stephmodo: The Differences Between American and French Parenting Styles

The Differences Between American and French Parenting Styles

• 15 February 2012

A couple of days ago I received a surprise package in the mail from Amazon.  Inside was a book called "Bringing Up Bébé--a book written by an American mother raising her children in Paris.  Upon giving birth in France, the former Wall Street Journal reporter immediately began noticing that the French raise their children quite differently than American parents.  Fascinated by the differences, she began taking notes, that eventually led to the making of this book; which looks very interesting (and controversial) by the way.

Now there was no invoice inside the package...or a note...or any indication as to who sent this book to me.  I can only infer that someone thoughtfully gifted it because they thought I'd be genuinely interested in the subject (which I am) or that I need a little help in the parenting department (a likely scenario!).  Regardless though, I am touched by someone's thoughtfulness...if you were the one that send this to me out of the blue, thank you! 

Back to the subject of French and American parenting styles...there has been much talk of this subject lately, mostly due to the release of this book (you can brush up on all the hullabaloo here and here).  Clearly a fascination is emerging and questions are being raised as to what is best.  I must confess that when we lived there, not a week went by when my husband and I didn't discuss this very subject.  We couldn't figure out why our children didn't behave quite the same (i.e. not as well) as their French counterparts.  We tried to put our finger on what exactly led to these differences, but never quite figured it out.  Let me share a few stories that will help you understand the subtle differences between our two cultures: 

One Saturday our family took a break from working on the house and we all went to the local market together.  As usual, we didn't get out of the house as soon as we planned for and ended up being at the market right during lunch time.  Our youngest child at the time was 2 and obviously not old enough to entirely reason with (at least in my mind--a French parent may disagree).  She began to get fussy and a bit fiesty (we blame the then red hair), so I bought her a little basket of wild strawberries and placed them on her lap for her to munch on while I finished up my shopping.  Interestingly enough, she and I began to receive a lot of stares, looks, chuckles, even finger pointing.  Initially I was confused, but then realized that we were doing something considered very American--snacking.  Apparently allowing my daughter to eat outside the borders of a kitchen table during the designated lunch hour was considered very entertaining!  A French parent would've made her child wait...I, however, did not. 

On another occasion I took my two youngest to the nearest IKEA, which was about 3 hours away.  If you've ever been in the car with young children, you understand how stressful this can be at times.  When we pulled up to the big, blue building, all I could think about was how nice it was going to be to drop my kids off at the little childcare center and allow them to play and release some energy after being in the car for awhile.  Plus, I was in the mood for a little break admittedly.  But as luck would have it, the playland was full and so my disappointed children would have to squeeze into a itsy bitsy cart for a couple of hours while I navigated the packed aisles trying to make good buying decisions.  Feeling a little stressed out by the crowds and my tired, whiny children, I did what any American mother would do...I whipped out a little iPod and headphones for my kids.  And even though the cartoons were in French (Petit Ours Brun), I again received lots of looks, pointing fingers, laughs, etc.  The fact that I was trying to keep my children entertained (vs. them entertaining themselves) was what set me apart from my French friends. 

Based on experience, I believe there are positive things about each culture, and the secret is to glean the best from both worlds to create your own personal parenting style.  I would love to hear any of your own thoughts, observations, experiences, etc.  It's truly a fascinating issue to think about! 

images by Stephanie Brubaker


  1. this is so fascinating I'm curious to hear what you think of the book once you get through it

  2. I've loved reading all the posts and opinions about this subject. I agree with Marissa, a review would be wonderful.

  3. Gaby over at Design Mom's been talking about this lately, too. It's fascinating!

  4. Interesting differences, yes, and I'm sure there are valuable lessons to be learned from how the French raise children. Pointing and laughing at people doing something that might seem odd to you is never the right thing to do, however.

  5. Thank you Stephanie for your final line about taking the best from both and making something that works for you. My husband was born in Brazil. Everytime we return to visit his parents I am shocked at the different and (yes, in many ways "better") ways the children behave.

    For years, I have tried to put my finger on what causes these differences. I have a few ideas (actually some of them similar to what the author of this recent book touch on - clear and definitive boundaries from parents, less snacking, adult time) --- but interestingly enough when I brought this up the other night with my husband his response was "you think Brazilian kids are better behaved? We all think of American children as better behaved" Ha. Interesting.

    Anyways, I think the point is - we have to be careful in our broad sweeping generalizations. Books like this (and French Women Don't Get Fat) can certainly be fun and great for sparking discussion, but they are not the "Holy Grail". Like anything else, people get carried away and take everything a bit too literally.

