by Pamela Druckerman
368 pages, Doubleday Books
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Published Stateside under the title “Bringing Up Bébé”, Pamela Druckerman’s bestselling account of her experiences raising her three children in Paris has received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and it isn’t hard to see why. Witty and heartfelt, intelligent and informative, Druckerman’s book manages to be both an autobiographical account of her experiences of parenthood as well as being an insightful how-to guide for those wanting to raise les enfants in a more Continental manner.
As an American married to an Englishman, Druckerman’s account of Parisian life is very much from the perspective of the outsider looking in. With a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour, she describes her own initial stumbling attempts at motherhood, then looking at how French parents tackle similar situations with their own children. The contrast between how Anglophone and French families interact is striking. According to Druckerman, British and American parents selflessly devote their every waking moment to their children, leading to the development of what the French call “Enfant roi” - the child king. In other words, by indulging the whims of children from an early age, Anglophone parents are creating a rod for their own back. In time, the little monsters will grow to believe that the world does indeed revolve around them. The childhood tantrums result from the confusion and anxiety these micro-royals feel when they find themselves challenged.
The French, it seems, have a very different attitude to children than the English speaking world. From an early age, children are taught that they are a member of a society - that their behaviour has an impact on those around them. They are taught patience - when they ask for things, they quickly learn that they might not get what they want straight away. Unlike Anglophone children, French kids do not expect immediate gratification and are therefore less prone to whining, pouting and throwing almighty great screaming fits in the middle of the supermarket. The French don’t put their children on pedestals just because they hit a few correct notes when singing a cute song. Indeed, one could say that they are wary of over-praising their children lest the little ones develop an over-inflated sense of self-worth. Most of all, French parents instill a sense of independence in their offspring from an early age. They encourage their child to play independently, residential school trips are offered to children as young as four, and once children have acquired language, they are expected to be able to hold meaningful conversations with adults. All this might seem somewhat cold and distant to English-speakers but it serves to emphasise the child’s autonomy and accountability. In the English-speaking world, Druckerman believes we see children as lesser beings, only able to participate in certain aspects of civilised life. In France, children are viewed as small people; being young is not an excuse for being uncivilised and selfish.
There is too much useful information within the pages of Druckerman’s book to label it an autobiography. Similarly, the manner in which the French parenting style is presented through self-narrative makes it equally difficult to call the book a traditional parenting guide. What makes “French Children Don’t Throw Food” all the more impressive is that one never feels Druckerman struggles when transitioning from one genre to the other. Her wry, self-critical humour means that one never feels the autobiographical sections to be self-indulgent whilst the informative aspects of the book are presented as choices parents might like to make, not instructions that must be followed to the letter. In my experience as a father, parenting guides have the uncanny ability to make the reader feel bad about whatever approach they choose to manage their own children. Druckerman’s book highlights aspects of Anglophone parenting that are familiar to all of us with a young child, but we aren’t made to feel guilty or embarrassed. Throughout the book, Druckerman subtly pushes the point that there is no such thing as a perfect parent, even in France. It is not just permissible to make mistakes when raising your child, it should be expected.
However much Druckerman admires the French way of parenting, she doesn’t subscribe to it 100% and is in no way endorsing that readers should do so. There are aspects of the French way of parenting that do not sit comfortably with her and she is quite open about this. She expresses that whilst many four year-old children might be comfortable going away for a week-long residential holiday without their parents, the parents might not be ready to bid adieu to their little ones. By the end of her account, Druckerman and her husband have found a happy medium; making use of aspects of French and Anglophone parenting which suit them and discarding the ones that do not. Readers, too, will glean many useful tips and tricks from the book. Although it is unlikely that everyone will finish the book and totally change their ways of parenting, many readers will start looking at ways in which they can build a cadre or framework for their children that sets firm limits for behaviour whilst giving them substantial freedom to grow and play.
Parenthood is both challenging and blissful, demanding and rewarding, terrifying and hilarious. French Children Don't Throw Food manages to encapsulate this huge spectrum of experience and is consistently charming and witty. I cannot think of a more accessible and readable book about modern parenthood. Highly recommended.
Hereward L.M. Proops