Why do I want to take my toddler to Paris? Chasing him around Luxembourg Gardens. An excuse to eat French fries. Plenty of poodles to make him squeal. Getting lost on long walks while he naps in the stroller.
I could go on and on about my romantic notion of a vacation in Paris with my husband and our 18-month-old son, but there’s one reason that supersedes all the rest: I recently read Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting and I want to see these Parisian moms in action with their impossibly well-behaved children. By the way, the British version of this book sports the title French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets From Paris. And, yes, my toddler throws often throws food.
It was a Wall Street Journal article called “Why French Parents Are Superior” all about the book that enticed me to read it in the first place. I approached the book full of skepticism and expected to be annoyed, not charmed by Druckerman’s observations and comparisons. A whole country of well-behaved little kids? Please. If such a group of children existed, they’d have cloned the DNA by now.
I ended up really enjoying the book, which is not a parenting text book but rather a memoir of Druckerman fitting into French culture while raising her first child, a girl, and then being thrown for a loop with rambunctious twin boys. Not to mention that living in Paris is a perpetual fantasy for me.
After reading the book, I have come to believe that French children are better behaved than American children, even at a very young age. But I think that the main reason for this is that French parents are better behaved than American parents. The households are quieter and calmer, which makes the kids quieter and calmer. And when the parents do raise their voice to discipline, it makes a greater impact than when there’s lots of yelling all the time. And I don’t even mean fighting among the parents, but shouting from room to room, etc. So when the atmosphere is quieter over all, a stern warning or “big eyes” (as the book describes an intimidating look that is completely lost on my son) goes a long way.
Manners and formality are a big part of French culture — there’s a strong code among both children and adults about how to act. (A big irony is that many travelers consider the French to be rude, although I don’t count myself among that camp. I also don’t find New Yorkers rude, but then again I’m one of them.) So it makes sense then for French parents to emphasize manners as part of their children’s education (said with a French accent, it’s a hybrid of what Americans think of as education and good old-fashioned discipline). To succeed in France, you have to play by the rules and there are lots of rules. Naturally, you have to start learning them a very young age. It’s also how they perserve that special French way of life.
I just can’t see American parents ever placing the same emphasis on manners, simply because they’re not that important here. Our interactions are far more casual, regardless of age and social status. We prize qualities like aggressiveness, persistence, individuality and creativity, so that’s what we teach. Manners are nice, but being polite won’t get you too far. Of course, being terribly behaved and rude will hold you back as Americans do have some standards. But it makes no sense for our child-rearing to center around manners because our society doesn’t focus on manners. Parents have to teach children how to thrive in the culture in which they live. Even if you maintained impeccable manners at home, good luck getting out there and receiving the same treatment.
I’ve been to Paris three times, but I don’t remember what the children and parents were like. (Little kids were the last thing on my mind during those trips, except for maybe how to avoid sitting near them.) So now I want to go to Paris with my family to observe French parenting for myself. Plus maybe my toddler can pick up some manners from these poised French toddlers, as other parenting books claim that kids learn most from their peers anyway.
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