Wednesday 23 May 2018

Bringing up baby among his perfect Gallic peers

 

It wouldn't have happened if I'd raised him as a proper little French boy. We were in Picard, which is the French version of Iceland (the frozen-food store, not the country). The sound of toddler meltdowns probably passes as ambient noise in Iceland, which may actually be the real reason that mums go there rather than to other, more judgmental, supermarkets.

But this is France. This is not convenience food as you know it, mon ami. Picard has rows of pristine, white-tiled aisles. It is crisp and immaculate, and very, very chilly; like a clinic for storing the frozen remains of the super-rich after they've died.

There are bags of organic blueberries. The ready-meals are made from things like ceps and langoustine. They sell fussy little snacks fashioned from mille-feuille pastry. You wouldn't catch a turkey twizzler dead in here. And the only toddler screaming was, of course, the one who belonged to the English-speaking woman. That's me, in case that wasn't clear.

I was the only customer trying to get through the checkout rigmarole - the whole 'Bonjour. Beep-beep. Would you like a bag? Paying by card? Enter your pin please, Madame', - with a pink, furious elf trying to wrestle his way out of a rugby hold under my arm.

I'm not sure the rugby hold is a recommended tantrum-management strategy. Childcare expert Janet Lansbury would have something to say about this, I thought, offering my best apologetic smile to the cashier, whose expression registered only an inscrutable neutral. Meanwhile, the human loudhailer under my arm got louder and louder.

My 18-month-old was the only preschooler in the store at the time. All the others were probably at creche, being schooled in fine dining and the first principles of Cartesian reasoning. But I knew at that moment, as we attracted horrified glances from fellow shoppers all around, that I had become a walking cultural cliche. I knew, because I'd read in the parenting book French Children Don't Throw Food that French children are raised to always behave well in public. Ergo, if there is a child behaving badly in public, he or she will most likely belong to a foreigner.

French Children Don't Throw Food was part of a little publishing trend from a couple of years back, which aimed to cash in on the suspicion across the anglophone world that the answers to many of our social ills might be solved if we could all be just a little bit more French.

For one thing, we wouldn't be so fat. Or so said Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat, which counselled a touch of Gallic discipline when considering that second Krispy Kreme. Neither would we be poorly dressed, according to the authors of How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are. And we'd all age more gracefully, because French Women Don't Get Facelifts, apparently. Ha! French women quite evidently do get facelifts. You don't even have to read the statistics to know that - France ranks seventh in the world for uptake of cosmetic surgery - a quick stroll through Paris's 8th arrondissement is enough. Probably, they just get better facelifts than everyone else.

It was during a holiday in a coastal resort that the Paris-dwelling, American journalist Pamela Druckerman - author of the aforementioned French Children Don't Throw Food - had her own eureka moment about French parenting. Her daughter, Bean, was 18 months old at the time, and prone to unleashing her very own toddler tornado every time they went to a restaurant.

Eating out had become the seventh circle of hell, as Druckerman and her husband rushed through a run of meals in a fluster of chaos and shame, leaving strewn legumes and over-generous tips in their wake. But why, Druckerman wondered, were all the French toddlers around them sitting quietly at the table, calmly polishing off an endive salade without complaint?

Stashing a "notebook in her diaper bag", she set out to discover the cultural conditions that seem to produce ordered, well-behaved and disciplined little people who sit quietly for the duration of a two-hour Sunday lunch.

Discipline

Druckerman's book is longish, and I don't think it counts as a spoiler to say that, ultimately, it comes down to discipline. French parents are stricter. They believe in the inviolable principle of parental authority. Instead of looking on helplessly like a stricken bystander, as her children enact all manner of antisocial disorder around her, Druckerman learns to internalise the French position of 'C'est moi le chef' (I'm the boss) and thereby - I simplify here for brevity - she achieves her parenting happy-ever-after.

But like all theories in the highly charged arena of parenting strategies, 'going French' is not without controversy. Druckerman admits that it is a model designed first and foremost to serve parents rather than children. While the British and American parents she knows spend their time fretting over how rigid discipline might impair their children's psychological health and creativity, treating them instead like delicate bonsai trees - organisms that need perfectly calibrated emotional, environmental and spiritual conditions in order to get on - French parents are more, well, nonchalant. There is little as derided in France as l'enfant roi: the child king. Children are expected to fit in with their parents' lives, rather than the other way around.

Druckerman's argument rests on the assertion that what's good for the parent is often also good for the child. As anglophone parents increasingly tie themselves in knots to serve their children, the whole family suffers.

But rather more critical accounts of draconian French parenting are not hard to find. In 2007, another foreign journalist living in Paris, Janine di Giovanni, wrote with horror about bearing daily witness to French mothers being "strict with their children to the point of cruelty". In France, she said, parents "shout more. They slap more. They enforce manners". Prompting those parents among her expat group of friends to wonder, "What is wrong with these people?"

