Like you, I read Pamela Druckerman’s book with a keen interest, and now I have a lot of questions. I have four children ranging from 6 to 20 years old. Like all parents, I’m convinced I succeeded in raising them, until the inevitable time when they will come see me, one after the other, to say that I didn’t. I’ve read a few parenting books, or to be more precise, I’ve leafed through a few of them, largely focusing on what seemed really important to me: health.
As far as the rest of parenting is concerned, I had strong convictions about developing their autonomy, preserving my relationship with my wife, and managing the difficult harmony between family life and social life. Maybe that’s the “French parenting” Druckerman speaks of with admiration.
Druckerman’s book does show some realistic scenes, but only from a specific, wealthy category of Parisians. Here we call them “bobos,” a mix of the words bourgeois and bohemian: They are rich, cultured, and can afford to pay a baby-sitter on a Saturday to take their kids to sports classes or cultural activities while the parents have tea with friends.
But for most French people, Saturday leisure activities are watching television or going to the supermarket—often both. So we should be careful to take Druckerman’s book as a fun read and not as a scientific study, which doesn’t mean there aren’t things to learn from it.
I noticed that she often wrote about government-sponsored services: Both crèches (where babies go before kindergarten) and school cafeterias do make a special effort to provide a balanced diet to children in France. But that doesn’t mean French children don’t still prefer fries and pizza if given the choice! So Druckerman should not be worried when her children refuse to eat vegetables or cheese when they reach 5 or 6 years old, and ask for only coquillettes instead.
Are French children calmer than American ones? Honestly I don’t know! But it seems to me that many parents here have been influenced by superficial readings of famed French psychologist Françoise Dolto. Which is to say, a lot of French moms and dads treat their children like adults, with whom they should always have grown-up talks, and they forget all about being firm and standing their ground.
For example, I remember a child of friends who was especially restless. Before he came to your house, you basically had to hide everything, because after he’d have broken two glasses, knocked over his organic mashed spinach on the floor, and written on the walls, his parents would put him to bed without disciplining him. There he would shout and cry for an hour or two with his father next to him saying over and over again in a sententious tone: “Sébastien, it is important to sleep. Sleep allows you to rest. It is not a punishment, Sébastien, it is important for your biological rhythm …” and so on. The child would exhaustedly fall asleep around midnight, when our adult evening could finally begin.
Something that struck me in Druckerman’s book, and maybe that’s my feminist education speaking, is that mothers are at the center of parenting, and fathers seem secondary. “Maybe because French women don’t expect men to be their equals,” she writes. I think she may be quite right about that as far as housework is concerned. But when it comes to childcare among my bobo friends, fathers have become real mother hens, often balking at the idea of exerting any kind of authority. In his book Big Mother, the French psychoanalyst Michel Schneider laments this phenomenon, since he believes that a woman’s role is to give life and man’s is to take it away (in a symbolic sense, meaning a father’s role is to help the child grow up and become independent). I see more and more “mothering” men, who see authority as violence against their child. Is it the same in the United States?
Oh, and about the image she gives of the French woman who does it all, perfectly combining office life and family life and looking so sexy while dropping off her kids at kindergarten in the morning, well … it depends. They do what they can :).
Translated by Cécile Dehesdin.