The last American family she worked for had three kids, ages eight, five, and eighteen months. For the five-year-old girl, whining “was her national sport. She whined all the time, with tears that could fall at a moment’s notice.” Laurence believed that it was best to ignore the girl, so as not to reinforce the whining. But the girl’s mother—who was often home, in another room—usually rushed in and capitulated to whatever the girl was asking for.
Laurence says the eight-year-old son was worse. “He always wanted a little bit more, and a little bit more.” She says that when his escalating demands weren’t met, he became hysterical.
Laurence’s conclusion is that, in such a situation, “the child is less happy. He’s a little bit lost. . . . In the families where there is more structure, not a rigid family but a bit more
, everything goes much more smoothly.”
Laurence’s breaking point came when the mother of the American family insisted that Laurence put the two older kids on a diet. Laurence refused, and said she would simply feed them balanced meals. Then she discovered that after she put the kids to bed and left, at about eight thirty
, the mother would feed them cookies and cake.
“They were stout,” Laurence says of the three children.
“Stout?” I ask.
“I say ‘stout’ so I don’t say ‘fat,’” she says.
I’d like to write off this story as a stereotype. Obviously not all American kids behave this way. And French kids do plenty of
too. (Bean will later say sternly to her eight-month-old brother, in imitation of her own teachers, “
Tu ne peux pas faire n’importe quoi
”—you can’t do whatever.)
But the truth is, in my own home, I’ve witnessed American kids doing quite a lot of
When American families come over, the grown-ups spend much of the time chasing after or otherwise tending to their kids. “Maybe in about five years we’ll be able to have a conversation,” jokes a friend from California, who’s visiting Paris with her husband and two daughters, ages seven and four. We’ve been trying for an hour just to finish our cups of tea.
She and her family arrived at our house after spending the day touring Paris, during which the younger daughter, Rachel, threw a series of spectacular tantrums. When the dinner I’m preparing isn’t ready, both parents come into the kitchen and say that their girls probably can’t wait much longer. When we finally sit down, they let Rachel crawl under the table while the rest of us (Bean included) eat dinner. The parents explain that Rachel is tired, so she can’t control herself. Then they wax about her prodigious reading skills and her possible admission to a gifted kindergarten.
During the meal, I feel something stroking my foot.
“Rachel is tickling me,” I tell her parents, nervously. A moment later, I yelp. The gifted child has bitten me.
for kids isn’t a French invention, of course. Plenty of American parents and experts also think limits are very important. But in the United States, this runs up against the competing idea that kids need to express themselves. I sometimes feel that the things Bean wants—to have apple juice instead of water, to wear a princess dress to the park, to be carried instead of pushed in a stroller—are immutable and primordial. I don’t concede to everything. But repeatedly blocking her urges feels wrong and possibly even damaging.
It’s also just hard for me to conceive of Bean as someone who can sit through a four-course meal or play quietly when I’m on the phone. I’m not even sure I want her to do those things. Will it crush her spirit? Would I be stifling her self-expression and her possibility of starting the next Facebook? With all these doubts, I often capitulate.
I’m not the only one. At Bean’s fourth birthday party, one of her English-speaking friends walks in carrying a wrapped present for Bean and another one for himself. His mother says he got upset at the shop because he wasn’t getting a present, too. My friend Nancy tells me about a new parenting philosophy that’s meant to eliminate this battle of wills: you never let your child hear the word “no,” so that he can’t say it back to you.
In France, there’s no such ambivalence about “
” “You must teach your child frustration” is a French parenting maxim. In my favorite series of French kids’ books, Princesse Parfaite (Perfect Princess), the heroine, Zoé, is pictured pulling her mother toward a crêpe stand. The text explains, “While walking past the
, Zoé made a scene. She wanted a crêpe with blackberry jam. Her mother refused, because it was just after lunch.”
On the next page, Zoé is back in the bakery, dressed as the Perfect Princess of the title. This time she’s covering her eyes so she won’t see the piles of fresh brioche. She’s being
. “As [Zoé] knows, to avoid [owscov being tempted, she turns her head to the other side,” the text says.
It’s worth noting that in the first scene, where Zoé isn’t getting what she wants, she’s crying. But in the second one, where she’s distracting herself, she’s smiling. The message is that children will always have the impulse to give in to their vices. But they’re happier when they’re
and in command of themselves. (It’s also worth noting that Parisian parents don’t let their little girls go shopping in princess outfits. Those are strictly for parties, and for dressing up at home.)
In the book
A Happy Child
, French psychologist Didier Pleux argues that the best way to make a child happy is to frustrate him. “That doesn’t mean that you prevent him from playing, or that you avoid hugging him,” Pleux says. “One must of course respect his tastes, his rhythms and his individuality. It’s simply that the child must learn, from a very young age, that he’s not alone in the world, and that there’s a time for everything.”
I’m struck by how different the French expectations are when—on that same seaside holiday when I witnessed all the French kids happily eating in restaurants—I take Bean into a shop filled with perfectly aligned stacks of striped “mariner” T-shirts in bright colors. Bean immediately begins pulling them down. She barely pauses when I scold her.
To me, Bean’s bad behavior seems predictable for a toddler. So I’m surprised when the saleswoman says, without malice, “I’ve never seen a child do that before.” I apologize and head for the door.
