03/07/2013 04:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Teaching Children Independence: Pamela Druckerman Offers Three Keys To Helping Kids Help Themselves

This post is part of Stress-Less Parenting Club's first workshop. Check out previous challenges here, and if you haven’t signed up yet, visit the purple box on the right side of this page to receive our weekly newsletter.

What's the opposite of a helicopter parent? A French one, apparently.

Studies have suggested that parents who hover over their children and intervene too much in their lives can impede healthy, spontaneous play and potentially breed depression in their children, and they've generally gotten a bad rap in the U.S. They are even less popular in France. Author Pamela Druckerman, the leader of our first Stress-Less Parenting workshop, says French parents believe that autonomy is critical for children, so a mother seen hovering over her child is likely to hear: "Just let him live his life!"

But finding the right amount of freedom to give our kids is a stressful process for many of us. For this week's Stress-Less Parenting workshop, Pamela offers three keys to striking the right balance for your family while encouraging your child to become confident and self-reliant.


Build a Cadre The cadre (meaning “frame” or “framework”) is the mental image that French parents have about how best to raise kids. They strive to be very strict about a few key things -- that’s the frame. But inside the frame, they aim to give kids as much freedom as they can handle. Parents decide which things they will be strict about. Parisians I’ve met often choose respect for others, how much screen time kids are allowed, and anything dealing with food. French children categorically aren’t allowed to hit their parents. You can apply the cadre’s cocktail of strictness and freedom to lots of different situations. Some that I’ve heard from French parents are:
  • At bedtime you have to stay in your room, but inside your room you can do whatever you want.
  • You can watch only two hours of television this weekend, but you choose when to use these two hours and you choose the DVD or the show you want to watch.
  • You have to taste a bit of everything at a meal, but you don’t have to eat it all.
  • When we go out, I can veto your outfit if it’s inappropriate, but at home you can wear what you want.
  • Most of the time you can’t eat sweets, but you can at the afternoon snack.
  • I don’t buy nonnecessities on demand, but you can buy them with your pocket money. (French kids usually start getting monthly pocket money at about age seven. The typical amount corresponds to the child’s age; i.e., a seven-year-old gets 7€ -- about $9 --per month.)

Don’t Become a Referee
The French ideal is for adults to avoid becoming the arbiters of all disputes -- whether between siblings, playmates, or new acquaintances in the sandbox. A father tells me that when his 5-year-old twins argue, he asks them to suggest a solution. (They usually think of something, he says.) Teachers say they back off at recess, to give kids some much-needed freedom (“If we intervene all the time, they go a little nuts,” one day-care minder explained). French experts say that sibling rivalry is inevitable and that the arrival of a new baby is a genuine shock for an older child. In the latter case, “you must console him, help him express himself, reassure him, tell him that you understand his anxiety, his sorrow, his jealousy, show him that it’s normal for him to have these feelings,” one parenting book says.

Don’t Raise a Praise Addict
A French mother tells me that instead of saying “Bravo” when her 5-year-old does something well, she prefers to ask, “Are you proud of yourself?” Like many French parents, she believes that children don’t build self-esteem from being relentlessly assured that they’re doing a good job. They build it from doing new things by themselves, and doing them well. Indeed, praising a child too much can be damaging. He’ll become so eager to maintain your high opinion of him that he won’t want to risk trying something new. Or he’ll do things merely to get the brief high that comes from hearing “Bravo,” but will lose motivation when you’re not there to say it. Of course you should be encouraging (you don’t want to underpraise either). Just don’t overdo it.

Delegate one of the mundane chores you typically handle yourself, like loading the dishwasher or taking out the trash, to your child. Pamela says these "small acts of autonomy are very meaningful" because playing an active role in the household helps kids develop self-reliance.

How do you balance strictness and freedom in your house? What strategies have you tried to teach your child to be independent? How do you praise or reward your child for doing a good job? As you think about this week's keys, we also invite you to leave thoughts and advice in the comments.

The three keys are excerpted from Bébé Day by Day by Pamela Druckerman. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright Pamela Druckerman, 2013.