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How the French are influencing a generation of helicopter parents

After years of over-scheduling their kids, some moms and dads are taking cues from the French and backing off

Kyle T. Webster for The Boston Globe

Sonia Schneider was a mom in the grip of a parenting mania. Eager to expose her young children to as many enrichment opportunities as their peers, the Brookline mother signed her preschooler and kindergartner up for so many classes last year that her 5-year-old was too busy for play dates.

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

Sonia Schneider recalls saying no to reading time or play dates due to Hallie and Sophia’s schedules.

“She’d want to read a book together,’’ Schneider said, “but I’d say, ‘We don’t have time for that, you have to get into your leotard.’ ’’ The extracurricular activities continued to escalate. Until Schneider finally hit bottom. “We started doing private ukulele lessons.’’

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That was it. While Schneider’s kids are taking skating lessons, her days of over-scheduling them are, well, over. “I don’t know what happened,’’ she says. “I was so crazy.’’

Is the helicopter parent dead? It’s probably too soon to declare that, but a new parenting book, “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,’’ has caught fire in the parenting world, leading experts to report a growing eagerness among mothers and fathers to return to the less-intense style practiced by previous generations. It’s a loose movement, if it can even be called that, known as “free-range parenting,’’ that’s been simmering for the last few years. Its focus is on common-sense parenting in an overprotective world.

“There is a hunger in American parents for an alternative to the way we are raising kids now,’’ said Pamela Druckerman, a journalist who lives in France with her three children and the author of “Bringing Up Bébé,’’ which hit Amazon’s bestseller list before it was even published, on Feb. 7. In her book, Druckerman, who is scheduled to talk at Brookline Booksmith on March 1 at 7 p.m., describes a calmer, more rational parenting style practiced by the French that she says results in children who don’t require snacks all day long, who sleep through the night, who behave in restaurants, and whose parents have time in the evening to themselves.

For those Americans not living under the reign of children, or who haven’t witnessed the madness, the current parenting style could be described as No Child Left Alone. It’s a high-energy, carpool-driven exercise in which every organized sport must be played, every extracurricular class taken, everything dropped when a child speaks. And it has left parents of young children so exhausted that an expletive-laced book about the supposedly simple act of trying to put a child to bed, “Go the F**K to Sleep,’’ was a runaway bestseller in May.

“I think the success of my book is a sign that we can’t stay where we are,’’ Druckerman said. “The style of parenting that’s developed over the last 20 years is not sustainable.’’

GRETCHEN ERTL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Amy Nobile, coauthor of “I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids,’’ with her daughter Emily.

Few people have followed the rise and fall of parenting trends in the last 20 years closer than Susan Avery, the digital director for More magazine, and former editor in chief of AOL’s parenting website, ParentDish. She has covered parenting issues for two decades, and has a 16-year-old daughter. “We are searching to be more chill as parents,’’ Avery said, “and to gear down.’’

“There is a lot of discussion of the ‘Race to Nowhere,’ ’’ - the documentary that looked at the dark side of America’s achievement culture, she said. “Kids do not have to be scheduled from the moment they leave school until bedtime. It’s not good for them.’’

Ada Calhoun, a former editor in chief of the parenting website Babble.com, says that when her book, “Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids,’’ was published in 2010, parents thanked her for writing about a middle ground between the hands-off style of baby boomers and the hands-on style of Gen Xers.

“I was getting a lot of feedback that parents were tired of being hysterical,’’ she said. “In the interest of becoming good parents, they were becoming frenzied parents.

“There are so many choices now, especially with the Internet,’’ she explained. “You are faced with endless kinds of pacifiers, and discussions of whether or not you should do sleep training. People were trying so hard to do the right thing, but it was hard to even get consensus on what that was.’’

So what happened to parents? Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry),’’ and the woman who coined “free-range parenting,’’ blames several factors for the increased insecurity, paranoia, and exhaustion among parents: the growth in the number of childhood experts; an increasingly litigious society; and the media.

She points to the attempted kidnapping at a Georgia Walmart, on Feb. 9, which ended happily when the 7-year-old girl kicked and screamed her way free, as an example of how media coverage of rare events increases parental worry. “Now if I ever let my kid look in the toy aisle while I’m one aisle over, someone is guaranteed to say, ‘What about that child at Walmart?’ The idea that you live in a pretty safe place doesn’t occur to people. The reference that pops up on top of the Google search in your brain is the kidnapping. You don’t see millions of kids not being kidnapped.’’

Meanwhile, even as a number of mothers report “relief’’ that a book advocating less intense parenting has become a bestseller, Amy Nobile, coauthor of “I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids,’’ says parents still judge each other for not being intense enough. That’s something she and her co-writer heard from many of the hundreds of women they interviewed for their book - and also something she’s experienced in her own life.

She and her husband already parent in the French style, she said - and she’s felt criticized for it. “We do quarterly trips alone, and other parents give me the evil eye, or the backhanded compliment, ‘Wow, you are so lucky to be able to do that. I wouldn’t be able to let myself.’ ’’

Nobile recalled a girls’ night out she had about two years ago, when her family was new to Hingham. The other moms told her that if she didn’t get her son (then 8) skating as soon as possible, he would fall behind and be left out. “I ran home and said to my husband we have to get him on the ice. Now.’’

Her husband, she said, provided a voice of reason.

“He said, ‘Take a breath, listen to what you are saying.’ ’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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