11 Surprising Reasons French Children Are So Well-Behaved
French parenting isn't perfect, but there's a lot we can learn from this kind but no-nonsense style of parenting.
They’re allowed to do difficult things themselves
“Me do it!” is a favorite toddler phrase and for good reason—the early years are when children discover all the cool ways their new body works and how to use it. But a well-meaning parent can too-easily squelch this budding autonomy. How? By doing everything for the child. French parenting counteracts that philosophy by treating children more like adults-in-training than helpless babes.
“The French believe that kids feel confident when they’re able to do things for themselves, and do those things well,” writes Pamela Druckerman, an American mom who chronicled her experience raising children in France in her book Bringing Up Bébé and the follow-up Bébé Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting. “The de’clic (DEH-kleek) is an aha moment when a child figures out how to do something important on his own… It’s a welcome sign of maturity and autonomy.”
Sure, you can do (fill in the blank) better and faster than your kid—you have a lifetime of training, after all—but that won’t help them learn how to do it and feel the self-confidence that comes with doing something yourself. Plus, it teaches grit, and grit is one of the personality traits most associated with future success in life.
They are praised sparingly
Americans, fairly or not, have gotten a reputation for the “everyone gets a trophy” style of parenting. Fearful of hurting tender feelings, parents praise every child for everything. But while it might save tears in the short term, in the long run all that praise becomes diluted and meaningless. Instead, Druckerman notes, “After children have learned to talk, [French] adults don’t praise them for saying just anything. French parenting is about praising kids for saying interesting things, and for speaking well.”
When children truly earn your praise, they will feel a true sense of accomplishment and take pride in what they learn. This is true across cultures, making it one of the 10 habits parents of successful children have.
They understand adults-only time
Kids are kids and grown-ups are grown-ups, with all the differences in development and maturity that implies. So why do so many parents insist on having their kids with them all the time? Perhaps it’s guilt about being away from them at work or the misguided notion that parents have to be everything to their children, but it makes moms and dads feel burned out and often requires more of children than they are able. The solution, according to Druckerman, is to have dedicated adult time (and we don’t just mean sex).
“In French parenting, the parents have managed to be involved without becoming obsessive,” she writes. “They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there’s no need to feel guilty about this. ‘Evenings are for the parents,’ one Parisian mother tells me.”
They are taught as infants to sleep early and well
The stereotypical bleary-eyed, exhausted new mom is much rarer in France than in America, according to Druckerman. This isn’t because French babies instantly know how to sleep through the night but rather because French parents prioritize teaching babies to “do their nights” from the very beginning. What does this look like in practice? Simply pausing before you jump in to help, allowing the baby a chance to self-soothe. Many infants cycle through brief periods of wakefulness before falling back asleep, and if you allow them a minute to do so they will learn not to depend on rocking, feeding, pacifiers, or some other external sleep aid. (In fact, this is one of the 21 things parents wish they’d known before having kids.)
Fruits and vegetables are their first foods
French children are notoriously unpicky eaters, as Druckerman recounts in her experience at her daughter’s school where even toddlers happily ate braised beets, snails, spinach, and other “adult” foods—not a chicken nugget or cup of mac-n-cheese in sight. Their secret: repeatedly serving these foods and expecting them to eat it. There is no cooking of separate meals for adults and children, she writes, as kids are expected to eat the same meal as their parents. Even babies are started on pureed versions of the fruits and vegetables their parents eat rather than the “bland baby cereal” many American infants start on. Training tiny taste buds from the beginning helps kids grow into unfussy eaters. And, she adds, they worry far less about allergies than their American counterparts, allowing young children a wider variety of foods.
It’s not just French kids who learn from infancy to be healthy eaters; it’s also one reason why Japanese children are the healthiest in the world.
They are allowed to suffer sometimes
Painful experiences are some of the best learning opportunities, and trying to shelter children from this fact of life will only delay or even blunt their emotional development. Druckerman quotes her French doctor, writing, “You don’t say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Getting injections and experiencing pain is part of life. There’s no reason to apologize for that. If you spare them every kind of discomfort, you are preparing great miseries for them.”
