Pros and cons

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FAMILY - By AGNES POIRIER

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.

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