Parisian Parenting: Should We Take a Lesson?

Some say American mothers should just chillax. Come to think of it, my sons have been telling me that for years.

Some say the French are nonchalant about their parenting. Or, at the very least, they don’t sweat it in the same way as we – the Anglo-Saxon types – seem to do.

In fact, to hear Debra Ollivier tell the tale, mothers in France have a very different approach to their children.

In reading her spot-on Huffington Post article highlighting differences between French parents and their American counterparts, may I offer you this line plucked from her copy, which pretty much sums it up?

Where childhood trumps adulthood in the States, the opposite is largely true in France.

Is this nothing more than another stereotype or generalization about the French?

Does it raise your hackles, or might you be willing to explore Ms. Ollivier’s observations and elaborations?

French Women, French Men, French Parents 

When it comes to my stance on aspects of the French lifestyle, I make no bones about being a cultural hybrid, in part due to years (decades) over the course of which I’ve studied, lived, and worked in France, albeit off and on. I also married into a European family (not French), with a similar approach to the matters at hand.

And yes, I maintain ongoing friendships with French men and women on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ms. Ollivier cites author of “Bringing up Bébé,” French expatriate Pamela Druckerman, and throughout the Huffington Post article I find myself nodding in agreement. In addition to the point that the needs of the child don’t displace parental needs, let’s consider the following:

  • Maman et Papa have a right to privacy and a life of their own. (Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.)
  • French women do not suffer American angst over every mothering decision. (They don’t ooze maternal guilt.)
  • There is no “brilliant” parent, no “perfect” parent, and the How-To-Parent-Better Industry is not flourishing as it has in Land of the Free, and Home of the Brave.

Another way to interpret that last conclusion? French women are not beating themselves black and bleu over everything to do with fussy François or petulant Paulette. They’re living their lives, while raising their families. In contrast, most American mothers (myself included) slip into the habit of “what wouldn’t we do for our kids.”

But French men and women possess some distinct advantages, as Ms. Ollivier points out:

French parents enjoy an infrastructure of social benefits that we can only dream of, including four to six weeks of paid vacation and excellent free education that starts with nursery schools and extends all the way to universities.

She goes on to say:

Though the French and their system are far from perfect, when it comes to parenting their culture by and large nurtures common sense and autonomy.

The Benefits of Social Benefits

And while the article doesn’t mention that health care in France (like education) is treated as a basic human right, may I add that as an additional factor? What about the quotidian stress that millions of American families face? The fear that drives us to hang on through heavier workloads and lower pay, while undeniably job-scared? The pressure that pushes us to find any sort of position to provide benefits?

What about the search for a second job or maybe a third – to pay for a modest amount of health care for ourselves and our children?

Do you think there is no ripple effect when it comes to social benefits of this sort?

Might I remind you that the French health care system, certainly not perfect, nonetheless provides services for its population? May I cite from my own writing on this critical conversation of adequate health care?

Couldn’t we point to health care as delivered in France for example, ranked a few years back as number 1 in the world (the U.S. was ranked 37)? Could we mention the per capita cost of $3,500 per person, which is considerably less than the $6,100 per person in America? Or might we point to Germany or even Canada – and say – no, none of these are perfect systems, but they offer excellent care… ?

As to vacation (actual time off to unwind and spend with family – quelle idée!), wouldn’t four weeks or more allow you to genuinely renew, to create memories as a family, and to tend to yourself and your partner without having to fit it into your busy schedule?

Parenting versus Partnering (Virile Verbs?)

Another ingredient in this mothering mix?

Ms. Ollivier takes issue with the notion that “parenting” has become a verb in the U.S., whereas that certainly isn’t the case in France. It’s an interesting point of comparison, and one that I would like to address.

Personally, I’m an ardent fan of the verb, its energy, its vitality, its ability to jolt us off our dallying derrières, and amp up the action – appropriately.

