I remember visiting the States from Paris as an older teenager. I was having dinner with a very welcoming family and the conversation was going well, until their 8 or 9 year old opened his mouth to say something and his parents suddenly stopped the conversation with me, turned to their child and listened to what this kid had to say as if the President had entered the room. How odd, I thought…Where I come from, kids are pretty much ignored when adult guests are around. Kids eat with their parents alright, but they generally know better then to interrupt an adult conversation.
Kids in France know from an early age that there is family time, during which their comments and thoughts are welcome, and then there is adult time. You better not disturb during adult time, unless you have a homework emergency or similar crisis.
I am certainly not saying that one way is better then the other. Stopping your adult conversation because your child wants ice cream immediately could work wonders on her self-esteem. It is great that she now knows that her feelings and needs are important. Personally, however, I hope to show my kids how important they are without constantly interrupting what I am doing to cater to them. I do want them to know that frankly, my conversation is no less important then their immediate need for ice cream. That may sound harsh from the American parenting point of view but I do believe that in the long run, stopping your conversation or your activity because a young child demands it, is doing said child a great disservice.
Another subtle difference is play space. Kids in France know that they are not welcome everywhere and anywhere in the house. They could play in their room, or in an assigned area such as the family room or the breakfast room. Most know, however, that there are places, such as the salon*, where they cannot bring their toys. I entertain often and my kids know to tell the other kids that some spaces are off-limits to toys and crumby food. All the parents have been respectful but some express surprise either at the rule itself or at the fact that we are able to enforce it.
An interesting distinction between American and French parenting probably lies in the word Education. In English, this word often refers to what the child learns outside of the home (in school, college etc.), whereas in French, this word actually means “upbringing,” or what the child received inside the home. A “well-educated” child in French standards means well-brought up, or polite.
The most important difference between both types of “education” is that somehow French kids don’t need every whim catered to in order to recognize that they are their parents’ no. 1 priority.
* salon is the living room