French Parents Don’t Know What They’re Doing, Either

Ever since the success of “Bringing Up Bébé” (2012), Pamela Druckerman’s incisive O.G. guide to family life à la française, the American parenting-industrial complex has insisted that French parents have it all figured out. French kids sleep through the night practically straight from birth. They eat leeks and beets and blue cheese, greeting guests at the door with kisses to the cheek and then disappearing to entertain themselves while their well-slept, boundary-conscious elders enjoy their cocktails. “French parenting is about the belief in a firm ‘no’ and that the parent’s answer is not up for debate,” Reader’s Digest claims. “The kids exist in the parents’ world, as opposed to the parents existing in the kids’ world,” Isabelle Bertolami, an “American mom in Paris/Aix,” asserts, in a TikTok clip that has garnered more than two hundred thousand likes. The real secret of French parenting is—sh-h-h—likely to be found in policies such as universal health care, a sixteen-week paid maternity leave (and twenty-eight-day paid paternity leave), compulsory education from the age of three, and affordable college tuition. But the notion persists, among Americans who care about this sort of thing, that the French possess some collective, ineffable talent for raising children without second-guessing themselves.

French parents may differ from American ones, but the idea that they constitute a unified front might surprise a lot of French people. Recently, a face-off between two competing schools of child-rearing has featured prominently in the media here, inspiring opinion pieces, open letters, morning-show chitchat, and social-media commentary, not to mention more than a few spirited debates among friends. (Félicitations to French kids on having finally infiltrated the cocktail hour!) Last month, a cover of L’Obs featured a parent lying on the floor, his head stuck inside a cardboard box that appears to have been repurposed as a puppet theatre. You can only see his feet; a toddler sits on his chest, smirking at the camera. “THE PARENTAL COMPLEX,” the cover reads. “BETWEEN BENEVOLENCE AND AUTHORITY, HOW TO BE A PARENT TODAY?” Inside, a fourteen-page package chronicles the latest controversy, lamenting that it’s “enough to make mothers and fathers, already dizzied by the frantic race for the perfect child, even dizzier.”

For many years, French parents took their cues from the Church and the state, which enshrined the husband as the “chef de famille” until 1970. In the postwar years, the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto argued that, “by virtue of tradition and educational principle, children are being traumatized daily in France,” and pioneered a more progressive approach, based on recognizing the personhood of children. Dolto’s detractors have accused her of creating “l’enfant roi”—the child king—but her ideas were arguably not so permissive as those of “la parentalité positive”—positive parenting—an approach that has gained purchase in France in the past decade and purports to be rooted in neuroscience, among other disciplines, rather than in psychoanalysis. (Its closest American analogue is “gentle parenting.”)

One leading exponent of positive parenting is the psychotherapist Isabelle Filliozat, who has written many books including the 2011 best-seller “J’ai tout essayé!” (“I’ve Tried Everything!”). According to Filliozat, the positive approach encompasses “all parenting practices that promote child development.” She and her disciples contend that a child who throws a tantrum in the supermarket when his parent refuses to buy him candy is suffering from “a profusion of stimuli” and that his outburst is not anger but “the muscular discharge of the accumulated tensions.” When a child does express anger, they argue, it is a sign that his needs are not being met. “No” is not a part of her recommended vocabulary. On social media, positive parenting adepts counsel that one ought to tell a child, “Your hands stay close to your body,” not “You don’t have the right to hit me.”

The current debate in France pits positive parenting against the “time-out” model, which stresses the importance of establishing limits. In October, more than three hundred and fifty experts signed an opinion piece in Le Figaro, denouncing the “excesses of an ‘exclusively’ positive parenting,” which “threatens the fundamental rights of the child” by “taking away the limits and the framework they need to develop themselves.” Recently, the conversation intensified further when the clinical child psychologist Caroline Goldman gave a series of pugnacious interviews, heralding her decision to embark on a “crusade” against “disinformation” about positive parenting being disseminated by influencers, coaches, and “venders of books.”

