Le Mean Maman: Are French Moms Meaner (And Are Their Kids Better Behaved as a Result)?

Mon dieu! Some news (well, okay, not news so much as opinion) from across the pond: French moms are not just thinner than their American counterparts; they’re meaner, too. (And Amy Chua thought she had cornered the market on tough.)


A friend just sent me this link, to a 2007 article in an U.K. paper (the Telegraph) by an American journalist married to a Frenchman. Janine diGiovanni may (inexplicably, to my ears) describe non-French mamans as “Anglo-Saxon” mothers (who, me, Anglo-Saxon? My people are from Sicily!), but she makes excellent observations (some of them uncomfortable to modern American parents’ ears, if not mine) about the parenting differences she sees among her Paris contemporaries.


Here’s what she says, essentially:


  • French mothers are less squishy than American moms; they are strict, unafraid of enforcing rules. “It’s always shocking,” a friend of diGiovanni’s is quoted as saying in the article, “to hear the shrill ‘ça suffit’ that is the refrain of all French mothers. They speak with sharpness that is alarming to the uninitiated.”  (ça suffit means “that’s enough!”, and you don’t have to wonder — I say it all. the. time.).


  • French mothers prefer their adult lives to remain separate from their children’s lives — which is why you don’t see precocious tots dominating the dinner party with cute tricks involving mashed potatoes and the new song they learned in preschool. The kids are in the other room, already fed, while Maman and Papa entertain guests. There is something, explains the French godmother of diGiovanni’s son, called l’heure de l’adulte, which is when the children “…go away and leave us alone.” (We don’t have many dinner parties in these parts, but we do have our own version of l’heure de l’adulte. It’s called bedtime. Now.)


  • French parents believe more firmly than American ones in institutions, such as schools. When petite Sophie is in the ecole, the teacher’s in charge, and the parent steps back. Nothing like our superinvolvement in our kids’ school lives, non? The kind where you know in which cabinet the kindergarten teacher keeps the extra Elmer’s?


  • French parents don’t appear to be worried about stifling their children’s creativity with strictness; in contrast, they seem more concerned with setting boundaries than with letting them run out of bounds. This, to me, resonates as more “mean” than letting your child eat sand to learn the invaluable lesson that he shouldn’t eat sand (an anecdote mentioned in the article) or having an old woman in the park pinch your kid’s ear and say, “listen to your mother!” (also related by di Giovanni). It’s hard for American parents to place the enforcing of boundaries — in the service of some future time when your kid will need them — in front of the almighty pursuit of creativity. I’m not against creativity, for the record; but I’m not convinced that setting boundaries, sticking to rules, and even allowing the occasional real or metaphorical pinched ear is mutually exclusive with it.


Because, as di Giovanni appears to conclude (she waffles a little, but I’m going to say she concludes), French children seem, to her, to be better behaved than American ones, with their mashed potato creations interrupting the l’heure de l’adulte. She writes:

But as a result, you find beautifully brought up children, and many of my French friends who are parents will argue endlessly that instilling discipline and setting boundaries is the way of showing the utmost love.


Isn’t that the whole point? That it is precisely our utmost love for our children that does (or should) prompt us to think less about immediate comfort, and more about, you know, the future?