WHEN former Wall Street Journal journalist Pamela Druckerman, who moved to Paris to live with her British husband, decided to write about French parenting skills, little did she know the fascination it would create on the other side of the Atlantic and Channel.
Her first book, called French Children Don’t Throw Food in its British edition, featured in much of the national UK and US press last year and topped the Sunday Times bestseller list. It was also the subject of an article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal – Why French Parents Are Superior – which attracted more than 1,000 comments and was described by the paper as one of its most “provocative” pieces of 2012.
The book has just been published in France with a title tying it into a recent French obsession: Bébé Made in France. Now the mother-of-three has written a follow-up – French Parents Don’t Give In (Transworld Publishers) in which she distils her practical tips.
Have you been surprised by the reactions to your work?
Astonished – I had no idea. I approached it as a labour of love and a fascinating detective exercise. I felt I was on to something fresh and useful but didn’t know if anyone would agree with me.
Were a lot of Americans indignant you might suggest the French did things better? What about Britons?
From the comments I’ve read there was a bit of that, yes. I think Britons are more familiar with France and they’ve often been to restaurants where they’ve ogled the well-behaved French kids and their reaction was more, ‘I’ve always wondered about that – how do they do that?’, whereas to Americans it was more theoretical. You have to be quite well-off in America to just pop over to France.
Are the French smug that you singled out how well they do?
The French generally believe parenting is on the decline and are not aware they do anything special or that English-speakers do anything differently. It never crossed their minds they were brilliant parents, so it’s taking a while for what I’m saying to register. Some are really pleased – some mothers say, “I recognise myself in what you say, but I didn’t know that was particularly French”. But I’m talking about what to them seems conventional wisdom but to us is a revelation. They may ask, for example: “Why do you make a big deal out of the fact that mothers are also entitled to feel independent and sexy, interesting women entitled to a life apart from their kids – why do you need to put that in print?”
Some enjoy reading about some of the hidden assumptions that have been guiding their own behaviour and some see it as a reminder of the best of French parenting and are saying, “this is what we need to keep doing; we’re losing it a little bit”. They think they have been becoming more Anglo-Saxon but I tell them, “you don’t know how far away you really are”. They really don’t quite know what the Anglo-Saxon model entails.
You had the idea when you were on holiday in France with your first child, having already moved to Paris...
Yes, it was on the Atlantic coast. We were miserable. We would order as we were being seated and we would beg them to bring us some baguette so my 18-month-old daughter could start eating something: but then she wasn’t interested and she wouldn’t sit in her chair... it was what we thought a meal with a toddler was like, horrible but not surprising. But then I realised the French families around me were having a very different kind of experience – having nice family meals together.
The children knew how to sit at the table and wait for their food to come, they ate normal food – the same as their parents, not just French fries and baguette which my daughter was insisting on. They also seemed to be having fun. It’s not as if the kids were being threatened by their parents, everyone was chatting and having a good time. That was the “aha” moment.
Then all the other observations I’d been making for the previous 18 months crept in – why is my child the only one throwing tantrums in the park? Why do these French parents claim their baby slept through the night at three or four months old? Why is the crèche meal four courses of entrée, plat, fromage, dessert, with things like braised leeks and blue cheese, for children who still can’t speak? I realised there were things I could learn.
Until then I’d thought French parenting was different but in a negative way – a lot of Anglophones I know would say, “but they don’t breastfeed, and the women go back to work”. From that time I thought, “there may be negatives, but there are enormous positives too”. They seem to be a counterpoint to the extreme parenting model that has taken hold in America and Britain.
That being that everything centres around the child?
Very child-centric. The French idea is that the child comes into the parents’ household and for the first few months you are devoted to the child, but then he finds his place in the home. Of course your life radically changes all the same, but the child can adjust to the rhythm of the family and that’s ultimately better for the child.
How did you go about studying it?
I kept a notebook in my nappy bag and noted what happened at friends’ houses, or at the paediatrician or at schools and crèches. I did interviews with parents, teachers, psychologists and doctors, the person who sets the Paris crèche menus, and went to the school where they train people to work in crèches, which was impressive. Three years of research. In my first book I told my own journey of discovery, weaving in my research.
Is it fair to say children are treated more like adults in France?
Not like adults, but they are not infantilised and the expectations are a bit higher. For example, one of the most important rules in the new book is “don’t let your children interrupt you”. That simple idea can really make a difference. I’m talking about when they’re of an age when they could speak to interrupt you, not babies. The French parent will say, “sweetie, I’m in the middle of a conversation, I’ll be with you in a couple of minutes”, then the child has to learn how to wait.
I also talk in the book about not rushing in to your baby the moment he cries, which is partly because you want to give him the chance to learn to connect his sleep cycles, which is the key to sleeping longer stretches.
Do French parents keep their children up later?
French children eat dinner later than we do during the week – I was always surprised their kids went to bed at nine and ours at eight. It’s related to the parents’ work hours as much as anything, but they also think children can adjust. Weekends and holidays they let the kids stay up later and sleep in later.
What’s the French approach to food?
They start them with vegetables, whereas the Anglo model is to give them rice and cereal. It’s to get them exposed to, and excited about, flavour early on.
What are some other important tips that you bring out in the new book?
Give kids meaningful chores – even little kids. Even from three or four you can let them load the dishwasher and take part in the cooking in a meaningful way. That way you get help but the children also learn they are not just there to be served and they have to contribute.
Are your own children growing up as well-behaved French-style children?
They are six and four (we have twins) and we are trying to do a sort of ‘best of’ the two approaches. I think there are wonderful things about Anglo parenting too. I’m not handing down ultimate truths. Even the French approach is that every child is different and you have to keep changing what you do.
What do Anglo parents do well, that we could perhaps teach the French?
There’s more emphasis on creativity, self-expression, positivity and positive feedback, especially when it comes to schools, but I think Anglo parents too are more likely to transmit a sense their children can reach the stars if they try hard enough. It might be unrealistic, but it’s nice for them to hear. It’s tempered by French pragmatism, but I wouldn’t want my kids to have a cynical view that things are getting worse all the time. I think in the Anglo world there is more of a sense of community for parents – like you meet people at ante-natal classes who will give birth the same week as you; there are also low rates of breast-feeding in France.
In the news there has been talk of the importance of more schooling for two-year- olds. Is there more emphasis in France on early child care, and mothers going back to work?
I think the fact that there are subsidised shared babysitters makes it possible for women to go back to work, so it fuels an ideology that you should, but it’s not a perfect system. There’s a belief in the Anglo-Saxon world that your child needs to be with you as much as possible for the first few years. That thinking doesn’t really exist much here.
And you think it’s better that way?
I’m not issuing decrees on what’s better – just saying there’s a whole world just across the Channel, where people do things quite differently and they seem to be more or less okay.
What happens if you go suddenly from one approach to the other, will the child adapt?
You don’t immediately have to adopt every principle, it’s more about trying out some of the techniques you find interesting – like ‘no snacking’, for example. I found Anglo children often aren’t hungry at meal times because they’ve eaten an hour before. The French idea is you don’t eat between meals, then you’re hungry at meals. A lot of the book is common sense.
The new book also has recipes?
Yes, I worked with a nutritionist from the Parisian crèches and these are recipes the children in daycare eat, but instead of feeding 15 the recipes are for a family of four. Even I can make them, which is a very good sign.
Photo: Benjamin Barda