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Debra Ollivier Headshot

French Parents: Vive La Difference?

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Sixteen years ago, when my first child was born in Paris, I baby-proofed our apartment with rubber edge liners, covers on electrical sockets, latches on windows, locks on drawers and toilet seat guards. The parts of our living room that weren't bound and shackled were filled with happy, fluorescent kiddie toys. My French neighbor Genevieve took one look at our place and said: "Your apartment looks like a psych ward." This was one of several lessons I'd learn about how the French parent differently from us.

Much has been written on the subject, including by yours truly. For centuries we Anglo-Saxons have been preoccupied with how the French seem to do things better or differently from us, including why they don't get fat (even though, of course, they do). Almost a decade ago, after living in Paris and observing French mothers, journalist Judith Warner returned to America, took note of the parenting landscape in her homeland, and wrote "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety." The title says it all.

Now author and French expatriate Pamela Druckerman brings us her soon-to-be-published "Bringing Up Bebe," a book exclusively dedicated to this comparative parenting turf. Druckerman, 41, has three kids that she's been raising in Paris. On the origins of her book, she told the Daily Mail in a recent profile: "My French friends didn't have to hurriedly end phone calls because their kids were shouting for something...They were, overall, just more relaxed. It was a cumulative effect, which lead to a 'hang on, maybe they're onto something,' So I decided to look into it."

What Druckerman found -- and what most expatriates discover -- is that where childhood trumps adulthood in the States, the opposite is largely true in France. Kids are not king in France -- and if you treat them as such, they quickly become tyrants with a sense of entitlement that sticks around well into adulthood. Though they love their kids passionately like everyone else, the French generally don't subvert their identities to the lives of their children.

Boundaries, in other words, are good, particularly in protecting the sanctity of parents' private life. (No, Marie-Louise, you may not sleep in mommy and daddy's bed. And yes, Jean-Pierre, you must sit at the table every night for family dinner and eat correctly.) Kids are essentially expected to adapt to the grown-up world and not the other way around.

And most impressive, perhaps, as Druckerman discovered, "French women certainly don't suffer the same guilt about everything." No, they certainly don't. Guilt seems to be the American mother's evil stepsister.

Somehow in the last decade or so, trophy wives were replaced with trophy kids in the States, parenting became a verb, and an already sizeable how-to industry catering to fretful parents became colossal. (Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" is the latest manifesto to sand-blast fear and doubt into every parent's heart.) Meanwhile, the French kept doing what they'd done for centuries, parenting with an iron fist in a velvet glove without forsaking pleasure in life. As Druckerman notes:

"While I kind of assumed that when I had a baby, my marriage and my body was going to suffer, and I wouldn't have any time for myself, the French just don't assume that. They don't have any illusions, but won't subjugate themselves entirely to the will of the child."

It certainly helps that the French government actually underwrites family values rather than paying lip service to them. 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. 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.

On that latter point, Druckerman states:

"The French are absolutely not draconian about their own rules. They actually believe that children are more capable, in some ways, and believe in their autonomy. They just give a clear framework in which they can learn and see it's a process -- you don't suddenly arrive at being a brilliant parent."

Being a brilliant parent and a whole person, for ourselves and our children, is what we all aspire to. On that note, Druckerman's words recall the time many moons ago in Paris when I refused to let my son go to England on a three-day field trip with his bilingual pre-school class. The school director looked at me warily and said, "Madame, holding onto your child is not good for cultivating an independent spirit." Then she smiled (a bit smugly, I might add) and said, "We only have this problem with Anglo-Saxon mothers."

The French kids later traveled across the English channel and the American kids stayed home. Meanwhile, French mothers enjoyed three days alone with their spouses. The Anglo-Saxon moms, on the other hand, lugged their gear and sand toys to a rainy park where they sat on wet asphalt and cheered everyone on with "Good job!," then went home exhausted and fell asleep with the kids.

Had I known then what I know now, I probably would have let my son cross that English Channel.