I daresay that “to parent” involves the same (or similar) activities in France as in other western countries, but with a measure of the madness reduced, as a result of equal amounts of another verb – “to partner.”

Oh, I’m not saying there are never any conflicts over the love, kids, and job juggle – regardless of culture and country. But could we stay open-minded, read the article without judgment, and possibly take a lesson from the French  – at least on occasion?

What if we let loose on the worry un peu, while ratcheting up our partnering priorities?

What if we didn’t turn mothering versus making love into a competition for our time and attention?

What if we continue to sharpen our political awareness, and recognize that personal relationships and families thrive within a more positive social and economic framework?


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  1. Jesinalbuquerque says

    To me, these points all seem so clear and obvious — it’s hard to understand why so few ‘get it.’ I know the reasons why (at least many of them), but I don’t understand. Drives me to despair, it does.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Hi Jesinalbuquerque. Delighted you joined the conversation! Like you, I know the reasons ‘why’ and have even lived many of them. Fear and guilt sit at the base of many over-zealous parenting tactics, and tangled up in the terrible expense of raising a child, in our difficult economy, our post-divorce financial and logistical wasteland, and a culture of entitlement reinforced by media that makes me despairing. I think the issues are more complex than we realize – highlighted by those mentions of the social fabric which exists in France, and does not, here.

      Some of these points do seem clear and obvious. You’re so right. And I think we could all take a lesson – myself included. But depending on the age of your children (and the involvement of other adults to raise them), innumerable problems putting them into practice arise.

  2. says

    I’m taking a quasi-Parisian break myself right now from my angst. I’m sure it will return soon enough, but right now, I just need a little distance from trying to be the best parent I can possibly be to just doing the bare minimum.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Sounds like a rational response in a (sometimes) surreal reality.

      (I’m thinking about that Shopping Tour of Paris for weary mothers again… or anyone else who wants to come along, for that matter!) 😉

    • BigLittleWolf says

      MDR !!!!

      Translation: ROTFL…

      Yes, I sense the Big Little Wolf Tour of Paris will be required for more than shoe and lingerie shopping purposes…

  3. says

    Raising kids as a single mother perhaps has the latent advantage of forcing the parent to be a little more “French” in outlook. There is no choice to but to carve out one’s own identity because there are so many hats to wear. A little bit of mothering by neglect.

    At least this has been true for me and my kids. I wonder if I would have been the same kind of mother in a two parent family?

    The downside of being a single mom though is that I probably beat myself up more for my own “bad parenting”. In that respect I wish I was a little more French. Not to mention the wine and great food…

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I do indeed think we beat ourselves up more when we do it on our own, Abby. And if I may generalize, the availability of extended family to assist is a little bit more likely in Europe, if only by proximity if not cultural preference. That means there’s a bit of time off occasionally, and also, others whose counsel (and experience parenting) you trust.

      And yes, all that great wine and food… :)

      Delighted you stopped by to read and comment.

  4. says

    Oh BLW, how good would that ‘BLW Tour of Paris’ be?! I better start saving now.

    As to the socioeconomic and cultural differences, dare I say, it might come down to a tax reform 😉 ? We are paying upwards from 30%. What are the people in France paying? (my desktop is broken or I’d look it up myself).

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Sorry Di. I wish I could “net it out for you” in some simple fashion, but then I would be doing what everyone tries to do (and fails? and oversimplifies?) – comparing apples to oranges, though – yes – we’re talking fruit.

      Part of the difficulty is that in the U.S. you may have multi-millionaires (like our presidential candidates?) paying very low rates of tax. (What is Mitt Romeny paying again? 13%? I need to find that figure in the New York Times…)

      Here we are. Romney made $21 million in 2010, and his effective federal tax rate was 13.9%.

      And then you have the average Josephine with mouths to feed who is not even making ends meet, but paying 30% or more (there are state and local taxes as well, depending upon jurisdiction), working crazy hours and multiple jobs. Considerably more, depending upon what amounts you’re counting as taxes.

