Just Say 'Non'

When it comes to parental authority, we Americans could take some more lessons from the French. They work hard at being "the one who decides," and believe that kids blossom best inside limits, and that it's reassuring to know that a grown-up is steering the ship.
03/14/2013 01:39 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013
small boy
small boy

This post is part of Stress-Less Parenting Club's first workshop. Pamela is sharing her best advice on everything from teaching kids patience to fostering their independence. Here, she tells us how the French assert their authority as parents.

I once met a Frenchwoman who had moved to New York from Paris. She loved America: its dynamism, its schools, its sense of community and its men. (She married one of them.)

But after having kids, she discovered a part of American life she didn't admire: its parenting. The parents she met were uncomfortable exercising authority over their kids or setting basic limits on their behavior. At preschool, she overheard children responding to their teachers' instructions with, "You are not the boss of me." When she was invited for dinner at the homes of American friends, she often ended up doing most of the cooking, because the hosts were busy trying to make their children stay in bed.

Not all American parents have trouble saying "no" and meaning it. But a lot of us do. We worry that we'll damage our kids, or we've given up hope that they'll actually listen. A UCLA study of middle-class families concluded that parents have gone from being authority figures to being "valet[s] for the child." There's no better proof of this than the success of the book Go the F*ck to Sleep, about a father who spends hours begging and cajoling his young son to go to bed (it apparently doesn't occur to the dad that he can just leave the room).

When it comes to parental authority, we Americans could take some more lessons from the French. They work hard at being "the one who decides," and don't always succeed. But it helps that they don't worry that blocking a child will limit his creativity or crush his spirit. On the contrary: They believe that kids blossom best inside limits, and that it's reassuring to know that a grown-up is steering the ship. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's warning that perpetual negotiations are bad for kids, made 250 years ago, still rings true for Parisian parents: "The worst education is to leave him floating between his will and yours, and to dispute endlessly between you and him as to which of the two will be the master."

So how do French parents summon their authority, or try to? For starters, there's the unambivalent delivery when they say "no." They know that kids can tell when you really mean it and you won't back down. French parents aim to look directly at the child, kneeling down if they have to, and explain the rule with calm confidence. I can vouch for the fact that this takes some practice, but that when you get your no right, you'll feel it. You won't just sound more authoritative to your child; you will actually believe yourself to be the boss.

The French also explain the reason behind the rule. They aren't trying to raise obedient robots. They want to create a world that's coherent and predictable to their kids. But these explanations are calm and matter of fact too: they don't sound like negotiations (they're not). "You can't have a banana now, because we're having dinner in an hour."

Sometimes, it helps to refresh kids on the rules. One French mom told me that as soon as she walks into the supermarket, she reminds her two girls that they're there to buy necessities for the house, not toys or candy. She says she's been so consistent about applying this rule, the girls don't even ask for these extras anymore. (They can choose to buy extras with their pocket money.)

The French "no" is also convincing because parents don't say it constantly. They believe that a few strategically administered nos have a better chance of registering with kids than a blizzard of them. Parents also try to say "yes" as much as they can. This shows kids that you respect their independence, and makes it more likely that they'll respect you too.

I don't mean to give the impression that this all goes smoothly in France. French kids bristle when their parents tell them no. They might even temporarily hate their parents. But in France, parents generally don't interpret this as a sign that they're doing a bad job, or that they should back down. They believe it's the parent's role to sometimes rescue the child from his endless chain of wanting -- even though he'll be upset when they do this. "If the parent isn't there to stop him, then he's the one who's going to have to stop himself or not stop himself, and that's much more anxiety-provoking," one French psychologist told me. She said that if you need your child to like you all the time, you simply cannot do your job.

French parents have long bedtime rituals with their kids too. But once the stories are read and the songs are sung, they aim to say goodnight and leave the room. Sometimes it's OK to just say no (or non). It makes things simpler for everyone.

Pamela Druckerman's most recent book is Bᅢᄅbᅢᄅ Day By Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting.

Want to put Pamela's advice into practice? Participate in the Week 4 of her Stress-Less Parenting workshop. If you haven't signed up yet, go to the purple box on the right side of this page to receive our weekly newsletter.