Parenting in France and Germany vs the USA

One of the first things we noticed during our recent trip to France and Germany was that parents there don’t yell at their children. Neither do they turn them over to be entertained and occupied by handheld devices when out in public, nor scold them for wandering off – which little kids in France and Germany seem wont to do. Admittedly, little ones are often with nannies in Paris Monday through Friday, but the nannies don’t yell either — and that’s another post.

When kids are with their parents, the “It Takes a Village” idea seems to be the rule of thumb – at least to a casual observer – and the level of patience shown toward children is truly remarkable. I never once heard the French or German equivalent of “Hurry up!” during our 16 days abroad. And since it is documented fact that babies and small children are my kryptonite, you can trust me when I say I was paying lots of attention to small ones and those caring for them.

True, I was in the center of Paris, not the poverty-stricken suburbs, so I was among more educated and affluent Parisians; maybe there would have been more yelling in the projects. And granted, you can’t walk more than a few blocks in Paris without coming to some sort of park (ditto in Germany) and parks, in general are happy places.

Perhaps parents in U.S. parks are all relaxed and playful with their kids as well and I just don’t see it as much because our cities and towns (at least west of Texas) are not designed as building, building, building, park, building, building, building, park, building …. They even had a sandbox in the garden of the Rodin Museum, for goodness sake.

Yet, when we went to southern France and Germany and were in a more varied economic strata, we saw much the same relaxed and patient attitude toward small children. Ditto when we went into the French equivalent of a Walmart – always the place to find parents yelling at children in this town – there was no parental outrage and few crying children. And the children who were crying got comfort, not scolding.

So maybe it is simply a cultural difference: in France and Germany, the parents look at their children as small fry to be treated and taught kindly and in the U.S., all too often, parents seem to look at their children as just another bother. How else can we explain the practice – parodied in this weeks Doonesbury – of parents spending more time with their electronics than talking with their children? Why the ever-present sight of mothers out strolling with their small ones while chatting on their cells instead of chatting with their children? Or what about families out to dinner with Baby propped in front of a portable telly, Junior plugged into his hand-held video game and Mom and Dad glued to their smart phones? (I’m not making that up. I saw that exact scene at a Chili’s three months ago.)

Here’s what I saw overseas: The common mode of carrying children in France and Germany appeared to be on dad’s shoulders. When not on dad’s shoulders, kids were in prams or walking alongside mom holding hands.

At a music festival in Germany, we even saw a little boy wander out of the audience, up to the stage where a group was performing and start to explore the openings in the stage, nary an adult to tell him no or wonder if it was a good idea or not.

Either everyone at the festival was related, Germany has no fear of child molesters, or Mom/Dad had a watchful eye from somewhere and, in between beers, had decided their little one was in no danger. Contrast that with the ever-present “Stay with me!” American attitude of kids in public spaces. I was a big “Go play outside” mom, but was paranoid in crowds. In fact, one of my most terrifying memories is when our youngest son, now 24 but then only 3, wandered off at a Texas festival, when I’d let go of his hand for a second to lift his elder brother up to a drinking fountain. We found him less than 30 seconds after I started screaming, toddling happily after a colorfully dressed clown. I aged 10 years in those 30 seconds.

Maybe it is that the creepos in America get more press and thus, cause more fear among parents, or maybe it is that there truly are fewer creeps in France and Germany. The presence of parks and, especially in Germany, the lack of automobile traffic, probably contributes to the more casual “let them roam free” attitude we saw. Whatever it was, it was nice and I think we could learn something from, because the first sign of us being home in America late Thursday night was this: A mother dragging her very sleepy, barely walking, crying 2-year-old through the airport parking lot, sternly saying, “You keep up with me!” Too depressing for words.

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