French Parents are Better at Discipline

French parents are better at discipline

A few weeks ago, we discussed an article that made French mothers sound a bit monstrous. Well apparently, French parenting is a hot topic. On Saturday, The Wall Street Journal printed this article about how French parenting is better, and it’s so positive that it’s practically glowing. Here’s an excerpt:

“When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. “Ah, you mean how do we educate them?” they asked. “Discipline,” I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas “educating” (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat.”

What do you think? Do you purposely and pointedly teach the ability-to-wait-nicely to your children? I can’t say I’ve been particularly good at it. But it does seem like such a valuable real-life skill!

The article isn’t too long, but it definitely has me examining my parenting methods. I hope you have a few minutes to give it a read — I’d love to hear what you think of it. Do you agree French parents are better?

128 thoughts on “French Parents are Better at Discipline”

  1. Loved this article. I think it hit on great points. Children grow and are much better behaved when they must wait for things (or earn them…I have 4 teens and don’t like the feeling of entitlement that many teens have…thinking their parents must give them everything! I want my children to work and feel success come to them through their own efforts–not just my charitable handouts)

  2. I really liked the article. I read it before I saw your post. I have been impressed with things I have read and heard on French parenting. My husband and I have worked hard on teaching our children patience and good manners. They are still very young, and will hopefully continue to learn as they grow. I agree that a lot of the parents in America seem to lack the ability to educate their kids in some essential areas of life, but I don’t think this style of parenting is found only in France. I think it is just not as common in the US. Why? I have no idea. I think culturally we parent differently, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You just have to decide what you feel is most important to teach to your children.

  3. Just read the article you linked – I love this part:
    “…even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and…there is no need to feel guilty about this.” It makes me feel encouraged about the ways that I already “parent” though I am not yet a mama to my own.

  4. I LOVE the photo of precious Junie! She is so adorable and loveable!
    I am a non-proponent of “Instant Gratification” for all of us. Things usually don’t really need to be done IMMEDIATELY!

  5. What a lively discussion! I happen to think that French v. American is an overly simplistic way of analyzing parenthood. And I also think that parenting skills cannot be neatly organized into right v. wrong. While it’s fascinating to explore another cultures’ way of doing things so as to push us out of our comfort zone and give us a fresh perspective, it shouldn’t wear away at our own confidence as parents.

    One thing that’s reiterated in a lot of parenting literature is the importance of projecting confidence to our children. If we’re constantly second guessing ourselves and being second-guessed by everyone around us, our children are sure to pick up on that uncertainty and think, “hey, maybe i am charge.” The article references how supported French mothers are, and even your sister posted the other day about how she feels more supported as a mother. Maybe it’s the judgement and constant parenting criticism/comparison/resentment that’s missing from the “French” parenting culture that the author feels is superior.

  6. This article and Today show interview was quite the topic at the school bus stop this morning. Most of the mom’s were in agreement. It’s something we could definately use more of, polite children who realized we are their parents, and not their staff.

  7. I lived in France. I felt that the parents were quite indulgent with their children. What I did like in my observations, was that they set a good example in behavior. The adults were not loud and impulsive, used soft tones when speaking. I would imagine that the kids learn this by example. Also, I noticed that most babysitters were adults, not other children. Also, families spent a lot of time outdoors, not cooped up with a television or computer…even in Winter. Any social time we spent with other families happened over hours and was calm and enjoyable, not quick and over-stimulating. Also, it seemed many parents were on the older side. I imagine the expense of children makes it hard for young couples to have children. Just a few thoughts.

  8. I read this article and had mixed feelings. I like the parenting method it was talking about it, but I couldn’t help but think that the problem with American parenting is that we think we are so worried about being the best parents in the world. Would the French ever publish an article called “Why American parenting is Superior?” I don’t think so. First we suck compared to the Chinese, now we suck compared to the French; let’s just not have a contest. I get exhausted by the condescending headlines.

  9. I wonder about your interest in this topic, Gabby. I dare say most of us readers are fans as much b/c of the content of your blog, but also for who you are. We love the little glimpses into your family life and are inspired by some of the brave and fun things we see the Blairs do (creating a career from blogging, to name one). So, I can’t help but wonder, how do you and Ben Blair think you appear to your French neighbors? Are you assimilating into French culture and family-life or are you the obviously foreign neighbors? And what about the complimentary topic of educating our youth? Obvious differences between French and American schooling, but what have you learned that works for your family?