Di Giovanni writes, "You find beautifully brought-up children, and many of my French friends who are parents will argue endlessly that instilling discipline and setting boundaries is the way of showing the utmost love."

The dilemma of the pros and cons of 'going French', or not, first dawned on me soon after I'd given birth to Baby R. The child, after all, was destined to be a French man. His father is French. And he was born in a public hospital in a small, attractive town in the south of France, which has Italianate gardens and a river running through its centre.

Perhaps, then, he would come out with intrinsic knowledge of how to be raised in the French way… a child inspired to be as ornamental and orderly as the surroundings into which he was born. Or perhaps some of the legendary autorite would filter through to him by osmosis, in much the same way that small children tend to assimilate language.

But the truth is that all is not as it was in the Republic of France. There is a sea change taking place - a cultural shift, as imported parenting styles such as 'positive' and 'attachment' filter in from outside and take hold. This change is also a reflection of overt policy. Smacking - or la fessee, as it's known in France - is not discussed as a deterrent to bad behaviour in French Children Don't Throw Food, but it has long been a mainstay of French discipline; a recent poll suggested that 85pc of parents do it. And yet, last year, a law was passed under the French civil code which made smacking illegal. This came two years after a similar ban was passed into law in Ireland. In the UK, smacking is still legal.

The French law is a symbolic law - parents who flout it will not be prosecuted. But its effect on social mores is powerful.

Meanwhile, much of the change in child-rearing that is taking place in France is, like elsewhere, generational. I've heard anecdotally from several sources that until a couple of decades ago, a common French solution to the problem of the fussy, crying infant was to simply stick the baby in the kitchen and close the door.

When my own son was a few months old, his (doting and warm) French grandmother insisted with great emphasis that, for his own good, he must be left alone to cry. She was surprised and nonplussed when she discovered that among young French parents today, many go to great lengths to avoid letting their babies 'cry it out'.

And then, there's the breastfeeding issue. "In France, breast is definitely not best", ran the headline to a derisory article published in the Guardian as recently as 2011. "Breastfeeding - particularly after two or three months - is regarded in France as something akin to drinking your own urine," the author wrote. Well, either the author himself is out of date, or things have drastically changed since 2011.

As my mother tells it, when she gave birth to me in the American Hospital in Paris at the dawn of the 1980s, her determination to breastfeed was so unusual it was almost radical. The staff in the maternity ward packed her off home with weighing scales and instructions to weigh her newborn every day, so concerned were they that her choice to follow the primitive practice of feeding me human milk might lead to her inadvertently starving me to death. Luckily, all went well, and I grew chubby and healthy. Breastfeeding support was non-existent. The only advice she had to hand came at the end of a long-distance phone line to the La Leche League in the UK.

Scorn

More than 30 years later, the outsider's view of France as being broadly anti-breast where infant nutrition is concerned, still prevails. I don't know what French person actually articulated the immortal line, "your breasts are for your husband, not for your baby," but it is a quotation that is often circulated among English-speaking people, with a mixture of jealousy and scorn, to sum up their view of how airily the vexed breastfeeding question is dismissed in France. Those pleasure-seeking continental women! Refusing to submit to the sufferance of motherhood as nature intended!

It's true that the notion of 'lactivisim' doesn't seem to exist in France. In the free antenatal classes offered by the hospital where I gave birth, the benefits, practicalities, challenges and pleasures of breastfeeding were made abundantly clear by a midwife and lactation consultant, who was passionate about her subject. Refreshingly, however, there wasn't a trace of moral high-handedness in her presentation. The women in the group discussed their plans for breast or bottle as if they were choosing red or white wine from the menu, motivated mainly by personal taste, and respected as such by everybody else.

And I can't fault the patient, gently insistent support I was given by innumerable midwives and nurses, in the days after I gave birth, to get breastfeeding going smoothly. Horror stories I'd been fed about French midwives pushing formula bottles, or abandoning new mothers to figure out the often complex process of establishing a good latch, didn't materialise.

France is famous for the quality of its postnatal care. I don't know what I would have done without it. Soon after the birth, with the baby still skin-to-skin on my chest, a midwife sat patiently with me for what seemed like hours, gently encouraging him to latch on. Even though I, by that stage, was barely conscious and ready to give up.

For four days afterwards, my baby and I stayed in our quiet, private, en suite hospital room, with a running supply of professionals to see us through those first daunting few days. The baby was weighed daily - that much hasn't changed. Newborns are not discharged from the hospital until feeding is well established, and they have started to gain weight. It happened for us pretty quickly, thankfully, and had it not, I suppose it's possible they might have started suggesting formula - I'll never know. But what was invaluable to me was that by the time we were at home, on our own, we were already in our stride.

Bringing up bebe the French way, then, isn't what it was. Perhaps before long, my son won't be the only enfant roi in Picard who is having a meltdown. Perhaps he is the shape of things to come.

Photography by Boris Conte

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