Ever been to a restaurant in France? If so, you would know that French restaurants don’t do children’s menus full of junk meals. The French also manage to raise well-behaved children that sit with their parents patiently waiting for their meal. Or so claims Pamela Druckerman, author of the bestseller French Children Don’t Throw Food.
The writer, an American journalist, became a mom while living in Paris with her British husband. She soon noticed that the Anglophone way of raising children differed considerably from the French, with the latter often doing a better job while at the same time being able to keep a life for themselves.
Why is it that in France, babies sleep through the night at two months? Druckerman wondered. And how come they eat everything that is put in front of them? How do French mothers manage to have a life apart from being a mom?
As a mother of an 8-month-old who (mostly) doesn’t sleep through the night yet, the first question was enough for me to pick up the book with high expectations. Luckily for me, it appeared I would get an answer to this burning question in the first few chapters.
The answer was disappointing, to say the least. After pages of dwelling on the topic, the secret, Druckerman revealed, was that French parents wait before going in to their baby’s room when they hear him cry. Whereas Anglophone parents would storm in the second they hear a little grizzle, the French would wait and see if the baby is able to settle himself.
Was this the big secret I had been waiting for? I had been doing this ever since Maria was a few months old as well, but without the success the entire French nation had.
While reading the book, I soon discovered that Druckerman is an expert in generalizations: A few personal observations probably led her to believe that all French kids are gourmet eaters and good little sleepers. She claims to have interviewed “scores of French mothers, teachers and child experts”, but the book is clearly an anecdotal story, lacking any scientific evidence.
A few of her observations: While Anglophone mothers pride themselves in the length of time they breastfeed, their French counterparts see no harm whatsoever in giving their infant formula. And while Anglophone women give up their own lives as they become mothers – and walking around in tracksuit bottoms every day becomes totally acceptable – the skinny-jeaned French have their figure back by about three months postpartum, go back to work not much later, and manage to talk about other things than the color of their baby’s poo (okay, that last one I just invented).
As I mentioned to my own mother some of these observations, she immediately knew of a French mother who still breastfeeds her two-year-old and does not give her child the amount of freedom Druckerman states French parents do. On the other hand, certain things that according to Druckerman are uniquely French, such as having a play pen for your child, are common in the Netherlands (and probably in other countries) as well.
To be honest, I think it is quite naive to believe that an entire country raises their children one particular way, while another country (or actually two, as Druckerman treats the UK and US as having the same parenting style) does it so differently (read: worse).
What was more interesting for me was to read and realize once again that their are various parenting styles, and one is not necessarily better than the other. It reassured me there is nothing wrong with my wish to have a life separately from being a mother; it is okay to give Maria some time to play by herself; and although I hope to continue breastfeeding her for a long time, it shouldn’t become an act of self-sacrifice.
Although I certainly agree with some of Druckerman’s points, I think her perception of Anglophone versus French parents is more about how many parents are nowadays versus several decades ago. We live in an age where parents want to give their children something extra in the hope to raise them better or smarter than the rest. I see parents around me talking to their kids in (broken) foreign languages in the hope to raise them bilingually. The courses and classes I attend with Maria constantly talk about how we can help our baby’s developing brain. We are encouraged to sing to our babies not because it is fun, but to teach our babies words and rhythm. We are told what activities we can do while bathing our babies to give them a head start once they go for swimming classes. The toys we make for our babies are not just supposed to entertain the baby but teach him different shapes and textures. The intention is good, but isn’t it as important for a child to just play and discover regardless whether it will help him develop a certain way?
I haven’t lived in France myself, but perhaps French parents are still a bit more old-fashioned in their parenting style in the sense that they encourage unstructured play and focus less on development than in other Western countries. I do realize that I am generalizing myself now as well, but it is just so much fun to compare different countries with each other. And that’s why despite all my criticism, I enjoyed reading the book and I would not hesitate in recommending it to any other parent. Just take the generalizations with a grain of salt and learn about the various ways you can handle situations every person with a baby or toddler will face sooner or later.