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Stress-Less Parenting: What Everyone Can Learn From Lazy French Mothers

02/12/2013 10:16 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2013

This post is part of the Stress-Less Parenting Club's first workshop. Starting February 20, Pamela will be sharing her best advice on everything from improving your kids' eating habits to teaching them patience. Here, she tells us how French parents taught her to stop stressing out!

A few years ago, I was in a café in Paris with a group of Frenchwomen who'd just dropped off their kids at school. They were exactly the sort of moms I tend to know back home in the U.S.: smart, educated, reasonably stylish and devoted to their kids.

But when I brought up the subject of extracurricular activities, these Parisiennes suddenly seemed extremely foreign. They bristled. One said her kids were allowed just one activity each, because they needed time to be bored at home. Another said she had cut out extracurriculars altogether because she found them "constraining."

You bring them and you wait for an hour, then you have to go back and pick them up. For music you have to make them practice at night... It's a waste of time for me. And the children don't need it. They have a lot of homework, they have the house, they have other games at the house, and there are two of them so they can't get bored.

At first, I bristled back. What about creating well-rounded human beings? Don't they care about their children's backhands? I was already anxious that, chez nous, we hadn't started Spanish lessons or dug into those early reading books that had arrived via airmail a few weeks earlier (weirdly, I couldn't find these in Parisian bookshops). Were these French moms selfishly preserving their own leisure time at the cost of their kids' development?

Several years, and a whole lot of research (and Parisian parenting) later, I feel I can safely say: probably not. I've come around to the French (though not exclusively French) idea that a slower, less stressful pace of family life isn't just more relaxing for grown-ups. It's also good for kids.

By now it's a cliché that American families are in a bit of hurry. From my daughter's first birthday, friends and family back in the U.S. began sending her electronic alphabet games and boxes of flash cards. (My French neighbors didn't know what these were.) On trips back to the U.S., I watched parents monologue endlessly to their toddlers as they bumbled around playgrounds. (French parents tend to sit on the perimeter while children play by themselves). It seems obvious to us that the sooner kids can pass through developmental milestones, the better, and that it's up to us grown-ups to grease the process.

The competitive rush continues for older kids. Social scientists who camp out in middle-class households observe "the hurried lifestyle" in which life is ruled by activity charts on color-coded white boards. Sociologist Annette Lareau describes a typical American family in which, "on any given weeknight or weekend day, one, two or sometimes all three of the boys have events, often at different times and in different parts of town."

We Americans have reasons for subjecting ourselves to all this busyness -- and the stress that inevitably comes with it. I've heard about studies showing that poor kids fall behind in school because they didn't get enough stimulation early on. Surely that means middle-class kids could benefit from more stimulation too? And we have a vague sense that arming kids with lots of skills from extracurriculars will lead to better outcomes -- or that they might fall behind their peers if we don't sign them up.

However, recent research lands on the side of the French. Extracurriculars are fine in moderation. But kids need lots of free time too. "'Play' (or some available free time in the case of older children or adolescents) is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth," a study in the journal Pediatrics explains. Brain research calls the notion that the more you stimulate little kids, the smarter they'll be, a "neuromyth." Apparently, teaching preschoolers lots of reading and math takes time away from the things their brains are most primed to learn at that age -- like how to concentrate and get along with other people.

The French realize all of this intuitively, in part because they put a premium on quality of life for both kids and their parents. They figure that if something is extremely unpleasant -- for instance, rushing around all weekend like a maman taxi (needless to say, this expression is pejorative) -- it can't possibly be good for you.

Perhaps our mistake in America isn't all those tennis lessons. It's being so focused on outcomes, we've forgotten that the quality of the 18 or so years we spend living en famille matters too. I personally plan to spend as much of that time as possible in cafés, while my children play.

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