Books by Anglo-Americans reacting (usually very favourably) to French culture have a long history. Hemingway’s classic A Moveable Feast has been authors such as Julia Child, Peter Mayle Jane Paech and Sarah Turnbull, all drawn to something in la vie française.
Many centre (naturally) around food. Pamela Druckerman French Children Don’t Throw Food looks at French parenting. Based on her own experiences of raising three children in Paris, Druckerman examines how it is that French parents can raise children who, on the whole, are remarkably well behaved, particularly when compared to their Anglo-Saxon cousins.
Essentially, French parents don’t treat their children as though they are the centre of the universe. While this might seem shocking, it doesn’t mean that French parents don’t love or care for their kids. Instead, it reflects a philosophical and cultural divide on the role of parenting. French children are raised to understand that family life does not revolve around them. That doesn’t mean that they are unimportant (we are not in ‘children should be seen and not heard’ territory). It’s simply that, in order for the family to function effectively, the parents do not centre their lives entirely on their children.
The French refer to this as cadre – a framework which sets limits for children. But the aim of these limits is to give the child a stable set of expectations from which they can explore. Children are encouraged into sleeping and feeding rhythms quite early. By the time they become toddlers, French kids typically eat three meals a day and an afternoon snack around 4-4.30pm (a goûter). While this may seem inflexible (and joyless) it does seem to provide a framework in which children can get into good food habits early.
AS the book proceeds Druckerman marshals research that, on the whole, tends to vindicate French methods. Uncritical praise is not good for self-esteem. It’s good for children not to have every which catered for. What Druckerman’s observations seem to show (and science tends to confirm) is that establishing norms of behaviour (remember ‘politeness’?), boundary setting, and integrating the child into the functioning of family life provides the best base for the child to blossom.
The aim of the French parent is twofold. One goal for parents is to establish their authority. As you read, you’ll be introduced to The Pause, the Look, and Sage (calm). This is not to say that all French parents are authoritarian. Indeed, ideally oui ought to be heard more frequently than non. But when the answer is non, it must be firm and unyielding.
The other aim is educative. In a sense, the whole of French childhood is seen as a means of education. This does not mean Mandarin tutors at two years and cello lessons at three. French daycare (which is heavily subsidised by the state, and which children typically start to attend around these years) is remarkably unstructured. Instead, it’s felt that, by helping children see themselves within broader social contexts, that they themselves will begin to explore the world around them. The aim of parents and carers is to facilitate, set limits, but not to push.
This means that French parents don’t simply identify themselves as parents. In the Anglo-Saxon world, this usually expresses itself as the promotion of ‘motherhood’ as an all-encompassing identity for many women. This is anathema to many (though not all) French women. Readily accessible and inexpensive childcare means that mothers can, and do, quickly return to the workforce. In France, full-time motherhood is not esteemed as it is here (in my view, quite properly). That doesn’t mean that French mothers don’t enjoy motherhood, but it doesn’t take over the totality of their identity.
Those of us drawn to works about French food and culture (and the same applies to Italian) are, I suspect, convinced that there is a malaise in Anglo-Saxon culture that deifies goals and achievements and KPIs at the expense of broader artistic and cultural questions. What’s not to admire about cultures in which fresh, quality food is at the heart of one’s daily life?
This is a fascinating work. Of course, it’s not perfect, and one wonders how far the philosophies presented extend into French society as a whole. Is it a largely metropolitan phenomenon? Or is it a middle-class phenomenon?. There were many socio-economic questions that cropped up as I read, and these were largely unanswered. One yawning gap is the migrant experience. On the other hand, this doesn’t pretend to be a thorough sociological study. But it was a fascinating and rewarding sketch of the philosophy behind French parenting. I thoroughly recommend it.
And I’ve ever even had kids.