22 July 2014
French Children don’t throw food: Parenting secrets from Paris.
Book review by Honor Newman
Written by American ex-patriot, Pamela Druckerman, this book is an autobiographical account of this lady’s experience of raising her children in Paris. It all starts when Ms Druckerman marries European citizen of the world, Simon, and finds herself living in France, where she gets pregnant. As soon as Pamela sees the two pink lines appear on her pregnancy test she becomes all too painfully aware of the cultural differences between French and what she terms ‘Anglophone’ (British and American – no Australia does not get a mention) parenting. She compares and contrasts cultural differences in everything from what is acceptable to put into your body during pregnancy, the media’s portrayal of the ideal French mother (yes she smokes!) couple time, breastfeeding vs formula, epidurals, going back to work, fashion, mother’s groups, losing the baby weight, swimming lessons, school camps and playdates.
Three major areas of cultural differences around parenting that are explored are sleep and settling, discipline and the development of healthy eating habits. The French, in her view have it pretty sorted. Their babies sleep through the night at around 2-4 months of age, play by themselves and eat four course meals at adult restaurants without acting up or interrupting their parent’s conversations. How do they do it, she wonders? This book is about her mission to find out.
Written over a period of about 6 years, from the beginning of her pregnancy up until her daughter starts school, this book is engaging in a way instructional parenting books cannot be, due to the story like way it documents her firsthand experiences of both cultures parental attitudes. It is well researched with relevant interviews and appropriate statistics in all right places. In terms of children’s sleep she raises interesting points. She discusses how amongst Anglophone parents it’s almost considered par for the course to have a long term battle with your child regarding sleeping through the night. However in France, this is practically unheard of. Apparently, Anglophone parents are getting it all wrong. After much talk with French mothers, the searching for and reading of French sleep manuals (of which there are not many) and chatting with a French sleep specialist working in America, she concludes that the problem is that Anglophone parents don’t understand that they need to let their baby self-settle for a while before picking them up, that they pick them up too quickly when they fuss and this stuffs everything up. Apparently French parents understand their babies need to LEARN to sleep and find their way to self -settling, so they will watch them closely to see if they are doing that and if so, leave them alone. They DO NOT she emphasizes, let them cry for long periods. (Hmmm, I know this point is going to stir up a lot of debate, bring it on I say).
Ms.P Druckerman also embarks on a discussion of the way French and Anglophone parents discipline their children. She describes how in France discipline is called ‘education’ (eh-doo-cah-see-ohn) and that the fundamental facet of this ‘education’ is to gently teach children how to behave and what their place is in the world. (Praise is also not overused in order to reduce the possibility of the child developing an over developed sense of self importance). In Paris there is no helicopter parenting or child kings. French parents also believe strongly in something called the ‘cadre’, Pamela tells us, which means framework. It’s a word for the French parenting ideal of setting firm limits for children, but giving them a lot of freedom within them. Pamela states that the French believe Anglophone parenting has an ‘anything goes’ approach where there are no firm boundaries and parents apparently lack authority and struggle to say no. Pamela D relays an example of a French friend teaching her to say “no” to her son with conviction when he was disobeying her in the playground – it took her about 5 attempts before her son responded appropriately (apparently she wasn’t FIRM enough the first few times). Pamela tells us that as an Anglophone herself, ‘A’ parents totally agree with the idea of limits and boundary setting in theory, but struggle to implement them. This is because it conflicts with the Anglophone ideal of encouraging self-expression (shouldn’t I indulge him in his exploration of the world? Won’t I stifle her if I block too many of her desires?) as well as the struggle to believe that a child could possibly meet certain behavioural ideals such as such as being quiet whilst a parent has a long telephone conversation or sitting quietly through a four course meal.
In France, children in creches have their palates ‘educated’. They are served things like blue cheese and chocolate mousse. There is no ‘kid’ food and ‘adult’ food it is all just viewed as food. Children are encouraged to try everything and talk about how it tastes and feels. They are not allowed to snack between meals, hence they are hungry at meals and sit and eat. Anglophone parents on the other hand are not caught dead without a snack in their bag to feed to their child in moments of desperation. In America there are kids’ menus that are often just nuggets, chips and pies (sound familiar?)
Children in France are also able to sit still and behave well because they are taught from day one the importance of ‘patience’ with lots and lot of practice learning to wait. In queues, while their parents are talking etc… Whereas in Anglophone cultures parents tend to jump to children’s every whim and as a consequence are unable to have a conversation whilst their kids are around due to the constant demands and interruptions.
What I liked most about this book was how the author describes the things she found the French do differently and well, as it gave me some fresh ideas on parenting, and validated some of the things I already valued that aren’t necessarily the norm in our society. I found P.D’s take on American parenting interesting too, because as a self- described Anglophone, she is quite critical of it. In some respects Anglophone ideals seem quite similar to French ones in many ways, however the methods of implementation of these ideals is described as vastly different as and a result, have very different outcomes.
However, overall I’m not sure how balanced this book is as it is almost wholly focused on how inferior Anglophone parents are to French ones. It paints Anglophone parents as almost completely neurotic and largely incompetent at all the fundamental parenting challenges. And although I do find her ability to be so highly self- aware and critical admirable, it is hard to believe there are no good parents in America and vice versa in France. It’s also hard for me to tell how accurate her cultural comparisons are, as I have never been to America, let alone parented there, and my experience of Paris has been one whole day out of my entire life.
However, I do recommend reading this book if you have any interest in furthering your knowledge on parenting as it offers a really unique perspective. I liked a lot of the French attitudes and am going to adopt some of the tips into my own parenting, especially the really conscious recognition that children need to be educated gently about life – it seems like a beautiful view point to me.
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