french children don’t throw food
When my daughter is eighteen months old, my husband and I decide to take her on a little summer holiday. We pick a coastal town that’s a few hours by train from Paris, where we’ve been living (I’m American, he’s British), and we book a hotel room with a crib. She’s our only child at this point, so forgive us for thinking: How hard could it be?
We have breakfast at the hotel. But we have to eat lunch and dinner at the little seafood restaurants around the old port. We quickly discover that two restaurant meals a day, with a toddler, deserve to be their own circle of hell. Bean is briefly interested in food: a piece of bread or anything fried. But within a few minutes she starts spilling salt shakers and tearing apart sugar packets. Then she demands to be sprung from her high chair so she can dash around the restaurant and bolt dangerously toward the docks.
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 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 calamari 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 vacation. 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. And anyway, I hadn’t been watching them. Before I had a child, I never paid attention to anyone else’s. And now I mostly just look at 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.
Once I start thinking about French parenting, I realize it’s not just mealtime that’s 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 ever need to rush off the phone 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 American kids I meet are on mono-diets of pasta or white rice, or eat only a narrow menu of “kids” foods, whereas most of 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 American mothers I know in Paris are horrified that French mothers barely breastfeed and let their four-year-olds walk around with pacifiers.
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 it’s increasingly clear to me that, quietly and en masse, French parents are achieving outcomes that create a whole different atmosphere for family life. When 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.1 They know about pedophiles, allergies, and choking hazards. They take reasonable precautions. But they aren’t panicked about their children’s well-being. This calmer outlook makes them better at both establishing boundaries and giving their kids some autonomy.
I’m hardly the first to point out that middle-class America has a parenting problem. In hundreds of books and articles this problem has been painstakingly diagnosed, critiqued, and named: overparenting, hyperparenting, helicopter parenting, and, my personal favorite, the kindergarchy. One writer defines the problem as “simply paying more attention to the upbringing of children than can possibly be good for them.”2 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 American parenting, least of all parents themselves.
So why do we do it? Why does this American way of parenting seem to be hardwired into our generation, even if—like me—you’ve left the country? First, in the 1990s, 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.3
Around the same period, the gap between rich and poor Americans began getting much wider. Suddenly, it seemed that parents needed to groom their children to join the new elite. Exposing kids to the right stuff early on—and perhaps ahead of other children the same age—started to seem more urgent.
Alongside this competitive parenting was a growing belief that kids are psychologically fragile. Today’s young parents are part of the most psychoanalyzed 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, and we’re determined to act more selflessly than we believe our own parents did.
And although the rate of violent crime in the United States has plunged since its peak in the early 1990s,4 news reports create the impression that children are at greater physical risk than ever. We feel that we’re parenting in a very dangerous world, and that we must be perpetually vigilant.
The result of all this is a parenting style that’s stressful 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. Why don’t French children throw food? And why aren’t their parents shouting? What is the invisible, civilizing force that the French have harnessed? Can I change my wiring and apply it to my own offspring?
I realize I’m on to something when I discover a research study5 led by an economist at Princeton, in which mothers in Columbus, Ohio, said child care was more than twice as unpleasant as comparable mothers in the city of Rennes, France, did. This bears out my own observations in Paris and on trips back home to the United States: there’s something about the way the French parent 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 diaper bag. Every doctor’s visit, dinner party, playdate, 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. To 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 from ‘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 around 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. Most of the parents I meet live in Paris and its suburbs. Most have university degrees and professional jobs and earn above the French average. They aren’t the superrich or the media elites. They’re the educated middle and upper-middle classes. So are the American parents I compare them to.
Still, when I travel around France I see that middle-class Parisians’ basic views on how to raise kids would sound familiar to a working-class mother in the French provinces. Indeed, I’m struck that while French parents may not know exactly what they do, they all seem to be doing more or less the same things. Well-off lawyers, caregivers in French day-care centers, public-school teachers, and old ladies who chastise me in the park all spout the same basic principles. 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 takes the basic 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 problems in American parenting. On the one hand, middle-class 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 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 all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—often just toddling around by themselves.
