London, Muswell Hill: A toddler is throwing a temper tantrum in public, lying on the floor and screaming for his life, refusing to budge. It’s a far too familiar sight in London. Crowds of people simply ignore the little screamer, as they tactfully sidestep or clamber over him raging on the floor. According to Pamela Druckerman, a New Yorker author living in Paris, this is typical behaviour of spoiled children of Anglophone helicopter parents, who have a completely different parenting style, compared with the French. Studies show that American couples become unhappier, once they become parents. Not really a future to look forward to, if you think about having children!
I was intrigued by the title of the book “Why French children don’t throw food”. Are French children really better behaved? And if so, why? The book is not only a parenting book but also an incredibly entertaining and funny insight into the life of an American immigrant and her British husband living in Paris and the cultural adventure of becoming pregnant and raising a child in the city of love.
This is a perfect book to read before you have children, as it provides wonderful information regarding coping with pregnancy and how to initiate your little one’s manners and behaviours from very early on. Much of the advice sounds like common sense, yet too many young parents struggle with fussy eaters, children who don’t let adults finish their sentences and little terrors who demand immediate attention when they see fit.
Starting with the pregnancy, the author describes a noticeably more relaxed attitude to becoming a mother, in France. French people eat pasteurised cheese, sushi and the odd glass of wine when expectant, much to the horror of their British counterparts. Yet, statistics show a 29% lower rate of stillbirth in France. Naturally, this can also be ascribed to the excellent healthcare in France, including care by gynaecologists, frequent scans throughout the pregnancy and epidurals at birth. Still, these are only contributing factors, and parenting habits are the key ingredient to happy, health family life.
Once born, most French babies sleep the through the night, within days of being born (still in the hospital), with the most rebellious gaining this skill by the age of four months. Babies in general have an agitated sleep pattern and French mothers don’t habitually run to the crib, as soon as their baby utters a sound. French mothers let the babies cry and self-soothe until they fall asleep. From a very early age, French babies have fixed eating times, with no snacking in between and no on-demand feeding availability during the night. This gives the children a “cadre”; a frame on which their overall childhood and upbringing is based upon. One of the pillars of a French upbringing, is childrens’ ability to be satisfied and content playing by themselves. This works in concert with children learning delayed gratification; not getting what they want as soon as they want it; which results in them learning patience.
Thinking about my own and Rebel’s childhood, we definitely were raised the “French” way – albeit in Germany. According to Mummy R&R, we slept through the nights from a few months old, she was able to take us to restaurants, the opera and other public places without any tantrums. We always ate what was on the table and as a result, today as adults, we are flexible eaters. None of this “no onions, no greens, no tomatoes, no garlic” that so many people seemed to be obsessed with these days. I remember our parents were quite social and would often entertain friends at the weekend. Rebel and I always retreated to the children’s room, quietly playing by ourselves or with the visitors’ children, letting the adults have “adult time”. In the mornings, my mother liked to sleep in until 10 am at least. We knew not to disturb her sleeping. Instead we’d play with the cats or watch TV.
Interested to hear more? Read this interesting interview by German Spiegel magazine (translated by me) with the author of “Why French kids don’t throw food”.
Clear boundaries and lots of free space
French children eat three course meals and let adults finish their sentences. How does that work? The American author Pamela Druckerman searched for answers.
Druckerman, 43, is a free journalist who worked for “Wall Street Journal”. For many years, she’s been living in Paris with her British husband and her three kids. In her latest book, she describes the mannerisms of French child rearing.
Spiegel: Mrs Druckerman, you say you wrote your book because your little daughter threw food in a restaurant. What was going on?
Pam: We were on our summer holiday in West France, my little one was 18 months old. We ate in Restaurants for lunch and dinner and soon we noticed, this is hell. Our daughter threw food, climbed out of the highchair…..
Spiegel: That’s the way it is with toddlers, isn’t it?
Pam: That’s what I thought. But only our kid behaved like this. All other kids, the French kids, sat nicely at the table. Sitting through 3-course-meals! The atmosphere on these tables was relaxed and friendly. That’s when I said to myself: I want this for myself too. I want to learn how to bring my child up like this.
Spiegel: Are French kids really better behaved?
Pam: Yes, the atmosphere in these families is calmer, more in control. Many little observations formed this impression.
Spiegel: What is your impression?
