The Wall Street Journal has published a sequel to their infamous wave-generating article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” written by Amy Chua based on her book Battle Hyms of the Tiger Mother. Only this time, the we’re on the opposite end of Eurasia.
Like its predecessor, this article, “Why French Parents Are Superior” has generated quite a stir, judging from the comments (which numbered at 34 when I discovered the article yesterday morning, but as of this writing number at 487). And like Chua’s article, this article is written to promote a book, in this case, Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. So I’m going to give Druckerman some free publicity with my response to her claims.
Druckerman—who is an American living and raising her family in France—makes claims about French superiority vis-à-vis American parents (pun intended) that are more subdued than Chua’s claim about Chinese parents. She begins with an anecdote about her family in restaurant in a French resort town. Druckerman and her husband struggled to get their 18 month old daughter to behave properly in the resturant, but she noticed that none of the French families seemed to be having similar problems with their young children. This began a six year long investigation into French parenting styles and the dynamics of the French family. She claims to have observed that, overall, French children are much more well behaved than American ones. She attributes this to French parenting.
Authority is one of the most impressive parts of French parenting—and perhaps the toughest one to master. Many French parents I meet have an easy, calm authority with their children that I can only envy. Their kids actually listen to them. French children aren’t constantly dashing off, talking back, or engaging in prolonged negotiations.
In a way, they style of parenting described here is the polar opposite of the obsessive highly controlling parenting espoused by Chua. And Druckerman is correct, it is much in line with the type of parenting recommended by most parenting “experts”.
One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)
One Saturday I visited Delphine Porcher, a pretty labor lawyer in her mid-30s who lives with her family in the suburbs east of Paris. When I arrived, her husband was working on his laptop in the living room, while 1-year-old Aubane napped nearby. Pauline, their 3-year-old, was sitting at the kitchen table, completely absorbed in the task of plopping cupcake batter into little wrappers. She somehow resisted the temptation to eat the batter.
Delphine said that she never set out specifically to teach her kids patience. But her family’s daily rituals are an ongoing apprenticeship in how to delay gratification. Delphine said that she sometimes bought Pauline candy. (Bonbons are on display in most bakeries.) But Pauline wasn’t allowed to eat the candy until that day’s snack, even if it meant waiting many hours.
The ability to delay gratification is a very important personality trait, and is highly correlated success. It is positively correlated with IQ and varies according to race, increasing as one goes Black -> White -> East Asian. It’d be an amazing accomplishment if parent could somehow inculcate this in their children. But as you know, parents do not influence their children’s eventual behavioral traits. This includes the important trait of delaying gratification. But as parents often do when looking at the traits of their biological children, they see the effects of heredity unfolding and claim credit (or blame) for it as the children grow up. The smart, well-read father who reads to his daughter and then claims responsibility for her love of books as an adult never considered that he gave her the genes that biased her to book-reading. Interestingly, you never seem to see a father claiming to have instilled his baldness into his sons, even though that heritable trait unfolds just as many adult behaviors do.
But there is one measurable systematic difference between the French and Americans in terms outcomes—the French have much better heart health and narrower waistlines. The title of this entry refers to “The French Paradox,” that the French seem to suffer less heart disease than one would expect from their saturated fat intake. The obesity epedemic that is ravaging America hasn’t struck France nearly as hard. In the video accompanying the WSJ article, Druckerman talks a lot about the French attitude towards food with their children. She notes that the even the daycare for the youngest children have sophisticated menus including vegetables and fish.
Of course, to begin with, we have only Druckerman’s word about the exemplary behavior of French children, and if the commentators to the article are to believed, this point is overstated. I’m not intimately familiar with French children to have an anecdotal insight. As well, I’m not aware of any studies that show consistent differences between French children and American ones. But even assuming she is correct about this point, a couple of things come to my mind about this.
For one parents can shape their children’s behavior when children are with the parents. Parents are the primary authority in the family setting. This includes family meals at restaurants, where young children especially are under their parents’ yoke. The kicker is that, contrary to the beliefs of Drukcerman and Chua, this does not translate outside the family setting, when children are out in the world with their peers. When children are outside the family setting, the behaviors that children have learned to use with their peers reigns, which parents can see if they bring their child’s friends along to dinner when they go that restaurant.
Of course, unlike Chua, who seemed to make grand claims about how she was directly responsible for her children’s outcomes, Druckerman doesn’t seem to indicate that the French parenting wisdom molds the type of people their children grow up to be. Rather, she seems to focus mostly on the home life of children and their behavior around their parents in family outings. And you might be thinking that if that sphere is the limit her parental wisdom, then fine. Indeed, she may be on to something, as her advice of having children learn to entertain themselves and adults wanting their own time might be welcome advice to obsessive American parenting.