And the French are doing a lot of parenting. While its neighbors are suffering from population declines, France is having a baby boom. In the European Union, only the Irish have a higher birth rate.6
The French have all kinds of public services that surely help make having kids more appealing and less stressful. Parents don’t have to pay for preschool, worry about health insurance, or save for college. Many get monthly cash allotments—wired directly into their bank accounts—just for having kids.
But these public services don’t explain all 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 category that deals with punishment. Whereas “educating” (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 American child rearing. There are dozens of books offering Americans 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 backward 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.
are you waiting for a child?
It’s ten in the morning when the managing editor summons me to his office and tells me to get my teeth cleaned. He says my dental plan will end on my last day at the newspaper. That will be in five weeks, he says.
More than two hundred of us are laid off that day. The news briefly boosts our parent company’s stock price. I own some shares and consider selling them—for irony rather than profit—to cash in on my own dismissal.
Instead, I walk around lower Manhattan in a stupor. Fittingly, it’s raining. I stand under a ledge and call the man I’m supposed to see that night.
“I’ve just been laid off,” I say.
“Aren’t you devastated?” he asks. “Do you still want to have dinner?”
In fact, I’m relieved. I’m finally free of a job that—after nearly six years—I hadn’t had the guts to quit. I was a reporter for the foreign desk in New York, covering elections and financial crises in Latin America. I’d often be dispatched on a few hours’ notice, then spend weeks living out of hotels. For a while, my bosses were expecting great things from me. They talked about future editorships. They paid for me to learn Portuguese.
Only suddenly they aren’t expecting anything. And strangely, I’m okay with that. I really liked movies about foreign correspondents. But actually being one was different. Usually I was all alone, shackled to an unending story, fielding calls from editors who just wanted more. The men working the same beat as me managed to pick up Costa Rican and Colombian wives, who traveled around with them. At least they had dinner on the table when they finally slogged home. The men I went out with were less portable. And anyway, I rarely stayed in a city long enough to reach the third date.
Although I’m relieved to be leaving the paper, I’m unprepared to become socially toxic. In the week or so after the layoffs, when I still come into the office, colleagues treat me like I’m contagious. People I’ve worked with for years say nothing or avoid my desk. One workmate takes me out for a farewell lunch, then won’t walk back into the building with me. Long after I clear out my desk, my editor—who was out of town when the ax fell—insists that I return to the office for a humiliating debriefing, in which he suggests that I apply for a lower-ranking job, then rushes off to lunch.
I’m suddenly clear about two things: I don’t want to write about politics or money anymore. And I want a boyfriend. I’m standing in my three-foot-wide kitchen, wondering what to do with the rest of my life, when Simon calls. We met six months earlier at a bar in Buenos Aires, when a mutual friend brought him to a foreign correspondents’ night out. He’s a British journalist who was in Argentina for a few days to write a story about soccer. I’d been sent to cover the country’s economic collapse. Apparently, we were on the same flight from New York. He remembered me as the lady who’d held up boarding when, already on the gangway, I realized that I’d left my duty-free purchase in the departure lounge and insisted on going back to fetch it. (I did most of my shopping in airports.)
Simon was exactly my type: swarthy, stocky, and smart. (Though he’s of average height, he later adds “short” to this list, since he grew up in Holland among blond giants.) Within a few hours of meeting him, I realized that “love at first sight” just means feeling immediately and extremely calm with someone. Though all I said at the time was, “We definitely must not sleep together.”
I was smitten, but wary. Simon had just fled the London real-estate market to buy a cheap apartment in Paris. I was commuting between South America and New York. A long-distance relationship with someone on a third continent seemed a stretch. After that meeting in Argentina, we exchanged occasional e-mails. But I didn’t let myself take him too seriously. I hoped that there were swarthy, smart men in my time zone.
Fast-forward seven months. When Simon calls out of the blue and I tell him that I’ve just been sacked, he doesn’t emote or treat me like damaged goods. To the contrary, he seems pleased that I suddenly have some free time. He says he feels that we have “unfinished business,” and that he’d like to come to New York.
