Monday, February 20, 2012

Are French Parents Superior To American Parents?



by Saint Mark (bio)

According to this article, YES! And why? Despite what this lampooning cartoon of the French depicts, the French are better at parenting because they know how to educate their children in delaying their own gratification. They thus, indirectly, teach their children to be patient.

In Pamela Druckerman's "Why French Parents Are Superior," she chronicles her frustrations (and I think most parents' frustrations) as an authority figure over her children. Here's what she shares:

When my daughter was 18 months old, my husband and I decided to take her on a little summer holiday. We picked a coastal town that's a few hours by train from Paris, where we were living (I'm American, he's British), and booked a hotel room with a crib. Bean, as we call her, was our only child at this point, so forgive us for thinking: How hard could it be?

We ate breakfast at the hotel, but we had to eat lunch and dinner at the little seafood restaurants around the old port. 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.

In her article, Druckerman confides how she stumbled upon the glaring disparity between her children and their tantrums and the French families she observed while living in France. She found research to back her up:
I first realized I was on to something when I discovered a 2009 study, led by economists at Princeton, comparing the child-care experiences of similarly situated mothers in Columbus, Ohio, and Rennes, France. The researchers found that American moms considered it more than twice as unpleasant to deal with their kids. In a different study by the same economists, working mothers in Texas said that even housework was more pleasant than child care.
What she discovers is that the French indirectly educate their children in the art and virtue of patience. They do so firmly but kindly through activities and boundaries:
The French, I found, seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids. When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. "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.

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don't pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)

One Saturday I visited Delphine Porcher, a pretty labor lawyer in her mid-30s who lives with her family in the suburbs east of Paris. When I arrived, her husband was working on his laptop in the living room, while 1-year-old Aubane napped nearby. Pauline, their 3-year-old, was sitting at the kitchen table, completely absorbed in the task of plopping cupcake batter into little wrappers. She somehow resisted the temptation to eat the batter.

Delphine said that she never set out specifically to teach her kids patience. But her family's daily rituals are an ongoing apprenticeship in how to delay gratification. Delphine said that she sometimes bought Pauline candy. (Bonbons are on display in most bakeries.) But Pauline wasn't allowed to eat the candy until that day's snack, even if it meant waiting many hours.

When Pauline tried to interrupt our conversation, Delphine said, "Just wait two minutes, my little one. I'm in the middle of talking." It was both very polite and very firm. I was struck both by how sweetly Delphine said it and by how certain she seemed that Pauline would obey her. Delphine was also teaching her kids a related skill: learning to play by themselves. "The most important thing is that he learns to be happy by himself," she said of her son, Aubane.
As a sometimes "hyperparent," I found Druckerman's insights liberating and helpful. I want to have full-time joy in my parenting and not feel that housework is more appealing that parenting. "Men (and women) are that they might have joy," right? Since patience is a "principle of the priesthood," I need to cultivate this trait more in myself and in the future priesthood holders I am raising.

Further, Druckerman dialogues with a researcher, Dr. Michel, whom President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints referenced in the opening of his talk Continue in Patience.

Patience is a virtue we must all learn and we must all teach our children. Druckerman reveals one of the best ways to do this, which I'm sure is shocking to most Ameri-centrists: Follow the French.

What do you think about her article? Do you agree? Do the French actually have virtues we as Americans should emulate and assimilate?

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