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Debra Ollivier Headshot

Mothers Superior: From China to France, It's Childhood that Counts

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One day, while driving through the suburbs of Los Angeles, my French husband noticed a bumper sticker on a car that read: "My child is a superstar at Kester Elementary School." He turned to me and asked: "What's the point of that bumper sticker?"

We'd just returned to Los Angeles after living in France for over 10 years, where I'd had two children and become a French citizen. Somehow in that span of time, America had gone from being a culture of trophy wives to a culture of trophy kids. An unsettling but unspoken emotion seemed to float among parents. That emotion could be summed up in one four letter word: Fear.

Volumes have been written about that fear -- fear, among other things, that in the global education race American kids will be left to bite the dust of Asians. No wonder Amy Chua, author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," is every American parent's worse nightmare: a Chinese icon of steely perfection and punishing taskmaster whose obedient, high-performing uber-academic offspring seem poised to take on the New World Order. Chances are that New World Order speaks Mandarin. And chances are, your kids do not.

Chua's celebration of Chinese parenting and her bizarre assertions fly in the face of everything Western parents hold dear. Take the notion that for kids, "nothing is fun unless you're good at it." You can basically kiss childhood away with that statement. Ditto for the conviction that "the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child." And yet in being so ridiculously extreme, Chua is, in fact, perfectly American. In our culture of extremes -- Extreme Politics, Extreme Home Makeovers, Extreme Sports, Extreme Cooking, Extreme Dating, Extreme Adventures (the list goes on) -- we can thank Chua for ushering in a perfectly American new idiom: Extreme Parenting.

When Chua's pre-book launch Wall Street Journal article "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" went viral, countless parents the world over had something to say. One of them was French mother Elisabeth Guedel Treussard, whose piece "Why French Mothers are Superior" (in French, here) included a list of things her children, à la française, are never allowed to do:

  • Be disrespectful
  • Leave the dining table after five minutes
  • Jump on their parents' bed
  • Complain about too much homework or challenge their teacher, except when s/he is wrong
  • Think that winning and losing is the same thing, and therefore ask for a reward when they lose

Treussard's piece brought back memories of my early French parenting days, when my first child was born and I baby-proofed our entire home with rubber edge liners, covers on electrical sockets, latches on windows, locks drawers and toilet-seat guards. The parts of our living room that weren't bound and shackled were filled with happy, fluorescent, kiddy toys. My French neighbor Geneviève took one look at our place and said, "Your apartment looks like a psych ward."

Geneviève's house was different: The kids had rules and boundaries. The living room was a collective space, but it was a grown-up space, and the children learned to respect it as such. (How handy later in life!) The kids had regular dinners en famille (non-negotiable) and were in bed no later than 9 p.m. so that Mommy and Daddy could be together, because private time for Mommy and Daddy was sacrosanct.

This was so wildly different from my American upbringing. (Think Los Angeles latchkey kid, 1970s, back when there was a middle class and a middle ground in America.) I used to marvel at the way Geneviève parented: how she pushed her stroller down cobblestones the size of grapefruits without twisting an ankle, and how she managed (like many French parents) to be simultaneously severe and laissez-faire, private but pleasure-loving. She didn't subvert her identity to the lives of her children, which is not to say that she didn't love them madly, passionately. And perhaps most impressive of all, in my Anglo-Saxon mind, was Geneviève's apparent lack of guilt. (Guilt: the American mother's evil step-sister.)

It took me years of cultural mishaps to adapt to French culture. When I refused to let my son go to England on a three-day field trip with his bilingual pre-school class, for example, the nursery school director looked at me warily. "Madame," she said, "holding onto your child is not good for cultivating an independent spirit. You must let go and let your children venture into the world." Then she smiled -- a bit smugly, I might add -- and said, "We only have this problem with Anglo-Saxon mothers." I found "Madame la Directrice" wickedly off-putting, but eventually realized that kids are not King in France. Where childhood trumps adulthood in the States, the opposite is largely true in France. Kids are expected to adapt to the grown-up world (and not vice-versa) and aren't raised with exclamations of "great job!" buoying them along every milestone -- an annoying form of hyperbole to the French, who are far less focused on "just do it!" or "you're the best!" (as Treussard duly notes) and more inclined to shrug things off with a fatalistic and sometimes infuriating it-is-not-possible. (Even the French way of suggesting that something is pretty good is to say that it's "pas mal" -- "not bad.")

Not the most ebullient form of child-rearing, perhaps, but it's about as Chinese as the French get. The French are far from perfect but do tend to raise their children with iron fists in velvet gloves -- and not in the extremes but in the middle ground, with a blend of realism, intuition, and common sense. Yes, they're obsessed with academics -- their educational system is steeped in classics and Cartesian logic, and the passing of the bac (the French equivalent of the SAT) is as much a national obsession as the Tour de France. But there's an enduring belief in France that having a life is as important as making a living. And this mindset, with its undertow of joie de vivre and bon vivantism, is perhaps more valuable than all the Extreme Parenting and A+ portfolios combined.

Of course it helps that the French enjoy a generous infrastructure of social benefits that support and protect their offspring. How lovely to live in a land where, instead of paying lip service to family values, the government largely underwrites them. The best part of that benefit is that parents live with a lot less fear than their American (and presumably Chinese) counterparts. And children, all "superstars" in their own right, get to have a childhood.

Originally appeared in French Morning at: http://frenchmorning.com/ny/2011/02/14/mothers-superior/