    I am looking forward to raising children who will have access to both American traditions and Brazilian traditions. Like you, I hope I can take the best of both --- and maybe incorporate a few of these French techniques too :) --- to raise good little people. Open mindedness and a global view of life are two values that I hold near and dear. It's not a zero sum game and I hope that the Americans, the French, the Brazilian and the world --- put their best foot forward to raise responsible adults. We'll all be better for it.

  6. I've been watching/reading the discussion on French v. U.S. American parenting lately. But I actually think it is more a matter of generational differences. From what I can gather Contemporary U.S. American parenting is the deviation. Here in the U.S. we used to parent like the French (and I would add Scandinavian as I've witnessed a similar parenting style there as well) just a few generations ago. If you ask someone who was a child in the U.S. in the 1930's or 1940's you'd see that they were raised like their French counterparts. The grandparents/great-grandparents from that era will confirm that there were differences. I just think of it as old-school parenting.
    I agree with you though, we can take what is best from it all and find a style that works well.
    I think what I like about it is the idea that children are very capable but must be taught that life isn't just about their wants and needs. They can learn great life lessons through delayed gratification and recognizing they are a part of a family/community that cannot/shouldn't cater to their every whim for the sake of the greater good.

  7. I'm pretty happy with the way my children behave in public, with one exception: restaurants. At home we all sit down to a family dinner and eat together, but my kids are done eaeting really quickly and then bounce around and make so much noise (and cause spills, etc.) that we finally send them away so we can finish our meal in peace. This does not translate well to eating in a restaurant. They cannot sit still for the hour it takes to get seated/order/receive food/eat food/pay the bill. It's really frustrating. I've liked reading Design Mom's posts about her children and their lunches at school, but I think if I sent my kids to a French school we'd get expelled for poor behavior. I wish I knew how to train them to have better table manners.

  8. Very thoughtful comments...I think I agree with each and every one of you. The thing is when you get down to it, is that yes we as parents need to be conscientious and give our children a fair shot at life by teaching them values and principles; but that everyone will go about it differently. I'm still convinced there is a happy medium. Most of us are trying really hard to do a good job, but that doesn't always translate into well-behaved children 100% of the time :)

    And yes, those table manners. We had to work on that a lot when we lived there, but I have to say I appreciated the nudge. It's good to see a mirror of behavior so you know what to work on.

    Emily and Alli, I'm going to go catch up on Gabby's blog...I missed the lunch posts somehow.

    Ana & Marissa, I'll consider a review, but since the subject of the parenting is so personal, I wonder if my thoughts would be helpful/interesting/relevant to someone else, who may have a different style. Anyway, I'll mull it over :)

  9. Several summers ago we spent a month at a language school in Mexico. When my 12 year old daughter heard that a delegation of 25 French adolescents would be coming to study she was overjoyed. Imagine my shock when an overwhelming majority of these children (ages 13-16) pulled out cigarettes and began smoking during the breaks.

  10. I guess my question is what are these French parent's doing when their 2 year old throws a fit in public? Do they just let them cry it out on the ground of the market, do they spank, reprimand? What is their method? I've heard what they don't allow: snacks, entertainment provided by the parent, etc. But what DO they do in these uncomfortable situations?

    After reading about this subject on various blogs, the only thing I really want to 'borrow' from the French-style is cutting down on snacking. Now, I would have done the same thing as you in that situation at the market-and Ikea for that matter. But I am going to try to cut down on the constant snacking that happens in the afternoons at my house.
    Structured meals sound much more pleasant than me begging my children to eat a dinner I've prepared after they've spent an afternoon snacking.

    But I don't think it's harmful to give a child a basket of berries when they'd rather be napping, or running free than sitting in a stroller. In the U.S. you'd be applauded for your choice in snack, rather than being scolded for giving a snack at all:)

  11. very fascinating.. makes me want to read the book as well just to see.. I would love to hear your thoughts as well :)

  12. Vic, I know what you mean. I've observed the same. It's really unfortunate...

    But how cool you spent a month at a language school! It wasn't in Cuernavaca was it?

  13. Mary, I appreciate the affirmation :) I have no regrets about my's all about choosing our battles, yes? Thanks for having my back! Typically when it comes to snacking I let my kids have one right when they come home from school. A healthy one. Then they are ready for dinner around 6 and still have an appetite. Now if they do get hungry in between their after school snack and dinner (which typically doesn't happen) then I let them have a fruit or vegetable. That way, if they are filling up on food before dinner, it's good stuff. But typically a healthy snack will tide them over till dinner.

