‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’ is a tasty insight into the French way of rearing children who eat all their greens (and fois gras), sleep through the night, play happily on their own, and say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ more regularly than any Anglo adult you probably know.
New York-raised Pamela Druckerman noticed these differences whilst living in Paris with her English husband over some years, and her drill-down into how these somewhat magnificent marvels of children evolve is an excellent insight into competing Western parenting ideologies.
French parenting is loosely but largely based on two philosophical bases; the first is Rousseau, whose books ‘Emile’ and ‘On Education’ are still widely regarded in France as the basis of much of their approach to parenting. Through these texts he appealed that a child should be free to explore and discover the world, and let his senses gradually ‘awaken’.
This helps explains to Druckerman what she initially considers to be the strange behaviour of her French friends, who take their two year olds to swimming lessons not to swim, but to learn to enjoy the pleasure of the water… until they’re six (!) and then they start classes. Similarly, gym classes are not for learning triple tucks but for learning to explore their bodies. This couldn’t be further from the Anglo perspective of Piaget’s stage theory, whereby every parent tries to make their child learn things from the get-go in order to evolve their development. The French say, “childhood is so short, why speed it up?”.
The flip-side of Rousseau’s theory is that kids need strict boundaries (so that they can frolick, but safely). What makes kids miserable and tantrums is that they get what they want to such a degree that they don’t know what they want… and they are miserably confused. And noisy about it. “This unaccustomed refusal will give him more torment than being deprived of what he desires… Education is a firm cadre, and inside is liberty,” he says.
As such, a mother’s use of the word “non” is hugely respected by French children because of the way mothers use the word “yes” more of than not. Authoritative as a pose to authoritarian parenting means that children are controlled by a strictness which is an education – a constant gentle tuition of why you do/don’t do thing – and not a punishment. (Although, they do let slip the power of “les gros yeux”, the bigyeyes, whereby mothers can shoot just a look and the kid obeys.)
Also, they allow little discrepancies, one of which is the phrase “Caca Boudin” – which basically means, “poo sausage”. Parents allow kids to mutter, yell or name anything this (within reason) as an acknowledgment that kids have their own little frustrated moments that need airing on occasion. But mostly, aside from harm-prevention, French parents are fairly hands-off and let kids roam around the playground (they don’t hover over the plaything). If they fall, they fall and will be more careful next time.
“The most important thing is that a child will be, in full security, autonomous as possible,” says the number one French parenting guru Francoise Dolto, whose parenting tips from the late 1960s are known as well as Dr Spock’s are in any Western household but for some reason didn’t cross the Channel. In essence, she believed that a child, a baby, is a rational being. At bedtime, you can speak to a three month old that they must go to sleep, that this is good for them, and that you’ll see them in the morning…. and viola! They are sleeping through the night just like that.
Crucial to this however is the idea of “La Pause” – the idea that French parents do not jump to their child’s crying or spoken demands – they wait for even just a minute or two, (more like 10 minutes at nighttimes) and then calmly attend to them. They believe this teaches a child patience which is crucial to create civiil human being; children cannot learn how to deal with life’s little frustrations if they’re not gently tested this way from the beginning. It also teaches them to wait, and in the interim, to learn to amuse themselves by distracting themselves from the immediate waiting period (ie playing by itself in a cot).
As for food, well perhaps not surprisingly, French parents make the sensory pleasure of eating key to a child’s life. They will steam, puree, roast, pickle and season vegetables any which way until the child understands its many forms, and, eventually of course, likes it. The child must not necessarily finish the food, but they must taste all of it. Also, from the age of 4 months, they eat with the family meals – breakfast, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner. And that’s it. The result is most often that the kids are bloody hungry come meal time and will also help to encourage them to eat whatever is there.
But the best, best, best part about this book concerns the preservation of the parents. Ok, so the fully-funded creche and kindies allow mothers to return to work whilst providing wonderful environments for children to interact and grow. (The meals they serve these tots are envy-making too; think Michelin star for kids. But also, French mothers choose to feel no guilt about preserving time for themselves. So much so that they will book their kid in for an extra hour/day per week to read a book, do their hair, or see their husband. When it all gets a bit much, they won’t beat themselves up and say “Oh I’m such a bad mother”. Instead they say to one another “The perfect mother does not exist”. And poof! The guilt is gone.
Above all, the kid understands that though they are loved beyond all measure, the time between mums and dads is precious too, and they are not the centre of the universe. And so, the family balance (and sanity) is preserved.