Our strategy is to finish the meal quickly. We order while we’re being seated, then we beg the server to rush out some bread and bring us all of our food, appetizers and main courses, simultaneously. While my husband has a few bites of fish, I make sure that Bean doesn’t get kicked by a waiter or lost at sea. Then we switch. We leave enormous, apologetic tips to compensate for the arc of torn napkins and langoustines around our table.
On the walk back to our hotel we swear off travel, joy and ever having more kids. This ‘holiday’ seals the fact that life as we knew it eighteen months earlier has officially vanished. I’m not sure why we’re even surprised.
After a few more restaurant meals, I notice that the French families all around us don’t look like they’re in hell. Weirdly, they look like they’re on holiday. French children the same age as Bean are sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food or eating fish and even vegetables. There’s no shrieking or whining. Everyone is having one course at a time. And there’s no debris around their tables.
Though I’ve lived in France for a few years, I can’t explain this. In Paris, kids don’t eat in restaurants much. Anyway, I haven’t been watching them. Before I had a child, I never paid attention to anyone else’s. And now I rarely pay attention to any child but my own. In our current misery, however, I can’t help but notice that there seems to be another way. But what exactly is it? Are French kids just genetically calmer than ours? Have they been bribed (or threatened) into submission? Are they on the receiving end of an old-fashioned seen-but-not-heard parenting philosophy?
It doesn’t seem like it. The French children all around us don’t look cowed. They’re cheerful, chatty and curious. Their parents are affectionate and attentive. There just seems to be an invisible, civilizing force at their tables – and, I’m starting to suspect, in their lives – that’s absent from ours.
'I’m convinced that the secrets of French parenting are hiding in plain sight.'
Once I start thinking about French parenting, I realize it’s not just mealtimes that are different. I suddenly have lots of questions. Why is it, for example, that in the hundreds of hours I’ve clocked at French playgrounds, I’ve never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum? Why don’t my French friends need to end a phone call hurriedly because their kids are demanding something? Why haven’t their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours has?
And there’s more. Why is it that so many of the Anglophone kids I meet are on mono-diets of pasta or white rice, or eat only a narrow menu of ‘children’s’ foods? Meanwhile, my daughter’s French friends eat fish, vegetables, and practically everything else. And how is it that, except for a specific time in the afternoon, French kids don’t snack?
I hadn’t thought I was supposed to admire French parenting. It isn’t a thing, like French fashion, or French cheese. No one visits Paris to soak up the local views on parental authority and guilt management. Quite the contrary: the British and American mothers I know in Paris are horrified that French mothers barely breastfeed, and let their four-year-olds walk around with dummies.
So how come they never point out that so many French babies start sleeping through the night at two or three months old? And why don’t they mention that French kids don’t require constant attention from adults, and that they seem capable of hearing the word ‘no’ without collapsing?
No one is making a fuss about all this. But quietly and en masse, French parents are achieving outcomes that create a whole different atmosphere for family life. When British or American families visit our home, the parents usually spend much of the visit refereeing their kids’ spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build Lego villages. There are always a few rounds of crying and consoling. When French friends visit, however, we grown-ups have coffee, and the children play happily by themselves.
French parents are very concerned about their kids. They know about paedophiles, allergies and choking hazards. They take reasonable precautions. But somehow they aren’t panicked about their children’s well-being. This calmer out- look seems to make them better at both establishing boundaries and giving their kids some autonomy.
I’m hardly the first to point out that middle-class Britain and America have a parenting problem. In hundreds of books and articles, this problem has been painstakingly diagnosed, critiqued and named: pushy-parent syndrome, hyper-parenting, helicopter parenting and, my personal favourite, the kindergarchy. One writer defines the problem as ‘simply paying more attention to the upbringing of children than can possibly be good for them’. Another, Judith Warner, calls it the ‘culture of total motherhood’. (In fact, she realized this was a problem after returning from France.) Nobody seems to like the relentless, unhappy pace of Anglophone parenting, least of all parents themselves.
So why do we do it? Why does this way of parenting seem to be hard-wired into our generation, even if – like me – you’ve left the country? First, starting in the 1980s, there was a mass of data and public rhetoric saying that poor kids fall behind in school because they don’t get enough stimulation, especially in the early years. Middle-class parents took this to mean that their own kids would benefit from more stimulation too.
Around the same period, the gap between rich and poor Britons began to widen. Suddenly, it seemed that parents needed to groom their children to join the new elite. Exposing kids to the right stuff early on – and ahead of other children the same age – started to seem more urgent.