    1. Great questions, Mary!

      I think we are definitely the “obviously foreign neighbors” but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I feel like the friends and neighbors and teachers we interact with make huge and generous allowances for us culturally — and I appreciate it! Though, where we can adopt French customs — like celebrating Crepe Day, or serving Gouter (snack/tea) at 4:00 to any visitors — I go for it. Of course, I’m sure it would feel silly to any of us to move to a new country and then try and live a fully American life.

  10. I don’t think that it is unusual for US parents to have their babies self-soothe or cry it out. I was one of the only mothers who actually did not try the technique. (my research in brain development and how the body responds to cortisol or adrenalin made the approach seem biological unsound so I never even attempted it) I think that there is a huge difference between self-soothing techniques or crying it out because frankly self-soothing is often just a lovely way of saying the baby will cry until it stops and goes to sleep or will cry for a few moments as the parent counts down a set number of minutes before comforting the child in hopes that the child will sleep through the night sooner etc being used on a baby and telling a three year old to wait for a treat. The differences between a baby and a three year old are extreme both in terms of comprehension and ability. I make my three year old wait and learn how to wait I didn’t make my baby wait for me to pick him up while he was crying. The two are not incompatible. In this article I see a huge inability to alter one’s parenting to match the stage of the child. Frankly, I think it made French mothers look ridiculous (which I don’t think is true) and unable to look at their children as anything other than mini-adults and kids just aren’t actually mini-adults developmentally.

    1. lula,
      I think you’re right that infants and 3 year olds are very different in how they learn behaviors- and that “sleep training” and “self-soothing” is not what it appears to be. You might find the research by Dr. James McKenna of the University of Notre Dame to be interesting. He runs a mother-baby sleep lab and studies SIDS (among other things) and suggests that letting babies cry it out can be physiologically harmful to babies.

  11. I love reading these kinds of articles, very interesting. I’e heard before that there is no real snacking, just the 3 square meals. Is that what you have observed too? Very curious.

    1. This is what we’ve observed here in the countryside:
      – light breakfasts, like a croissant and hot cocoa/coffee
      – long, full lunches — the kids get a 2-hour lunch break at school
      – long, full dinners that start at around 8:00pm
      – a snack or gouter at around 4:00, typically something sweet
      – food is almost never eaten on the go (like while driving, or walking down the street), it’s eaten while sitting at the table — even if you bought something at a restaurant drive-thru, you wouldn’t eat it in the car, you would take it home to eat it properly

  12. It strikes me that the difference between the so-called American and so-called French parenting styles simply reflect the different values of each culture. France (and Europe more generally) values the collective, and so it is important to teach children to be polite to others, respect other people when they are talking, etc. The U.S. is all about the individual, and so we often treat our children as if they and their desires are the most important or special and should come first. The French value food and mealtimes as sacred, so they teach their children to treat them with the appropriate deference. I could go on… Your parenting style is simply a reflection of your values, no matter where you come from, but different does not necessarily mean better or worse.

  13. Thank you for sharing. Just as we all believe we’re above average drivers, some of us like to think we’re all above average parents. As a parent, I know that I’ll always be learning and growing. Reading about different styles of parenting (even, or especially, when that perspective appears to mirror my own but with different success) will help me always be a better mom tomorrow than I was yesterday.

  14. I think it shouldn’t be a case of where if someone does something that you disapprove of (eg: spanking) they are mean; and if their kids behave a bit better it’s suddenly magnificent parenting. I found this second article a very interesting read and there are definitely some good tips to be found, but I wouldn’t really want to go out and suddenly become a “French parent” – I mean, what’s really wrong with my Malaysian way? Or for that matter how my friends that are German/Austrian/Chinese parent? There may be some cultural differences, but every parent does their best, based on their own set of values and principles.

  15. What a great discussion! We are having issues here and we know it is because we have fallen down on the delayed gratification issue, not necessarily because we are not French. It is an issue with us falling down on the job of good parenting. We had a much easier night tonight because we were sweetly stern with the kids. It worked! We were glad to be reminded by this article and discussion.

  16. If we didn’t have to pay for pre-school, college, and worry about health insurance, I wouldn’t have to work! During the 4 waking hours a day we get with our 3 year old, we try to cram a lot of parenting in…it’s not always good, but we try! Routine, firm boundaries, and manners are very important to me. Although the article is intriguing, it’s pretty incomplete. The author glosses over the public services factor, and she is honest about excluding non-middle class families. I’m not going to dwell on my inferiority to the French, nobody is perfect!

  17. Very interesting! Though I’m not convinced that leaving a baby to cry itself to sleep as an infant is a good thing. There is not much evidence-based research supporting this kind of “controlled crying.” Dr. James McKenna of the University of Notre Dame, who runs a mother-baby sleep lap and studies SIDS, actually suggests that controlled crying can be physiologically harmful to babies.

