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

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