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Thursday, 23 February 2012

Why French Children Don't Get Fat

French kids are different: These are A. French B. American C. Bakers in training
Bébé Talk
By Liliane Clever
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
THE title screamed across the page: ”Why French Parents are Superior.” Needless to say, that it caught my attention. Especially, since I was born in France, and I have a son. Published in the February 4th week-end edition of The Wall Street Journal, the piece written by Pamela Druckerman is an introduction to her book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.
     I ended up shaking my head throughout most of the article. So many generalities! Parenting is hard work and every parent has his/her own way to approach it. But what if Ms Druckerman is right and the French actually have a leg up on Americans when it comes to raising their children?
Café Olé: Ms Druckerman
     Ms Druckerman, an American expat living in Paris with her British husband, claims that French parents do a better job raising their young children that American parents do. She establishes her objectivity early on. She writes: “ Rest assured, 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 to become sniffy Parisians.” One could wonder how such superior upbringing could possibly create sniffy people, but logic may not be Ms Druckerman’s strong point. (OK, I haven't actually read the actual book. But I can react to her WSJ article).
     The main point of the article is that French parents teach their children how to behave by teaching them the art of waiting. French babies are taught to not expect instant reaction early on, and learn to wait. Parents are less obsessed with their children, set boundaries, are authoritative and in control. It actually sounds like good old-fashioned parenting to me.
     According to Ms Druckerman, French children sleep through the night, play quietly by themselves, get along nicely with other children in public playgrounds, eat everything on their plates, do not snack between meals, are polite and respectful to adults, and are mostly pleasant to be around. In contrast, American parents are obsessed with their children, give them instant rewards, have a laissez faire attitude, do not enforce any routine, and get frazzled and overwhelmed. Not surprisingly, American children do not sleep through the night, cannot occupy themselves, have tantrums in public playgrounds, are finicky and can’t dine out, are impolite and disrespectful to adults, and are mostly exhausting to be around. Whew!
     Ms Druckerman makes French children seem like well-oiled and perfectly functioning little machines, while American children are in need of a serious tune up. As for parents, the French are masters free to enjoy peace and quiet, while American parents are slaves without a moment of rest. A bit exaggerated perhaps? No wonder some American parents were outraged in letters to the editor on Feb. 11th. But like with all exaggerations, there is a bit of truth to it.
     Most of the points highlighted by Ms Druckerman can be explained by differences in life styles. After all, life styles and parenting are closely related. Assuming that Ms Druckerman’s claims have any validity, I can think of a few angles from which to look at all this.
     French women at all income levels have a longer history of working outside the home than American women. Working mothers are well-accepted and are not made to feel guilty. Balancing time between work and home makes time spent with the children more precious. It is not to say that all working mothers in France are always successful, but they can benefit from role models within their circle of family and friends. This to say that French families have adjusted their life style so they could better deal with demands from work and home, while American families are still fighting their own way to do the same.
     A direct corollary of working mothers is daycare. Young children in daycare benefit from their own experience as well. They learn to follow rules, share with others, respect authority, learn social skills, and more importantly learn to cope away from Mom. While daycare is not a full proof system to teach children how to behave, it does contribute greatly to do so. It also facilitates the transition to elementary school. Children used to be away from home during the day find it easier to be in a classroom.
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     What can be more representative of French life style than food? Most people in France have a healthier and more varied diet than Americans do. Meals remain an important family time where everybody sits around the table and enjoy the experience. Family meals can be lengthy with several courses. It should be no surprise that French children are less finicky and are able to share a meal quietly in a restaurant.
     Traditionally, Americans put less emphasis on food and meal times. American diet is too often loaded with sugar and ready-made processed food. On the average, Americans drink more sodas, snack more throughout the day, and have a tendency to grab a bite on the go. You don’t need to be an expert to know that too much sugar and irregular meal times do not mix well with young children, nor with their parents for that matter.
     Finally there's just common sense. Children need regular routines (meal, quiet and bed times), they need to know who is boss, they need to learn how to say please and thank you, they need to learn that they can’t always have what they want…. The list goes on. And we all know what that list consists of. The hard part is being able to follow it. Ms. Druckerman seems to indicate that the French are better able to stick to it.
     Whether French parenting is really superior remains quite debatable. I know that American critics are prompt to point out the many social benefits that French parents have. Namely, longer vacations, shorter work days, better access to daycare centers, flexible work schedules to facilitate drop off and pick up times. All true. But would these benefits alone be enough to make parents stay calm and in control? If only it was so simple.     
     In her cartoonish way of approaching the subject, Ms Druckerman takes many shortcuts. Among many omissions, she never mentions personalities, and particularly her own. Personalities play a greater role in parenting style than any other aspects of society. Anxious parents have a harder time raising their family than more relaxed parents do. Anxious and timid children might actually do better at home with Mom than in daycare.
     Maybe, Ms Druckerman is all fun and provocation. Whether she is or not, we should not take it too seriously.