Alongside this competitive parenting was the growing belief that kids are psychologically fragile. Today’s young parents are part of the most psychoanalysed generation ever, and have absorbed the idea that every choice we make could damage our kids. We also came of age during the divorce boom in the 1980s. We’re determined to act more selflessly than we believe our own parents did.
What’s more, we feel that we’re parenting in a very dangerous world. News reports create the impression that children are at greater risk than ever, and that we must be perpetually vigilant about their safety.
The result of all this is a parenting style that’s labour-intensive and exhausting. But now, in France, I’ve glimpsed another way. A blend of journalistic curiosity and maternal desperation kicks in. By the end of our ruined beach holiday, I’ve decided to figure out what French parents are doing differently. It will be a work of investigative parenting. What is the invisible, civilizing force that the French have harnessed? Can I change my wiring, and apply it to my own offspring? Why don’t French children throw food? And why aren’t their parents shouting?
I realize I’m on to something when I discover a research study led by an economist at Princeton, in which mothers in Columbus, Ohio, said childcare was more than twice as unpleasant as comparable mothers in the city of Rennes, France, did. Or to put it more positively, while the French mums were doing childcare, they spent more of that time in a pleasant state. This bears out my own observations in Paris, and on trips to Britain and America: there’s something about the way the French do parenting that makes it less of a grind and more of a pleasure.
I’m convinced that the secrets of French parenting are hiding in plain sight. It’s just that nobody has looked for them before. I start stashing a notebook in my nappy bag. Every doctor’s visit, dinner party, play date and puppet show becomes a chance to observe French parents in action, and to figure out what unspoken rules they’re following.
At first, it’s hard to tell. French parents seem to vacillate between being extremely strict and shockingly permissive. Interrogating them isn’t much help either. Most parents I speak to insist that they’re not doing anything special. On the contrary, they’re convinced that France is beset by a ‘child- king’ syndrome in which parents have lost their authority. (To which I respond: ‘You don’t know child kings. Please visit New York.’)
For several years, and through the birth of two more children in Paris, I keep uncovering clues. I discover, for instance, that there’s a ‘Dr Spock’ of France, who’s a household name throughout the country but who doesn’t have a single English-language book in print. I read this woman’s books, along with many others. I interview dozens of parents and experts. And I eavesdrop shamelessly during school drop-offs and trips to the supermarket. Finally, I think I’ve discovered what French parents do differently.
When I say ‘French parents’, I’m generalizing of course. Everyone’s different. The parents I meet mostly live in Paris and its suburbs. Most have university degrees and professional jobs. But I’m struck that, despite individual differences, French parents all seem to follow the same basic principles. Well-off lawyers, caregivers in French nurseries, state-school teachers and old ladies who approach me in the park all say more or less the same things. So does practically every French baby book and parenting magazine I read. It quickly becomes clear that having a child in France doesn’t require choosing a parenting philosophy. Everyone more or less takes the fundamental rules for granted. That fact alone makes the mood less anxious.
Why France? I certainly don’t suffer from a pro-France bias. Au contraire, I’m not even sure that I like living here. I certainly don’t want my kids growing up into sniffy Parisians.
But for all its problems, France is the perfect foil for the current anxieties in British and American parenting. On the one hand, French parents have values that look very familiar to me. Parisian parents are zealous about talking to their kids, showing them nature, and reading them lots of books. They take them to tennis lessons, painting classes and interactive science museums.
Yet somehow, the French have managed to be involved without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there’s no need to feel guilty about this. ‘For me, the evenings are for the parents,’ one Parisian mother tells me. ‘My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it’s adult time.’ French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not continually. While some Anglophone toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and pre-literacy training, French kids are – by design – just toddling around.
The French are getting lots of practice at being parents. While its neighbours are suffering from population declines, France is having a baby boom. In the European Union, only the Irish have a higher birth rate. The French have all kinds of public services that surely make parenting more appealing and less stressful. French parents don’t have to pay for nursery school, worry about health insurance or save for university. Many get monthly allowances from the state – sent straight to their bank accounts – just for having kids.
But these public services don’t explain the differences I see. The French seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids. When I ask French parents how they discipline their children, it takes them a few beats just to understand what I mean. ‘Ah, you mean how do we educate them,’ they ask. Discipline, I soon realize, is a narrow, seldom-used term that refers to punishment, whereas éducation (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagine themselves to be doing all the time.
For years now, headlines have been declaring the demise of the current style of Anglophone child-rearing. There are dozens of books in English offering helpful theories on how to parent differently.
I haven’t got a theory. What I do have, spread out in front of me, is a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters and reasonably relaxed parents. I’m starting with that outcome and working backwards to figure out how the French got there. It turns out that to be a different kind of parent, you don’t just need a different parenting philosophy. You need a very different view of what a child actually is.