“That’s a terrible idea,” I say. What’s the point? He can’t move to America because he writes about European soccer. I don’t speak French, and I’ve never considered living in Paris. Though I’m suddenly quite portable myself, I’m wary of being pulled into someone else’s orbit before I have one of my own again.
Simon arrives in New York wearing the same beat-up leather jacket he wore in Argentina and carrying the bagel and smoked salmon that he’d picked up at the deli near my apartment. A month later I meet his parents in London. Six months later I sell most of my possessions and ship the rest to France. My friends all tell me that I’m being rash. I ignore them and walk out of my rent-stabilized studio apartment in New York with three giant suitcases and a box of stray South American coins, which I give to the Pakistani driver who takes me to the airport.
And poof, I’m a Parisian. I move into Simon’s two-room bachelor pad in a former carpentry district in eastern Paris. With my unemployment checks still arriving, I ditch financial journalism and begin researching a book. Simon and I each work in one of the rooms during the day.
The shine comes off our new romance almost immediately, mostly because of interior design issues. I once read in a book about feng shui that having piles of stuff on the floor is a sign of depression. For Simon, it just seems to signal an aversion to shelves. He has cleverly invested in an enormous unfinished wooden table that fills most of the living room, and a primitive gas-heating system, which ensures that there’s no reliable hot water. I’m especially irked by his habit of letting spare change from his pockets spill onto the floor, where it somehow gathers in the corners of each room. “Get rid of the money,” I plead.
I don’t find much comfort outside our apartment either. Despite being in the gastronomic capital of the world, I can’t figure out what to eat. Like most American women, I arrive in Paris with extreme food preferences. (I’m an Atkins-leaning vegetarian.) Walking around, I feel besieged by all the bakeries and meat-heavy restaurant menus. For a while I subsist almost entirely on omelets and goat-cheese salads. When I ask waiters for “dressing on the side,” they look at me like I’m nuts. I don’t understand why French supermarkets stock every American cereal except my personal favorite, Grape-Nuts, and why cafés don’t serve fat-free milk.
I know it sounds ungrateful not to swoon for Paris. Maybe I find it shallow to fall for a city just because it’s so good-looking. The cities I’ve had love affairs with in the past were all a bit, well, swarthier: São Paulo, Mexico City, New York. They didn’t sit back and wait to be admired.
Our part of Paris isn’t even that beautiful. And daily life is filled with small disappointments. No one mentions that “springtime in Paris” is so celebrated because the preceding seven months are overcast and freezing. (I arrive, conveniently, at the beginning of this seven-month stretch.) And while I’m convinced that I remember my eighth-grade French, Parisians have another name for what I’m speaking to them: Spanish.
There are many appealing things about Paris. I like it that the doors of the metro open a few seconds before the train actually stops, suggesting that the city treats its citizens like adults. I also like that, within six months of my arrival, practically everyone I know in America comes to visit, including people I’d later learn to categorize as “Facebook friends.” Simon and I eventually develop a strict admissions policy and rating system for houseguests. (Hint: If you stay a week, leave a gift.)
I’m not bothered by the famous Parisian rudeness. At least that’s interactive. What gets me is the indifference. No one but Simon seems to care that I’m here. And he’s often off nursing his own Parisian fantasy, which is so uncomplicated it has managed to endure. As far as I can tell, Simon has never visited a museum. But he describes reading the newspaper in a café as an almost transcendent experience. One night at a neighborhood restaurant, he swoons when the waiter sets down a cheese plate in front of him.
“This is why I live in Paris!” he declares. I realize that, by the transitive property of love and cheese, I must live in Paris for that smelly plate of cheese, too.
To be fair, I’m starting to think that it’s not Paris, it’s me. New York likes its women a bit neurotic. They’re encouraged to create a brainy, adorable, conflicted bustle around themselves—à la Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally or Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Despite having nothing more serious than boy troubles, many of my friends in New York were spending more on therapy than on rent.
That persona doesn’t fly in Paris. The French do like Woody Allen’s movies. But in real life, the ideal Parisian woman is calm, discreet, a bit remote, and extremely decisive. She orders from the menu. She doesn’t blather on about her childhood or her diet. If New York is about the woman who’s ruminating about her past screwups and fumbling to find herself, Paris is about the one who—at least outwardly—regrets nothing. In France “neurotic” isn’t a self-deprecating half boast; it’s a clinical condition.
