By Kevin Meyer
A recent Wall Street Journal article on French parenting methods has been rattling around in my noggin for a week so I've got to do something about it to free up some aging neurons. Yes it is bizarre, especially since I shouldn't relate – my "kids" are named "spontaneity" and "early retirement." Because of that I'm smart enough not to wade into a French vs U.S. parenting style debate – I know every situation is unique, every kid is unique, and it is far harder than I can imagine. But so be it, there were a couple interesting points in the article that could be applied to lean leadership. At least obliquely, so please bear with me.
The primary gist of the article is that French kids are far better behaved than U.S. kids.
Bean [author's U.S. kid] would take a brief interest in the food, but within a few minutes she was spilling salt shakers and tearing apart sugar packets. Then she demanded to be sprung from her high chair so she could dash around the restaurant and bolt dangerously toward the docks. Our strategy was to finish the meal quickly.
I started noticing that the French families around us didn't look like they were sharing our mealtime agony. Weirdly, they looked like they were on vacation. French toddlers were sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables. There was no shrieking or whining. And there was no debris around their tables.
Though by that time I'd lived in France for a few years, I couldn't explain this. And once I started thinking about French parenting, I realized it wasn't just mealtime that was different. I suddenly had lots of questions. Why was it, for example, that in the hundreds of hours I'd clocked at French playgrounds, I'd never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum? Why didn't my French friends ever need to rush off the phone because their kids were demanding something? Why hadn't their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had?
So why is that? The author proposed two points that were of interest to me. The first is independence.
When American families visited our home, the parents usually spent much of the visit refereeing their kids' spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build Lego villages. When French friends visited, by contrast, the grownups had coffee and the children played happily by themselves.
The French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. "For me, the evenings are for the parents," one Parisian mother told me. "My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it's adult time." French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves.
This explains something that has bugged me for years – the concept of "boredom." All kinds of people around me seem to get bored, regardless of whether they are highly-educated or not, industrious or not, surrounded by friends and family or not. Turn off the TV for five minutes and they go nuts. I don't get it – I can't remember the last time I was bored. Put me in a room with white walls and I can entertain myself with my thoughts and ideas for days. Hmmm… maybe those should be padded white walls?
In a 2004 study on the parenting beliefs of college-educated mothers in the U.S. and France, the American moms said that encouraging one's child to play alone was of average importance. But the French moms said it was very important.
But I grew up in Peru in the middle of a military dictatorship – kids didn't really venture out much. There were only three TV stations, in Spanish. We had to learn how to entertain ourselves. Perhaps this is a vital skill?
And this is where the first concept of self-sufficiency ties in with the second: education vs. discipline.
The French, I found, seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids. When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. "Ah, you mean how do we educate them?" they asked. "Discipline," I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas "educating" (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.
One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don't pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat.
I don't want to imply that organizations and leaders and people are like parents and kids, but there is perhaps a lesson.
Discipline or education? When you go on your gemba walks are you looking for issues to resolve, perhaps by edict, or are you looking to mentor and coach and educate?
Are you grooming a set of managers dependent on you for leadership and decisions, or are you creating a new crop of independent thinking and decisionmaking leaders?