I’m a French girl, born and raised. I first came to the U.S. when I was 21 to be an au pair. The first thing I did when I arrived was attend a 3-day conference with a group of au pairs from all over the world. The goal was to prepare us for the culture shock we’d soon be experiencing, and also to educate us about the differences in parenting styles among countries.
After 3 days of hearing about how Americans parent their kids, I gathered that in America, children were often treated like little kings and queens. Having grown up in France, all I knew was the French way. French parents tend to have more of a “children need to sit down and listen” type of mindset. You don’t listen? You’re sent to timeout or straight to bed, even skipping dinner sometimes. You make a mess? You clean it up. You draw on the wall? You get a sponge and you scrub. You fall? If there’s no blood, you get up and stop whining about it. I’d say that French parents tend to have a lower tolerance for tantrums and kids’ bossy behaviors. In short, they’re more strict.
French children are also taught manners from a very young age. I remember my mom teaching me how to answer the phone for her: “Hello, my name is Eileen, with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with today?” There was an emphasis on “bonjour madame,” “s’il vous plait (please),” and “merci beaucoup.” I recall thinking that there was almost an unofficial competition between parents for which child was the most well-behaved. And maybe most importantly, any tactic to teach a child manners was fair-game.
While in the United States, parents will often try to understand the cause for their children’s behaviors, in France if a kid is misbehaving, there will be an immediate consequence. My parents would shoot “Ça suffit!” (“That’s enough!”) at me if I was out of line. There was no calmly talking to me. My parents weren’t the exception though. This is very French.
Now that I’m a mom myself living in the United States, I don’t follow the French parenting style. My oldest son is severely autistic and my parenting journey with him is different from everything I’d imagined. He’s six and still doesn’t have a way to communicate, so teaching him manners is far down my list of concerns. With my younger son, I’m laid back and he seems to be developing independence and good manners anyway. I’m also more in tune, I think, with how he feels than French people would tend to be. French parenting can be a bit rigid and harsh.
I believe there’s a balance to be found between the French and the American way. We want to raise polite kids but we also don’t want to suppress our kids’ feelings. Whereas the French would adopt the approach of “kids need to listen to their parents at all times because they’re just kids,” I now think it’s important to let children express their feelings, and give them a chance to stop misbehaving before jumping to punishment. Maybe I’m a “1, 2, 3” mom although I was raised to be a “Stop it now” mom. And sometimes, I must admit, I like treating my little one as if he were a king. Some days he deserves it!