  18. I like Ana’s comment. There should be discipline or education or whatever you call it, but it should be addressed with love. I don’t believe it is ‘personality’ because that is formed from experience. Some people have said that the French write up is incorrect well, I have definitely seen kids who do not scream and act up in public in other countries like Asia and Africa. This proves that it is environment and upbringing that controls their behaviour not personality.

  19. I found the article tiresome — like I find so many articles about parenting tiresome. They seem to be written for the leisure class and regurgitate the same old stuff and conflicts, over and over and over. On top of it all, everyone seems to take themselves entirely too seriously. Ugh. All around ugh.

  20. Apologies for nonsensical ‘testing’ post as I think my proper post ended up in your spam and simply wasn’t showing up. I didn’t expect that one to be accepted either!

  21. I may risk a comment… Because my baby is only 6 months old and I’m pretty sure I’m still learning how to parent. I am Brazilian, my parents are Japanese and I live in Italy, plus I read a lot of American blogs. So you can imagine how many different things I read/heard this past 6 months or more. I still don’t sleep through the night. AND my little one sleeps with me in the bed.

    The one thing I learned say is that each baby/toddler/kid is different. One thing I always ask other moms (including mine and my in-law) is how the son/daughter was as a baby. Each one is different and I think there’s no such thing as “the right way” to do something. My baby won’t sleep alone in the crib (from the beginning) and I’m not comfortable in letting him cry his lungs out. But he is learning to sleep on his own, it happens sometimes without forcing him to. So that’s one lesson my mom taught me and I’m seeing it happening. He WILL sleep on his own when it’s time for that. I prefer to love him a lot and not letting him uncomfortable in any situation.

    But I’m sure it’s just an opinion. And JUST ONE of the ways of parenting. But that’s the way I’m comfortable with and also my baby (and I think that’s the most important thing).

  22. Love the photo of Baby June!
    The article was interesting. Honestly, I get a little defensive when I read stuff like this (“Battle Hymn…” and this one). Parenting should be individual. Yes, we can learn things/techniques from others but ultimately we need to know ourselves as parents and know our children. I don’t believe that I am anywhere near being a “perfect” parent, but I am confident that I am always doing my best, and constantly adapting to help my children grow to be their best selves.
    PS I am happy to say (brag?) that my son plays so well by himself. ;)

  23. This paragraph struck a chord with me: “Of course, the French have all kinds of public services that help to make having kids more appealing and less stressful. Parents don’t have to pay for preschool, worry about health insurance or save for college. Many get monthly cash allotments—wired directly into their bank accounts—just for having kids.”

    My kids are in high school and junior high, and looking back to when they were younger, I really believe my husband and I would have been more together parents if we weren’t stressed about paying for preschool, or saving for college, or figuring out health insurance. A monthly bump in out bank accounts each month simply for being parents would have been nice, too! We are solidly middle class (upper middle class by some standards) and have worked incredibly hard for the past 25 years with the main goals of providing good educations for our kids – both while they are at home and in anticipation of college – as well as our secure retirement. If those aspects had been paid for, it boggles my mind to imagine the time we would have had to chill out, enjoy the moment, and not be so future-oriented.

    Having said that, we have always prized the same things that were mentioned in the article. Patience, playing by oneself, manners, etc. Perhaps because my husband is Italian and shares some of the European ideals of childraising? They seem fairly similar to my ideals, though, and I was raised in the midwestern US.

    Great article and discussion. It makes me sad, though, that the US values childrearing so little. We profess to love children and families, but we don’t put our money where our mouths are in terms of helping families with high-quality daycare, liberal maternity and paternity laws, education, etc.

  24. Wonderful, thought-provoking topic, Gabrielle! I read the article you referenced…then I followed links to other similar articles! As someone who is currently in the midst of re-thinking her parenting technique, I found the ideas here very much in accord with many of those I am considering. My daughter, the oldest, is 11 and was my easy child. I had to do very little active parenting w/ her. My 5 year old son, on the other hand…is a handful. I have had to alter and change my way of parenting him, specifically in the area of discipline. I was so drawn to the part of the article that pointed out the differences between disciplining a child and educating him. I think my family would benefit from such a paradigm shift.

    I have come to realize that there is no one perfect, all-encompassing parenting method. Just like me, my parenting skills are a work in progress. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I fail. But I am always learning.

    Thank you for sharing this article!

