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French parenting: Helping helicopter parents land

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 28 2012 2:57 p.m. MST

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Before it was even published, a new book on French parenting was a bestseller, the secret to its popularity the notion that parents can raise successful kids and actually breathe while they do it.

Think of it as landing instructions for a generation of helicopter parents.

“Bringing Up BÉbÉ: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,’’ by Pamela Druckerman, is all about achieving good parenting results with simplicity — as opposed to the tendency of American moms and dads to fill every moment of a child's young life in an apparently misguided attempt to help that child get ahead.

Here's how Beth Teitell of the Boston Globe describes the manic style that's gripped American parents in recent years: "For those Americans not living under the reign of children, or who haven’t witnessed the madness, the current parenting style could be described as No Child Left Alone. It’s a high-energy, carpool-driven exercise in which every organized sport must be played, every extracurricular class taken, everything dropped when a child speaks."

A documentary, "Race to Nowhere," tracks what's happening in the classroom and the impact on American children as they grow up and on the families that love them after children have consistently been overscheduled and "pushed to the brink."

In an introduction to an essay by Druckerman on why "French parents are superior," the Wall Street Journal notes that "while Americans fret over modern parethood, the French are raising happy, well-behaved children without all the anxiety."

After noticing that her own child behaved quite differently — even badly — in a restaurant, compared to French children, she started to consider and eventually study what the differences were. Writes Druckerman, "... the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. 'For me, the evenings are for the parents,' one Parisian mother told me. 'My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it's adult time.' French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are — by design — toddling around by themselves."

Among Druckerman's suggestions for skills that children desperately need but are not getting, she emphasized the ability to play alone. French parents create moments when children have no one else at hand to amuse them. They also teach their children the ability to wait — Druckerman particulary noticed it in restaurants and while adults are talking and children must hang out — and the benefits and joys of delayed gratification. Finally, she notes, American children don't seem to have boundaries. You don't see kids in France clamoring to get a parent's attention when said parent is on a phone call, for instance.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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