Looking at the bookshelves it seems the French have a lot to teach us; how to diet (French Women Don't Get Fat), how to dress (Ines de la Fressange's Parisian Chic) and now, how to bring up children. French Children Don't Throw Food (Doubleday, January) is a thoroughly engaging and insightful look at the French approach to parenting, from pregnancy to the early years.
Author Pamela Druckerman, an American journalist living in Paris, began thinking about French parenting methods after a particularly challenging experience on holiday with her British husband and their 18-month-old daughter: "We quickly discover that two restaurant meals a day, with a toddler, deserve to be their own circle of hell," she writes. But she noticed that French families dining in those restaurants didn't seem to be having the same problems, continuing: "French children the same age as ‘Bean' are sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food or eating fish and even vegetables. There's no shrieking or whining. Everyone is having one course at a time. And there's no debris around their tables."
Intrigued, she set out to discover how the French manage to raise such well-behaved children. French Children Don't Throw Food is summarised neatly in the introduction as "a work of investigative parenting". With a notebook stashed in her baby's nappy bag, Druckerman observes, questions and analyses exactly what the French are doing differently. She speaks to her Parisian friends and neighbours and also interviews French teachers and childcare experts. The book also charts, very amusingly, Druckerman's own experiences with her baby as ‘Bean' faces such challenges as eating unfamiliar vegetables and starting at creche. Among the questions covered in the book are: how do French babies manage to sleep through the night from three months? Why do French children eat what is put in front of them from a young age? And how do French children manage to amuse themselves without constant parental intervention?
Parenting is big business for the trade, the BookScan category Pregnancy and Parenting (dominated by Gina Ford) is worth around £9.5m. Druckerman, who read a wealth of parenting books both as a mother-to-be and as research for her book, says that while many books start with a theory of parenting, French Children Don't Throw Food starts with the result: "I worked backwards. I found this society of children who sleep extremely well, eat extremely well and are very well behaved and I worked backwards to figure out how they got that way. So I was certain of the result; I just wasn't sure how parents got those results so consistently."
Zuckerman also looked at the latest scientific research on childcare from around the world, and this is woven into the main narrative. "Oftentimes what the scientists said was the best practice, what scientists largely concurred was the best thing to do, was what French parents were doing en masse. I was struck by that again and again," she says. "It wasn't so much that the French had discovered these completely unknown secret methods of raising their kids. It was that among the many, many choices [for example, how to help a baby sleep through the night] they had picked the ones which were the most effective, and in many ways the most fun."
This homogeneous approach to parenting contrasts with the Anglophone (British and American) experience where, she observes, there are competing parenting philosophies; "Should you breast-feed? Feed on a schedule or be more relaxed about it? There are different and contradictory views on the best way to parent."
‘Ces't moi que decide'
Druckerman summarises the French attitude to parenting as "c'est moi que decide" (it's me who decides). "Parents have a lot of authority and they're extremely strict about certain things, food being one of them but they are also very relaxed."
"It's not that I want to do everything that French parents do, or that they do it perfectly, but I think getting some perspective on my own habits was very helpful. And I found a lot of things that French parents do just inspiring."
Still living in Paris, now with young twin boys, and working as a freelance journalist Druckerman has no immediate plans for another parenting book. She will visit the UK on publication and the book will be serialised here in a national newspaper. In the meantime though: "I'm just going to try to parent for a while," she says with a laugh. "One of the paradoxes of writing a parenting book is that you don't get to spend any time with your own children!"