Au lieu de demander, dire. Au lieu de suivre, mener.

Last Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published a Saturday Essay entitled, Why French Parents Are Superior*. The article, by Pamela Druckerman, was delightfully written and agonizingly thought provoking. I'm sure your curiosity will lead you right to it, and by the time you're reading this next sentence your mind will be swimming with all the ways in which you, too, could be more like a French parent. So rather than regurgitate Druckerman's keen observations about American parenting versus French, I'll just proceed straight to my own reactions and I've been stewing over since I read this article.

She's right. And she's not necessarily right that the French are all better than the Americans, but only that the style of parenting she witnessed among middle class French is a more effective way to socialize children than what is going on here in North America. This is not really news to many of us, and particularly those who have been trained in early childhood education.
Ask any stellar teacher of young children how she manages her classroom. Her explanation will be remarkably similar to the way Druckerman describes the French parenting their children. You create structure, you create boundaries. Children are expected, without exception, to behave in a certain way within this structure. Freedom is granted. The classroom functions. When rules are broken, there are always consequences. They are fair consequences that are based on the offense. The consequence happens every single time. The teacher continues to hope and expect that the student will change. A teacher who sticks with this type of structure will usually be adored by her students and will run a very tight ship. Those same students will be picked up by their parents and will hit them in the hallway and throw a temper tantrum in the parking lot. Hmm....
I have always believed that being a teacher of young children prepared me very well for being a parent. I have always known that my children required an authority figure to survive. I had seen the households where students' parents had helplessly explained to me, "We don't really have a boss in our house." The children were flailing, grasping for anything to help them muddle their way through the world. There is a reason why human infants stay in the nest for so long. They are counting on us to guide them.
This knowledge I use every day in my parenting. The part of parenting that teaching did not prepare me for was the emotional attachment to my children that I did not feel for my students. It also did not prepare me for how easy it was to give in when there were only a few children to contend with. So while I believe in firm boundaries, consistent consequences, and everything else I learned that helped me to be a very effective teacher, it's just harder with my own kids. It's hard to do what I know is right. So where am I failing? What could I do better on?

In the past few days, I've been paying close attention to the way in which I and the parents around me speak to their children. It's opened this incredible new door for me because I've noticed this insane, nonsensical habit that everyone seems to share: we phrase our instructions to our children as questions or suggestions.
As in,
Are you ready to get ready for bed?
How about we put our coats on now?
It looks like it's almost time to get going.

As a two year old, might I respond to those three phrases: no, no, and I disagree? Are these choices, or mandates? As a child, it might sometimes be hard to know. Because sometimes we ask, do you want the blue shirt or the green one? and we don't care which the child chooses. But if we ask, are you ready for bed? It's not a question.

So, post-article, I suddenly see the possibility for:

My sweet, it's time for bed.
My darling, please put your coat on.
Fiona my love, we are going to get going.

Those are statements. Lovingly stated, gracefully offered, but there are no options. It is neither a conversation nor a place to deliberate. It is simply the grown up in charge kindly informing her beloved daughter of the plan. If it's not a choice, don't ask a question. Deliver a statement. This doesn't mean you are an unkind dictator. It means you run the show. (and you do). It makes the child's world more clear.

Here's the second thing I am becoming conscious of: being the leader. I watched a mother today who was walking down the street with her son. She said to him, "It's time to turn around now." The child, about two, turned to enter a little food market immediately to his right. "Oh, you want to go in here? We can go in here," the mother said. Immediately post article, my antennae went up. Who was in charge of this situation? More importantly, who would take the upper hand? Moments later, the mother emerged, screaming toddler in her arms. We can all use our imagination as to what happened. Toddler entered, mother, not planning to purchase anything since her plan was to turn around, tells him he can't buy anything, and the tantrum ensues.
She probably felt like she was being a fun, carefree, relaxed and kind mother for saying, Sure, we can explore this store. But it wasn't kind, because you can't let the two year old be in charge. It always ends in a tantrum.
I'm watching this, and commenting on this, through knowing eyes. I have done this myself, many times, and so by no means am I judging: I am merely reporting. When you let the child decide where you'll go, and what you'll do, you make him think he's in charge. When you suddenly change the rules and take the reigns, the disappointment is huge. If the mother had said, No, it's time to turn around. Should we skip or hop back to our car? Perhaps it would have been all fun, and no tears. (easy for me to say, watching from the car with my two buckled in... but as I say, I'm simply musing, and passing no judgment: I have been there).

So this is my start, my mantra for the week: don't ask, tell. Don't follow, lead. My children will thank me for it. More importantly, I will thank myself for it.

*The article was adapted from a book that was published Tuesday by Penguin Press entitled, "Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting." I'll be curious to read this one,


  1. Wonderful post! I've also taught preschool and nannied in the past and I absolutely noticed a real difference between how kids acted with me and how they (often) behaved with their parents. I've also definitely worked with some really great parents and observed how yes, if you expect a kid to be on good behavior and deliver fair consequences for doing otherwise... they generally are very, very well behaved.

    My son isn't old enough yet (11mos) to really have boundaries (other than "No biting."), but I absolutely intend to carry over what I learned in childcare into parenting.

  2. I read the article, and it makes it all sound very delightful and simple.

    Here's my take:
    I think when I speak firmly to my kids, I sound like I'm trying to train a dog.
    Even when I've been careful to use statements vs. questions, I often don't get the response I want.
    I will admit that sometimes I'm trying to get everyone ready but I'm not really ready to get ready (or haven't figured out what I'm tackling first), so I'm perhaps less of the leader than I should be. Hmm.
    We struggle with consequences because fair ones seem ineffective.
    I agree that snacking thoughtlessly throughout the day is not a good thing, but I personally need snacks throughout the day and think my kids probably do to (that's directed at the article not you).
    I think that had the mother you saw on the street had not let her child go into the store, she would have likely have had a tantrum, just outside the store.

  3. Do you really think the kid would have tantrumed on the street? I don't.
    I struggle with consequences too, but my consequences aren't consistent. What if they were?