The other day, a friend and I were walking down a crowded sidewalk when we noticed a little boy of about three. We noticed him not because he was adorable (though he was), but because he was hitting his father with a giant stick. As they passed us—the boy hitting, the father ignoring—the boy’s flailing stick hit my companion. Only the boy’s mother, running after them, seemed to notice. “Sorry,” she flung out breathlessly, smiling.
We were, of course, in Brooklyn, the epicenter of permissive parenting. A look at the landscape is enough to demonstrate that our children are running our lives—the “progressive preschools” that brighten the storefronts every few blocks, the new paint-your-own-pottery shop and “origami studio,” the never-ending parade of burger joints. In the latest viral video, “Sh*t Park Slope Parents Say,” a pair of insufferable hipster parents and their friends trade barbs of condescension. The only time these people are speechless is when they’re trying to make plans for a date night out.
Pamela Druckerman has some ideas about what we’re doing wrong. An American who lives with her English husband in Paris, she has just published a book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, based on her observations of French parents. French mothers, I should say, since—de rigueur for the parenting genre—there are very few fathers here. Apparently, in addition to being able to wear stripes without looking fat and tie a silk scarf fifty ways, French women are effortlessly chic when it comes to motherhood. Their children sleep through the night after a few weeks, eat four-course meals at age two, and greet adults with “Bonjour, monsieur” or “Bonjour, madame.”
The advice, as usual, ranges from breathtakingly obvious to off-the-wall. One French parenting expert believes you should explain to your baby everything you do—not to help him learn language, but because he’s been eavesdropping in the womb and therefore can understand what you say. But we are also told, uncontroversially, to allow a baby to try to self-soothe rather than rushing in to rock her to sleep; to feed a variety of fruits and vegetables; to use a firm tone to remind children who’s in charge. Of course, you can do all these things—I did!—and still wind up with children who don’t sleep through the night until 18 months, refuse to put anything “mushy” into their mouths, and tug constantly at your arm while you’re on the phone. The true message of this book—and it’s one that the parents rushing to buy it in droves may find a little disappointing—is that the real advantage the French have over us isn’t what they say or do so much as the culture that surrounds them.
Nearly universally, we are told, French parents believe in being at once strict and permissible. There are clear limits on how children can behave, but within those confines the children have certain leeway. (One example: At home they are allowed to wear whatever they want, but when they go out they must wear appropriate clothing—no princess dresses in the playground.) The adult is the authority figure (“It’s me who decides” is apparently the parenting mantra); the child listens. They call this not discipline, but education. And they don’t hesitate to correct other people’s children: Druckerman watches with astonishment as a childless French friend instructs her baby not to pull books off the bookshelf—and the baby obeys. The foundation for these beliefs, she suggests, is a general sense that people—including babies—are rational creatures who will behave in certain preordained ways.
Druckerman discovers that the French attitude toward pregnancy, as well, is far less judgmental than in the United States. “The point in France isn’t that anything goes,” she writes. “It’s that women should be calm and sensible.” No strangers lecture her in public on what foods she should or should not eat, or give other unsolicited advice. (During my pregnancies, a barista at Starbucks once asked if I was sure I wanted a caffeinated drink, and an airport security screener told me my nail polish would endanger my baby.) Virtually from birth, French babies, too, are expected to fulfill certain obligations, to their parents and to society: to sleep through the night so that maman can go to work the next day (most French mothers go back to work after 3 months), to eat meals on a regular schedule (starting at around 6 months), to acknowledge those around them while developing the independence to entertain themselves.
Druckerman traces this mindset back to Rousseau, who “wasn’t sentimental about children”; rather, he “wanted to make good citizens out of lumps of clay.” Just as babies are expected to fit into the “rhythm of the family”—not the other way around, as we seem to think here—children must adapt to the rhythms of society. And parents are supported by a network of government-run day cares and preschools that reinforce these lessons. Druckerman starts feeding her children a “starter” of vegetables every night—carrots in vinaigrette, for instance—to mirror their meals at school. But even if I had offered my toddlers Dover sole and haricots verts at home, at day care they would still have been fed pasta and chicken nuggets.
One can be skeptical about the French ideal of what constitutes a “good citizen” and still acknowledge that in America, as far as parenting goes, we’ve taken our rugged individualism too far. Over the last century, as Ann Hulbert brilliantly demonstrated in her book Raising America, each generation of American parenting experts has espoused wildly contradictory theories about how to raise children. As a result, we’re left to wade through the morass on our own, picking and choosing what we like—a bit of Dr. Ferber here, a bit of Dr. Sears there. In France, by contrast, all babies come with an “instruction manual”: a little carnet de santé in which to record vaccinations and the like. I’m guessing that the idea of “spacing out” vaccines (widespread here for fear that too many shots at a time tax the child’s immune system) would be about as popular as forgoing the epidural (which 87 percent of French women opt for).
One French father tells Druckerman that a child who has too many choices “doesn’t feel reassured.” Has the tyranny of choice affected us as much as our kids? Perhaps the reason American parents are less successful at projecting the kind of calm authority that our French counterparts apparently wield so nonchalantly is that we’ve simply lost a basic confidence in ourselves. (Druckerman writes poignantly of an American woman who repeats reflexively, “I’m a bad mother.”) Drowning in experts, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for our own decisions. Meanwhile, our unhealthy habits are clearly taking a toll on our kids. How can a baby fit into “the rhythm of the family” if we have no daily rhythm—we grab a yogurt on the way out the door in the morning, eat lunch at our desks, get takeout for dinner?
There’s a deeper problem here. How many times, in America, have you heard a parent say he wants his child to be a “good citizen”? Instead, we’re focused on producing overachievers: children who read at age three, are musical and mathematical prodigies, or otherwise stand out from the pack. (It’s easy to mock the “Tiger Mom” for her fanaticism, but there’s a little bit of her in all of us.) We micromanage our kids’ lives, with karate on Tuesday and pottery on Thursday, but we deprive them of the sense that they are full human beings vested in their own character. “I don’t need the child’s acknowledgment because I don’t quite count him as a full person; he’s in a separate kids’ realm,” Druckerman comments on the son of American friends who can’t be prompted to properly greet her. “I might hear all about how gifted he is, but he never actually speaks to me.” Ironically, we cultivate our children’s individualism while abandoning our own. If it’s not important for us to have our own lives—in a recent New York Times article about parent-run preschools in (yes) Brooklyn, the author spoke admiringly of a group of mothers whose children, ages two and three, “had basically never left [their] sides”—how can our children have theirs?
It takes a village to raise a child. We’ve heard this less as a parenting mantra than as a political one—as citizens of the “global village,” we ought to be looking out for those less fortunate than us. Meanwhile, we’ve abandoned the village at home. When I saw that child whacking passersby with his stick, I didn’t reprimand him for not behaving like a good citizen. I just watched as he and his parents continued on their way.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ruth_franklin.