On French parenting brinkmanship

Pamela Druckerman has written a short, must-read piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why French Parents Are Superior.” (No, them’s not fighting words; them’s book promoting words.) Druckerman, an American ex-pat living in Paris, has spent the last couple years comparing French parenting styles with American styles. Her investigation has led her to draw some important conclusions about the nature of good parenting in the modern age.

As usual, they might as well have been lifted straight out of Aristotle. Though she calls them “skills” or “abilities,” they are more rightly considered virtues (arete), the cultivation of right habits and dispositions through good exercise, all of which are set deep within French culture. What she observes in French children, as opposed to their American counterparts, are the virtues of patience, self-control, autonomy (the capacity to play by oneself or to play quietly with others), and deference to good authority. The French, she writes, think of good authority in terms of cadre: a frame or scaffolding within which children are able to play and learn and grow. (A cadre would be the limits to a sandbox, the limits to mealtime, the limits to a classroom, and so forth.)

Learning to parent more sensibly will require nothing less than a conceptual re-orientation on the part of American parents. There is a nice scene between Druckerman and her friend Frédérique that underscores this point. Druckerman’s 2-year-old son Leo keeps running about wildly, often with the intent of leaving the playground entirely. Druckerman, chasing after him, is nearly at wits’ end. Frédérique suggests that all this chasing about is making it impossible for them to have a lovely adult chat during the early afternoon.

“That’s true,” I said. “But what can I do?” Frédérique said I should be sterner with Leo. In my mind, spending the afternoon chasing Leo was inevitable. In her mind, it was pas possible.

She discovers, with practice, that it’s not inevitable but pas possible. How much about our own way of life seems inevitable until it is shown to be pas possible?

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “On Hovering Parents and Tea-Cup Children”

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One thought on “On French parenting brinkmanship

  1. Thanks, Carolyn, for this wonderful anecdote. Your child’s reply seems to *harmonize* good French (strict in a ho-hum, good sense) and good American (amusing in a keeping-us-together-and-on-track sense). Voila and well-done!

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