For Pamela Druckerman, whose recent book French Children Don't Throw Food is the talk of the town among parents, it all started on a family holiday to the French coast. While her daughter Bean caused havoc at meal times, demanding to be released from her high chair and throwing chips around the restaurant, it struck the American author that Bean's French peers were doing no such things.
"French children the same age as Bean are sitting contentedly in their high chairs," she says, "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."
The title may sound obtuse, but Druckerman sees this mealtime dynamic as one of the pillars of the Gallic approach to child rearing. According to the New Yorker, who has brought up her three young children in Paris with her British husband, it differs from the "anglophile" way and appears to have excellent results: children who sleep through the night at eight weeks; who don't throw temper tantrums in the park; who eat a varied and balanced diet; and who don't require constant attention from their parents. "Quietly and en masse," says Druckerman, "French parents are achieving outcomes that create a whole different atmosphere for family life."
It's not only this calm environment that strikes her. French parents, she says, are also able to continue to conduct adult lives. The vast majority of women return to work (Druckerman admits that her study group consisted mainly of university-educated Parisiennes). And they refuse to let their appearance slip simply because they have three children under four to get out of the house by 8am. Somehow, they succeed in retaining their pre-baby identities. They value themselves as women and wives, as well as mothers.
Of course, the question every parent will be asking is: "How?"
Much of it, Druckerman says, boils down to implementing a set of strict limits, within which children can operate with great freedom. This includes not pouncing on young babies as soon as they cry, but giving them a chance to self-soothe; teaching children to play by themselves; and rigidly enforcing family meal times and healthy diets.
There is also, she argues, a level of detachment that the French believe helps their children to learn to become independent, resourceful beings. "Somehow," explains Druckerman, "the French have managed to be involved without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there's no need to feel guilty about this."
As a mother myself, I found the book enough to make me want to chuck it all in and move to Paris if it meant my son would never throw a fish finger again. But does it really work? I asked some French parents living in the UAE about how their experience compares with Druckerman's account, and which elements of the French "way" they have chosen to export.
"For us, and for most French parents," says Carole Michelle, a working mother of two living in Abu Dhabi, "family mealtimes are very important. This is the time when we give our children education. Lunch is a very important part of socialising them. It's when we find out about what they're learning in school, and when we can tell them what we're doing at work. We can teach them not to interrupt, to wait their turn, to stay at the table, etc. That's why in restaurants French children are well-behaved."
Caroline Tenneson, a mother of three who works in the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi's admissions department, agrees. "We try to spend time with our family during mealtimes. During the week, it's more difficult because parents are working, but at the weekend it's very common to share lunch, to speak with them regarding their week, their school. It's when they learn how to hold an adult conversation."
Meals, Druckerman notes, are four-course affairs, consisting of a starter and a main course, followed by cheese and fruit; something Michelle tries to replicate in her three-year-old daughter's lunch box when she goes to her English-language nursery. "Her teachers tell me that it's too much for her," she says, "but she will not have anything now until teatime." The French, you see, don't snack. Druckerman claims that she has never seen a French mother hand a mid-afternoon biscuit to her son in the playground.
"I am very strict about that," says Tenneson. "It is healthier for the children. I try to do every day very healthy food, so always fruit and vegetables. When we go to a restaurant and the waiter asks them what they want to drink, they all say 'water'." By contrast with their strict mealtimes, French parents are laissez faire when it comes to play. They don't shadow their children in their playground, says Druckerman. Instead, they often stand on the side chatting to their friends while their children get on with it. "In the park, we don't run after them," says Tenneson. "We think they can play by themselves. I think we have to teach them very early about being independent."
It is this idea of "let him be" that the French believe helps children form a sense of self-reliance. It extends to not booking children up with too many extra-curricular activities. French children, says Druckerman, rarely do more than a couple a week. "I think activities are good but not too many, as they have to learn to stay at home and entertain themselves," says Tenneson.
"Some activities are fine," says Damien Beylier, a father of four and the head of master programmes at the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. "But I think children also need time to be in the bedroom, to play with their games, to play with their brothers and sisters, to read." And what about this lack of guilt that Druckerman talks about? It's the sentiment most parents grapple with when they return to work. And yet, the author says, although French women feel it, they don't let it consume them. "Yes, of course we feel guilty when we return to work," says Tenneson, "but we don't want to sacrifice the professional side of our lives. For me it is normal for women to go back to work. Besides, in France it is very difficult to survive on one salary."
It's worth mentioning that France has an excellent and affordable childcare system. It's harder to feel guilty when your child's creche is staffed by university-trained professionals and feeds them gourmet food. "In France, the role of stay-at-home mother is not considered a valued job," says Michelle, who returned to work after having both her children. "If you go to a party and you say you're looking after your kids, people might think you're lazy or stupid."
The challenge for these parents is adhering to their French values when they are far from home. "The children at my daughter's nursery all have a mid-morning snack," says Michelle, "so I have to let her have a yogurt then, or she would be the only one not having something."
The family meal, though, remains sacred. "We did it when we were children," says Michelle. "I remember it being boring. My children may be being educated in the English system but they need to know where they come from."
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