At least once a year, I come across a new book or article touting the superior philosophy of French parenting. Its authors propose essentially the same well argued instructions for how to raise your unruly American child à la française, in hopes they might become as obedient, sophisticated, and sensible as their European counterparts. By all logic, the instructions should be easy to follow: Take care of yourself first, instill a sense of routine, establish a strong cadre (framework) within which you may grant your child reasonable freedoms and personal accountability. Feed them nourishing food, but don’t deprive them (or yourself) indulgent pleasures. Expose them to life’s true riches before resorting to the distraction of screens. There is no need to yell, or punish, or even negotiate.
Surely this common sense philosophy has helped many families, but just as often or more, it leaves American parents extra exasperated. The French can explain all this very casually, and indeed it sounds self-evident. So why don’t we get the same results as French parents even when we mirror them as carefully as mimes?
Well, there’s one thing they have that we don’t, and it’s kind of a big one: the French language.
A child’s behavior is dictated by the logic of their psyche, and the psyche takes its structure from the grammar of the mother tongue. The French language has built within it an important delineation of social order. Each person is addressed as either a junior or an elder subject (tu versus vous, respectively), with corresponding conjugations to reinforce the distinction.
Imagine the effect of having “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” built right into the word “you” when addressing your elders. Obedience and correct speech are inherently intertwined.
The French also rely on an impersonal conjugation to give instructions: il faut, which essentially means, “it must be,” or “everyone must.” So instead of constantly telling their kids, you should do this or you can’t do that, every statement sounds like an agreed upon axiom. The commandment acknowledges and asserts its universal applicability, so society as a whole – and language itself – “vouch” for whatever a French parent tells their child.
These two linguistic characteristics support the spirit of French culture, which idealizes governance through mutual respect and solidarity. In other words, French society enables all adults to discipline any child, and all children are accountable to the expectations of any adult.
(Of course, from my experience teaching at a French high school, I can tell you they definitely outgrow the reflexive obedience stage. But by then, they’re well on their way to transitioning from tu to vous status.)
The French government knows well that its proclaimed values are embedded within the language itself, and thus makes a concerted effort to preserve its continued use around the world. Once the official language of European business dealings and scientific debate, still an official language of the United Nations, its conservative nature lends itself perfectly to formal dialogue. While English has no doubt overtaken French as the global language du jour, it has done so, in part, thanks to its pliability.
That is, English is a progressive language, particularly in America, where it readily absorbs foreign loan words from waves of immigrants (e.g., “du jour”), and the coded speech of marginalized populations. It embraces neologisms and simplifies many grammatical flairs that are now seen to be antiquated, such as attributing gender to inanimate objects and signifying social status through distinct forms of the word “you.” Unlike French, it does not specifically engineer a structure within developing minds that situates children beneath adults.
All of this is to say, every language brings something to the table: French specializes in order; English specializes in freedom. They codify relationships differently, so families function differently. We Anglophones may like how the classic French family looks, but minus the French? It just doesn’t translate.
And we don’t only do this with France. Americans flock to well intended parenting advice derived from other cultures. While we certainly should learn what we can from diverse sources, we must also understand that customs derive their efficacy from their cultural context. To lift foreign traditions à la carte not only tangles with issues of appropriation, but it also sets us up to fail.
Take attachment parenting, which has worked brilliantly for countless generations in communal societies, but often proves unsustainable in the American individualist, hyper-scheduled, capitalist climate. It’s not so realistic for a new mother to happily meet a young child’s every need on demand when she’s working two jobs, or staying at home alienated from all adult companionship – not to mention the logistical struggle if she dare have baby number two.
In America at least, there’s no one right way to do anything, including how to raise a child. Our kids notice that precedent, so our authority is limited from the get-go. We will be challenged more without the cape of cultural consensus.
I’ll be the first to say we can learn a lot from France and beyond, but we would do well to adjust our expectations, and be a little less – comment dit-on – naïve.