Are You Parenting The French Way?

Photo by Clare Bloomfield at

I had no idea. My husband and I are actually parenting like French parents. And it’s working like a charm – so far at least.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of the articles people keep forwarding to me about a new book called Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, an American living in France. Pretty much everything she says about French parenting methods echoes what my husband and I believe and have implemented in our parenting – and what I see in many other families where old-fashioned firm parenting methods are combined with more modern love and understanding.

Here are some of the questions that led Pamela to write her book:

“Why was it, for example, that in the hundreds of hours I’d clocked at French playgrounds, I’d never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum? Why didn’t my French friends ever need to rush off the phone because their kids were demanding something? Why hadn’t their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had? Soon it became clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents were achieving outcomes that created a whole different atmosphere for family life… I decided to figure out what French parents were doing differently. Why didn’t French children throw food? And why weren’t their parents shouting? Could I change my wiring and get the same results with my own offspring?”

Here are some points that especially resonated with me from the two articles about Pamela’s book that I read (links to articles at end of this post):

Parents are supposed to be in charge. The French believe in “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” Jared and I believe in being firm but kind and making boundaries very clear. We believe in making one meal and expecting our children to eat what is placed before them thankfully. We believe in explaining rules and consequences and gathering input from our kids on many things. We believe in giving our children lots of choices within certain parameters. But we’re the parents, we’re in charge of how things go down around here, and our kids totally get that. As stated in one article, “Kids are not king in France…Though they love their kids passionately like everyone else, the French generally don’t subvert their identities to the lives of their children…Kids are essentially expected to adapt to the grown-up world and not the other way around.”

Children need to learn to wait. Jumping to meet the requests (or more especially the impolite demands) of our children immediately does not help them learn patience – and it often leads parents to resent their children and dislike parenting (a 2009 Princeton study showed that compared with French moms, American moms considered it more than TWICE as unpleasant to deal with their kids). The Wall Street Journal Article (link below) cites that study done ages ago where 4-5-year-old American children had a marshmellow placed in front of them and were told that if they could wait to eat it for 15 minutes, they’d get TWO marshmellows in the end. Few children could wait more than 30 seconds. The study followed the children over the years and found that the children who waited and received the two marshmellows were better at concentrating, reasoning and handling stress. My kids know they need to wait until I’m off the phone, to politely ask for me to get them something when I’m done with whatever I’m doing. They need to respect what others (including their parents) are doing and wait a little bit for what they want. The need to earn up money for toys and activities they’d like to do. They don’t get what they want right away. And I think that’s really good for them.

Get rid of guilt over things that are just fine. The article talks about how “French mothers certainly don’t suffer the same guilt about everything.” In a kid-centric society, guilt is a big, sad part of so many moms’ lives. I used to put my kids in the child care at the gym for an hour three times a week so I could work out. They loved playing in there and I loved the uninterrupted time to work out. But when I mentioned that I was doing this to some friends at a play group, a couple of them seemed shocked. “Do they have good caregivers in there?” “I’ve heard there are a bunch of sick kids in there and it isn’t that clean so the germs get passed around” I started to feel guilty and I looked more carefully at the interactions between caregivers and kids and the cleanliness of the child care the next time I took my kids. I found that the caregivers seems fine. Not stellar but fine. The place seemed clean. Not sparkling but clean. I decided I was a much better mom and person when I had my hour to work out and that my kids weren’t suffering at all that I could see so I kept going. And it all worked out just fine. I think we can put our own needs first sometimes while ensuring things are fine for our kids and that’s OK. Our kids don’t need “perfect” or “stellar” all the time and it’s good for them to see that their parents have needs as well. I love that my kids see me prioritizing exercise and reading and going out with friends – not at the expense of prioritizing time with them – but in addition to prioritizing time with them.

Here are a few overall tips from French parenting as stated in the Wall Street Journal article linked below:

  • Children should say hello, goodbye, thank you and please. It helps them to learn that they aren’t the only ones with feelings and needs.
  • When they misbehave, give them the “big eyes”—a stern look of admonishment; speak to them kindly but sternly. Make sure they know you mean business by being consistently firm and following up with lots of love.
  • Allow only one small snack a day. In France, it’s at 4 or 4:30. (then they’re actually hungry at meal times and eat what’s put in front of them much better)
  • Remind them (and yourself) who’s the boss. French parents say, “It’s me who decides.”
  • Don’t be afraid to say “no.” Kids have to learn how to cope with some frustration.

I don’t think the French have a corner on the parenting market. I’m sure kids in France have tantrums just like American kids do. There’s no one right way to parent. But I thought Pamela’s observations brought up some good food for thought and highlighted some of the issues I’ve seen in American society. I believe kids need strong parents who offer them clear boundaries alongside loving explanations of those boundaries and compassionate enforcement of rules that everyone understands and accepts.

If you want to read the articles I’ve read about French parenting in full, here they are. There are great stories and example in these articles that illustrate the points above.

French Parents: Vive La Difference? (Huffington Post)
Why French Parents are Superior (Wall Street Journal)


QUESTION: What do you agree and disagree with about the parenting philosophies laid out here?

CHALLENGE: Talk together as husband and wife about this article and the discussion may lead to some validation of some things you’re doing and some fresh ideas on what you might want to change.


  1. says

    Love these thoughts Saren! I think we leaned more toward French parenting than “Tiger” parenting, but each has it’s place. Most of all I think that, as you said, it’s so hard to generalize! I’m sure there are some clueless French parents too who don’t know how to control their kids but there certainly is a need for more parents in America to learn how to say NO!

    Great post!

