Are German Parents as Superior as French Parents?

The Wall Street Journal published another provocative piece on one certain “ethnic” parenting style superior than the American one. I put ethnic in quotes as I refer first to the Tiger parenting style written and described by Amy Chua early last year. Chua talked about the hardline, rather Spartan style which Chinese parents in particular use to raise their children in her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She ceded that other ethnicities may adopt this same style, but in Chua’s essay for the Wall Street Journal, she uses the term Chinese mothers to describe the implementers of this take-no-prisoner approach.

Chua posits that the soft approach of Western parents is for wusses. But this month, Pamela Druckerman maintains in this Wall Street Journal excerpt from her book, “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting” that French parents can also take a firm stance, and it’s the Americans who are getting run over by their kids.

Druckerman refers to a few anecdotes that seemed familiar to me. And as her comparisons continued between French and American parenting styles, some of the themes and observations were ones that I have made during my own recent repatriation from Germany to the US.

One of the first is how American kids don’t seem to be able to sit at the dinner table, a pattern often observed at restaurants. While I believe that most small children have expiration times of 30 minutes or so of staying seated, it’s still no wonder that this may seem to be phenomenal to some American parents. (CYA clause which I should have started with: May I put an emphasis on the word some here as I realize that generalizations of any kind can be construed as mistaken, inaccurate, rude or offensive. So please, let’s take our grains of salt and carry on.) I’ve known some American families to chase their kids around the house with spoonfuls of food. The German sense of order and boundaries has helped us train our kids to keep food at the table and to remain there while eating. Similarity between French and German parents: un point.

Chasing kids around the dinner table, shadowing them around the playground, brokering and settling every dispute all the while getting very excited: this hovering style of American parenting is often referred to as helicopter parenting. Druckerman describes what we essentially know as Kaffee und Kuchen where the adults sit around having coffee while the kids play. I mean, I don’t know what sort of parents wouldn’t want to do that, but because the Europeans actually do it – similarity between French and German parents: deux points.

Another key point which Druckerman makes is the importance which French parents put on children learning to play by him/herself and dealing with boredom. I’ve been witnessing American parents jumping in response more readily and armed with an arsenal of gadgets to wave in front of their kids at any whisper of a high-pitched whine. The number of Apple devices purchased for the main or sole purpose of distracting the kids really mocks the guilt my husband and I felt when we purchased a portable DVD player for our kids for the flight between California to Germany last summer. It also plays up the dichotomy I’ve discovered here in the US between academic-based preschools vs. play-based ones, in other words results vs. process. In Germany, Kindergarten is by definition play-based as it is in France. In this sense, they are used to finding something to do rather than being told what to do. Similarity between French and German parents: trois points.

As I’ve maintained before, I believe that better resources in Germany and also in France, such as subsidized childcare and a supportive infrastructure and culture like longer maternity leave, eliminate these American tendencies to overcompensate and to jump each time a child whimpers.

Where I think some deviation between Gallic and Teutonic parenting might occur is over food. While I don’t think German food for kids is as reduced to chicken nuggets and french fries as it often is in the States, I also don’t think Germans assume a sophisticated palette for kids from day one as the French do. But that might also come down to the difference between cuisine. Please note, this is not a diss against German cuisine, but let’s face it, which culture can claim haute cuisine? In Germany, I’ve also been disappointed with the typical pickings of noodles, spätzle, wurst and pommes on a kids’ menu. Dissimilarity between French and German parents: un point.

And finally, after exchanging sleep-deprived war stories with German friends on how to get our babies to sleep: whether or not we could let our babies schreien lassen (cry it out) or should we try the Jedes Kind Kann Schlafen Lernen (Every Child Can Learn to Sleep, aka Feberizing) method, I think American and German parents struggle over sleep the same way. Druckerman’s French parents whose kids sleep through the night definitely won on the sleep front. Dissimilarity between French and German parents: deux points.

Final count: Similarities 3 – Dissimilarities 2. Who are the more superior parents? Well, I would never make such a generalization!

7 thoughts on “Are German Parents as Superior as French Parents?

  1. I first noticed the differences in childrearing in German teenagers when I did exchanges with my US high school students in Germany. The Germans are brought up to be much more independent and could actually carry on an intelligent conversation, sitting around for hours just talking. Many of my US students had difficulty doing the same thing (in English or German). It may be changing somewhat with smartphones and iPods these days, but I prefer the German way in this regard. (PS – This is a topic that deserves more exploration in our [possible] expat book.)

  2. Hyde you have a point on teenagers and conversation – I have some experience there, teaching kids from both cultures on a regular basis.
    And Jane, I have yet to meet a German parent who is as strict as I am, perhaps I am just the exception to the American rule… 🙂 (grains of salt well taken, thank you!!)

  3. I always have a problem when there is a presumption that ALL American kids are a certain way or ALL German parents do this or that. I homeschooled my family and while I am very affectionate and open-minded in parenting, I never allowed kids to run about in restaurants or anywhere else and mine could have long conversations on intellectual topics long before the teens. Chicken nuggets and fries for all American kids? I don’t think so. As a vegan family and for our vegan friends, we don’t eat dead animals, chicken menstruation (eggs) or drink cow secretions. We eat the healthiest diet there is . We are never bored. With books, nature, animals, music and art in the world, how do you get bored? On the other hand, I am apparently a much more open-minded, loving and affectionate parent than what is described yet have a family that is highly intellectual and begin college studies in the mid teens. Parenting is not something so easily broken down into parts. To discuss it as if American parents are inferior to German parents who are inferior to French parents who are inferior to a mean Chinese mother is absurd.

    • You raise another interesting perspective, particularly of a homeschooling parent presumably in Germany. This, as you know, is a contentious issue in this rather rigid culture. I’d love to hear more about your experiences if you ever care to guest blog about it.

  4. Your article made me laugh a lot – I know MAAANY German children that don’t even EAT at the table but somewhere else in the house and that don’t stay seated a minute. Annoying, but the truth 😉
    Referring to the toys: Ultimately, we observed that our toddler plays even better and is less bored the less toys he has to choose of. He uses to be in his room from 1 to 3 pm and has the choice of either sleep or read books… He enjoys it and is very relaxed afterwards.
    But I don’t get the point about the sleeping story, sorry 🙂

    • Thanks for the feedback, Lania, and glad to have provided some humour in your day! Re the sleep, I was referring to the original WSJ article/book where she claimed that French babies sleep through the night or that French parents didn’t seem to have the same issues of getting their babies to sleep which American parents seem to. My summary was that this was also an agonising topic for German parents as well, unlike in France, as the author claimed.

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