Mères Tigre? Non!

by Robert Pondiscio
February 5th, 2012

Expat mom Pamela Druckerman wondered why French children seem so much better behaved than their American counterparts.  In a Wall Street Journal essay, she credits French parenting techniques, which she says are marked by an “an easy, calm authority with their children.”  French children don’t run off, talk back or engage in prolonged negotiations with their parents, she notes.  Like Americans, French parents talk to their kids, read to them, take them to sports, music lessons and museums.  But helicopter parenting?  Non!  Says Druckerman:

“The French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. ‘For me, the evenings are for the parents,’ one Parisian mother told me. ‘My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it’s adult time.’ French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves.”

How do they get their children to behave?  When she asked French parents how they disciplined their children, Druckerman found they were often nonplussed.

“’Ah, you mean how do we educate them?’ they asked. ‘Discipline,’ I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas ‘educating’ (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.”

An essential part of this education, “is the simple act of learning how to wait,” writes Druckerman.  And it explains, in her view, why French babies sleep through the night while toddlers sit quietly in French restaurants as their parents eat dinner. Unlike American kids who snack all day, French kids have three meals a day and one snack around 4 pm, according to Druckeman.

“American parents want their kids to be patient, of course. We encourage our kids to share, to wait their turn, to set the table and to practice the piano. But patience isn’t a skill that we hone quite as assiduously as French parents do. We tend to view whether kids are good at waiting as a matter of temperament. In our view, parents either luck out and get a child who waits well or they don’t.”

Druckerman is painting with a pretty broad brush here in her characterization of American and (one assumes) French parenting practices.  Indeed, Druckerman’s observation that “middle-class America has a parenting problem” effectively translates to “affluent America has a parenting problem.”  A more authoritative brand of parenting never went out of style in many U.S. families.  Druckerman describes her “strategy” of finishing restaurant meals quickly to keep her daughter from being “kicked by a waiter or lost at sea” after refusing to sit still in her high chair.  “We left enormous, apologetic tips to compensate for the arc of torn napkins and calamari around our table,” she writes.  No doubt there are many families with a very different “strategy” for dealing with children who can’t behave themselves in restaurants.  It’s called “staying home.”

I’d like to see some data before I conclude that all American parents are Velveeta-eating surrender monkeys who cater to their children’s every whim.  But this is to quibble.  Druckerman’s observations are from her upcoming book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. I suspect that like last year’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it will set American tongues to wagging anew over how we raise our children.


  1. Friends of mine who lived in Paris for a while have told me that it is not considered bad manners for strangers (i.e., not the parents) of a child to scold them in public for bad behavior. In the U.S., try doing that. I’ve seen it attempted and the parents have a fit.

    Comment by Barry Garelick — February 5, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

  2. Great article, Robert.

    Broad brush observations CAN be dangerous. I’m convinced there remains a number of US parents who subscribe to the strong authoritative style. These are the kids who are functional in public, and especially in school.

    American parents are afraid to scold their children in public for fear of being brought up on charges (of abuse).

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 6, 2012 @ 7:53 am

  3. Thanks Robert — I’m looking forward to this book and wonder if it can help us get to a more multi-layered debate on parenting, one that doesn’t posit only two choices: the “make them miserable” Tiger Mother or the “never a skinned-knee” Helicopter Mom.

    Comment by Lisa Guernsey — February 6, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  4. I’m so disappointed that the publisher changed the title of the book here in America because I *LOVED* the one it’s published under in the U.K.: “French Children Don’t Throw Food”. I haven’t yet read it, but the “Economist” gave it a glowing review.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — February 6, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

  5. That’s hilarious and a great title. I assume it’s homage to the book “French Women Don’t Get Fat.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 6, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

  6. Modern American, media-driven culture has moved from an adult-centric world to a child/adolescent centered world, and kids are the worse for it. TV stars are paid to behave like spoiled brats, and this brat behavior has become the expected norm for a large swath of society, regardless of income. I can remember a time when there were rooms in the house off-limits to kids, parents were the ones having friends over and throwing parties. and kids were expected to watch and learn how to be an adult, from the adults. One of the driving forces behind homeschooling has been the desire of many parents to take back the education of their children in this broader sense, as used by the French described in Druckerman’s book.
    Owner/Moderator, ckhomeschoolers yahoo!group

    Comment by Janice Kielb — February 6, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

  7. I love how now you write about what I would have written about — except before me, and better. Mais oui.

    Comment by MG — February 6, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

  8. It was definitely an interesting article–and I’m certain you’re right that American parents will “set American tongues wagging anew over how to raise our children,” but I feel like the author is conflating two different things. She’s observing parents who set and strictly enforce routines, schedules, and boundaries and attributing it to parents who don’t create entirely child-centered lives. I’m sure it’s true that people whose lives are less child-centered (or perhaps child-obsessed is what she was going for) are more likely to create and enforce such boundaries, but I think it’s the setting and the enforcement of the limits (and structure and routine–like mealtime, etc.) that she’s responding to when she admires French children’s behavior.

    Just a thought…

    Comment by Kathleen Porter-Magee — February 6, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

  9. Even within broad brush overgeneralizations, there is often a kernel of truth. When reading your great post, I started remembering a trip some years ago for American early childhood experts interested in learning about France’s system of école maternelle. In one of these state preschools, the Americans marveled at the children having lunch. Three- and four-year-old children lined up in a reasonably orderly manner, each with a small tray, a plate, and a glass, and served themselves hot food from a low serving station in the middle of the room, then found their way to a table to eat. In addition to the relative calm of the room, everyone exclaimed at the realization that all of the glasses were real glass.

    “You’d never see that in the United States,” the French school officials were told. “We would be much too afraid that someone would break one or throw one, and children would get hurt.”

    The French officials looked genuinely perplexed: “But how will they learn to use them properly if you do not provide some for them to learn with?”

    It was an attitude that was less authoritarian than pragmatic: If these are the expectations that we have of children, we’d better teach them how they can be met. It was eye-opening.

    Comment by Burnie Bond — February 6, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

  10. Nice to see you here, Burnie. And thanks for the post. What a terrific story!

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 6, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

  11. @Burnie, it sounds amazing, but this does happen in some places in the US. I have seen it at well-run Montessori preschools.

    Comment by alamo — February 7, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

  12. I saw eighteen month old disadvantaged children pouring themselves milk and cereal and sitting down quietly at a very low table to eat it at the experimental high quality early childhood intervention program in Chapel Hill North Carolina. There were four children in the group and two childcare workers. This was in 1980. These children have been followed up on and have all very done well.

    I never could have imagined that eighteen month olds could pour their own milk into a bowl from a pitcher. I would have put our son there, but the program was full.

    Comment by Harold — February 9, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

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