Wednesday 28 June 2017

Review: French Children Don't Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman

Doubleday, €20.40
A dash of Gallic cool and wisdom, says Aoife Drew seems to work wonders in the journey through parenthood

Following in the footsteps of Frenchwomen Don't Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano's culinary bible which established Frenchwomen's status as the connoisseurs of how to taste whatever the heart desires while maintaining an enviable figure, a new book, French Children Don't Throw Food, appears to imply that our sophisticated French friends' know-how extends to the messy domain of childcare too.





At first glance, the book offers tantalising advice for any new mum: its premise is that by absorbing the wisdom of French parents, you too can have wonderfully behaved children. Your relationship with your partner will flourish, et voila, you'll become sexier, too. Sacre bleu: that sounds great, but is author Pamela Druckerman perhaps viewing child-raising in France through rose-tinted spectacles?

The story focuses on Druckerman's real-life experience as a 35-year-old American journalist journeying through pregnancy and parenthood in Paris. As a new arrival, she is surprised to find that unlike her fellow Americans, pregnant French women are not obsessively purchasing every parenting bible known to man. They are not steeling themselves to give birth sans epidural "using only yoga breaths" and couldn't care less whether they give birth by C-section or not.

Later on, following the birth of her daughter, "Bean", Druckerman realises that while she struggles with sleep deprivation, her French acquaintances' babies are sleeping through the night by three months of age. While Anglophone friends compete as to whom can breastfeed longest, the French mums unapologetically wean their babies onto formula.

As Bean progresses through toddlerhood and her mother discovers the merry hell that is bringing an 18-month-old to a restaurant, she realises that cool French mamans are not similarly suffering: their children obediently eat three-course-meals without leaving a trail of destruction. Baffled, she decides to make it her mission to discover the secret behind this desirable behaviour. Druckerman sets off to quiz French mothers, doctors, nannies, creche-workers and teachers on what it is they do. And, in between falling pregnant with twins, she pores over every French parenting book available, from the philosopher Rousseau to child psychologist Françoise Dolto (otherwise known as God in French parenting circles). She discovers they all seem to have shared beliefs.

Their philosophy is that a child is a rational being. Time and patience are important: to help babies sleep through the night, they use 'The Pause' technique: when a bébé wakes up, a parent should not rush in, but allow the child a few minutes to settle alone. When it comes to food, children are presented with a multitude of different colours, flavours and textures -- the bland diets of plain pasta favoured by their Anglo-Saxon counterparts are simply not on the menu.

Above all, the author finds that parenting theory is based on the phrase "c'est moi qui decide": it's me who decides. The French feel that children need a firm cadre, or framework, of strict rules in their daily lives (although some freedom is allowed within this framework). The French model being more authoritarian than democratic, parents generally have confidence in their decisions.

And, because mothers have faith in the French crèche system (complete with state-qualified carers, psychologists and nutritionists) they don't burden themselves with guilt about returning to work. They define themselves as women rather than mothers, which makes them happier and thus probably sexier, too.

The French approach is decidedly parent-friendly and Druckerman seems genuinely appreciative of this. The sneering tone thinly veiled as admiration sometimes palpable in books written by expats about their adopted country is absent.

But are the French really experts?

Yes and no. As Druckerman admits, "The French have a whole bunch of contradictory principles." Like the rest of us, the French are a product of their history and cultural norms, not all of which are admirable.

For example, the author touches on some of the less positive elements of a French upbringing. Nowadays in Anglophone countries, most parents would agree that encouragement is essential to the child's wellbeing. In French schools, negative reinforcement is the modus operandi, "often criticised" because of its detrimental effect on self-esteem.

Also, although the children may be well-behaved, this doesn't mean that they will necessarily grow up happy. France is reputedly the world's largest consumer of anti-depressants, with one in four people having taken these drugs at some point. Maybe the small window of freedom which children are granted could do with being opened a chink more.

Nonetheless, French Children Don't Throw Food is well-written, funny and doesn't take itself too seriously. In an entertaining way, it demonstrates that parenting is no easy task but questions if we have to make it even more difficult by following the try-hard methods favoured by modern Anglophone society. This light-hearted look at cultural differences is certainly food for thought for anyone interested in borrowing a few tips from parenting à la française.

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