When it comes to parenting, American parents tend to adopt a more hands-on attitude than French parents. French parents let their children do their own thing without interfering as long as they’re not putting themselves in danger. They believe this builds independence and confidence. In France, children play by themselves in safe and controlled environments for relatively long periods of time. I remember drawing for hours in my bedroom, and making big towers with Legos, without my parents interfering. So, when I came to the United to be an au pair, I was a bit surprised to learn that I wasn’t ever allowed to keep the child I was taking care of out of my sight, even to use the bathroom.
In France, children have freedom. It’s a way to let kids make their own mistakes while exploring the world on their own. Not only is it good for children but it allows the parents more free time. It also helps moms feel like being “mom” isn’t 100% of their personality. They’re still the working mom, the wife, the friend, the daughter, and whoever else they want to be without having to outsource their mothering to a nanny or other caregiver while being who they are. Sure American mothers multitask and fulfill many roles, but they tend to also feel guilty for not being 100% mom, and the world around them tells them to feel that guilt. The benefit of the French approach is that French parents tend to feel less stressed.
When it comes to raising babies in France, there are fewer “helicopter” parents. I have friends in France, who have now become mothers, and their babies were all sleeping through the night by 6 months. French moms tend to let their babies cry at night; they don’t go in to comfort their baby right away. They wait it out. In the U.S., the moms who try this method fret about it, read books, discuss in moms groups — it’s a big deal, and many feel guilty about that month or so when their child was learning.
But I have to admit, on this note, I differ from French moms. As a child, I had trouble sleeping and would try to get to my parents’ bed for comfort but they wouldn’t let me in. They’d let me knock on their locked door and scream in the hallway until I fell asleep there out of exhaustion. It’s something I’ve never been able to do, to train my youngest son to sleep alone. My youngest is 4 years old and starts out in his own bed with a lengthy ritual that can put my husband or me to sleep with him, and he still finishes the night in bed with us. In France, that wouldn’t fly. Many French parents believe that what Americans call “tough love” is a gift that they’re giving their children, the key to becoming independent and strong adults. Exerting authority over a child is seen as a means to an end and not a punishment.
While I find it to be true that French children tend to be better behaved publicly than American kids, it may be at the expense of empathy and teaching children that their feelings matter. Because of the way I was raised, I had difficulties expressing my feelings for a long time. I was taught that crying was wrong, that being sad was a sign of weakness, and that I should just suck it up or my soft-heartedness would create issues for me later in life.
I want my children to be independent. And I want them to know themselves and express their feelings. As I negotiate the two cultures’ styles, I’ve found that what works for me is a layer of French strictness surrounding a heart of American encouragement.