Goldman said that in recent years she has encountered “an explosion in behavioral troubles” in her practice. Many parents, she has noticed, have internalized the idea, popularized by French advocates of positive parenting, that to punish their children would be to traumatize them, and perhaps even to inflict permanent damage on their developing brains. Goldman’s message to French parents is that this is nonsense. A toddler who throws his meal on the floor doesn’t need a hug, she argues; he needs boundaries. “We are not talking about a polytraumatized child who lived through a war. We are talking about Eliott, who is angry because he has fewer peas on his plate than his brother,” she told Le Monde. “The subtitle of this story, in my opinion, is less a lack of peas than ‘Daddy, Mommy, please stop me.’ ”

Goldman, who wrote a book called “File dans ta chambre!” (“Go to Your Room!”) and now hosts a popular podcast, recommends that parents use short time-outs, starting from as early as the age of one, to “establish educational limits.” For older kids, her list of punishable offenses includes everything from talking too much, talking too loudly, interrupting, whining, getting up from the table during a meal, and refusing to say hello or thank you to having “a contemptuous attitude” or engaging in “emotional tyranny.” Non-negotiable rules, she contends, benefit the child as much as the parent: “The life of a disobedient child is a hell that oscillates between reproach, disappointment and rejection (from his grandparents, babysitters, teachers, friends who don’t invite him to birthday parties).” In Goldman’s metaphor, the parent ought to adopt the posture of a giraffe in moments of conflict, remaining unperturbed by the child agitating below “like a little red ant.” She is quick to point out that she agrees with some tenets of positive parenting—including the child’s need for love and for patient explanation of the world around him. While detractors label her as a “Mère Fouettarde réac”—a female version of Père Fouettard, the Yuletide character who goes around whipping naughty kids ahead of Christmas—the rule, she told Le Monde, is thus: “We must have fun with the family, make the most of all the joys of everyday life (eating chocolate, singing like crazy, tickling, cuddling) but as soon as a child becomes difficult for others, he leaves the room.”

Goldman’s campaign prompted a backlash from proponents of positive parenting. More than two hundred and eighty professionals and researchers published their own opinion piece, denouncing the time-out and Goldman’s reversion to “old coercive educational principles.” The pro-positive-parenting pediatrician Catherine Gueguen likened the time-out method to spousal abuse, asking, in a separate article also in Le Monde, “How would you feel if your spouse locked you in your room?”

Over the telephone one recent afternoon, Goldman reflected on the controversy. It was a public holiday, and she was in the South of France, surrounded by nine kids, four of them her own. (Her father is the famous singer-songwriter Jean-Jacques Goldman.) Weeks of back-and-forth had not diminished the intensity of the debate, and Goldman said that she was thrilled with the results of her campaign. “The message has truly spread like wildfire,” she said. Goldman explained that she had spent two years immersing herself in positive-parenting groups on social media before deciding to speak out. “I got a sense of the alienation, of the dogmatism of ‘benevolent parents,’ ” she said. “I’m sorry to be part of the opposing camp, because I feel a thousand times more benevolent in my information-based approach than these ideological militants indoctrinated by self-help and by an ignorance of the psychic functioning of children.” The Freudian in her couldn’t resist venturing a psychoanalytic explanation for the often vicious tenor of the discourse. “These militant parents who are supposed to enlighten us with their benevolence and their positivity jump at my throat like wild animals,” she said. She continued, “Undoubtedly, they entered this dogma to fight against their own aggressive impulses with regard to their child, but also with regard to the world at large, and they find in this fight an opportunity to project their hostility.”

Goldman has accepted several invitations to debate Isabelle Filliozat in public, but her nemesis has so far refused. Proponents of positive parenting “tell a pretty story that everyone wants to believe, that parenting can unfold with no conflict whatsoever—totally false,” Goldman said. “Why have these people corrupted the definitions?” she added, pausing for effect. “To earn money by dangling a beautiful dream that sells.” Over the phone, Filliozat rejected the idea that she was driven by greed and accused Goldman of caricaturing her work. “She says that positive parenting is permissiveness,” Filliozat told me. “Of course we do say ‘no.’ It’s just that in certain circumstances we will not use it.”