A Lesson in Child Development from the French

Pamela Druckerman is an American mother, who’s lived in France for some time. She and her British husband are raising children there, but they soon realized they were different than French parents. Sitting in a restaurant one evening, she noticed it was only her daughter that was unruly; throwing her food on the floor or making loud noises. As she looked around, all of the local families had well-behaved kids, eating their food and even joining in on the conversation. Looking closer she saw these children were respectful and somehow knew how to act in public.

This started Pamela on a journey to discover why.

Lessons in Child Development from France

Druckerman’s research led to a book, Bringing Up Bebe. What she discovered was that in France, there is a “norm” that we don’t enjoy in America. We have dozens, if not hundreds, of child development theories that parents employ, but these theories can leave teachers, coaches and extracurricular staff at odds with keeping order. In France, there are cultural norms and ideals (with some exceptions) that nearly everyone embraces. This sends clear messages to the kids about cultural norms and living with courtesy and respect for others.

Here are some of the key differences.

Four Lessons We Can Learn About Child Development

1. Food. At home, or a restaurant or a school cafeteria, adults have a rule for the kids. You don’t have to finish the new food in front of you, but you do have to taste it. Getting kids used to trying new foods and other new experiences quickly becomes a norm. The French place such a high value on fine food and acquiring tastes for delicious food groups; the kids quickly learn to value it too. And all kinds of other lessons come along with that custom. It is the preparation for adult tastes. Unlike the U.S., there aren’t a large assortment of “children’s foods” and “adult foods.” We assume kids may or may not like certain foods, but the French do not. Kids must learn.

In America, many of us are so afraid of damaging our children by enforcing a rule like this, so we back off immediately. In France, if a child doesn’t like a particular food, the French will persistently prepare it 20 to 25 different ways until they find one that works. This instills the message: We are preparing you for the adult world.

2. Patience. In France, there is an unwritten and unspoken understanding that parents must teach their children patience. The adults seem to agree if they fail to do that, children won’t enjoy life. They’ll grow up and become unhappy and dissatisfied people. So kids are conditioned far more in France than in the U.S. to learn to wait on things. Even in today’s “on demand” society, they mix this timeless message into their day. And it starts with babies. When a baby begins crying in their crib at night, we often jump to respond to them. After all, they’re the newest addition to our family. It makes sense. It also sends a message, however. It conditions young children to see that the way to get immediate attention is to cry. French parents will wait a bit before running to respond to their crying baby. They intuitively know that over time, this builds the ability to “wait on our wants.” As the norm, kids learn to sleep at night when they are 2-3 months old. Patience begins developing early.

3. Independence. In France, millions of parents take their job of raising children seriously. So do millions in America. The difference is—French parents have a life outside of focusing non-stop on the children. Students in school see that they are being beckoned into the adult world—not the other way around. Even in preschool, young children are shown delectable foods, like fine cheeses and fish, one by one; then, the adults eat them. Next, the kids are invited to try each item themselves. It is as if the adults are saying: It is our job to help you enjoy the world you are growing into. We are developing future adults, not just raising kids.

In France, it is the norm for adults to teach kids to learn to play alone. They must make up their own “occupations” at playtime, not demand an adult to prescribe one for them. Kids are taught to learn to cope with boredom far better in France than in the U.S. Certainly, technology plays a large role in both nations, but the French have added the component of “ownership.” Children are responsible to create their activities, which enables both the child and the adult to have some time apart.

4. Authority. Establishing authority happens early and reliably in the children’s lives. How do parents get kids to listen to them?  According to Druckerman, there is a greater consistency in France than in the U.S. We are afraid of damaging our kids by being too strict with them; when we say “no” to our kids in the U.S., they often learn we don’t really mean it. We give them an instruction and when kids don’t do it, we count to three. Then if they fail to do it, we still don’t follow through. Druckerman reports that in France, parents tend to stick to their words; they mean business. For example, politeness is a key value in France. Parents will insist on their kids saying “hello.” They will often wait in a public place until the child greets another adult. It is one of four social norms that children learn: Hello. Please. Thank you. Goodbye. And kids learn to say these first to adults—virtually all adults. Parents know that consistent and strict authority early on, leads to more positive relationships by the time their children reach adolescence.

Of course, these are cultural ideals. There are exceptions in both France and the U.S. But I wonder if we can learn something from the four categories above as we develop our children into both adults and leaders. Maybe?

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A Lesson in Child Development from the French