    Hailie Girl, I'll read more and report if compelled! Thanks for the nudge :)

  14. Hi, Steph!
    I read this article about the book too and had a lot of guilt at first, then chose to just glean insight from the article instead.
    I totally would have done the same thing at Ikea and in the market as you. Sometimes you think, "wait...I'm making my kids do what I think is important (Ikea, shop during their lunch/nap time)... is it fair to them, too?
    I don't know.
    I love the idea of taking the best of all these cultures and adapting to your family.
    Like others said, we want to instill the no-snacking (except one after school) policy more around here.
    I know one thing: I like that I have good friendships with my kids, they listen (most of the time), but I'm most definitely grateful I have a supportive husband who is not the constant background noise (MOM), but the enforcer of the bigger rules. It definitely takes the two for balance around here.
    Interesting book. I may have to pick it up, esp before mid-winter break! :)

  15. I heard this great interview with some French moms here in Seattle on parenting styles:
    I like that the story acknowledges benefits/drawbacks to both styles. Oui!
    It makes me wonder how to raise my son to recognize when it is okay to be wild and free and when to show restraint and discipline. One of the French women interviewed notes that in her experience French children remain restrained when they are in a setting that would allow them to be open and free.
    It's that balance that seems so hard to achieve for all moms!
    C'est la vie, n'est pas? :)

  16. i've been pretty fascinated by this topic as well lately. i'm so glad you chimed in. and i would also love to hear your thoughts on the book when you're finished.

    this french parenting stuff has made me think about the concept of expectations. for example, i've experimented with the snack one lately. in the car, the snacks usually come out first thing. but lately i've put my bag full of snacks in the trunk and told my toddler that we aren't going to have snacks right now, we'll have some later. i'm totally fine with snacks, but the incessant snacking-out-of-boredom is definitely a problem. so, it's just made me think about how i can be more in control of the expectations that my daughter has. i'm excited to experiment with expectations in the other areas that the french talk about - interrupting on the phone or while i'm talking to another adult, meal times, solo playing, etc. i love learning about what is important in other cultures and applying some of it to my own way of doing things.

  17. It isn't just France. We spent a lot of time in the Netherlands with our kids when they were little. They do not snack out on the streets, even if the kids are in strollers. We also had the EXACT same experience with an Ikea, where the nursery was full, and we had been looking forward to a break! Who knew?!

  18. Liz, great points. Thanks! p.s. how do you read when all your kids are at home? :)

    Mair, I just listened to the audio file you sent...thought maybe I might know one of the mothers (my daughter attends a small French preschool) but alas I did not. Great points though--I love how they point out the different responses to the same situation. And I appreciate how they express that the best way is probably somewhere in between the two. I totally agree with that. Thanks for the link!

    Martha, I'm with you on all of the points you mentioned. The interrupting is another hot issue around here :)

    Amber, I've never seen a more crowded IKEA than the ones outside Paris and in Bordeaux. I'm wondering if all European IKEA's are like that? Complete madhouses regardless of the day?

  19. Oh have no idea. You want strict parenting? Try having an Asian mother, lol! Have you read battle hymn of the Tiger mother. If you ever read it, let me know what you think!

  20. Hi Stephanie!
    I too am intrigued by this topic (and it's popularity!).. I definitely will come back here and post my thoughts as soon as I get a moment :)

  21. Steph, Why was Cuernavaca!

  22. I recently ordered the book but haven't started reading it - as a South African living in Boston, I've noticed how my friends lives have changed since having children (I don't have any yet), and been somewhat puzzled at how some parts of parenting are approached here, as they seem different to the approach I was used to in my home country. Having said that, sometimes I've learned something (well, most of the time, I have a lot to learn!) but I honestly ordered the book because a lot of my new-mother friends seem overwhelmed. I want to get an outside perspective before I jump into motherhood - but I agree with everyone else. Just like I will learn from the book, my American friends will definitely teach me invaluable lessons, too!

  23. some cultures graze on food all day and consider it healthier than waiting in-between larger meals. I think it's sort of silly that the french scoffed at you feeding your kid strawberries but their 13 year olds smoke cigarettes . I think all this french parenting talk is somewhat condescending and arrogant.

  24. Kyong, I did read an article about the Chinese Mother a couple of years ago. My Chinese-American friend said it was spot on! Super interesting.