But what if it’s not so simple? That brings to my second point, namely that French children may have more than a home life with their actual parent, but another home life, namely day care. France’s socialist society offers parents a wealth of amenities that makes having and raising children easier to do there than perhaps anywhere in the world. In the documentary Sicko, Michael Moore goes as far as to show that for new mothers, the French will even send government-employed housekeepers to do household chores such as laundry, which is actually a bit of an exaggeration. Nonetheless, amenities such as day care are provided for free or at little cost, and are heavily used. According to Druckerman, French day care center follow the same principles that French do with respect to authority and allowing children to entertain themselves. But at day care, children are now with their peers, who are being socialized the same way. The members of the peer group then socialize each other, including the customs of eating and such. This goes all the way to school where children continue to socialize each other with values brought by what all (or at least a majority) of French parents do. That is a key lesson here, within a culture, it doesn’t matter what any one set of parents do, because their children will be socialized by their peers with the whatever values the masses hold.
This could be, incidentally, also a possible explanation of the French paradox. The French may have different tastes than Americans, as food eaten in early childhood seem to influence preferences later in life.
France’s historical path has been somewhat different than its neighbor to the north, England. While typically late-marrying like the rest of Europe west of the Hajnal line, France, specially the northern part, has had a custom of strict equal inheritance. Hence the French have long believed that all children should get a piece of the pie. The rest of the country embraced the “stem” family, where one son inherited the homestead (and remained with his parents) while the others went off to fend for themselves. I’m not completely familiar with the specifics of how this system worked, but one could imagine that it produced, through generations of evolution, a people whose psychology is somewhat different from Anglos. In the English system, everyone had to make their own way and there was no guarantee of inheritance from the folks. Individuals stood and fell in good part their own efforts. This, overtime, likely selected for people who value independence and individuality, and where individuals feel their destiny was their own hands (since the most successful individuals in such a system likely were the ones who managed to make a way for themselves and likely would have possessed such attitudes). Hence, sentiments such as pulling oneself by own’s bootstraps and the freedom to pursue one’s own goals—”Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
By contrast, the French, perhaps a bit more secure in having some sort of inheritance waiting for them, were perhaps somewhat less independent minded. Perhaps conformity was important to them, as reflected by the World Values Survey data. Indeed, even today in France, the nouveau riche are held in lower regard than those with “old money.” This may say something about the French attitude about the individualistic mindset it takes to attain great success and wealth. Maybe French children are less difficult than Anglo children; they are less “expressive.”
Interestingly, as Druckerman notes, France encourages child birth by putting out many incentives for new mothers; the government actually pays women to have children. This is because France, like all White and East Asian countries, has a fertility problem. Across the world, Whites and East Asians (the two highest IQ groups) are having children below the replacement rate of about 2.05 children per childbearing woman lifetime fertility rate. This means that across the world, White and East Asian populations have become static or are shrinking—in some cases rather rapidly. France however has the second highest fertility rate in the European Union, at 2.01 children per child bearing women (behind Ireland at 2.02). Does this mean France’s generous social welfare system has been successful at steming its population decline? Perhaps, but they may not have stopped the decline of the population of ethnic French:
France’s population is considerably non-French, with ethnic Italians, for example, making up 8% of the population. It is also considerably non-White, with North Africans making up 5.23% of the population and Blacks making up just under 3%, according to some estimates. However, because the French government doesn’t collect data on the ethnicity or religion of its populace, one cannot get an exact picture of the breakdown of its fertility rate by race or ethnic group. A couple of numbers though hinting at the patterns. Among women born in metropolitan France, the fertility rate is 1.74, but among immigrant women (from all countries), it is 2.16. Of those immigrant women, those hailing from North Africa, Turkey, or sub-Saharan Africa have fertility rates in the range of 2.57 to as high as 3.21 in the case of those from Turkey. As well, in 2010, 23.9% the newborns in metropolitan France had one parent born outside of Europe. This is not even considering second+ generation immigrant groups.
As many other HBD’ers have noted, this is not necessarily ideal because of the lower average IQ of the fast-reproducing foreign descended groups, who are less economically productive, hence more demanding on France’s generous welfare system without contributing as much into the system as the native French in return, and bring with them a host of social difficulties including increased crime. This is unfortunately the weakness of robust social-welfare systems; as good as they are, they only work when the population is reasonably productive (and reproduces sufficiently). If there are large under-perfoming groups, the system becomes strained.