Few things about the French are more irksome than their national superiority complex. Although I met a number of amicable Frenchmen and women while studying in Spain, their favorite topic was unfailingly how much they missed their native land, and they made no bones about telling me so.
However, in an essay published in the WSJ on Saturday, an American mom shows that the French may have some bragging rights when it comes to effective parenting, complete with an ex-Stanford professor to back up her claims.
The author, Pamela Druckerman, claims that French parents have figured out some parenting tricks that make their children much more peaceful and obedient than Americans, specifically by teaching their kids how to wait. One of her sources is Walter Mischel, who as a professor at Stanford in 1972 devised the famous “marshmallow test” to examine a child’s capacity for deferred gratification. According to Mischel, in the U.S., “certainly the impression one has is that self-control has gotten increasingly difficult for kids.”
Mischel would know. His marshmallow test offered 4- and 5-year-olds a marshmallow and said that they could have another if they waited for the experimenter to come back before eating the first. Only one in three resisted for the full 15 minutes that the experimenter was gone. The key, the researchers found, was that the good delayers were able to distract themselves. What is more, Mischel found in a follow-up study that these good delayers as adolescents were better at concentrating and reasoning, and they did not “tend to go to pieces under stress.”
So how do French parents make their kids more patient? One method is enforcing a tight eating schedule, instead of providing snacks all day. Another is teaching children to play by themselves so that they require less supervision and maintenance. These observations sound like cultural generalizations, but they are backed up by data. For example, as part of her supporting evidence, Druckerman cites a 2004 study on the parenting beliefs of college-educated mothers in the U.S. and France. The American moms said that encouraging one’s child to play alone was of average importance, whereas the French moms said it was very important.
As a Stanford student, parenting is not the first thing on my mind (or the second, or the third!). However, this article inevitably invited me to compare how I was raised with the French parenting model. I found that I was unwittingly raised in a rather French style, with a bit of American disciplining. Even though my brother and I fought almost non-stop as kids, my mom has told me that she loved being with us and valued raising us herself very highly. My brother and I also ate on a consistent schedule, and we spent a lot of time playing outside by ourselves. However, if I misbehaved, privileges or prized possessions were taken away. The worst part about being punished was that it was often in front of other people, which made it humiliating and more memorable. As a result, the fear of being disciplined became as powerful a motivator to behave well as the forces of habit.
Granted, French society provides some big advantages to which this article only pays lip service, including significantly better social services and child care than in the U.S. Also, Druckerman probably did not get a very big sample size for her observations on France, meaning that her conclusions would only apply to a set of well-educated, well-to-do families that do not explain the behavior of the entire French population. She may want to look into a movie called The 400 Blows, which is about a French boy who becomes a juvenile delinquent thanks to bad parenting, before calling it a day.
That said, rightly or wrongly, American children are notorious amongst foreigners for being spoiled and lazy. With big budget cuts going into effect in areas like education, the U.S. government is unlikely to improve the situation in the short term. That leaves the bulk of the job with American parents.
Perhaps they could take a few cues from the French, even if the advice comes with a big dose of hauteur.