Pros and cons
NEW Yorker Pamela Druckerman married an Englishman and lived with him in Paris, where she had a baby, closely followed by twins. In England or the United States she might have found sympathy and chummed up with similarly sleep-deprived, frazzled new mums. But motherhood in Paris was different.
She found herself in a strange new world where babies slept through the night from two months, ate at adult meal times, often attended nursery from nine months, where they ate a varied and sophisticated diet and didn’t throw their dinners about. And the mums were not knackered and spattered with vomit. They looked chic, even sexy, and had their own grown-up lives.
As a journalist and desperate mother, Druckerman was keen to uncover the secret of French parenting. It appeared to “vacillate between being extremely strict and shockingly permissive” but the results were impressive. The parentsents were not shouting, the children were quiet, patient and able to cope with frustration.
Unlike her own inten-intensive and exhausting “Anglophone” method of raising a child, the French seemed to have harnessed an “invisible, civilising force” that made parenting a comparative breeze. Her observations were confirmed by a Princeton research study, which discovered that mothers in Ohio, US, found parenting twice as unpleasant as comparable mothers in Rennes, France.
Druckerman has interviewed parents and experts and compared her findings with American theories and behaviours when making trips home. The result is this self-deprecating, witty, informative but slightly ambivalent bringing-up-baby book. It doesn’t seek to give advice, just describes the author’s experience – her pain, struggles and triumphs, and sets out the two alternative methods: the calm, pleasant and for the most part enjoyable French experience, versus the fairly hysterical, intense and gruelling Anglophone method, and allows you to choose. She doesn’t fall completely for the French method, but on this evidence, I do – though it’s three decades too late for me now.
Druckerman was not in love with Paris and disappointed to find that the French mothers, with whom she had expected to make friends, were not keen on bonding with other mothers. They had better things to do. Waiting is the key: the French do not do instant gratification. It starts more or less at birth.
When a French baby cries in the night the parents go in, pause, and observe for a few minutes. They know that babies’ sleep patterns include movements, noises and twohour sleep cycles, in between which the baby might cry. Left alone it might “self-soothe” and go back to sleep. If you dash in like an Anglophone and immediately pick your baby up, you are training it to wake up properly. But if a French baby does wake up and cry properly on its own, it will be picked up.
Result? French babies often sleep through the night from two months. Six months is considered very late indeed.
French babies continue to wait – when they are babies “long stretches from one feed to the next”; when older until four o’clock “gouter” for sweets and cakes (no treats straight from the supermarket checkout); until their mother finishes a conversation, or whatever she’s doing at the time. Even toddlers wait contentedly for their food in restaurants.
Doesn’t it sound like a heavenly dream? But Druckerman claims to have witnessed it all, and I believe her. This waiting, according to the French, “is a first, crucial lesson in self-reliance and how to enjoy one’s own company.” To believe in it you need to also believe that a baby is capable of learning and able to cope with frustration.
The French have their own experts: Rousseau, Piaget and Francoise Dolto, “the Titan of French parenting,” who believed that children are rational and “understand language as soon as they are born”, hence you can “explain the world to them.” They must be provided with a “cadre” or frame – “setting firm limits for children, but giving them tremendous freedom within those limits.”
It’s a difficult mix to get to grips with. Those boundaries are repressive enough to worry Druckerman. Is she crushing her daughter’s spirit, stifling her self-expression? “Repeatedly blocking her urges feels wrong.” But the French think children must learn to cope with frustration. It’s a core life skill. And “the word ‘ No’ rescues chil- dren from the tyranny of their own desires.”
Returning home, Druckerman was shocked to see American mothers following their toddlers around playgrounds, commenting loudly on their every move – so different from the more detached French mothers, who sit at the edge of the playground chatting calmly to friends, while leaving their toddlers to get on with it.
French mothers are also calmer about pregnancy: the “French pregnancy press doesn’t dwell on unlikely worst-case scenarios.” Au contraire, it recommends serenity. There are no terrifying warnings about foodstuffs or sex, or longings for a natural birth. In France 87% of women have epidurals, and don’t seem bothered. We may think their system over-medicalised, but France “trumps the US and Britain on nearly every measure of infant and maternal health.” And pregnant French women are thinner – particularly in Paris. To them, “food cravings are a nuisance to be vanquished” not indulged because “the foetus wants cheesecake.”
