ZUT alors! Not only are the French better at cuisine, couture and l’amour, but now it turns out they’re better at parenting too.
Apparently French mamans and bebes have inbuilt sang froid and savoir vivre, unlike their neurotic, competitive British and American counterparts.
French kids are more self-contained and civilised, and French mummies — while proud and adoring — don’t hover over their kids’ every move like neurotic velociraptors. They leave that to the rest of us.
These are the findings of a former Wall Street Journal writer who lives in Paris with her English husband and three kids: what she learned is that French children sleep through the night almost from birth, sit quietly in restaurants nibbling crudites when they are toddlers, and never have tantrums. So amazed was the New Yorker, Pamela Druckerman, at these cultural differences between French and Anglophone kids that she wrote a book about it called French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets From Paris. It’s a good read, warm and funny and interesting.
“France is the perfect foil for the current anxieties in British and American parenting,” writes Druckerman. “Having a child in France doesn’t require choosing a parenting philosophy.” Quoi?
Could it be that French parents — unorthodox though this may sound — just get on with it, without turning parenting into an Olympic sport? Could they — whisper it — be a bit more laissez faire, a bit less anxiety ridden? A bit less competitive?
For the rest of us the Mummy Wars start the moment you get knocked up. “With so much studying and worrying to do, being pregnant increasingly feels like a full time job,” observes Druckerman. Forgotten your folic acid? You’ll give birth to a three-headed fish. Haven’t played Mozart directly into your tightly stretched stomach, or spoken Greek to your foetus? Your baby will be a low IQ monkey.
On discovering she’s pregnant, Druckerman rushes out to buy English language pregnancy books in Paris because she “wants to know, in plain English, what to worry about.” High heels, high altitudes, non-organic produce, computers, photocopiers, manicures, Halloween sweets, bowling, coffee — is it safe? And don’t, whatever you do, eat cheese, sushi, or anything delicious until you have been medically certified to do so; meanwhile, expectant French women tuck into foie gras, steak tartare and unpasteurised fromage without a care in the world.
“The French pregnancy press don’t dwell on unlikely worst-case scenarios,” writes Druckerman. “Au contraire, it suggests that what mothers-to-be need most is serenity.” Nine months at the spa, suggests one magazine. Quelle luxe! Oh, and just to back this up — according to Unicef, the French infant mortality rate is 29% lower in France than the UK, and the under five mortality rate 50% lower. So they must be doing something right.
Nor do French parents worry about which school of thought to align themselves with. Of Anglophone parenting, “Pregnancy – and then motherhood — comes with homework,” asserts Druckerman. “The first assignment is choosing from among myriad parenting styles.” Gina Ford or baby-led? Breast-feeding until six weeks, six months or six years? Leaving them cry themselves purple or picking them up before they’ve had a chance to inhale for the first yowl? Organic vegetarian or Atkins levels of animal protein? Strict boundaries around bedtimes and mealtimes or free range toddlers who decide themselves when they are tired and hungry?
Whatever you’re doing, it’s wrong and your baby will suffer and grow up to be low-achieving because of your rubbish parenting. That seems to be the inferred message from the many and varied schools of Anglophone mummy ideologies: that your child would be fine if it weren’t for you. A mother’s place is in the wrong — until you buy the right book/magazine/product and redeem yourself through the ‘experts’.
Between bouts of worrying and swotting up, Druckerman notices that French women “don’t treat pregnancy like an independent research project. Certainly no Frenchwoman I meet is comparison shopping for a parenting philosophy, or can refer to different techniques by name. There’s no must-read new book, nor do the experts have quite the same sway.”
So how does this lead to French children neither throwing food nor tantrums? Two magic words. ‘Pause’ and ‘Wait’. When it comes to teaching your baby how to sleep through the night, instead of leaping to the baby’s side every time it squeaks, French parents pause a few moments. The idea is that the baby learns to self-soothe, and goes back to sleep (obviously if it cries more than a few minutes, it gets picked up — French parents are not generally flint-hearted sadists). But the result, according to Druckerman and the various studies she mentions, is that French babies ‘do their nights’ with ease. !
‘Wait’ is more to do with food. French kids eat four times a day (not ‘feeds’, which implies farm animals, but ‘meals’) — breakfast, lunch, dinner and a mid-afternoon snack, le gouter. They do not snack all day; they are not constantly being dripfed treats as bribes. They are encouraged to wait a little; delayed gratification is taught from early on.
Druckerman consults Walter Mischel, the world’s leading expert on kids and delayed gratification; it turns out that learning to wait is a skill worth nurturing in small kids.
Mischel was the chap who did the marshmallow experiment in the Sixties, where four-year-olds were left alone in a room with a marshmallow and told that if they could wait 15 minutes they would get two; if they ate it right away only one. Just one third of the 653 kids held off. Following up his experiment in the Eighties it transpired those who had been able to wait grew up to be better at concentrating and reasoning, and “do not tend to go to pieces under stress”.
“Could it be that making children delay gratification — as French parents do — actually makes them calmer and more resilient?” wonders Druckerman. Certainly, immediately jumping to attention every time they express a desire can only teach a small child that screaming equals reward. (Note: desire, not need. There’s a big difference between a small child needing a meal/hug/wee, and desiring a biscuit/toy/your undivided attention 60 minutes of every hour).
This delayed gratification thing works beyond food — if a French mummy (or at least the ones in this book) is on the phone and their small child starts demanding their attention, they are told kindly but firmly to ‘attend’ (wait). How many times have you had a conversation ruined by a ballistic toddler who is in total command of its parent? “French experts and parents believe that hearing ‘no’ rescues children from the tyranny of their own desires,” writes Druckerman. So simple, yet so profound. (Providing you don’t keep them waiting too long, in which case they might grow up to be needy co-dependent addicts, which would be all your fault. Naturellement.)
The French parenting thing, according to Druckerman, can be summed up simply. French kids have strict boundaries when it comes to daily structure like socialised eating habits and fixed bed times, but within these boundaries they have a lot of freedom. French parents do not hassle their kids to be prodigies, unlike the rest of us. French parents allow their children to ‘awaken’ and ‘discover’ life at their own speed, so that they are not constantly being pressured to learn, absorb, improve, excel.
Certain aspects of French parenting philosophy might not be everyone’s cup of breastmilk — routine medicalisation of birth, not a huge emphasis on breast feeding, and daycare as the norm. But you have got to love the French emphasis on the mother as a woman, rather than as a parent who loses her own adult identity, sexual and otherwise, the moment she conceives.
The French women Druckerman presents don’t get fat, they don’t allow their children to dominate every second of their entire lives, and are as concerned about safeguarding their adult selves as they are at being devoted mummies.
Which is all rather genial, formidable, and other French words that denote something jolly sensible. Bravo!
* French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman is published by Doubleday, €18.99.