Pam: For example, in the nursery two year olds sit at the table and eat salad, main meal, cheese and fruit. How is that possible? Without a tantrum. I have never seen tantrums in France in public. Only tantrums of my own children. Why is that?
Spiegel: Maybe you have an especially animated child?
Pam: That’s how I explained it to myself in the beginning. That it’s within the child whether it eats well, what it eats and how patient it is.
Spiegel: But in the meantime you have changed your opinion?
Pam: Yes. I noticed that the French think the right behaviour can be learned through the upbringing. For me, this was a new view. I spent the next three years to study the pillars of the French children education. I systematically asked friends and acquaintances: “How do you get your children to sleep? How do you deal with meals?” I met with paediatricians, psychiatrists and children education experts. After time, I saw the pattern.
Spiegel: One of the studies you cite in your book is that the parents in Columbus, Ohio find parenthood twice as strenuous as parents in Rennes, France…..
Pam: …..yes, to be a Mum and Dad in America has become a strain. According to studies, American couples become less happy once they have children. This finding comes after a new standard has been established in breeding: The intense, molly-coddling way of bringing- up children.
Spiegel: You are talking about the so called “helicopter parents”, who are circling around their kids with care like a helicopter.
Pam: The phenomena is 20 years old. The first generation of this style of education has just turned 20 years old. Now the debate started: Was this right? Did we take it too far with our concern? For the parents we can say for sure, this way of bringing up a child is not fun!
Spiegel: Also in Germany one thinks that the more the mother gives up, the better it is for the child.
Pam: In France people think this thought is absurd. The child must think that his mother’s happiness solely depends on the child. This causes a lot of pressure on both sides. An unhappy mother will never raise a happy child.
Spiegel: Many Germans think the French style of education is very authoritarian.
Pam: I don’t agree. Empathy is very important for French parents. To always talk to the child, to understand his emotions and accompany his experiences.
Spiegel: German and American parents will hardly see this differently.
Pam: The French do not forget where their own boundaries are. Just because you listen to a child doesn’t mean that you do whatever it told you. If a French kid says: “I know we will be eating soon but I want a pain au chocolat”, then the parents will reply: “I understand you are frustrated, but you can’t have a pain au chocolat”. Period. No further discussion.
Spiegel: So it is authoritarian after all.
Pam: It’s not what you say but HOW you say it. It’s important that parents listen. The French paediatrician Francoise Dolto revolutionized the education style of French parents. She said: “Listen to the children. Take their wishes seriously”. Babies are already capable of communicating and understand their parents. Dolto ensured the emancipation of children. This is proven by the fine differences in language. If a mother is telling her son of, she doesn’t say: “Don’t beat up your brother”. But she will say: “You don’t have the right to beat up your brother”. She treats her children as individual subjects with rights and duties.
Spiegel: Which rights for example?
Pam: A magic recipe of French education is the “cadre”, the frame. That means you give children clearly defined boundaries and the children will have their own space within these boundaries. For example: It’s time for the children to go to bed. They have to stay in their room. If they like, they can be up for a bit more in their room and do what they like. A rule of many parents is called: A fixed frame but freedom within the frame. It’s the same with the food: You have to try everything, but you don’t have to eat up.
Spiegel: Did you try those French education rules on your own children?
Pam: At first, I was very resistant. It starts with French mothers not breast feeding for long or not at all.
Spiegel: What was your problem with this?
Pam: As Americans, we think breast feeding is holy. To not breast feed is as bad as not loving your child. On the contrary, in Paris you hardly see women who breast feed in public. Many paediatricians advice to use the bottle from early on.
Spiegel: Many parents don’t like the idea that their children are only supposed to be quiet and good.
Pam: This is not about being good but about having respect. You don’t disturb your child without it being necessary, for example while it plays.
Spiegel: You write about French children helping in the household.
Pam: I know a two year old who picks the lettuce leaves for the salad served at dinner. The 5 year old neighbours’ daughter is mixing the salad sauce every night. The parents view is to give the child self-confidence by giving them tasks, rather than just serving their children.
Spiegel: What would the American in you do? Send the children to their room to do an educational game?
Pam: Probably. The focus of American parents is not autonomy but control and security. They guide their children when playing rather than encouraging them to play by themselves. Studies show that children who help in the house hold will become an active part within the family. This boosts essential attitudes like empathy.
Spiegel: Do you still see advantages of the American way of raising children?
Pam: The French could do with a bit more optimism and confidence. The French children stories always end sadly.