Do French mothers know best?

Pamela DruckermanPamela Druckerman has a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University, and trained in improvisational comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade and Chicago City Limits. She lives in ParisCasting around for ways to discredit Mitt Romney, the appalling Newt Gingrich thought he was on to a winner when he proclaimed that “just like John Kerry he speaks French”. And indeed the former Governor of Massachusetts learned the language when he came to France as a young Mormon missionary. But what would Newt have to say to this? An American, Pamela Druckerman, a former Wall Street Journal staffer and a long-term resident of Paris, has come out with a book arguing that Anglo-Saxons have much to learn from the way French women raise their kids. In Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (US: Penguin Press) she would have the one-time Speaker of the House foaming at the mouth as she urges American moms to adopt the methods of those best known to some for producing “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

Arrived in the French capital, Druckerman wondered why the local children seemed so much better behaved than many of those she knew back home in the US. She soon realised that this was due to major differences in style of child rearing. This starts with sleeping: a French mother will take a peek at a restive crying infant but won’t usually pick it up but leave it – as usually happens – to fall asleep again; from very early on kids are taught to eat at regular times, are fed a varied adult-style diet and are expected to eat everything that’s on their plate (including cheese); they are trained from early on not to expect too much attention from adults and not to intrude on their conversations; on the other hand, they are actively encouraged to extend formal courtesies to grown-ups they encounter (“Bonjour, Madame...”). As Druckerman puts it, a French mother “is at once strict and permissive”. A framework of acceptable behaviour is defined and transgressions bring reproof; within that framework the child has a lot of freedom. We’re told that the system is good for the kids and for the parent. Druckerman cites a Princeton study showing that mothers in Ohio found dealing with their children twice as “exhausting” as those in Brittany. A contributing factor, of course, is France’s excellent social services: including paid maternity leave, free pre-school access and subsidies for nannies.

Not all French readers of the book have been impressed. Some have pointed out that her profiles of both French and American mothers relate to a selective group of middle-class subjects only. Reality is much more varied, but she’s making a good point. A regular complaint of Anglo-Saxon women married to Frenchmen is how la belle-mère – the mother-in-law – tries to impose a more repressive (as they see it) discipline on their offspring.

In the UK, Druckerman’s book is published under the title French Children Don’t Throw Food (UK: Doubleday).

Photo credit: Benjamin Barda