Even Simon, who’s merely British, is perplexed by my self-doubt and my frequent need to discuss our relationship.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask him periodically, usually when he’s reading a newspaper.
“Dutch football,” he invariably says.
I can’t tell if he’s serious. I’ve realized that Simon is in a state of perpetual irony. He says everything, including “I love you,” with a little smirk. And yet he almost never actually laughs, even when I’m attempting a joke. (Some close friends don’t know that he has dimples.) Simon insists that not smiling is a British habit. But I’m sure I’ve seen Englishmen laugh. And anyway, it’s demoralizing that when I finally get to speak English with someone, he doesn’t seem to be listening.
The not laughing also points to a wider cultural gulf between us. As an American, I need things to be spelled out. On the train back to Paris after a weekend with Simon’s parents, I ask him whether they liked me.
“Of course they liked you, couldn’t you tell?” he asks.
“But did they say they liked me?” I demand to know.
In search of other company, I trek across town on a series of “friend blind dates,” with friends of friends from back home. Most are expatriates, too. None seem thrilled to hear from a clueless new arrival. Quite a few seem to have made “living in Paris” a kind of job in itself, and an all-purpose answer to the question “What do you do?” Many show up late, as if to prove that they’ve gone native. (I later learn that French people are typically on time for one-on-one meetings. They’re only fashionably late for group events, including children’s birthdays.)
My initial attempts to make French friends are even less successful. At a party, I hit it off reasonably well with an art historian who’s about my age and who speaks excellent English. But when we meet again for tea at her house, it’s clear that we observe vastly different female bonding rituals. I’m prepared to follow the American model of confession and mirroring, with lots of comforting “me-too’s.” She pokes daintily at her pastry and discusses theories of art. I leave hungry, and not even knowing whether she has a boyfriend.
The only mirroring I get is in a book by Edmund White, the American writer who lived in France in the 1980s. He’s the first person who affirms that feeling depressed and adrift is a perfectly rational response to living in Paris. “Imagine dying and being grateful you’d gone to heaven, until one day (or one century) it dawned on you that your main mood was melancholy, although you were constantly convinced that happiness lay just around the next corner. That’s something like living in Paris for years, even decades. It’s a mild hell so comfortable that it resembles heaven.”
• • •
Despite my doubts about Paris, I’m still pretty sure about Simon. I’ve become resigned to the fact that “swarthy” inevitably comes with “messy.” And I’ve gotten better at reading his micro-expressions. A flicker of a smile means that he’s gotten the joke. The rare full smile suggests high praise. He even occasionally says “that was funny” in a monotone.
I’m also encouraged by the fact that, for a curmudgeon, Simon has dozens of devoted, longtime friends. Perhaps it’s that, behind the layers of irony, he is charmingly helpless. He can’t drive a car, blow up a balloon, or fold clothes without using his teeth. He fills our refrigerator with unopened canned goods. For expediency’s sake, he cooks everything at the highest temperature. (College friends later tell me he was known at school for serving drumsticks that were charred on the outside and still frozen on the inside.) When I show him how to make salad dressing using oil and vinegar, he writes down the recipe and still pulls it out years later whenever he makes dinner.
Also to Simon’s credit, nothing about France ever bothers him. He’s in his element being a foreigner. His parents are anthropologists who raised him all over the world and trained him from birth to delight in local customs. He’d lived in six countries (including a year in the United States) by the time he was ten. He acquires languages the way I acquire shoes.
I decide that, for Simon’s sake, I’ll give France a real go. We get married outside Paris at a thirteenth-century château, which is surrounded by a moat. (I ignore the symbolism.) In the name of marital harmony, we rent a larger apartment. I order bookshelves from IKEA and position spare-change bowls in every room. I try to channel my inner pragmatist instead of my inner neurotic. In restaurants, I start ordering straight from the menu and nibbling at the occasional hunk of foie gras. My French starts to sound less like excellent Spanish and more like very bad Fren...