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What We Can Learn From French Parents

Posted by Vincent DiCaro

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Feb 7, 2012
This Saturday's Wall Street Journal had an article titled, Why French Parents Are Superior. Before I even read it, I knew there would be something to blog about...

Turns out that the reason the writer, Pamela Druckerman, believes that American parents have something to learn from the French is actually pretty simple (and I agree with her!). The article's thesis is summed up in this line: "They [the French] assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this."

You would think that most American parents would "get" this, but with the introduction of terms like "hyperparenting" and "helicopter parenting" entering the vernacular in recent years, it is clear that our culture (at least our middle-class culture) has become too "child-centric."

Here at NFI, we often say that the most important relationship in the house is the one between mom and dad. If they are doing well, they are more likely to do well by their children. Children get a sense of stability and learn how to relate to others by watching their parents. So, to serve children best, mom and dad must focus on their own relationship first.

So, in that sense, NFI has always espoused (pun intended) a "French" ideal. This is counter to the American ideal which seems to have placed the parent-child relationship at the center (mom-child, really), with all other relationships (mainly mom and dad's marriage) in heated competition for precious time and energy.

According to the Journal article, this reversal of relationship priorities appears to be causing problems in many American households, where kids throw tantrums and adults have little time to themselves. Meanwhile the French are ambling along nicely with well-behaved kids, stable marriages, and healthy adult time. This notion is summed up in another key line in the article: "To the French couple, it seemed like the American kids were in charge."

In my short time (two years) as a parent, I can say that I have seen some of this, and my wife and I are probably a little guilty of it at times. But this is where I may get in a little trouble with both my wife and moms at large: in my own experience - which the Journal article seems to support - it appears to be American moms who are piloting the helicopter in the helicopter parenting equation.

Dads are certainly passengers on the helicopter and must share some of the responsibility. But my impression is that dads have bought much less into the overparenting hype, but because our culture is set up to establish and support mothers as the "primary parent," mom's parenting paradigm wins out.

The Tiger Mom phenomenon illustrates this point nicely. "Tiger Mommying" is overparenting to the extreme. But, as we blogged about on this very blog last April, the fatherhood perspective was largely invisible during that debate.  Moreover, the Wall Street Journal soon after answered questions about the lack of dads in the discussion, which we also discussed on this blog. The writer of that response, Alan Paul, made this statement, which will get us back to the American vs. French parenting question: "To make a sweeping generalization, moms tend to be more detail oriented, and order driven. Dads often care less about the mess, can live with a bit more chaos and more easily adopt a big picture view."

So, America versus France...

What the American perspective does to dads is that they have to compete for attention from their wives, who are giving most of their time and energy to the kids. This is why one of the riskiest times for divorces is when all the kids have left for college: moms and dad have spent the last 18+ years pouring all of their love, energy, and attention into the kids and forgot how to love each other.

If what this new Journal article says is true, this is not happening as much in France. And that is a good thing for children, moms, and dads.

Tell us: is your parenting more American or French? What are the benefits (and disadvantages) of your approach?

Topics: General Fatherhood Research & Studies

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