16 February 2012


While I can't bear to read parenting books in general (after being a parent all day long, when I have time to read, I much prefer a literary novel or a well-written memoir), for work I do keep track of parenting books and newspaper discussions, mainly as sociological indicators of family trends.  For example, I have the students in my sociology of family courses discuss last year's book about so-called Tiger Moms (by Amy Chua), for its reflection of intensive parenting in U.S. society and for how it exemplifies the collective need to tell adults how to parent their children.  The review for a new book in that vein, Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman, caught my sociological eye a few weeks ago, and I decided to see what it adds to the genre, and also, to see how the author's observations about French parenting compare to mine.  (It's an engaging, light read, with plenty of astute observations.)

As I told a friend, I'm not sure that I am ready to make any pronouncements about French parenting because so far, I have seen all kinds of parenting here.  I've seen engaged parents and disengaged parents, very involved and nervous parents, indulgent parents, distracted parents, beautifully dressed parents with beautifully dressed children in tow, and I have even seen a few ordinary-looking parents slapping their children's faces in public.  French parenting?  Druckerman herself speaks of the limits of her experiences and observations, as these pertain to one social class of families living in one city.  So, it's not clear to me yet if French parenting is all that different from parenting elsewhere.

Framing the door of a family home in Aix
That said, the one observation made by Druckerman that does seem notably French  (but that may or may not be a reflection of unique parenting à la française) is the construction and use of un cadre (a frame or framework).  In regards to parenting, the cadre is a framework or ideal in which parents set clear limits for children, essentially creating a structure of rules and expectations for children to follow.  The French parenting framework is, according to Druckerman, relatively firm and authoritative (as any good frame needs to be, whether it's holding a painting, or a door, or a behavior in check).  The frame of expectations creates a reassuring predictability for French children because they know clearly how to behave in various circumstances.  It's also liberating for them because within the framework's limits, these children have much freedom and independence (which outsiders might unknowingly see as a reflection of loose parenting).  This all apparently creates calm parents and happy children in France.  In a way, Allen and I unknowingly used an encadrement (framing) approach in regards to sweets with our boys (which we adapted from other, far more clever parents than ourselves, Finnish ones, in fact).  From age three, our boys have been allowed to have candy, on a weekly candy day, one piece for each year of their age.  When they were younger, we'd talk about how they might want to balance a big lollilop with a smaller candy, or chocolates with other types, but we gave them the freedom to choose, at the store, or from the candy jar, ANY candies within those limits and they could enjoy them anytime on that once-a-week candy day.  We think that framing candy day in this way has given the boys an ability to enjoy sweets without gorging on them (as almost 12 year olds, they don't really even need a candy day anymore), and it also eliminated the constant questions about candy and the pouting when it was denied, which surely made for more relaxed family time and calmer parents.

While the framework, as an idea, may in fact be used broadly by French parents in their private family lives, (and it sounds brilliant), where I really see it, is as an organizing principle in French public life.  Public interactions are framed in certain ways; for example, I know that I will hear bonjour and au revoir every time I walk into a store and that I have to respond similarly, and our boys have come to know that each coach is greeted at each practice and game with bises (cheek kisses, one on each side).  Even in public written correspondence in France, there are specific protocols for how to communicate in regards to renting, buying, or fixing real estate, to dealing with the bank, or to seeking a job.  In the U.S. we certainly have 'the business letter' and 'the resume' but these are fairly loose frames. In France, the frames are much more formulaic and formal; the following French website provides 500 templates for appropriate public correspondence http://www.modele-lettre-type.com/!  I first became aware of these protocols just a few weeks ago, when I received three extremely formally written emails from our landlord who was responding to an electrical issue in our apartment.  He maintained the same style in his email even after meeting us in person.  Just today, we received a similarly formal letter from the boys' school asking us to provide an equally formal explanation for a recent 5-minute tardiness by one boy (a not unusual incident or request apparently).  The letter opens with, in translation, "I have the honor to inform you that [your son], student in grade 6 section 4, was late to the following class without a valid excuse....," and its closing line is, "[Sir], please accept the assurance of my most distinguished consideration." Now, it's a wonder that we actually were able to attain our apartment, given my much more direct and informal, "anything goes" American style of correspondence, emailed in bad French on top of all that, and knowing about the special French correspondence protocols, I'll have to look up the appropriate modèle (model or formula) that will allow me to successfully complete the motif du retard (reason for tardiness) on the school form and reverse the demerit on our boy's school record.

Finally, in public and secular France, there is even a calendrical framework for everyday life, provided by the Catholic church where every single day is a particular saint's day (yes, there was that St. Valentine's day this week, though without as much fuss as in the U.S.), and the holy days frame particular eating customs.  As newcomers, we now know that Epiphany in January means we're supposed to eat Kings' cakes all month long (but we have many choices of which kinds and from which bakeries), and then we eat sweet crepes, with cider, for Candlemas (which explains the puzzling displays at Monoprix of crepe mix boxes next to bottles of hard ciders, and the sudden appearance of temporary crepe stands), and then these are eclipsed by the special pastries and sweets we'll scramble to eat at the local carnival grounds before the end of Mardi gras (yes, that's next, fat Tuesday).  And then we have the somber 40 days of fasting before Easter.  I'm sure most French do not fast, but when you think about it, Lent sounds like a convenient framework for a new diet, after all these sweets.


Malijai said...

Hi, I find your comments about the french way of life very funny and also so true. I am french from Marseille and I am living in Montréal for 20 years now. I see exactly the other side of the medall and I can see what I miss from France ... The cadre, is culturally very important even if it is not so strict as it can appear, but with my children I see the difference with other child. I think it is the reason why every french know the laws and also how to circumvent laws...
I hope you will like you life in Aix, it is a nice town, a little bit bourgeoise, but comfortable

Anne Tuominen said...

Thanks for your comments; now I see 'cadres' all over the place as I'm watching parents and children here. And, thanks for reading.