The Wisdom of Francoise Dolto

francoise-dolto.jpgA lot is being written about the so called wisdom of French parenting. Part myth, part reality the topic has caught the headlines all over the US. It's also addressing the question of raising children in the American context by offering a mirror to American parents and making them face their French nemesis. I can't help thinking that the debate occurring today is very reductive and will end up reinforcing old cliches on both sides of the Atlantic. Things are more complex than they seem, as always. And I would like to bring in Francoise Dolto to the discussion: 

« l'enfant », ça n'existe pas... on fait un discours sur l'enfant, alors que chaque enfant est absolument dissemblable à un autre quant à sa vie intérieure, quant à la façon dont il se structure, selon ce qu'il ressent, perçoit et selon les particularités des adultes qui l'élèvent..." dans La Cause des Enfants.

(The child doesn't exist... We are making a big speech about the child, when each child is absolutely different from another with regards to his interior life, the way he structures himself, what he feels and perceives according to the particularities of the adults who raise him... in La Cause des Enfants )

I would be curious to find out what the members of New York in French have to say about this. Many members have both French and American perspectives and, surely, will have an interesting take on this debate. In English ou en français.

You need to be a member of New York in French to add comments!

Join New York in French


  • ..... :)

  • When my son was born two years ago, I started reading a lot of Dolto, as I had seen my mother do when she was expecting and raising my brothers and sisters and I. I so wanted to be able to share Dolto's wisdom with my American husband and was very surprised not to be able to find any of her book translated - I still wonder why that is (or maybe I did not look in the right bookstores)...

  • Thank you for posting this video about F Dolto.

    I am French and American.

    Of course, from an American perspective, this sounds very remote. The directions taken by neuro / cognitive sciences in America tell us that "it is all genetic"…. So, to some extent, it is good news ! Finally the « mother » will stop being blamed for being the origin of all problems. France goes as far as blaming autism or psychosis on the mother with the devastating consequences... As if it was not bad enough to hear that your child suffers from a mental disorder, psychoanalysts in France (freudian) silently keep putting the blame on the mother while telling you that things have changed. The mother is either too nurturing or too distant, therefore she is always wrong. She is in a double-bind, damned if she does, damned if she does not. ASSEZ !

    What about the father ? where is he ?

    Of course the book by Pamela Druckerman serves a purpose. Good for her he she sells books. (note that I am being American and not French criticizing someone for making money)

    It is of course not so much her listing drastic differences in child-rearing, although necessary, this is "superficial". The 900 + comments on the WSJ don’t teach us much except that they reactivate French bashing, and old cliches etc… As we know, etiquette, table manners are all relative and arbitrary from one culture to the other. Problem solving.  Let’s go further, beneath the surface.

    The French like to delve into deep issues, the deeper, the better. Chercher la petite bête. History, linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, literature are absolutely necessary when one wants to put a perspective and bring depth to any conversation.

    Let’s not be naïve… Henry James, in 1886 (The Point of View) already writes : « À propos of the young people, that is our other danger; the young people are eating us up, there is nothing in America but the young people. The country is made for the rising generation; life is arranged for them; they are the destruction of society. People talk of them, consider them, defer to them, bow down to them. They are always present, and whenever they are present there is an end to everything else. People talk of them, consider them, defer to them, bow down to them. They are always present, and whenever they are present there is an end to everything else. They are often very pretty; and physically, they are wonderfully looked after; they are scoured and brushed, they wear hygienic clothes, they go every week to the dentist's. “But the little boys kick your shins, and the little girls offer to slap your face! There is an immense literature entirely addressed to them, in which the kicking of shins and the slapping of faces is much recommended. As a woman of fifty, I protest. I insist on being judged by my peers. It's too late, however, for several millions of little feet are actively engaged in stamping out conversation, and I don't see how they can long fail to keep it under. The future is theirs; maturity will evidently be at an increasing discount. Longfellow wrote a charming little poem called "The Children's Hour," but he ought to have called it "The Children's Century." And by children, of course, I don't mean simple infants; I mean everything of less than twenty. The social importance of the young American increases steadily up to that age, and then it suddenly stops. The young girls, of course, are more important than the lads; but the lads are very important too. I am struck with the way they are known and talked about; they are little celebrities; they have reputations and pretentions; they are taken very seriously. »”


    Reading mainly James, Chateaubriand and Tocqueville enables the modern reader to better understand what is specific to the nature of a culture. If a trait was already noticeable early in the 19th century, and is still valid today, it certainly is not by happenstance. It is very likely to be ingrained in the core cultural fabric of America, and not just a novelty due to the computer/video games age, the permissive 60’s and/or new electronic leashes.

    Yes, America is a young culture. Yes, Americans love youth, yes children in America have always had an enfant-roi status. Even when France, until early-mid 20th century, due to high infant mortality, did not give a special status to the infant who was named only later in life for fear of "bonding" with a likely-to-die-too-soon child. "attachment" was not the norm. Both Montaigne and Rousseau, although great humanists, abandoned their children. 

