Amidst all the talk this past week about Pamela Druckerman’s new book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, there was one phrase that immediately lodged itself in my mind. It was in a sidebar that ran with the Wall Street Journal adaptation of her book, “Why French Parents Are Superior,” and it said this: “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.”
That statement points directly to what I see as one of the most meaningful differences between the French and (contemporary) American style of parenting. I don’t happen to believe, as the Journal pushed Druckerman’s argument to say, that French parenting is necessarily superior, overall, to what we do in America. I don’t think French children are, overall, better or happier people — such generalizations are silly. But it is true that French kids can be a whole lot more pleasant to be around than our own. They’re more polite. They’re better socialized. They generally get with the program; they help out when called upon to do so, and they don’t demand special treatment. And that comes directly from being taught, from the earliest age, that they’re not the only ones with feelings and needs.
Like Druckerman, I’ve often noted wistfully how French children know how to handle themselves in restaurants. I’ve envied how French children eat what’s put in front of them, put themselves to bed when instructed to, and, generally, tend to help keep the wheels of family life moving pretty smoothly. But the difference that struck me the most deeply, when my family moved to Washington, D.C., from Paris and my older daughter began preschool, was how much more basically respectful French children were of other people. Indeed, how much emphasis French parents put on demanding they behave respectfully toward other people. And how that respect helped make life more enjoyable.
In the years when I was gathering wool for, and then formally researching and writing Perfect Madness, I was disheartened time and again by the ways parents in the U.S. often did just the opposite. American parents assiduously strove to make sure that their children’s wants and needs came first, no matter what. This sometimes had a name — “advocating for your child” — and was clearly predicated on the belief that if you didn’t yourself do it, didn’t teach your child to “self-advocate,” no one would, and in the great stampede for resources and rewards your child would get left behind in the dust. In my preschool-mom world back then, this took the form of letting kids step all over the feelings of other children if their own feelings so compelled them, as when a mother in suburban Maryland explained to me that she let her little girl cancel playdates right up to the last minute because she “couldn’t force her” to engage in social commitments that now bored her. It never seemed to dawn upon the mother that her child’s passing boredom was less important than the other child’s potentially hurt feelings; and that teaching her daughter to think of the other child’s feelings would, in the long term, be better for them both.
This lack of parental empathy was brought home to me much more recently, when a mom in my then eighth grader’s class complained to me about an incident in which another girl in the class had had a panic attack — a full-blown panic attack — just as the doors closed on the bus that was to take the class on a camping trip. Without a word of sympathy, the mom vented to me, “Like [my daughter] really needed to see that.”
This lack of compassion and empathy, I’ve found, is rampant in today’s hypercompetitive parenting culture in which almost every child is eternally being groomed to look out for No. 1, cheered on by parents who view other children more as potential impediments to his or her full flowering than as comrades-in-arms — or friends — united in the difficult task of gracefully growing up. As American parents, we parrot a certain amount of knee-jerk politeness, urging our kids to say “please” and “thank you,” but I don’t necessarily have the sense that all this is aimed at doing anything more profound than making our kids (and ourselves, by extension) look good.
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A more deeper understanding of courtesy — that we do things like make eye contact and say hello and goodbye because such behaviors convey to other people that they matter and are worthy of respect — is all but entirely absent from our parenting culture today. It’s far more important to us that our children be in touch with their feelings and true to themselves than that they create good feeling around them through “superficial” good manners.
An old-fashioned French online guide to proper comportment shoots down that very modern way of thinking, which many view as an encroaching threat in France as well: “Philosophers may say that politeness is the greatest form of hypocrisy,” it states. “But if saying hello, apologizing, thanking, helping those in need, being attentive to others, are signs of hypocrisy, then we accept that epithet, and can offer no defense.”