      And using that 30% as an example, by way of (oversimplified) comparison, additional amounts would include property taxes (for example), which run many thousands of dollars per year, and, for those monies, I am not receiving any health care, any short term disability, any unemployment during periods of layoff, and so on. Not so for the French, and yes, their (approximate) taxes may represent 45 to 50% of their earnings, but they don’t go without medical care, or unemployment benefits, and so on.

      Any political economists care to join the discussion? (Forgive me, Di – I’m trying to find what I can, piecing it together. Not so easy, and not my specialty, clearly.)

      One last item. The point of the mentions relative to French (or Western European) parenting was not only health care, but availability of child care, vacation time as part of the cultural fabric (and again, not dependent upon working for an employer for X number of months or years), and so on.

      We would need to look at and compare a variety of other factors to be more holistic, if possible. For example, productivity, longevity, and quality of life measures to the extent that is possible. I believe that the “Healthy or Unhealthy: A Conversation” post that I referenced may, in fact, provide links to OECD data for a variety of countries, including the Scandinavian countries which tend to score high in these areas.

      My point was largely that relaxing, as a parent, is a bit easier when you aren’t worried about medical care, day care, or how long you can hold on to your current two contractor jobs, to just squeak by until the end of the current month…

  5. teamgloria says

    Dearest D

    As a foreign-born child, we would just like to say that it took coming to the states in our 30s to gain the delicious sunny optimism of American children……and we wished we had it sooner 😉

    But as Simone de Beauvoir said ” it is never too late to have a happy childhood”

    Bisou. _tg x

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I am glad to hear that an American childhood appears to include optimism, tg. And believe me, I know there’s no “perfect” system anywhere, any more than there’s a perfect childhood…

  6. says

    In my mind I half live in the Marais already, see my client at the Place des Voges and parent pretty much like I’m already living in Paris (although this may be why reality so often jars me back into wondering why we don’t live and parent more this French way).

    I suppose it may have to do with the relative immaturity of our nation, with the amount we spend on defense so that we can be powerful, but not necessarily good to our own, and the effects of materialism and hyper-competition that make a pro-social fabric rather thin and tattered.

    The more of us realize that there are better ways to do things, the more we will drift toward simpler, more elegant, more sensuous and more beautifully lived lives. Like your post about bodies, perhaps our general sense of shame, work-ethic at noble in and of itself (very puritan and anti pleasure) and the lurid counter-effects of repression exploding in vulgar sexuality and gauche consumption… the whole thing obviously needs a make-over toward the real and the fun. The trick is in making change look fun rather than terrifying (i.e. a little car, a cute apartment, truly good food in normal portions, a walk in a nice park, an ice cream or catch a movie, friends who actually talk about interesting things… why isn’t that our fantasy rather than the fear that we won’t be able to live in McMansions and drive giant trucks with lots of cup-holders). I don’t want American to become France, I love America—but I do want it to be more like France in the ways you outline (i.e. taking the best and leaving the rest).

    BTW, I have great faith in LA as a place that is trending (however subtly) in a very nice direction.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      In my mind I’m living there, too, Bruce! (I even have a little corner all picked out in my Parisian fantasy life!) But to be clear, I don’t think the “French way” is necessarily the only way or even the “right way.” But I do think we can take some lessons from the greater balance that is generally practiced when it comes to the individual’s sense of self, the individual’s honoring of partner, and the individual exercising the parenting role.

      As I’ve already said, our culture with its inherent and growing instability (including the extensiveness of single parent homes) makes the application of French style parenting problematic. And sometimes, discipline and rules may trump some of the fun that you mention.

      But like you, I think we should look to other ways of doing things, and try to see what we might apply for the better. A little more “Parisian parenting” might be good not only for our kids, but good for us – for our core relationships – and that drifting toward a simpler, more elegant, and more beautifully lived life. We can hope, can’t we?

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