    Yes, in America, doing is more important than Being, yes the pursuit of happiness is an obligation (written in the Constitution), yes accountability is part of the value system, yes America is a culture of disambiguisation, digital thinking, yes France is the culture of Being, of the Cartesian doubt, yes, we prefer subjonctive to indicative, yes we tend to over-complicate reality, yes we use the pique and the critique, yes French language likes complexity, double-entendre, the unsaid is more important than what is said, the implicit more important than the explicit. Yes we prefer the blurry area, the grey area instead of the black and white clear-cut factual description. Yes, we like to beat around the bush, Americans prefer bottom-line oriented conversations, we prefer the format of the dissertation, they like resumes, we like novels, they like short stories. In culinary jargon : we love emulsion, and liaison, they love reduction, concentration. Let’s deal with « this reality », culture is real and not theoretical. Cultural cristallisations allow us to see two traits collide. This is what we are up against. Accepting and developing an awareness about the fundamental differences between our two very different cultures is healthy, instead of denying or judging cultures as superior or inferior. This is not the point. Let’s hold our judgement.

    Françoise Dolto does not/cannot  work in America because America is not a culture of bonding but of separation, being a separate human being, standing alone. (the container store, ziploc bags, organizers, PowerPoint, excel, categories, etc...)

    « We are no longer these groups bound together. We are individuals…This kind of

    breaking out, that’s what California and the West represent. »

    Peirce R. Neal & Hagstrom Jerry, The Book of America, Norton & Company, 1983, page


    « En Amérique, on « s’occupe » de vos bagages, mais pas de vous. »

    James, Henry, La Scène Américaine, 1907. Minos, la Différence, 2008, page 548.


    « En Afrique, j’avais certes connu un genre de solitude assez brutale, mais

    l’isolement dans cette fourmilière américaine prenait une tournure plus accablante

    encore. Toujours j’avais redouté d’être à peu près vide, de n’avoir en somme aucune

    sérieuse raison pour exister. À présent j’étais devant les faits bien assuré de mon

    néant individuel...”

    Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, Folio, Gallimard 1952. Pages 203-204.


    « C’est dans l’Ouest, qu’on peut observer la démocratie parvenue à sa dernière limite

    dans ces États, improvisés en quelque sorte par la fortune, les habitants sont arrivés

    d’hier sur le sol qu’ils occupent. Ils se connaissent à peine les uns et les autres, et

    chacun ignore l’histoire de son plus proche voisin. »

    de Tocqueville, Alexis, De la Démocratie en Amérique, tome 1, « État social des Anglo-Américains »,

    page 113.


    Personal development and cultural development can only improve gain awareness of what is.

    What is different, better or superior is irrelevant, unless you want to keep a list of differences for the sake of it. The « why » is more interesting I believe, the paradigm behind it is to be explored. Why is it this way and not the other way around. Why are we the way we are… Ultimately, granted, we are all humans, a culture is a way to resolve problems where we are.

    This is what I am trying to explore in my free book you are welcome to comment, contribute, etc...

    My book is downloadable free of charge from :

    Etre Française et Américaine, l’interculturalité vécue.

    I talk about these issues and more from a woman’s perspective.




    Pascal Baudry & Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry
  • Bonjour,

    Un grand merci pour le clin d'oeil Dolto et moi aussi je me demande comment sortir le debat des cliches Francais vs Americain qui font vendre des livres. Mon mari est american je suis francaise et nous elevons/eduquons ou sommes eduques par des jumeaux fille et garcon a NY de 3 ans. Un mlage de bonheur et douleur.

    J'aimerais qu'on concentre les media americains sur les besoins des enfants  au dela de la France et des Etats-Unis.

    Je vous recommande de lire la declaration adoptee par l'assemblee generale des nations unies le 10 mai 2002 "un monde digne des enfants"

    Le probleme n'est pas si oui ou non on donne des snack, cheerios ou autres aux enfants entre les repas, le probleme c'st que de graves violations des droits de l'enfant continuent dans des tas d'endroits et que les progres sont trop lents pour tirer ces millions d'enfants de la souffrance.

    Une amie qui adopte des jumelles haitiennes vientde me raconter le periple necessaire pour que ces filles soient vaccinees (2 jours de voyage sur des routes horribles) et je pense a la facilite de faire vacciner nos enfants icio en France en comparaison. Au lieu de comparer France/US, pourquoi ne pas comparer France/Haiti? US/Somalie?





    • Merci pour ce cadeau Dolto dont j'avais été privée jusqu'ici. C'est tellement émouvant, et la "food for thoughts" tellement riche que je prendrai mon temps pour la savourer. Je crois avoir compris qu'elle nous dit tout simplement  que les enfants sont des personnes, et qu'ils ont le droit d'être écoutés. Qu'ils soient américains ou français.

  • Very insightful post. Thank you for the quote and video.

    Much has been written about American parenting, sadly (in my opinion) to just sell some books and newspapers.

    As with anything in life, much can be gained from a multi-cultural, open and balanced approach to parenting -- and as Dolto recommends, fine-tuned to each particular child.


  • this is short question with can have long answer.

    I am french mother with Canadian husband anglophone, dolto is really far  from our reality   or too much for American  children.

    I read a lot of her books and keep them, I have full collection of children book her daughter print for children from dolto, and very often i change the world she use and change the ending. my twins are only 4 year old so may be a 6 i will read as is!

    I would love if you can create one evening a conversation about your question and talk about what it is to be french in new York and raising bilingual children.

    thank you for your question

    brigitte saint Ouen

    mother of twins

    art dealer

    organizer of summer camps french

This reply was deleted.

Visit our bookstore

Visit our store