  25. We are Americans living in southern Italy now for 14 years. Our children are currently 15, 13, and 11, so they’ve grown up here, not in the US. There are many things about Italian child raising which we appreciate: babysitters are rare (children go everywhere with their parents) and so learn to interact with adults as well as peers, waiting is common, and children are seen as ultra-valuable. However Italian parenting tends to be rather lax in the discipline area, and it’s nearly a crime to make a child be upset or cry, and so we would tend to categorize them as indulgent. Social interaction on all age levels is a high priority, and so we love when we’re back in the states and see our children happy to hang out with the grown-ups too, unlike many american teens.

  26. when i saw her on the today show, i thought, yeah right, no way! but i think it says something about expectations. if i expect my kid to interrupt me, i’m going to let her get away with it. but maybe if i act like i expect her to wait and really drill that in (like i do other things that i think are important), she will learn to come talk to me when i’m off the phone. some good things to think about. i’d love to know how to teach solo-play. maybe that’s another expectation thing, like you just explain to the child that every morning while mommy gets ready, you get to do anything you want in your room (that idea of having freedom within boundaries). i’m kind of excited to try some of these ideas!

  27. Just finished the article – I hope I am NOT THAT BAD!!!

    I do think the article make lots of great points.


    Ideally we are raising our children to be the adults we aspire them to be, right?!

  28. My grandmother was born in Argentina but his parents were French. She used to repeat time and again that after seven thirty children should be in bed, it was no longer time for children but for adults. Now I understand where it comes from …
    About teaching children to wait, there’s a very interesting scientific article on an investigation in 2010 which is based on the studies of Mr. W. The article “Don’ t” was published in the book “The Best American Science and Nature Writing” by Freeman Dyson.

  29. I read this and I see that French parents are very similar to Latin American parents. Ever since I can remember, i grew up playing by myself, asking for things and patiently waiting for them. Kids had their place and adults theirs, even though we were our parent’s jewels. I just never have dissected this issue before, it is what is it to us. I have certainly notice that American parents seem to find childrearing so exhausting and challenging, whereas LatinAmerican parents may have an easier time because boundaries are set up naturally since they are infants. It’s little things like waiting to eat a piece of sweet or playing by yourself that builds this sense of self-authority that helps children mature. I have notice that in my family everyone has a place, an identity and a role, and this maybe is part of this educating that takes place early on.

  30. Interesting article, but I’m a bit skeptical about a couple of things. Admittedly, I’m a mother who parents my son mostly through instinct. My son is 5, atttends a French immersion school in the States, and is well-behaved just about wherever we go. He plays by himself and with others equally well. He rarely has a tantrum, one in the past 3 years!? I was and am a firm believer in comforting infants and toddlers when they cry no matter when and what the reason. I did. It wasn’t easy. There were nights of broken sleep. The deal is, though, kids don’t have verbal skills and they don’t have reasoning power when they are tiny–annoying but true. They require more physical attention then. If they get plenty of it, they will be so much more calm and happy as young children. (Many studies have shown the highly positive effects of cuddling and touch on the very young). France has a pretty high rate of suicide(17.25 per 100, 000) and depression and I have to wonder if culturally, there might be a reason for it. Maybe attempting to train kids too early to delay gratification? Letting them wait a while before comforting them when they cry, showing them that there’s adult time and kid’s time at the expense of the kids might be convenient for adults but hurtful to the tiny ones? Patience seems like a mighty important skill but not for infants and toddlers!

  31. A 2003 poll found that 84 percent of French parents admit to slapping or spanking their child. I feel pity with these children and I do not envy them at all. Spanking and slapping parents usually “produce” agressive children who go on slapping and spanking their own children and even other people as well. It´s like a vicious circle. Nothing to be really proud of I´m afraid.

  32. I have never left a comment on any blog but I was sent this article by a friend and happen to see it here today as well on my weekly excursion on the blog(absolutely delightful blog, beauty, practicality and discovery all in one).
    I am French, my husband is American and after living in France we are currently in the US. I often wonder if the slight differences in parenting techniques arise from personality or cultural upbringing. I do agree that there is very little interest, if any, in declaring a culture above another on such subjective matters. I have seen my share of badly behaved kids in France ( and being a teacher I have been in contact with a lot of children and their parents both in the US and in France). I was surprised by the article, I do not see this(alleged) parenting gap. I do not find French kids to be either more polite or more patient than their American counterparts.I do think, though, that French parents and American parents are not dealt the same cards, it seems to all boil down to a radically different approach to food and time. Children in the States are on schedules, and tight ones with that, they are constantly on the go. The school days might be shorter but it makes my head spin to see all we try to cram in a ,say 34 minute, lunch break. If lunch breaks in France were to be shortened to half an hour, you would have demos in the streets. It seems to me that for kids to be patient they need to have time to be bored, they might wait more willingly if they know their free time is not going to run out without them getting to what they want.
    As for the snacking, well, I am appalled by what children eat here, at school, in the cars, opening fridges left and right and this strange concept of the ‘Kid menu’, French kids better in restaurants? probably because they know it takes time to make food and that being young is not a condition that requires a special diet. As for the rest kids are kids the world over and parents too.

