Pamela Druckerman, an American journalist, has raised three small children in Paris and written about the differences between French and American parenting styles (Bringing Up Bebe). In many cases, the American methods are judged as inferior to their French counterparts. Druckerman’s thesis is based on her repeated observations that French children are calm, respectful, and content, while American kids are demanding, whiny, and prone to temper-tantrums.
I certainly agree that there are problems with the culture of American parenting: for further evidence, go watch the movie, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. However, as I read Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe, I was fascinated by the remarkable similarities to the culture here in southwestern Virginia. While Druckerman compared and contrasted middle-class urban cultures, a child’s experience on the Appalachian farm represents another aspect of American culture, which surprisingly, has much more in common with Paris than say, New York or Chicago, from which Druckerman draws many of her examples.
For instance, Druckerman describes the French ideal of a cadre, which translates as “framework.” French parents establish basic absolutes that define acceptable behavior for children. The goal, then, is to instruct children to follow these rules, while giving them plenty of freedom to express themselves. The image that comes to mind is of a fence surrounding a playground; as long as the child reminds within the boundaries, he or she can run, jump, laugh, and play. French parents do not speak of discipline but education, which is the process of teaching the cadre to foster a sense of independence and respect for others.
In contrast, Druckerman lists many examples of Americans who “over-parent” by catering excessively to their child’s every need. To the French, such parenting represents n’importe quoi, meaning “whatever” or “anything they like.” Rather than encouraging a healthy sense of self-confidence, American parents have not established firm boundaries. In France, the child who gets whatever he wants is known pejoratively as a “child king” and the mother who spends her time driving him around is derided as maman taxi.
In response to these French parenting ideals, I imagine that many of my parishioners would echo, “Amen!” On the farm, children are brought up to understand the concept of family as a system of relationships. From an early age, they are assigned routine chores. Like the French model, this affords the sense that they are part of a team, rather than the star player. What’s more, the children quickly learn to amuse themselves. Unlike Druckerman’s American examples of parents who spend their days in a frantic rush, chaperoning their children from one event to the next, farm children are basically on the family’s property. They may have one or two extracurricular activities outside of school, but the constant, year-round farm duties require the attention of their parents. From my observations, instead of demanding the attention of adults, farm children are polite and courteous. Of course, they are not perfect…
Last night, one of the youngest boys at our church was whining after he had finished supper. He was ready to go home, but his father was engaged in a conversation with an older gentleman. I happened to be at the same table and watched as Dad excused himself from the conversation, turned to face his son, and gave him a stern look with his eyes wide. Obediently, the child left the table and quietly occupied himself until his father was ready to go.
It is insightful to consider this anecdote in light of Druckerman’s experiences. Time and time again, she describes American parents, including herself, who bend over backwards for their children. These parents can’t even have a conversation with another adult because the child is constantly demanding their attention, usually by misbehaving. In stark contrast, French children are taught to give their parents space and time to interact with adults. When they misbehave, a French parent merely has to look at the child with “the big eyes” (les gros yeux) and they will immediately cease their bad behavior. Sound familiar?
Quite frankly, I’m not sure the father at my church would appreciate being compared to the French, but maybe the identification of such common ground could combat negative stereotypes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps I should write Druckerman and tell her about my idea for another memoir, “Bringin’ Up Bubba.”