French Parents Don’t Give in – A Book Review

A couple of years ago, when the book ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food‘ was published, I reviewed the accompanying Wall Street Journal article by the author Pamela Druckerman. I didn’t disagree with everything but I had a number of ‘issues’ and I had a bit of a rant. It turned out to be one of my most popular entries on the blog.

Unbeknown to me, she released a follow-up last year called ‘Bébé Day By Day‘ in the US and ‘French Parents Don’t Give In‘ in the UK, and when I stumbled upon it at the library last week, I just couldn’t resist and had to check it out.

And would you believe it, I actually quite liked it. It’s a quick read, with one entry per page and covering 10 aspects of parenting: pregnancy, babyhood, sleep, food, learning, patience, the cadre i.e parenting philosophy, motherhood, couple relationship and authority. I share some thoughts below on the entries I found most helpful, and the ones that set my teeth on edge.

Pregnancy

French mothers eat sushi (sometimes): people have this idea that nothing will keep a French person away from their food and drink, even pregnancy. But that’s not actually true. French women are as aware of the risks of catching Listeria and Toxoplasmosis as British women are (and drinking and smoking are big no-nos). More so even, I’d say, as they get regularly tested for toxoplasmosis throughout their pregnancy, whereas it’s all left to chance in the UK. So similar food restriction recommendations are in place, with the knowledge that contamination is rare so sushi, and prawns and the like, need not be treated as if they were radioactive. This is good news considering the number of times I forgot that I ought not to have pepperoni on my pizza…

Epidurals aren’t evil: no they’re not, but Ms Druckerman forgets to mention something very important here. In France, pregnancy and birth are in the main highly medicalised processes. Think about the difference between the UK and US versions of One Born Every Minute. In the UK, you see lots of women giving birth and walking through the pain with just gas and air. In the US version, everyone has an epidural. It’s the same in France. Most women are monitored to within an inch of their life. Unless you are intent on a natural birth and you go out of your way to find a local birthing centre (which is by no means guaranteed) and fight tooth and nail for the kind of birth you want, it will be expected that you will just have a heavily medicalised hospital birth. So of course epidurals aren’t evil. But they are the norm in France, and doctors are gods among men so this is a bit misleading.

Babyhood

Formula isn’t poison: breast is best but formula isn’t evil and most people who’ve had it are healthy, blah blah blah. How many times have I heard this. I hate this rhetoric so, so much and it’s especially ironic when you think that breastfeeding isn’t the norm in France at all. And you know what, I agree. Formula isn’t poison, and there should absolutely be no guilt attached to whichever way you choose to feed your baby. But using highly emotive words like ‘poison’ is not helpful to anyone on either side of the fence on this issue and it causes a great deal of damage to the conversation. Misinformation about breastfeeding really annoys me, especially when we are talking about health, because whilst it is absolutely true that formula is the next best thing after breast milk, it is also as ‘like breast milk’ as the moon is close to the earth, close enough I guess but also thousands of miles away. And breast is best is not a good argument, breast is not best, it is normal. Rant over, I am moving on.

Sleep

Argh, argh argh, there is so much to dislike about this chapter! The myth of the baby who sleeps through at 3 months, ‘tell baby it’s bedtime. Explain that the whole family needs rest.’ AAAAARRRGH!

I do like the idea of practicing ‘La Pause’ however i.e not rushing to pick up the baby as soon as it stirs. Sometimes picking them up is the thing that wakes them up.

Food

Unsurprisingly, I liked everything in that chapter, probably because most of the suggestions already feature in our house. One did stand out to me, about giving just one snack a day in the afternoon. In the UK, you tend to have a snack time in the morning as well, and I find myself offering food to Little Girl far more often than that. I wonder if it is possible to cut back by keeping a routine of an early lunch around 11.30 am and a restorative snack around 4 pm. In typical French fashion, my girls don’t often eat a separate dinner to us adults in the evening, and they certainly do not eat it at 5 pm (which is still afternoon as far as I’m concerned). We eat between 6.30 pm and 7.15 pm and so a decent snack can go a long way.

Learning, Patience, The Cadre, Motherhood and Authority

All five sections were full of interesting and positive suggestions: not becoming a praise addict; teaching children not to interrupt; slowing down response time so they will learn patience;  learning to cope with frustration as a crucial life skill; explaining the reason behind the rule (also known as treating your children like the intelligent people they most likely are); not becoming a ‘taxi-parent’. All great stuff, but very common-sense and it made me wonder what sort of culture the author is addressing. Not the one I am a part of it seems, but one where overbearing helicopter parents say yes to all of their children’s demands.

Your Relationship (Adult time)

Your baby doesn’t replace your partner: this is SO TRUE. I remember reading a thread on a parenting forum where the question asked was who do you love the most in your house, your children or your partner. The overwhelming majority said their children were their whole world and if one had to give, it would have to be their partner. I was astonished. I don’t understand this at all. I think it is especially important to take care of your relationship with your partner and to carve out time for it. My children are absolutely not my priority all of the time, and this does not mean that they are neglected in any way. When your children grow up and leave, what then? Do you want to spend the rest of your life with a stranger? I don’t love my children in the same way that I love my husband, and I don’t see why I can’t have both.

Fathers are a separate species: now, this one led to an actual ‘WTF, Pamela Druckerman?’ moment from me. The whole entry is so condescending to men and implies that parenting haplessness is to be expected from them. I don’t even have the words to say how much I think this is a lot of bull. Well, I do, but I’ve already written too much so we are going to Let It Go. For now.

