This book has been getting a huge amount of coverage this year - and I can see why, It's a fantastic read and really taps into a hot issue, namely the art of parenting. French Children Don't Throw Food is written by an American mother of three, Pamela Druckerman, who married a Brit and now lives in Paris. Essentially it's a humorous yet serious look at French parenting compared to British and American parenting. The catalyst for writing it was a lunch at a restaurant with her husband and then 18 month old daughter. She notes that on their table chaos reigned - salt and sugar packets were ripped open, food was picked at and then thrown on the floor and within minutes her daughter was begging to get out of the high chair and run around. It's an image known very well to me and I am sure a lot of other parents. Seated all around them however were French families with children of a similar age happily eating, sitting together and behaving themselves. What, Druckerman wondered, was their secret? What were they doing that resulted in calm, contented children who eat regular food and don't have temper tantrums?
Druckerman started to spend time interviewing mothers, doctors, journalists and teachers and she discovered that there really were marked differences in the way that French mothers approach parenting. As a recent mother of 2 I can attest to the fact that in London middle class parenting is ever so slightly mental - baby yoga, baby salsa, baby sign, baby sensory, baby booters and the list goes on. There feels like there is an enormous pressure to sign your babies and toddlers up to as many classes as possible as early as possible. It can be hard to say that actually you just want your kid to potter around a bit rather than learn Mandarin. I remember waiting in a long line of stressed out mothers at our local swimming pool at 6.45am in order to sign a 4 month old Felix to baby swim class. As I said, it's all a bit mental really.
In Paris apparently there is none of this obsessive over-parenting. Go to any playground in Paris and you will see lots of children and mothers, but you will never see a mother climbing on the climbing frame, jumping on a trampoline or sliding with her child. Mothers stay around the edge of the playground, children play. It seems that the centre of gravity in France is less child-centric which is not to say that French mothers don't love their children or send them to music classes, dance classes, sport classes, it's just that there seems to be less neurotic worrying about it all and less strict adherence to child-rearing "gurus" like Gina Ford etc.
Druckerman talks about the fact that French children seem to spend more time just being children and learning how to deal with delayed gratification and being bored, a skill that British children with all their numerous classes seem to be losing. There's a famous experiment called the "marshmallow test" that was conducted on 4 and 5 year olds in the late 1960s. In in the experiment the children are shown a marshmallow. The experimenter says that he is going to leave the room and if the child can manage not to eat the marshmallow whilst he is out then he will be rewarded with 2 marshmallows. Only 1 in 3 children managed it. What I found interesting about the test is that there was a follow up 20 years later to see if there was a difference between how good and bad delayers were faring as teenagers. Those who were children who managed not to eat the marshmallow turned out to be better at concentrating and reasoning and did not fall apart under stress unlike the bad delayers. Because French children aren't given't everything the moment that they demand it, her assertion is that they are learning to deal with the fact that the world doesn't revolve around them which then helps them become calmer children.
It's really about finding the right balance, being authoritative without being authoritarian. Although I know that I will never bring up my two boys totally a la francaise, French Children Don't Throw Food was still hugely interesting and there are a number of parenting tips that I have picked up and put into practise in the last week and they work!