If I’m being honest, I’ve spent the last month or so quietly seething about author Pamela Druckerman’s new book, being published in the UK with the title French Children Don’t Throw Food. Admittedly, it has been a somewhat irrational reaction to a highly qualified journalist’s latest professional effort, and I can only conclude that it’s because I’ve had such negative insight to French parenting since moving to Paris a little over a year ago.
First things first: Last night, as Druckerman and I sat in our respective Paris apartments, she conducted a live Wall Street Journal chat about her controversial book. I offered a question, which she was kind enough to answer. Not wanting to pick a fight and out of respect for her impressive body of work, I restrained myself:
ME: As an American mother living in Paris, I can report that nothing is more talked about among my community of expat friends than your new book. Not lunar colonies, not anti-contraception pols, not even the strength of the Euro. And here’s what we want to know: What inadequacies, if any, do you notice among French parents?
DRUCKERMAN: I think there’s less of an emphasis on creativity. French schools, in particular, train kids to be analytical rather than creative. And I think French schools discourage risk-taking.
I’m trying to choose the best of both cultures (or of all three, if you count my husband’s britishness. Though mostly this seems to mean teaching my kids the art of being ironic about everything.)
I wouldn’t want my kids to be entirely “French.” I like the American optimism, the spirit of risk-taking, and the sense of infinite possibility. Even if the possibilities really aren’t infinite. But they had better eat like Frenchmen!
She’s right about the French schools. There isn’t an expat I know — and I’m lucky to have friends and acquaintances from all over the world, from Poland and Canada, England and Turkey, the Netherlands and New Zealand, among others — who isn’t concerned about sending their children to French state schools, where strict discipline, negative feedback and rote memorization rule the day.
Not without more than a little financial sacrifice, we, in fact, send our children to a private international school, where the language of instruction is French, but the approach isn’t. The student body, and therefore obviously the parents, represents many corners of the globe, and our differences are celebrated. Individuality at this school is nurtured, not buried in favor of head-down conformity the way it is at state schools.
Anyway, why has Druckerman’s book gotten to us so much? Because the evidence we’ve seen on the street, on the playground and elsewhere is that French — or at least Parisian — parents tend to disregard what the rest of us know is healthy for their children. Though the trend is slowly reversing, the French, for example, have the lowest breastfeeding rate in western Europe.
What’s more, they are much more willing to wage emotional and physical warfare with their children than my friends and I are (and remember, I’m representing not an American perspective but an international one). It obviously can’t be said that all French parents are the same, but what passes for acceptable here as a means to make children compliant is unacceptable to every expat parent, no matter the nationality, I know.
I’ve seen a woman on the sidewalk grab a teen’s hair and pull him to her violently, a woman beating her son in the car seat to make him shut up, and perhaps more damning than anything else, I’ve seen French parents simply ignoring their children. Entire coffee klatschs here are dedicated to recounting deplorable French parenting we’ve witnessed.
There is no doubt that French children are more behaved when they are being judged by their behavior than their American counterparts. French children know their parents don’t mind exercising very unpleasant means of punishment should they fail to mind their Ps and Qs. But here’s what happens — and again, this is such a universally accepted truth among everyone I know that it’s offensive to us to see this style of parenting held up as the ideal: French kids don’t have fun at home, they don’t have fun at school, so when they get to a neutral place like the playground, where their mothers or nannies talk on the phone or take smoke breaks, they are often prone to act like wild animals.
Truly, many Parisian parents regard the park as a place where they can simply ignore their children, and children know that just about anything goes there. They will shamelessly take toys from their peers, assault other kids savagely, literally climb on top of younger children, brazenly disregard the direction of other parents, and look at you with seething hatred in their eyes.
French parents can be so hands-off at the playground that they don’t even make themselves available to comfort little ones who have just fallen or been the victims of older, angry, aggressive children. Pretty much every time we go to the park I comfort a small child whose parent is AWOL.
So, not to put too fine a point on it, but while French parents may be able to get their children to sit at the table for dinner without throwing food or other unpleasantries, it looks to me like many of them are raising angry little monsters who resent their parents’ methods.
I consider myself a normal mom, and guess what? I’d rather my kids be at their worst at home than unruly, inconsiderate world citizens when I’m not watching.
All of this is not to say there aren’t other valuable things I could learn from the French. Now excuse me while I go microwave some chicken nuggets.