Monday, November 5, 2012

Let's Talk French Parenting

 I recently finished two books written by North Americans touting the wisdom of French parenting.  The first was Bringing Up Bebe and the other was French Kids Eat Everything

I read "Bringing Up Bebe" first, and it just made me angry, especially the first half.  The author, Pamela Druckerman, sets up the premise that French parenting is in many ways superior and then proceeds to describe a parenting style that I strongly disagree with.  First there is the focus on appearance.  A French woman should not gain a lot of weight during pregnancy and loose it shortly afterwards.  The emphasis is not on "a healthy weight gain" or "healthy weight loss" but on getting the mother back to her slim, French self.  Birth is medicated (all but 1-2 percent have epidurals) and non-customizable.  The idea that you would want a natural, unmediated birth is a foreign concept and laughable.  Most children are fed formula and those that are breastfed are only breastfed for a short duration.  Infants are expected to sleep through the nights (8-9 hours minimum) by three to six months.  The majority of French mothers work and leave their children in day care.  This isn't just for financial security, but also because of status.  There is one quote that just slays me: "I have two friends who don't work.  I feel like nobody is interested in them.  When the kids are grown up, what is your social usefulness?"  It is good to know that I have no social usefulness.  Now, none of these things are inherently evil.  Women choose epidurals.  Babies are fed formula for a host of legitimate reasons.  Women go back to work, and children are in daycare.  Yet, Druckerman has set up the premise, and the tone of the book is such that THIS is the way to parent.  The ONLY way to parent if you want a decent sort of life as a mother.  This is why French women are so sane, so slim, so sexy.  It didn't help that the American examples that Druckerman sites to counter the French ones are all completely neurotic and insanely micromanaging.  I sure didn't recognize those types of parents in any of my acquaintances.      

And you can probably tell that I wanted to hurl this book across the room on multiple occasions and possible set it on fire.

Not to say that there wasn't some good parenting techniques cited, but there was nothing there that I haven't read in other, more useful, parenting books: letting your child explore and discover.  Letting your child be a child.  Giving your child clear, delineated boundaries, but freedom within those boundaries.

Midway through "Brining Up Bebe," I took a break and read "French Kids Eat Everything" in its entirety.  I loved it as much as I disliked the first.  It doesn't hurt that the book concerns itself mostly about food and eating well.  The premise is that a mother cured her picky eaters by moving to France for a year and embracing its food culture.  French children do, in fact, eat everything.  They eat vegetables.  They eat stinky cheeses.  They eat seafood, mushrooms, snails, etc.  This is because the French view it as a parental duty to help children develop a discerning palate.  Instead of grains as a first food, they are introduced to vegetables.  There is no snacking, and meals are served in courses.  Vegetables are served to children when they are the hungriest.  Food is prepared well and in season.  Most importantly, it is REAL food--mostly derived from the local markets where everything is fresh. 

The book is fascinating.  And interesting.  And a quick, engaging read.  I basically wanted to take a sabbatical and live in France myself so that I could re-cultivate my own taste buds.  I also felt a sense of guilt that I was projecting my food issues on to my child's.  (i.e. I don't like fish so I don't cook fish and Finn is therefor not introduced to fish.)  I am pretty confident though that I could learn to like a number of things if I was being served it fresh, properly prepared, and in France.  (Because the French really do know how to eat well.)

The author, Karen Le Billon, lists 10 rules that she and her family followed to help them make the transition from picky eating to "eating French."  A couple of them quite resonated with me.  The first was to "avoid emotional eating."  I.e. feeding your child to make them behave when they are driving you crazy.  Avoid using food as bribes or rewards, etc.  I don't necessarily bribe my child with food, but it is easy to fall into the trap of distracting with food.  For example, we were at the doctor's office today and had to wait a long time before actually seeing the doctor.  After awhile, Finn started acting up.  He was going crazy (understandably).  It would have been really easy at that point to pull out the snacks in an effort to distract him and buy me some peace.    The second rule was "no snacking."  We have seriously cut back on snacks, and as a result, Finn eats more at meals.  Now, this is a bit contrary to a lot of parental advice to toddlers which state that you should let your child "graze" and eat a number of small meals.  The potential problem there is that the toddler is filling up on empty calories typical of "snack food."  I think it would be less of an issue if he was grazing exclusively fruits, vegetables, etc.  When we do have snacks, I try to make sure that it consists of one of the following: fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc.

The most enviable part of the book?  The farmer's market she shops at twice a week.  The merchants ask specifically when you, the patron, want to eat [insert chosen item], and then picks accordingly.  That would do wonders for my meal planning.  No more green or rotten avocados.  No produce that goes south in a day.  Everything at its peak.

The take home from these two books?  I am not sure I agree with most French parenting techniques, but I do think that they have a thing or two to teach us about food and food education.             


Janssen said...

In the last couple of weeks, I've read a lot of negative things about Bringing Up Bebe, and I guess I really liked it because I didn't see it as a parenting manual as much as a really interesting read about different parenting styles.

I absolutely agree that as far as useful information about how to raise your own child, French Children Eat Everything is FAR superb.

yola said...

I found French Kids Eat Everything interesting too! I don't have kids, but I found myself thinking about my own eating habits and realized how socially taught a lot of it is. Like I've somehow thought that rewarding myself with (bad) food was ok. Rewarding myself with great food at every meal with sane portions, balanced nutrition, and variety is the all-around reward. Unfortunately I had to return the book to the library before I could finish it, but it was certainly intriguing learning about food as social custom.


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