Letting your little one experience reasonable hurts can feel terribly painful for you too but instead of trying to prevent hurts, spend that precious time teaching them how to deal with them. They’ll grow up to be resilient and good problem solvers.
They know saying “hello” and polite manners are non-negotiable
“In the United States, a 4-year-old American kid isn’t obliged to greet me when he walks into my house. He gets to skulk in under the umbrella of his parents’ greeting. And in an American context, that’s supposed to be fine with me. 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 writes, adding that this inability to hold a discussion with adults continues well into the teen years and young adulthood. “Part of what the French obsession with bonjour [greeting others] reveals is that, in France, kids don’t get to have this shadowy presence. The child greets, therefore he is. Just as any adult who walks into my house has to acknowledge me, any child who walks in must acknowledge me too.”
This expectation of eye contact, a polite hello, and good social manners starts from the minute the French child can say hello, teaching them social manners that will benefit them for a lifetime. This isn’t to say it will come easily, however, as demonstrated by these 16 things parents of young children want you to know, so be patient with little ones as they learn.
Their moms maintain their personal style and independence
If it’s one thing the French are known for, it’s their dedication to fashion. In Paris, at least, Druckerman notes that new moms don’t get a pass on looking put-together like they do here in the states. This isn’t meant as a punishment but as a way of keeping your own identity after childbirth. “If you act (and dress) as if you have a fascinating inner life, you may soon find that you actually do—and that you feel more balanced as a result,” she writes.
Ultimately it isn’t really about what you’re wearing but that it’s important to still take care of yourself. You don’t have to wear Chanel to playgroup, but you will feel better if you change out of your spit-up-stained leggings and throw on a nice top. Need more tips? Make sure you avoid these 12 outfit mistakes that make you look messy.
Treats are actually treats
Early on in her French experience, Druckerman explains how she watched the young daughter of a friend take an offered treat and then put it away for later instead of immediately diving in. She’d learned this because her French mother insisted on only eating treats with a meal and not allowing perpetual snacking. Unlike American kids who are often plied with Goldfish crackers the second they express a desire to eat, French kids routinely go several hours without eating. This makes them hungry enough to eat their healthy meals (beets and snails, remember?) along with teaching them the critical skill of delayed gratification. Food is to be enjoyed and nothing is “bad”—but only within the boundaries parents set.
Their parents say “no” and mean it
How many times have you told your children “no” and then caved in later due to their whining or rationalizations? If you’re French, then the answer is likely close to zero. French parenting is about the belief in a firm “no” and that the parent’s answer is not up for debate. Druckerman quotes the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing, “Give willingly, refuse unwillingly. But let your refusal be irrevocable. Let no entreaties move you; let your ‘no,’ once uttered, be a wall of brass, against which the child may exhaust his strength some five or six times, but in the end he will try no more to overthrow it. Thus you will make him patient, equable, calm and resigned, even when he does not get all he wants.”
This can feel a lot easier said than done, especially as an exhausted parent facing an incredibly persistent child. But it’s worth enduring a few tantrums now as it leads to much better behavior overall, Druckerman explains.
They don’t see the world as a dangerous, menacing place
Parenting is probably the most anxiety-provoking job on the planet. Not only are you entrusted with the physical and mental safety of a precariously fragile being, but you’re also responsible for their entire future. Or… maybe not. Maybe this hyper-anxious style of parenting is just making for exhausted parents and anxious kids.
“French parents are very concerned about their kids. They know about pedophiles, allergies, and choking hazards. They take reasonable precautions,” she writes. “But they aren’t panicked about their children’s well-being. This calmer outlook makes them better at both establishing boundaries and giving their kids some autonomy.”
To parallel French parenting, accept that you simply cannot protect your children from every bad thing. Do your best, and then let the rest go. It’s like the toddler version of The Serenity Prayer. In the meantime, try and remember that things weren’t perfectly safe when you were a kid either and you ended up OK. Remember metal slides (just one of the 29 things that 2000’s kids will never understand)? You lived. And you learned… not to wear shorts on a hot day.