So this Saturday the Wall Street Journal ran an essay with the snarkalicious title of "Why French Parents Are Superior." But don't be fooled: Pamela Druckerman's piece on "modern parenthood" is, comme d'habitude, all about the moms. (Two of the fathers in the piece are mentioned only in passing; a third is interviewed only to complain about American kids' bad behavior.) In a nutshell, after allowing her toddler to act like an animal in a restaurant (apparently more than once), Druckerman noticed that French families with similarly-aged children were able to enjoy their restaurant meals in relative peace. While giving lip service to French "public services that help to make having kids more appealing and less stressful," Druckerman eventually concludes that the differences can largely be explained by the lessons in waiting exemplified by the cultural institution of the four o'clock snack, along with the the magic of a confident "no."
While I'm certainly a fan of both the gouter and the word "no" (just ask my five kids), I think there's a lot that Druckerman is missing here. Accordingly, I'd to suggest just two of the many additional reasons besides "snack" and "no" that French children may appear to be better behaved.
The first reason is political, and Druckerman does allude to it. Quite simply, it is a hell of a lot easier to be a hands-on parent in France than it is in the States. Anybody who's reading this blog (all two of you!) is probably aware that France grants generous paid maternity leave (and less-generous paid paternity leave) as well as a monthly cash benefit to families with children. More significant, though, is the the 35- (or 40-) hour workweek, and its benefits to families. My totally unscientific research on this subject involved working as a lawyer in Los Angeles 60+ hours a week and sending my then-only child to a school where I saw kids who behaved so badly your hair would stand on end. The worst-behaved (and unhappiest, because most of the really badly behaved kids were clearly really unhappy kids) tended to come from pretty similar backgrounds. Typically, one or both parents worked lots of hours and were unable to be as involved in the kids' lives on a day-to-day basis as they probably would liked to have been. So they overcompensated with a complete absence of the word "no" when they were able to be around. (The more affluent parents also seemed to overcompensate with way too many toys and electronic gizmos as well.) In other words, the parents were overworked at work, and were insecure at home. Their lives were out of balance. I count myself to have been in their number, just to be clear, although my own choice was to torture myself with my feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, but still to keep saying the word "no" when it was appropriate. Here, on the other hand, people tend to work more reasonable hours and take real vacations; on the "have-not" end of the scale you don't tend to see a lot of folks who need to work multiple jobs, thanks to the existence of a decent social safety net. That allows the time to be more involved in schoolwork and day-to-day things. I can't help but think that the "easy, calm authority" that Druckerman lauds perhaps has something to do with the fact that French society is organized in a manner that allows most parents to be present more often to exercise that authority in a consistent fashion.
The second reason is personal: according to my anecdata, French women are generally more selfish than American women. And not to sound all Ayn Rand, but in my book, that is a good thing. Druckerman marvels at French parents (moms) who are able to chat with friends without a stream of constant interruptions. Perhaps that is because their children (at least the children Druckerman profiles) don't expect to be the center of attention 100 percent of the time? There's a reason that attachment parenting has never caught on in France: women here expect to continue to have lives of their own after having kids. But a young child can be, as they say, a jealous mistress. My own children absolutely would interrupt me every 15 seconds (and honestly, it sometimes feels like they do) if they didn't know how to play on their own. But it is really important to me that they know how to do that, because someday they will have to stand on their own two feet and well, you've gotta start somewhere. And maybe I'm selfish too, because although I have made a hell of a lot of sacrifices for parenthood (more than any of my two readers will ever know), I also don't want to wait 15 years before I can exercise/do my nails/write a blog/go climbing/have friends again. In my own generation, it seems as though the kids whose mothers' lives revolved around them were the ones who had the most contempt for those self-sacrificing women. In other words, I'd like a little respect.
At the same time, though, I'm not sure that what American parents (mothers) need is another helping of "You're doing it wrong!" when the reasons that the kids aren't alright are so often out of their control. Plus, as an American lady who lives in France, I'm a little bit (where "little bit" = a lot) tired of the way that the media likes to pit French and American women against each other--with the American women never quite measuring up. (Mireille Guiliano, I'm giving you the side-eye here.) While I know this is never going to happen, I'd love it if the Wall Street Journal would spend a little bit more time reporting on the obstacles faced by working families, and a little bit less time blaming parents for their inability to live up to the Gallic ideal.