[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]
This was the New York Times’ most emailed article of the past two days, on child-rearing techniques in America and how these contrast with such techniques in France and among Chinese. I would normally not comment on such a subject except for the comparative France-America angle, my experience as an American father of a child (now in her late teens) entirely raised in France, and extensive personal observations on the matter. For the authors of the article—Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, both neuroscientists—the comparative perspective is driven by Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was the talk of the town last year, and Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, just out this month. Druckerman had an essay on the subject a couple of weeks ago in The Wall Street Journal, “Why French Parents Are Superior,” where she explained some of “the Gallic secrets for avoiding tantrums, teaching patience and saying ‘non’ with authority.”
I don’t know if French parents are superior overall to American but they absolutely are in one respect, which I began to notice in the 1980s, several years before I became a parent but when my (American) friends started to have children. Going to the homes of American friends with small children was often exasperating, as the kid(s) would make a ruckus in the presence of the adults, constantly interrupt their parents—and the adult conversation—and distract everyone’s attention, but without the parents doing anything about it. On numerous occasions I would seethe, wanting to tell my friends “Will you please control your damn kid(s)!” (which of course I didn’t; ça ne se fait pas). American children were mal élevé; not all, of course, but many. But the problem was ultimately not the kids but their parents.
The behavior of the American children was and is almost inconceivable in France. I can’t imagine seeing it in anyone’s home here. I never cease to remark on how polite French children are to adults. E.g. when passing neighbors’ children at play in front of my building, they always turn and say “bonjour, Monsieur.” Such would not happen with American children, who would royally ignore my presence. (The behavior carries over to adulthood, BTW; when passing neighbors here—with whom I have never spoken a word but where there’s a semblance of recognition—one always greets; this rarely if ever happens with Americans; hell, I’ve passed by or been in the presence of Americans—and countless times in my life—whom I’ve actually met and spoken with in the past but who don’t even acknowledge my presence, let alone say hello!).
In their NYT op-ed Aamodt & Wang have this to say about France
In “Bringing Up Bébé,” Ms. Druckerman, a journalist, is envious of Parisian parents whose children don’t throw tantrums in public or fight on playgrounds. She ascribes this good behavior to stern French methods like forcing children to follow schedules and wait for attention. But in the school system, this strict approach translates to a rigid curriculum with an emphasis on memorization. French children also are tracked into different academic paths by age 12, a practice that reinforces the influence of parental socioeconomic status on educational and career outcomes, reducing social mobility.
I don’t how well Aamodt & Wang know France but there’s a bit of an American stereotype here, e.g. on the “emphasis on memorization” in French schools. When comparing the American educational system to others, it is almost an American reflex to critically note that schools in other countries and cultures emphasize “rote memorization” (I’ve never understood what the “rote” here means or what the difference is between “rote memorization” and just simple “memorization”). At least Aamodt & Wang didn’t add the “rote” for France. Now it is absolutely true that French schools do place great emphasis on memorization. But this is a good thing, no? It is very important that students memorize. As a pure product of the American educational system, I had to do a lot of memorizing so far as I remember. And there is no contradiction or trade-off whatever in emphasizing memorization and instilling a critical spirit at the same time, of teaching children to think independently. On this score, French schools perform equally to their American counterparts, if not more in some respects.
On rigidities in the French educational system, this is absolutely the case—I could discourse on the subject at length—but not for the reasons Aamodt & Wang cite. In terms of curriculum the French system—in middle and high schools—may offer somewhat less choice than in America but this is not necessarily a point in the latter’s favor. One can argue that there’s too much choice in American schools—as in American supermarkets—and that the students (or shoppers) are objectively not better off for it. (And to push the school-supermarket parallel a bit, just as the “choice” one gets in American supermarkets—of aisles of junk food and/or variations of the same thing—is not really choice at all, American high schools and, above all, universities are full of elective courses that add little to the educational nutrition, as it were, of the students). As for being tracked into different academic paths, this happens in France at age 14-15, not 12—at the end of 9th grade—, where students are streamed into separate lycées for those who are university bound and for those who are not. But parents do have a say and the choice is not definitive. Lateral movement is possible at any point along the way. Going to a vocational high school in no way precludes higher education. There are many problems with the French educational system but one has to have observed it up close over a period of time—to have had a child in it or been in it oneself (and with a point of comparison)—to know.
Not to sound like I’m dumping on Americans here, the situation does change when the children become teenagers and then college students. In the past, American teens were more independent and self-reliant than their French counterparts. It was almost a rite of passage for American teens to have part-time and/or summer jobs, for even middle and upper-middle kids to work as store clerks, in restaurants, or doing manual labor. French teens from the well-to-do classes never did any such thing. And at the university level, American students were more outspoken in class—and not hesitating to interrogate the professor—but also more attentive and generally well-behaved. French students were and are exceptionally deferential to the prof, quieter in class, but also less mature (talking among themselves in class like 4th graders while the prof is lecturing). But this is all changing. My American students are more outwardly respectful of me than I was of my professors. And my French students are more self-confident, attentive, and outspoken nowadays than they were even ten years ago. And French university students hold part-time jobs in a way Americans of their corresponding social class don’t anymore. It is unexceptional for a French student to work part-time at a fast-food restaurant. But no self-respecting American college student, or even a college-bound high school kid, would be caught dead working at McDonald’s. N’y pense même pas…
So there’s convergence. France is “Americanizing” and America is become more like Europe (sorry, Tea Partiers, but it’s true). Encore un sujet de réflexion.
ADDENDUM: One other thing. Pamela Druckerman, in her WSJ article, writes the following
Rather than snacking all day like American children, [French children] mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.).
Absolutely. Snacking is an American malediction. Our daughter grew up eating on precisely the above schedule. No eating throughout the day or at odd hours. And no second helpings during meals. As a consequence she has never had a weight problem, nor have the near totality of her friends over the years. If Americans want to know where their obesity epidemic comes from, they need look no further than their atrocious eating habits.
UPDATE: TNR senior editor Ruth Franklin has a piece on how “no book will fix what’s wrong with American parenting,” and where she refers to Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé. The video “Sh*t Park Slope Parents Say,” which she links to, is amusing. On this general subject I had a post almost a year ago on French mothers and breast feeding (a subject on which I am not a world-renowned authority but had something to say at the time).
2nd UPDATE: Elaine Sciolino reviews Pamela Druckerman’s book in the Sunday NYT. (February 26)
3rd UPDATE: Jennifer Conlin, a frequent NYT contributor, has an op-ed on “the non-joie of parenting.” (April 7)
4th UPDATE: Karen Le Billon has an op-ed in the NYT on the superiority of French parents when it comes to teaching their children to eat properly (and of the French proscription on snacking). (April 13)
5th UPDATE: Elizabeth Kolbert has a review essay in The New Yorker on “why are American kids so spoiled?” where she discusses Pamela Druckerman’s book. (July 2)
(Translation of above cartoon: “You can do what you want” “If, however, it remains within the framework of what I want you to do”)