Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The French Art of Saying “No”: The Holding Environment-The French Way

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 17, 2012


Pamela Druckerman captures Winnicott’s holding environment concept well, as she describes how French parents are comfortable saying “no” to their children and thereby giving them the containment which is necessary for self-confidence and a feeling of internal security. In our overly child-centered culture, “kindergarchy” creates kids that are prone to anxiety because they do not know where the limits are. Knowing that the authority figures, the parents, are setting a frame, allows the child to have boundaries in which he/she can push up against in order to form a strong personality foundation. Without limits, anxiety can set in, causing the child to feel insecure and inhibited in their world. This insecurity, in turn, causes the child to miss out on experiences which could enhance his self-esteem. Old ways of parenting are not necessarily bad, and new ways are not necessarily good. No matter how much we know that, our brains tilt towards wanting to believe that new is somehow improved, and that old is outdated. In the case of parenting, Ms. Druckerman reminds us, by looking at French culture, that parental authority for young children, when done lovingly and consistently, is a good thing. I support that.

4 Responses to “The French Art of Saying “No”: The Holding Environment-The French Way”

  1. Jon said

    Saying “no” to a child is among the most important things a parent can do. How else is a child going to learn proper from improper behavior?

    Of course, there are many nuances to how one can say “no.” They can be as gentle as the “No” in “No, that is amusing, but not a good idea.” They can be as harsh as “NO!” as in “No – that is a major violation of our code of conduct.” There are countless variations in between and in other directions, as well.

  2. The tone of the no is indeed very interesting, as kids are remarkably astute at reading tone. You also remind me, Jon, that saying no is vital to parenting, but it requires a self-assuredness that can be difficult for some parents to access. Hence in the tone of the “no” there can be ambivalence which communicates, “maybe not” which, as you say, is very different than the tone of “no way”. Thanks, as always.

  3. Shelly said

    What is it the French can say that the rest of the world can’t? How is their “no” different than any other nationality’s? Why would you say that an Asian “no” would command compliance whereas and American compliance would not?

    • I have a hunch that Pamela Druckerman’s take on French parenting is in response to the “Tiger Mom” book which speaks to the issue of Asian parenting. So, yes, I think different cultures communicate different expectations of their children, and this makes a critical difference in their development. Thanks, as always.

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