In handling ADHD, American parents should look to the French

kids splashing in a puddle
CC BY 2.0 Scooter Lowrimore

A shocking 9 percent of U.S. kids are diagnosed and medicated for ADHD, compared to 0.5 percent of French kids. What's causing the big difference?

Several years ago, a fascinating book came out called Bringing Up Bébé. Written by an American woman named Pamela Druckerman who lives and raises her kids in France, the book explores the many ways in which the French, as a whole culture, parent differently than the Americans (and Canadians, since that’s where I live and see the many similarities in parenting styles).

The biggest difference between France and the United States is the approach to routine and structure in children’s lives. While the French implement a strict daily routine from the very beginning and expect their children to fit into a parent-determined lifestyle, American families are usually child-centric, with parents accommodating their children’s needs and desires.

This stereotypical American parenting style, however, may have a serious downside. An article in Psychology Today attributes the relatively low levels of ADHD in French children in part to the presence of structure in their lives. Because their parents insist that they learn self-control from an early age by enforcing limits and are supported in this by the education system, fewer French children develop behavioral problems that reach the point of requiring medication.

“French parents believe that hearing the word 'no' rescues children from the 'tyranny of their own desires’.”

It’s an intriguing hypothesis, and one that is likely to be controversial in the U.S.; but when you look at the numbers, it’s clear that the French are doing something right that Americans are not. Nine percent of American children are diagnosed with ADHD and taking medication for it, compared to less than 0.5 percent of French children.

Child psychiatrists in the U.S. consider ADHD to be a biological-neurological disorder, best treated with medication, while psychiatrists in France view it as a medical condition with psycho-social and situational causes that can be addressed with psychotherapy or family counseling.

There is enough cultural diversity in the U.S. to eliminate the possibility of large-scale genetic differences existing between it and Europe. It’s worth considering the divergent social factors that remain, particularly with the knowledge that the American medical profession tends to “pathologize behavior that is inches away from the top of the normal curve,” as one commenter eloquently stated.

While medication is likely crucial for a great number of American children, it seems there are many others who would benefit from a more holistic approach – one that takes the time to question what’s wrong with a system that diagnoses 9 percent of kids as being too energetic and too active.

It’s a national crisis, which is why, instead of getting defensive, we should look to France’s 0.5 percent rate as something to strive for. And if it means some uncomfortable self-examination of the North American approach to parenting, it’s worth doing for the sake of our children.

Related Content on