  33. I love this concept. I hate when people use the term discipline for what they mean to be punishment. Discipline is training that happens continuously. Also, I love the idea of teaching patience from an early age. I believe my husband and I have done that just by being laid back ourselves. Definitely not the jump out of bed and run to the crib at the first cry kind of people, which may be partly why our daughter is so good at falling asleep on her own. Some of our friends might secretly think that’s cruel but we’re all sleeping through the night and they’re not…which I think is cruel! :)

  34. i don’t have kids yet and i don’t know enough about the USA to comment on the american side of things but since I am french, i can say that it is true (in my family at least!) that parents usually let their kids cry if they know it’s just a tantrum of theirs (not if they’re hungry or something like that, so it’s not torture ^^).
    it is also true we learn behaving during meals quite early, but it is also part of the french culture to spend some hours at the table each day (but it is also the same thing in spain or in italy for example, places where we tend to worship food… or something similar to worship ;) ) and it is the place where the family is reunited and where everyone talks about their day.
    I don’t remember any of my parents giving me a slap, maybe a spank or two, but it probably wasn’t very hard, i just knew what i could do and couldn’t do (in front of them at least ^^)
    i went on my first school trip at the age of 3 (it lasted 3 days and it is actually my first “real” memory!)! My mother didn’t really want to let me go but i told her i really wanted to go and she let me. We used to have a school trip nearly every year, and we always had a great time: it’s very nice to be away from home, even when you’re 10 or less! :)

    i always have fun reading articles like this one and reading all the comments below, it’s always very interesting!

  35. When we lived there Ben and I constantly had discussions about why our kids didn’t behave as well as French children. It kind of made me crazy amidst all the stress of the renovation. If I gave my toddler a little basket of wild strawberries at the market people laughed and pointed. I was confused as to why that was so comical and of interest to anyone, but soon realized that French children had to wait until they were sitting at a table to eat. No snacking (the exception at this was at school…my kids received a “goutez” after school at 4 pm…chocolate and a baguette…a fresh peach, etc.). I could go on about this but I’ll end here for the sake of space :)

  36. I agree that we are seeing an American obsession with French culture and parenting recently. I love Celeste’s comment and think we can certainly learn from each other and from other cultures. Thank you for sharing the article. You might also be interested in this NPR story from a few days ago featuring Pamela Druckerman’s book:

    Three cheers to the robust intellect of your group of commenters!

  37. I feel that some parents feel that they have to entertain and caterer to their kids 24/7, so kids expect it and if that doesn’t happen they become impatient. I also have a hard time understanding how some kids are so over scheduled , little kids as early as 3 involved in far too many activities (music, sports, language, etc.). Aren’t we pushing our kids too hard? Kids need time to play, to lay low, to be creative or to just be peaceful piggies. Ana

  38. wow – i just read the article and i am amazed at how much i am like a french parent! not completely but the framework is there….we are still a bit goofy and try to push the boundaries sometimes…..i actually feel a little better about the whole things…thank you.

  39. Oooh… convicting! I like to think that I’m on the strict side but I find myself losing my patience with two wailing children at my feet FAR too often to really believe it. I’m not sure I could be as detached as some of the examples in the initially discussed article seem to portray but I could definitely stand to be a bit more authoritarian… after all, the entire household would benefit! Knowing that gratification delayers are more successful in life, it’s a worthwhile habit to instill.

  40. Here in Bulgaria we have same methods and most young mothers call it now old fashioned grandma rules or what is worse communist discipline.
    İt has nothing to do with politics its just simple discipline modern moms dont like cos its not written in the books we read.

  41. I lived in Europe for a couple years and it was only in France when I witnessed parents hitting and slapping their kids. It was very shocking. My impression was that they ruled with an iron fist. I realize not everyone is the same, but I did notice it a lot. Also, I agree that most Europeans don’t bring their kids out to do stuff like dinners and coffee. We often felt judged for having our kids with us! Still, Europe is incredible and full of warm lovely people. I guess we are all dif. I vote for more engaged parenting and less distracted, frantic helicopter parents.

  42. wow, that is such a timely article! That was completely me at the park with my 21 month old the other day……………. thanks

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