Conclusion

On the whole, this is nevertheless a little book I can recommend to parents. It is a flawed but entertaining read. ‘French parenting’ is still really NOT a thing in my opinion and the book (probably both books but I still haven’t read the first) should not be read as you would an expert parenting book. Ms Druckerman is open about the backlash she got after the first book was released in her introduction and she admits it herself, she is not a parenting expert but a journalist, and these are her observations as a parent. Also, there are recipes at the end of the book, of the type that Parisian nurseries offer to their charges. Read and be amazed.

French Parents, Food Throwing and Learning To Be Patient

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon this Wall Street Journal article entitled ‘Why French Parents are Superior’. It is an adapted extract from Pamela Druckerman’s recently published book ‘Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.’ The UK version is entitled ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food.’ I’ve not read the book but I thought I would comment on the article since it is readily available and free to boot.

I’ve got to confess, my first reaction upon reading the title to this article was annoyance. What sort of twisted mind thinks that insulting your readership by implying that they are bad parents is going to make them read the article with an unbiased mind? And please, stop dragging the French into it! With all the French-bashing that’s been going on in the US elections, as if the ability to speak French is the worst insult you can throw at someone (honestly, this type of playground politics in, well politics scare the hell out of me), we hardly need someone to tell American people that ‘aren’t the French dirty but they are the best parents in the world, nah nah nah’. It is ludicrous to call French parents superior, or any parenting style for that matter. It is insulting to the millions who have successfully raised their children using a different method.

Phew. I really had that rant brewing; it feels good to let it out a bit.

Now the article is not that bad once you have sufficiently recovered to read it objectively, and I’ll pick on some of her points in more detail below. But it does read like the author is making one massive generalisation out of a handful of test subjects. Some of her comments certainly made me think she was using the same tester group technique as the moisturising cream adverts, you know ‘’the best moisturising crème ever’ say 75% of 110 women asked’. Hardly a representative sample of society then.

“French toddlers were sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables. There was no shrieking or whining. And there was no debris around their tables.”

She’s definitely not met my daughter, who is mostly French and raised by me, who is 100% French. Of course kids drop, throw and splatter food. If they’re five years old and they’re still doing it I might start to worry but she clearly states these are toddlers. So I am not convinced.

“Why was it, for example, that in the hundreds of hours I’d clocked at French playgrounds, I’d never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum?”

Really? I mean, REALLY? This is weird. Does no one else think this is weird? Sometimes kids get cranky because they haven’t had a nap; maybe her timing for going to playgrounds wasn’t ideal. Also, my sister used to throw the mother of all temper tantrums all the time when she was little, shrieking, falling to the ground, going stiff as a plank of wood, the works. Oh dear, what does this say about my family? Were we French delinquents from an early age? Were we the exception that confirms the rule? All these questions…

“Why hadn’t their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had?”

I bet they cleaned their house just before she came over, like parents do, and that they had a wardrobe full of crap they stuffed in at the last minute – or a nanny. We don’t have a nanny in our house and every inch of living room floor is taken up by baby toys. And yes, we dash around with ten minutes to spare before our guests arrive to make the place look half-decent. Just don’t go upstairs or look in the cupboards.

One of my earliest memories is that of our small flat in Paris and the massive cardboard house my mum had made for us; it was pretty much a hand-made play pen and took over the whole living room. We also used to make castles with bed sheets using the living room furniture. You couldn’t walk anywhere. So again, Pamela Druckerman is not convincing me at this stage that she has anything to add to the parenting debate.

 “Yet the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this.”

The problem identified here is one that I have noticed before, although I don’t conclude that it is an American or British problem per se. There is a culture nowadays that says that the most important thing for parents to strive for is for their children to be ‘happy’. This often translates into meeting their demands by giving them things. Materialism and instant gratification are modern age issues probably born out of the relative high standard of living we find ourselves with. If this isn’t the case, how else do you explain the binge-buying that takes place at Christmas time?

The idea that our children may grow up to become more balanced able adults if they are not the centre of our universes is one that makes a lot of sense to me. I see my job as a mother to be that of an enabler. I wish to raise my child so that when she grows up, she is equipped with all the tools she needs to live a confident life in whatever shape this might take for her. To do this she needs to learn, amongst other things, how to deal with failure, how to discipline herself to do things she doesn’t like to do and how to be patient.

“One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep.”

Well, that’s not French, that’s Controlled Crying and parents are using this method the world over. I am personally not a fan, having found myself more comfortable with the attachment parenting ethos, but in any case her comment about babies sleeping through the night from two or three months is complete balls. Some will, some won’t and on the whole that’s down to the type of child you have, not the method you use. But I agree about learning to wait, just not when they are still babies and don’t have the ability to process this concept.

“Authority is one of the most impressive parts of French parenting—and perhaps the toughest one to master. Many French parents I meet have an easy, calm authority with their children that I can only envy. Their kids actually listen to them. French children aren’t constantly dashing off, talking back, or engaging in prolonged negotiations.”

She then goes on to describe an episode in a park where she practices using a stern voice to call her child over rather than dashing around to try to stop him from running off. I have actually seen this in action around France so whilst I still balk at this being a French thing rather than just a good parenting tip, she does have a point. Because I have seen this happen successfully, I feel that when the time comes I will know how to do it. So maybe, just maybe, she touches something true in that groups of people learn from observing each other. I learnt from my mother and from other French parents when I was growing up, so the tools I use now to parent are tinted by this experience. Are they therefore ‘French’?

Overall the parenting secrets she talks about are neither new nor are they only used by the French. But it is often the case that living in another culture intensifies your experience of everyday life in all sorts of strange ways and it highlights practices you would otherwise not notice. This may be why some of the things she mentions, which seem to be bog-standard common sense to me may have appeared ground-breaking to her. And some of it is very good advice. Just don’t be shocked if that’s not your experience when you go to France on holiday.