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French Children Don't Throw Food

Parenting Secrets from Paris

Pamela Druckermann

LT Review

Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist, married to an Englishman (she once wrote a magazine piece about organising a threesome for his 40th birthday) 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't that many, because the French, sanely,don't think that any of this stuff is 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 pregnancy manual, 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 rind off 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). 'The way 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 getting your baby safely from your uterus into your 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 delayed gratification 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 park burdened 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 creches 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'.

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IN DIPLOMATIC affairs the French are often viewed from America and Britain with exasperation, as arrogant, unreliable and underhand. When it comes to family matters, however, there seems to be a fresh burst of admiration for all things Gallic. Ever since 'French Women Don't Get Fat' by Mireille Guiliano, a Frenchwoman, became a bestseller in America a few years ago, a new genre has emerged devoted to the failings that French women don't possess. Now attention has turned to the impossibly well-mannered offspring of these impossibly chic women, with 'French Children Don't Throw Food'.

Like many foreigners living in France, Pamela Druckerman, an American writer and mother of three, found herself struggling to control her toddler in a posh restaurant while small French children around her sat still, ate with cutlery and left their parents to chat calmly to each other. Her Paris flat was overtaken by toys and tricycles; theirs were tidy with no traces of childhood. Her children ate a mono-diet of white pasta; theirs tucked into hearts of palm and tomato salad followed by turkey au basilic with rice in a Provençal cream sauce—and this at the local, state-run creche. Dumbstruck, she set out to discover why.

With a dollop of research and a big helping of anecdotes gleaned from friends, Ms Druckerman identifies two elements to French parenting that set it apart from what she calls the 'Anglophone' version. One is that the French teach their children to be patient. Babies are not picked up at the first snuffle from their cots; children are expected to wait until parents have finished a conversation before getting their attention. This, she concludes, stems from a less child-centred approach, in which the adult's needs remain at least as important as those of the child. Parenting is just one part of a French mother's life, alongside stilettos and a briefcase, not the high- investment, all-consuming project it has become to over-anxious parents in New York or London.

The other element is that French parents impose a strict cadre, or framework, on their children. While her English-speaking friends tiptoe around their infants' sensitivities -'do you think that was nice, darling, to throw sand into Ruby's face?' - their French counterparts are unapologetic about saying non, or ca suffit (that's enough). Ms Druckerman argues that this framework allows them to give their children more space. She finds herself stunned to watch parents in New York fretfully following their toddlers around the apparatus in a fenced playground; French mothers just sit on a bench and let them get on with it.

It all sounds too good to be true. And in a way it is. Ms Druckerman's France is a particularly narrow slice of bourgeois Paris. Try enforcing the greeting, 'Bonjour Madame', in the tough banlieue housing estates that ring the city. She also underplays the more troubling counterpart to tough French parenting: tough French teaching, that overstresses failure and under-rewards success. But a self-deprecating tone rescues the book from taking itself too seriously. It does not promise to make a pint-size terror restaurant-friendly. But it does help to explain all those disdainful looks from French diners the moment an English-speaking family walks through the door of the brasserie with toddlers in tow.

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