Walter Mischel says that capitulating to kids starts a dangerous cycle: “If kids have the experience that when they’re told to wait, that if they scream, mommy will come and the wait will be over, they will very quickly learn not to wait. Non-waiting and screaming and carrying on and whining are being rewarded.”
French parents delight in the fact that each child has his own temperament. But they take for granted that any healthy child is capable of not whining, not collapsing after he’s told “no,” and generally not nagging or grabbing stuff.
French parents are more inclined to view a child’s somewhat random demands a
—impulsive fancies or whims. They have no problem saying no to these demands. “I think [Frenchwomen] understand earlier than American women that kids can have demands and those demands are unrealistic,” a pediatrician who treats French and American children tells me.
A French psychologist writes
that when a child has a
—for instance, his mother is in a shop with him and he suddenly demands a toy—the mother should remain extremely calm and gently explain that buying the toy isn’t in the day’s plan. Then she should try to bypass the
by redirecting the child’s attention, for example by telling a story about her own life. “Stories about parents are always interesting to children,” the psychologist says. (After reading this, in every crisis I shout to Simon: “Tell a story about your life!”)
The psychologist says that throughout this the mother should stay in close communication with the child, by embracing him or looking him in the eye. But she must also make him understand that “he can’t have everything right away. It’s essential not to leave him thinking that he is all-powerful, and that he can do everything and have everything.”
French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration. They also treat coping with frustration as a core life skill. Their kids simply have to learn it. The parents would be remiss if they didn’t teach it.
Laurence, the nanny, says that if a child wants her to pick him up while she’s cooking, “It’s enough to explain to him, ‘I can’t pick you up right now,’ and then tell him why.”
Laurence says her charges don’t always take this well. But she stays firm and lets the child express his disappointment. “I don’t let him cry eight hours, but I let him cry,” she says. “I explain to him that I can’t do otherwise.”
This happens a lot when she’s watching several children at once. “If you are busy with one child and another child wants you, if you can pick him up obviously you do. But if not, I let him cry.”
The French expectation that even little kids should be able to wait comes in part from the darker days of French parenting, when children were expected to be quiet and obedient. But it also comes from the belief that even babies are rational people who can learn things. According to this view, when we rush to feed Bean whenever she whimpers, we’re treating her like an addict. Whereas expecting her to have patience would be a way of respecting her.
As with teaching kids to sleep, French experts view learning to cope with “no” as a crucial step in a child’s evolution. It forces them to understand that there are other people in the world, with needs as powerful as their own. A French child psychiatrist writes that this
should begin when a baby is three to six mo
nths old. “His mother begins to make him wait a bit sometimes, thus introducing a temporal dimension into his spirit. It’s thanks to these little frustrations that his parents impose on him day after day, along with their love, that lets him withstand, and allows him to renounce, between ages two and four, his all-powerfulness, in order to humanize him. This renunciation is not always loud, but it’s an obligatory passage.”
In the French view, I’m doing Bean no service by catering to her whims. French experts and parents believe that hearing “no” rescues children from the tyranny of their own desires. “As small children you have needs and desires that basically have no ending. This is a very basic thing. The parents are there—that’s why you have frustration—to stop that [process],” says Caroline Thompson, a family psychologist who runs a bilingual practice in Paris.
Thompson, who has a French mother and an English father, points out that kids often get very angry at their parents when par [entompents block them. She says English-speaking parents often interpret this anger as a sign that the parents are doing something wrong. But she warns that parents shouldn’t mistake angering a child for bad parenting.
To the contrary, “If the parent can’t stand the fact of being hated, then he won’t frustrate the child, and then the child will be in a situation where he will be the object of his own tyranny, where basically he has to deal with his own greed and his own need for things. If the parent isn’t there to stop him, then he’s the one who’s going to have to stop himself or not stop himself, and that’s much more anxiety-provoking.”
Thompson’s view reflects what seems to be the consensus in France: making kids face up to limitations and deal with frustration turns them into happier, more resilient people. And one of the main ways to gently induce frustration, on a daily basis, is to make children wait a bit. As with The Pause as a sleep strategy, French parents have homed in on this one thing. They treat waiting not just as one important skill among many but as a cornerstone of raising kids.
I’m still mystified
by France’s national baby-feeding schedule. How do French babies all end up eating at the same times, if their mothers don’t make them do it? When I point this out, mothers continue to wax about rhythms and flexibility, and about how each child is different.
But after a while, I realize that they also take a few principles for granted, even if they don’t always mention them. The first is that, after the first few months, a baby should eat at roughly the same times each day. The second is that babies should have a few big feeds rather than a lot of small ones. And the third is that the baby should fit into the rhythm of the family.
So while it’s true that mothers don’t force their babies onto a schedule, they do nudge them toward it by observing these three principles. The parenting book
says the ideal is to breast-feed on demand for the first few months and then bring the baby “progressively and flexibly, to regular hours that are more compatible with daily life.”
If parents follow these principles and the baby wakes up at seven or eight, and they think he should wait about four hours between meals, he is going to be routed onto the national meal plan. He’ll eat in the morning. He’ll eat again around noon. He’ll have an afternoon feed around four. And then he’ll eat again at about eight
, before going to bed. When the baby cries at ten thirty
, his parents are going to assume that what’s best for him is to wait until lunchtime and have a big feed then. It might take a while for him to ease into this rhythm. Parents ease babies on to this schedule gradually, not abruptly. But eventually the baby gets used to it, the same way that grown-ups do. His parents get used to it, too. And it allows the whole family to eat together.