What the French Revolution Can Teach Us About Parenting

A Deck of Cards Dating Back to the French Revolution Where Kings Have Been Replaced With Wise Men (Solo, Plato, Cato, & Brutus), and Queens With Virtues (Justice, Union, Prudence, & Force) La Bibliofilia

The parent I would become was changed by history. Or at least by revelations history can offer.

At 18, I signed up for a college history course simply to fulfill a requirement.  Although I’ve forgotten the professor’s name, I’ll never forget the man. He was oddly proportioned with a short round body that didn’t match his oversized head. His florid face, full lips, and bulging eyes gave the impression that he was continually strangled by an unseen hand. Stadium seating in our introductory history class of nearly 100 students made him look even more foreshortened as he stood below us at the front of the room. He used no visual aids, no videos, only an occasional map that he drew himself on the board. He spoke without notes about a subject that impassioned him. As he lectured his voice started to quaver, his hands trembled in front of him, and he leaned forward looking at us with red-rimmed eyes. He was overwhelmed with the task. His lessons had to sink in.

That lesson was the same no matter what era we studied. He taught us to look at all of history using one pivotal question.

What happens when people are deprived of (or otherwise separated from) the consequences of their words and actions?

We studied the elite in various societies throughout history who were insulated from the consequences of their actions, even if the working poor around them suffered more and more from decisions made by the elite. We analyzed the larger impact this had on the culture over time. Then we narrowed it down. We looked at rulers who were typically brought up with all the advantages of privilege. Those who rarely experienced the consequences of their actions from childhood on tended to make decisions that resulted in tragedy, sometimes immediately, sometimes in ways that resounded for generations.

Any time we stumble on truth we see how it interconnects with larger truths. That was the case with my history professor’s question. I saw that theme, consequences, everywhere I looked—- in literature, in politics, and in the news being reported each day. I saw it in relationships around me. And on weekends, while volunteering with a project that offered services to teen addicts, I saw it there too.

So I vowed to use what I’d gained from my history professor when I became a parent. When my toddlers made a mess, even spilling a drink, I offered them a rag and some assistance cleaning it up but I didn’t do it for them. That work was their own. As they got older I expected them to give me three reasons when they wanted to do something outside our normal rules. They learned impeccable logic in the service of their own interests. And when they were teens I didn’t keep them from taking reasonable risks, knowing that they had developed a fine awareness of their own abilities.  I certainly suffer at times from parenting this way.  My kids expect ME to deal with the consequences of my own words and actions.  I can’t rant about an idiot driver on the road without one of my kids telling me it’s an opportunity to practice inner peace. That’s what happens when my words come back to bite me.

Too many kids are deprived of the consequences on a small scale. When parents help a child on and off playground equipment for fear of falls, the child is taught she can’t trust her own body. If a parent takes over building a model when the child becomes frustrated, the child is taught he is incompetent. If a parent refuses to let a child take the blame after hurting another child, she is being taught to avoid responsibility (and empathy). These aren’t the messages parents intend to convey. They’re hoping to make things safer, easier, and happier for their children. But frustration, embarrassment, even a few bruises are important parts of the maturing process. Attempts to make childhood frictionless are misguided. Worse, the consequences of words and actions on a larger scale may be much harder for these children to understand. At least that’s what history tells us.

Maria Theresa of Savoy, comtesse d'Artois

15 thoughts on “What the French Revolution Can Teach Us About Parenting

  1. Wow! Thanks. This is a message I needed to hear. I’ve never tried to protest my son from his falls, but I sure have cleaned up after him. I’ve been working at finding a better balance lately, and this is very helpful.


  2. My kids remind me that they do much of the housework around here so, essentially, THEY clean up after ME. We all need to tweak the balance from time to time. I may have to take up vacuuming again. sigh


  3. Bravo!
    The reasonable risk concept is big in our house, and damn it, it works. Our kids are so much more capable than many others because they have taken chances at their own pace. No pushing. No protecting.


    • Capability, you’ve really hit on something. Kids long to be capable with a passion. They want to know how to do things well, real things. It’s only when they’re repeatedly marginalized by activities designed solely to entertain or educate without any larger purpose that they give up. My kids are actually more capable than I am in many ways.


      • Same here.
        Our children have few toys and no electronic toys at all, and our yard is FULL of projects…mostly involving hammers and building things. Inside it’s all cardboard boxes and lego. I love that they can problem-solve and create from next to nothing. A much better sign of intelligence too, I think.


  4. Nice to hear there’s another “mean mom” out there who doesn’t buy electronic toys. Told mine if they get hand held video games, they’ll know they have a terminal diagnosis and need distraction!


  5. …unplug the electronics = plug in the brains! I’ve decided it’s meaner to give them those things, but it does take a strong Mum to say no!


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  7. How right you are! Loved this article. We have used this philosophy with our daughter and I must say it works beautifully. She is now an independent sixteen year old who is a delight to be with.


    • And that independence will serve to protect her and guide her better than any of the false safeguards that so many of her peers’ parents put up to insulate their children from natural consequences. Bravo Darleen!


  8. how do yo think the french revolution teaches people they must clean up after their own mess. i don’t understand how the french revolution teaches this? please explain


    • The whole post is about history’s lesson that we should not be deprived of the consequences of our actions. If we make a mess and someone else is right there to clean it up (or lets us leave it) we hardly learn that it’s our mess to deal with. The French Revolution came about, in large part, because the moneyed classes and monarchy made a mess of it. Their choices caused poverty and hunger in the general population due to the excesses of the regime including expenditures on war, plus seigneurial privileges held by nobility over the lower classes were unfairly burdensome.

      Seeing and experiencing that actions have consequences is extremely important. For children I hardly mean this in a punitive way, I mean it in a very natural way as I noted above.

      It’s easy to see certain large entities (polluting corporations, irresponsibly financial institutions, corrupt lobbyists) have no concept that someone has to clean up the mess they’ve made. A look back at history would have made that clear.


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