  2. clairette says

    To start, I have to state that I am French, born and raised in Paris, in the supposed “French way” described by the author. I now live in the US and raise my two kids here (so by the way, please be kind and forgive my broken English;-).
    There are no surprises, French kids have tantrums, and French parents are no the zen-totally-in-control-perfect parents described in the book. I would even say that they reprimand their kids in an unpleasant way a lot more that what I can see here.
    There is some guilt; kids have to behave. That is the major concern of most parents (That’s, I have to admit, one of my concern when I spend some time in my family or with my friends in Paris). The pressure put on the parents is unbelievable. Tantrums are sign of bad parenting and are sometimes seen as future sign of incivility. To be short, if your kids don’t behave properly, it’s likely that they are going to become criminals. Some of the well-known child psychologists would still state that kids are imperfect, selfish and self-centered persons that have to be redirected in order to become good citizens. I’m often happy to live here, so I don’t have to always reprimand my kids for doing this or that. Yes, I use the “big eyes” and the firm “no” but I also use lengthy explanations, enjoys spending a lot of times with my kids and hire a sitter when I want some “adult time” with my friends instead of having my kids forced to stay quiet, all of those sometimes seen as a weakness in the so called “French way of parenting”.
    I didn’t read the book so I have to put some disclosure, but I disagree with most of the conclusions I was able to read in the different articles on that matter. I’m not going to detail all of them; this is probably not the place to do so. To sum up, I would say that most of the challenges faced by American parents are also faced by French parents and the way to handle them is not so different either even if the way to narrate them is not the same. French Society and American Society don’t put the pressure on the same aspects, so outside, French parents and American parents seem different. But indoor, in their home, in their heart, I would say that they are the same.
    That said, some facts are true and for example, French kids learn to be patient and that is probably a good thing, not because they are kids, but just because, everybody has to learn to cope with that kind of frustration.
    Also, I do believe that the French way of eating is better than the American one. But the main reason is not patience but French food. French kids love green peas, because, those are really well cooked and above all because their parents love green peas. My 3 year-old daughter loves vegetables, prefers fruits over chocolate and doesn’t eat chips and process food, just because this is the way my husband and I eat.
    I’m sure that, as the way of eating is changing here, in less than 10 years, the kids here will also prefer fruits over chips.

  3. danielle says

    I have heard about this and was intrigued. I too agree that when parents set firm boundaries (I think that in the areas address, much of this is about boundaries) everyone is happier. I have noticed all sorts of good things that happen when I am in control (of whining or shouting) and when the kids KNOW that I am in control (also no whining or shouting…). I think there is safety for kids to know that mom and dad love them but that the rules (that are steady- not changing on the whim of parent’s moods) keep them happy.

  4. says

    I really appreciated the article and the response by Clairette (I think Danielle made some great points that I needed as well). Thank you Clairette for your comments. I just know that societies either work for us or against us, and in America our society is working against us! Children everywhere are entitled. They sport the all the latest technological gagets and are involved in a hundred different lessons, sports etc. Bad behavior is tolerated at school and on the bus with very few consequences. Children can bully and swear and still have privileges of going to school and riding the bus. Very few institutions are set up to support the family. Most expect the family to support them! Children know they wield a lot of power these days and it makes our job that much harder.

    Finally, I have to say Saren, that you have the best mom in the whole world! How sweet that she reads your essays and comments on them. If only the rest of us could be so lucky!

  5. jasika says

    this article makes ‘the french way’ sound an awful lot like ‘how to raise a good puppy’. my daughter is 4 and not a pet. i dont expect her to be a tiny robot with no thoughts or desires of her own. she is a valuable member of my family and i want her to be free to express herself. if that means a tantrum or whining or being a bumpot sometimes, so be it. shes 4. she knows Mum is in charge, she listens when it is important. but if she doesnt want to eat green beans? who cares!

  6. Deborah says

    The French way superior are you having a laugh… Look, children are children, the world over. French children don’t misbehave! I lived in Canterbury, Kent, England for the first 18 years of my life. For those who don’t know has a high volume of French, Spainish, German students who come over on foreign exchange holidays trust me they know how to misbehave just like English and American children, when they are not supervised, and they can be just as rude in their own country.There are elements of every culture that brings good ideas of bringing up children, the “french way” isn’t a bad way, lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but its not the only way…

  7. says

    I think since the success of “Tiger Mother” we’ll see many more books written in this vein. We Americans are (unfortunately) insecure about both our culture and our parenting, so books like these hit a nerve and sell big. They can be fun to read (I enjoyed “Tiger Mother”), but in the end, I believe, will do little to affect our own parenting styles, so they should be read for entertainment and not advice. My thoughts? Work on your own weaknesses as a parent with no regard to culture or nationality–your’s or anyone else’s. This will eliminate blame and determinism. And forget the notion that certain cultures parent well across the board. For every “Tiger” or French parenting success stories there are a million failures that don’t get published. I believe family culture plays a much larger role in our parenting than society does. Thanks for the insightful post!

  8. says

    i enjoyed the post, articles and blog comments…thank you! Since we are dealing with generalizations here, i’ll make a few of my own….i think we should also look at some of the good outcomes of “american” parenting…in general a lot of creative, innovative thinking comes out of the “american” way of doing things. Strong leaders, great thinkers….people who have the guts to chase after dreams…these are all products of a slightly more laid-back way of parenting. I think each culture could learn a thing or two from the other….

    p.s. there’s also got to be some sort of genetic element to it all?? I have 5 kids….some like peas, some don’t. some are patient, others are not….all parented by the same parents in a similar fashion.

  9. linda vellucci says

    Every child should be taught good manners. However, the way they are taught and disclipined should be contoured to what gets the desired response. What works with one child may not work with the next. Always show respect and teach respect. Then your children will WANT to do right to make you happy.

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