class would hold up their crayon box and ask me to specify which shade of blue. I’d have to circle the room and reassure each one of them that they wouldn’t be penalized for using sky blue or navy blue instead of royal blue. Blue is blue and this wasn’t an art class, but French kids are taught to follow, and never stray, from very detailed instructions.

Is this the kind of child we want to raise in America? We don’t embrace this kind of short-sighted, narrow-minded behavior in adults, so why do it in children? The US is a land of entrepreneurs, inventors, rule-breakers. You can bet Steve Jobs’s parents never punished him for choosing the wrong shade of blue. So maybe we shouldn’t be putting so much faith in the way the French raise their kids. The American method isn’t perfect either, but I think we should take our chances and continue raising artists and visionaries.

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