Here’s what the Sunday Times had to say. Hats off to India Knight for putting it much better than I did…
French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets from Paris by Pamela Druckerman
A fascinating guide to Parisian parenting shows how the French get it right — no snacks and grown-ups rule the roost
To the manners born: children in Paris (Magnum Photos)
Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist, married to an Englishman…and living in Paris with their three small children. Her book is an attempt at understanding why French children are so well-behaved: they sleep through the night at two months, they sit nicely in restaurants (where“children’s menus” don’t exist), they have adult palates and they don’t seem to completely dominate their parents’ life in the way that British or American children do. There is little whining or interrupting. French parents adore their children but are able to function as adults even when their babies are very small; French mothers look sexy and chic when British ones are still at the waddling about in XL leggings and outsize jumpers stage. How?
This fascinating book offers all the answers. As well as using her own experience and observations, Druckerman, an intelligent, likeable narrator, speaks to a series of experts — though there aren’tthat many, because the French, sanely,don’t think that any of this stuffis rocket science. She contrasts the hysteria surrounding even the matter of pregnancy in Anglophone pre-babymanuals, and the breeziness of French medical advice. Having scared herself half to death reading a list of suitable/unsuitable foods in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the blockbuster pregnancymanual, Druckerman speaks to a neighbour who passes on her own obstetrician’s advice: “You seem like a fairly reasonable person. If you eat sushi, eat it in a good place.”One woman’s concession to healthy-eating guidelines in pregnancy is to cut the rindoff unpasteurised cheese. “Nine months of spa!” is the headline in a French magazine for mothers-to-be. Pregnancy magazines explain how best to have sex — a position called “the greyhound” is un grand classique — and which sex toys are safe to use(nothing electric).
Worst-case scenarios are not entertained. “We typically demonstrate our commitment by worrying, and by showing how much we’re willing to sacrifice, even when pregnant,” the author notes. “French women signal their commitment by projecting calm and flaunting the fact that they haven’t renounced pleasure.” The infant mortality rate is 29% lower in France than in the UK; according to Unicef, 6.6% of French babies have a low birth weight, compared to 7.5% of American babies.
There’s no nonsense about birth, either. French men tend to stay away from “the business end” during labour, on the basis that it’s unsexy (which it is); in Paris’s top maternity hospitals, the epidural rate averages at 87%, hitting 98% and 99% in some. British women bear their natural childbirth battle scars like badges of honour; French women couldn’t care less (and don’t breastfeed for long). “Theway you give birth doesn’t situate you within a value system or define the sort of parent you’ll be,” Druckerman writes. “It is, for the most part, a way of gettingyour baby safely from your uterus intoyour arms.” At post-partum checkups, French doctors will remark on a woman’s figure if it doesn’t ping back quickly enough, and offer diet advice — though this is uncommonin Paris: “French women don’t see pregnancy as a free pass to overeat” because “they haven’t been denying themselves the foods they love — or secretly bingeing on those foods for most of their adult lives”.
The secret to everything else is waiting, or self-control. French parents don’t pick up their infants the second they make a sound at night on the basis that they may be snuffling about, rearranging themselves before going back to sleep. Children are taught delayedgratification from infancy, most notably in terms of food: three meals a day plus something at tea time, and no snacks whatsoever (French children don’t have an obesity problem). They are self-reliant: nobody takes their kids to the parkburdened with toys and snacks and playthings: Druckerman, laden like a donkey with accessories, is amazed to see French women’s children having a lovely time running about the park with nary a scooter, while their mothers chat uninterrupted. French children don’t whine or have tantrums because “they’ve developed the internal resources to cope with frustration”, Druckerman notes. All French kids are familiar with their parents saying “Attends” — “wait”, crucially, rather than the more familiar Anglo-Saxon “No” or “Stop”.
There’s masses more of this stuff, and all of it is gripping. As someone who will not tolerate small children being around at dinner, on the basis that adults need adult time to be adult in, I whooped throughout this enlightening book — but then I was raised in Brussels. I know from personal experience that this approach is frowned upon in some quarters because the British and American approach is so Little Emperor-ish that every child’s needs must come above your own, to prove what a good parent you are. What Druckerman’s book shows is that this is both unhealthy and untrue. In Britain and America, “mother” wins out over “woman” every time. In France, both are equally important. (The term Milf — a “mother I’d like to f***” — by the way, is met with bafflement, because all French women are potential Milfs: “There’s no a priori reason why a woman wouldn’t be sexy just because she happens to have children.”) Most children go to excellent state-sponsored crèches from very early on, regardless of whether their mothers work or not, because it is simply a given that women must have time to themselves. No guilt. And: “French women don’t view being up half the night with an eight-month-old as a sign of parental commitment. They view it as a sign that the child has a sleep problem.” Amen to that.
There’s an extremely funny scene in the book when Druckerman goes back to New York and takes her daughter to a playground. What she took to be normal, pre-Paris — insanely over the top, ostentatious parenting — now strikes her as bizarre. “Do you want to go on the froggy, Caleb?” one woman asks as Caleb, a toddler, just bumbles about happily. “Do you want to go on the swing?… His mother tracks him, continuing to narrate his every move. “‘You’re stepping, Caleb!’ she says at one point.” The women, she notes, are not speaking quietly but “broadcasting” their commentaries.
French women don’t think of their children as projects. There is no baby-Mozart. Toddler swimming lessons don’t involve learning to swim, only learning to enjoy the water. Extracurricular activities are few and far between. Children don’t have to be stimulated and entertained 24/7: we’re back to “Attends!” and self-reliance. And love, of course. Druckerman’s book is a desperately needed corrective to received wisdom about child-rearing and what having children is supposed to do to a woman’s sense of self. I loved it. It made me want to move to Paris.
Pamela Druckerman’s guide to French parenting terms
Frame or framework. A visual image that describes the French parenting ideal: setting firm limits for children, but giving them tremendous freedom within those limits.
C’est moi qui décide
It’s me who decides. There’s another slightly more militant variation, ‘C’est moi qui commande’ – it’s me who gives the orders. Parents say these phrases to remind both their kids and themselves who’s the boss.
Gently, carefully. A word that French parents and caregivers say frequently to small children. Doucement implies that children are capable of controlled, mindful behaviour.
Taxi mother. A woman who spends much of her free time shuttling her children to extracurricular activities. This is not équilibré.
Wise and calm. This describes a child who is in control of himself or absorbed in an activity. Instead of saying ‘be good’, French parents say ‘be sage’.
Doubleday £15/ebook £15.65 pp355, ST Bookshop price £12