Déjà vu All Over Again

The international mommy wars are back – this time in French instead of Chinese.  Last year gave us, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, in which Amy Chua told us why Chinese mothers are superior to American mothers.  Now we have “Bringing Up Bébé,” in which American Pamela Druckerman seeks to emulate the “superior” French parents she has come to know while living in France.

As with Ms. Chau, the Wall Street Journal (February 4, 2012) has helpfully brought us an essay by Ms. Druckerman discussing her negative observations of American parents as compared to the French.  She believes that the French are involved with their families without being “obsessive.”  “They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children and that there is no need to feel guilty about this.”

Ms. Druckerman describes the French as having a different framework for child rearing and think of themselves as educating rather than disciplining their children.  The key, she believes, is that babies are taught how to wait by not picking them up at night the minute they cry, and children by permitting snacks only once a day.  She thinks that teaching children to delay gratification makes them calmer and more resilient.

According to Ms. Druckerman, the French believe, and she agrees, that American children “don’t have firm boundaries, that their parents lack authority, and that anything goes.”  She sees authority as one of the most impressive parts of French parenting – and “perhaps the toughest one to master.” 

One criticism offered of Ms. Druckerman’s thesis is that she lightly passes over the kind of support system French parents receive from their government.  Not only is there national paid maternity leave, but also subsidies for nannies, for high-quality day care, and for free preschool.  Judith Warner, several years ago in her book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety”, wrote of her shock upon returning from France  at the difference in the challenges confronting American parents as compared to the support offered for parents abroad.

Another criticism that has been offered is the over-generalization in Ms. Druckerman’s conclusions, and her lack of recognition of cultural differences in child-rearing practices in our multi-cultural country.  Her observations appear to pertain to a small slice of both American and French parents.

The cultural difference that I find most interesting is that between the two nations themselves, between France and the United States.  In her essay, Ms. Druckerman hastens to reassure us that she is not suffering from a pro-France bias.  She writes, “I’m not sure that I like living here.  I certainly don’t want my kids growing up to become sniffy Parisians.”  Is she saying that children raised in the manner she admires grow up to become “sniffy Parisians”?

Ms. Druckerman does not seem to make a connection between the way children are raised and the society they are being raised to live in and be a part of.  Our child rearing methods have certainly evolved here in the United States in keeping with a changing society.  The shift from an agricultural to an industrial society certainly brought about changes in what we require of our children, just as the age of technology and globalization is bringing about its own changes.

The goals of teaching children to wait, to delay gratification and of setting boundaries are certainly those with which we could agree.  The ideal of interpreting discipline as education is noteworthy, and one I totally endorse.  The word discipline itself comes from disciple, meaning pupil or student.  The real question is how are these goals implemented and achieved?

Ms. Druckerman writes about authority as one of the most impressive parts of French parenting.  There is a difference between authority and authoritarian, and we in this country have certainly moved away from an authoritarian model.   

I agree that parenting with authority is tough to master. It is challenging to use authority without becoming authoritarian – or bossy.  One might speculate as to whether the seeming French comfort with authority comes from a conviction about their superiority.  Perhaps that is the “sniffy Parisian” attitude Ms. Druckerman doesn’t like. 

One reason American parents may find it difficult to speak with authority is that in response to changing ideas about children and the changing needs of society, authority has been taken from parents and given over to “experts” of various kinds.  So many different methods and points of view have been advocated and prescribed that parents lose confidence in using their own judgment.  We are always interested in new ideas, but the downside is that we may lose a solid foundation on which to rely.

We are a society that believes in individualism, competition, self-expression and the right to question authority.  Our child-rearing style incorporates those values and implements them in a variety of ways which vary in accordance with individual beliefs.  This may, at times, lead to extremes that are not to our liking. 

We call that freedom.

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