    Denise, looking forward to hearing from you--you're sort of an expert :)

    KBD, I've noticed the same thing--friends changing after they have kids. I'm sure I have too, but I strive to still be the same person (just a heckuva lot busier) b/c it's frustrating to watch others change just b/c they have kids. I read somewhere that you should live a life with kids that makes you more interesting, not less so. I try to keep that in the back of my mind...

    Anon, I wasn't offended really by what they did as they didn't mean to be rude, I'm convinced. it was just a sign of a cultural difference. Now if it was intentional, that would be another story!

    Vic, I had a hunch! My mom studied there about 20 years ago and I remember her saying it was a language hub. I took a lucky guess :)

  25. @Steph: I meant "read the book so I know how to keep us all in line all thru the long break!"
    Heck no...there will NOT be a page turned during this break sadly! Bring on the chaos!

  26. We live in Paris. French kids do get a snack its after school typically at 4pm...called a gouter. This is their only snack and they are fine to eat dinner around 730-8pm. The French typically eat late since here in Paris most parents work till 7pm and don't make it home till 730-8 ( my household included).

  27. TN, thanks for chiming in! I love hearing from parents living in France and having that increased perspective.

    When we lived in France, one of the things I appreciated most about my children's school was the "gouter". They were handed a fresh peach, apple or mini baguette with a wedge of chocolate inside on their way out of school for their snack. Such a refreshing change from the junk that's found in American schools. I think one of the most notable changes between the American and French cultures is that snack time is a designated time in France, and not just a whenever time as it typically is here in the US. And that is why I was such a sight I think! Because I was feeding my kids snacks when it wasn't snacktime. I have to admit that there were many days during that renovation that I was in "survival" mode only :)

    Thanks again for your comment TN! I always appreciate you leaving a note :)

  28. I read about this, can't wait to read it!

  29. Stephanie,

    I read through many other readers comments and not sure whether anyone touched on something that occurred to me the other day after I read your post about this book. My thought was this: we are teaching our children to want instant gratification because we adults want instant gratification. I'm a prime example. For some time I wanted to get a loan to pay for a kitchen remodel and I really made my poor husband's life a living hell from time to time because he wanted to actually save for the costs of the redo. In retrospect, I'm glad we waited, but we had some doozy arguments. I think it's a fair characterization that our economy is in the shape it is because too many people used what was at one time easy cr4credit instead of waiting until they could afford to pay cash for something. As a parent, I'm trying to curb some of this in my children who are alomost 11 and 13but it's hard. Just the .2 from a mom in Columbus, OH.

  30. Hi,
    I'm a French student looking for interesting cultural differences between how American and French people raise their kids and I read your post. I felt it was really weird that people were looking at you when you gave something to eat to your kid at lunch time outside of a kitchen or when you gave them your iPod. These are really common things to do in France or at least there is nothing unusual about it. However, I can't tell how most parents in France raise their children, I just felt like pointing out the fact that what you experienced might not be a "French thing" or maybe they were noticing something else. I do agree though with the fact that it's really rude to stare at someone whatever the reason. ^^


  31. Hi Viviane, thanks for your insight. Your project sounds like an interesting one! I'd be so curious to see your findings. It's a fascinating subject for many of us! And a bit hard to describe at this level. Cultural differences are complicated and deep-rooted. I am grateful for the chance to ahve lived there and to still be connected to France via our cottage. It helps me understand our differences that much more! I appreciate the best about each culture and leave it at that :) Thanks for your insight!

  32. Since my wife is European, we have a nexus of both points of view in our home. One phrase I hear from Europeans a lot is "American Prince" or "American Princess," when referring to Americans both children and adults. There is a perception that Americans are raised to believe that others must cater to them and it they do not, it is O.K. to act petulant. Since this coincides with the medieval attitudes of nobility toward the common people, the reference to "prince" or "princess" is apropos.

  33. They would point and laugh? How rude. And most American parents would not bring out a IPOD...

  34. "Unknown", that is very interesting...I'll be mulling that comment over for awhile.

    Anon, yes, the cultural differences were very apparent almost immediately as I noticed the reactions. However, I don't feel bad about it, even in hindsight. We didn't and don't have a TV so the iPod works wonders when in a pinch, like I was that day! Also, I know they didn't mean to be's just one of those things.

  35. I'm doing research on parenting styles for a college course I'm taking and you're blog appeared. I'd love to know how you liked the book? Did you ever end up writing a review? Thank you. I'd love to hear from you. bbaj13 at yahoo dot com.


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