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 realise, 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.

As a teacher I often witness parents who want to be friends with their children (at the cost of being their parents), parents who have children who ‘can do no wrong’ – it’s always another child’s fault or the teacher’s, as well as the parents for whom ‘no’ must be a dirty word – a word which could irrecoverably destroy their child’s self-esteem… So, understandably, I was quite taken with the above quote and promptly decided that this book would be a must read. And it is.

This book challenges you to consider your mind set or philosophy of parenting and of children, 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. It is by far the most insightful book on parenting I’ve read. It covers topics such as discipline, manners, child care, the unattainable ‘perfect mother’ trap and parent-child interaction – just to name a few! All this is covered in the chatty, relaxed observations and reflections of an American mother living in Paris. This is not a ‘how to’ book of parenting, but a complete mind shift on what you view parenting to be. But I warn you, if you don’t like to self reflect and have your ideas challenged, this is not the book for you.

One of the main ideas the book keeps coming back to, is the obsessive nature of modern American parenting. To which I fear, Australia is not far behind. The idea that children, if schooled up properly, can jump through Piaget’s stages of development faster, will be more intelligent and experience more success than their peers. Druckerman includes comments and observations from a host of different authorities, such as sociologist Annette Lareau who observed middle-class Americans who see “their children as a project”, and who “seek to develop their talents and skills through a series of organised activities, through an intensive process of reasoning and language development, and through close supervision of their experiences in school.” Where as Druckerman observes that 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.

There are a few core understandings. Typically one you encounter in the first few hours of being a parent – listen to your child cry before you attend to them. Rather than rushing to them the minute they cry, listen. Sounds obvious. It should be, but it is so easy to assume that when your beloved child is in distress they might need you. Speaking from my own experience, it turns out that quite often they don’t. Druckerman goes on to explain that by stopping and listening to your child, you learn to observe your child, enabling you to gain a greater understanding of what they want and need. This also starts your child’s journey into learning patience and an understanding that instant gratification is unrealistic. I think it is quite humbling, but also joyous, to see your child settle themselves, or to realise that it’s not a hunger cry (as the busy-body stranger in the shopping centre is trying to tell you it is) but it’s in fact a “I need to fart/burp” cry. You then feel like a supreme parent when they let out that tremendous fart/burp and you can smile knowing you were right – you understood!!

Another fundamental understanding is that your child is rational and capable of understanding. This has a few profound ‘ripples’. If your child is all this, then you should be able to expect them to do things such as be able to sit at a table in a restaurant and eat without needing to run around the restaurant or play with countless toys. By assuming children are too young to understand, we make allowances for poor behaviour, dismissing it because they are too young to know any better. But as Druckerman observes, from a young age, French children are different. Even whilst at creche, French children sit down to three course meal at a table. There is an expectation in France that adults can enjoy a meal and the children will behave in an appropriate manner, that an adult can have a conversation without the constant interruption of a child. After all, as Druckerman notes, a child who can wait makes for a much happier family. But of course, there is also the understanding that they are a child and so the expectations must be realistic – but as parents we also need to be realistic and not underestimate what our children are capable of doing and understanding.

Druckerman explores the idea of ‘cadre’, in that parents are very strict about certain things but very relaxed about others. You don’t argue with your children over things. Be clear about what is important. Druckerman reflects on Rosseau’s advice in how, just because children are able to present well formed arguments, it doesn’t mean that their arguments should be given the same weight as a parents – the parent is and should be the authority. Our children should be refused things when appropriate. It is not realistic to accommodate their every whim – although I know so many parents who feel they should. Again, a quote from Rousseau, “Do you know the surest means of making your child miserable… It is to accustom him to getting everything. Since his desires grow constantly due to the ease of satisfying them, sooner or later powerlessness will force you, in spite of yourself, to end up with a refusal. And this unaccustomed refusal will give him more torment than being deprived of what he desires.” 

I could go on as I found so many of her insights into French parenting fantastic at challenging common views held by society, especially things such as breastfeeding, child care and the whole weight gain issue during and after pregnancy. But I would only be paraphrasing the ideas of someone who articulates them so much more interestingly than I ever could. A definite must read!

If you think you might like to read this book, you can purchase it here. (Please note this is an affiliate link. By purchasing the book through this link you enable me to buy more books for my own children – and do I love to buy books!)

Written by Nadia

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