The French make it look easy: small babies sleep through the night, toddlers calmly eat four-course lunches, well-dressed mothers chat on the edge of the playground rather than running around after their children, and they hardly ever shout. Pamela Druckerman left New York for Paris and soon found herself with an English husband and several children. While her daughter was throwing food around a restaurant, French children of the same age would be enjoying the cheese course. Druckerman embarked on a painstaking study of parenting à la française. The result is amusing, helpful and charmingly self-effacing.
Druckerman was disappointed when she found out that getting pregnant in Paris does not give you carte blanche to eat cheesecake and bond with strangers. While she was memorising pregnancy books and comparing parenting philosophies, her French counterparts were carrying on with their lives: ‘They don’t treat pregnancy like an independent research project.’ The few guides that exist in France suggest staying calm and savouring the experience. One American pregnancy book cautions against sex, and if the situation should occur, it recommends taking the opportunity to do pelvic floor exercises. Druckerman starts out in the American camp:
New York likes its women a bit neurotic. They’re encouraged to create a brainy, adorable, conflicted bustle around themselves.
In France ‘neurotic’ isn’t a self-deprecating half-boast; it’s a clinical condition.
This culture of honouring anxiety seems to have made some anglophone parents lose their common sense. It turns out that French babies sleep through the night because their parents wait a few moments before rushing in to pick them up when they cry, to check if they really are awake. Parents talk to their children as if they are rational humans, and it turns out they are. Feeding babies vegetables and fruit helps to develop their palates; not giving them snacks means they have an appetite at lunchtime. A lot of the time it’s astonishing that this is news to anyone, but apparently it is, and if occasionally Druckerman labours the point, it’s hardly surprising when you consider the vast literature of anxiety she’s up against.
Some of the parenting ‘secrets’ are less obvious; Rousseau’s idea that children should discover the world by awakening their senses is still in fashion, and it sounds so much nicer for child and parent than the race towards developmental milestones that Druckerman encounters in America. French women do seem to be better at not resenting their husbands, and they take it for granted that children are not going to dominate their lives, while the anglophone parents Druckerman knows seem to take the opposite view — both with self-fulfilling effects. The French principle of teaching children to say bonjour and au revoir to anyone they meet helps to prevent them becoming small, insular weirdos.
This is not just a guide; there are some delightful insights into the French psyche: the French are not keen on breast feeding — just over half of French mothers are still breast-feeding when they leave hospital; most give up soon after that. The health arguments don’t wash with French mothers, but one doctor argues that the physical sensation and emotional closeness will be a pleasure for both the mother and the baby. The pleasure argument does sway them.
The most enjoyable part of the book is when Druckerman goes to watch the annual meeting of the Commission Menus in Paris, which designs the menus for the nation’s crèches. A typical lunch is a red cabbage salad with fromage blanc, hake in dill sauce, a coulommiers cheese and a baked apple. The youngest children have each course in purée form. The Commission take leek soup off the menu when they realise the children will have had leeks the previous week, then they waver between foie gras and duck mousse for the starter of the Christmas lunch.
Pamela Druckerman is a charming narrator — she is astonished by the over-involved supervision she sees in New York playgrounds, but admits to doing a fair amount of that kind of thing herself. She marvels at the authority of French parents: ‘American parents — myself included — are often deeply ambivalent about being in charge.’ When a French mother teaches her how to infuse her ‘no’ with authority, she wields her new ‘no’ with the fervour of a convert, then is gently shown up by one of her son’s carers at the crèche. When she starts serving dinner in courses, she says she tries not to be too fanatical about it, but it’s not that convincing.
A natural neurotic, she has produced an important guide to staying calm, and if half of what she says about anglophone parents is true, her book should be dispensed on prescription.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 18, 2012Tags: Book review, French, Non-fiction, Parenting