The French don’t do indulgence either. Their children are trained to eat everything. No pandering to picky eaters. No children’s menus in restaurants, and here is one fourcourse creche menu: heart of palm and tomato salad, followed by turkey au basilica and rice in a provencal cream sauce, St Nectaire cheese with baguette, kiwi fruit. Not a Turkey Twizzler in sight.
Most impressive of all, the French take their nursery teachers seriously. Working in a creche or nursery is considered a proper, admirable career and requires a degree in “puericulture.” Druckerman soon begins to see the caregivers at her daughter’s creche as the “Rhodes scholars of baby care.”
But however much she admires “the easy, calm authority” French parents seem to possess when enforcing the cadre, the waiting and the varied diet, will Druckerman manage it herself? Her efforts to do so add a compelling narrative to this fascinating study of French parenting. – Guardian News & Media 2012 n Pamela Druckerman is a journalist and the author of Bringingupbébé: Oneamericanmotherdiscoversthe Wisdomoffrenchparenting (The Penguin Press: Feb 7, 2012) and its UK edition, Frenchchildrendon’tthrow Food:parentingsecretsfromparis (Doubleday: Jan 19, 2012).
Frenchchildrendon’tthrowfood is available at major bookstores in Malaysia. The French model of parenting is easily mocked – but strict rules create rebellious minds. THERE is nothing like seeing yourself through the eyes of a foreigner. Cross-cultural literature, at its best, offers a mirror to peer and gape at in awe or disbelief. It can also be an occasion for cheap point-scoring. It seems that Pamela Druckerman’s latest book, French Children Don’t Throw Food, has achieved both.
In championing French parenting over the Anglophone way, she has triggered a heavy artillery backlash. Coy French parents, embarrassed by such praise, and Anglo-saxon expats in France have been quick to retaliate. If you think the French way is great, think again, they say: you haven’t seen its dark side.
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the French approach to parenting is indeed unique. To start with, in France motherhood doesn’t define women to the same extent. It is a function they perform, not a raison d’etre. It is often assumed that French mothers are aloof and detached from their children. They are not. They just refuse to be slaves to their offspring; they have, frankly, other important things to do in life. Breastfeeding is not necessarily one of them.
In France, children are expected to behave from a very early age: to say “bonjour, madame” (hello, madam), “au revoir, monsieur” (goodbye, Mr), “s’il vous plait” (please) and “merci” (thank you); to eat with cutlery and not their fingers; not to run wild in cafes; and not to interrupt adults when they are having a conversation. This shouldn’t be admirable; it is called civilisation.
When hopping across the Channel, French mothers behold with bewilderment the spectacular patience and gentleness of British parents who beg rampaging toddlers to “Be considerate to others” and ask dribbling one-year-olds if they would rather have fish fingers or chicken nuggets. Asking toddlers their opinion? They don’t have one.
However, if such strict and straightforward Gallic parenting sometimes inspires awe in some Anglophone quarters, admiration usually turns to horror when we come to the subject of state education and schooling.
This is what I could tell you about France’s state education with my British glasses on: French schools are medieval dungeons where children from the age of three are subjected to terribly long hours under the unforgiving gaze of instituteurs who make them learn the Marseillaise (the national anthem) off by heart. If they fail, they’ll be told so in the most undiplomatic terms. Grammar and algebra are all that matters. Creativity and playfulness? Children can learn that at their grandparents’, if they are still alive.
Even with my French glasses on, I still see an education system that is unashamedly prescriptive and prizes knowledge over play. I see a system that unforgivably favours structure, rules and the intellect. But does it necessarily stifle artistic expression? I’d say that it gives children a clear sense of the boundaries they can later transcend. Art in the 20th century is awash with French artists who have broken the mould. Does the French state education format children into an army of conformists?
If anything, the last 100 years have shown that the French republican model creates citizens that are unique in rebelling and questioning authority. Strict rules taught early in life breed transgressive minds, while laissez-faire education and “artistic chaos” breeds conformists.
When I look at the British education system with its emphasis on play, sport and social interaction, I certainly see the beneficial effects in adults. Right here is the source of the British taste for compromise and negotiation, their social skills and team spirit. However, I also see people squirming at the thought of being serious, afraid of abstract thinking, lazy with foreign languages, and bafflingly happy to live in a monarchy. – Guardian News & Media 2012
n Agnes Poirier is a French commentator and critic.