Apart from the title, which my husband shudderingly assured me is a misnomer (I presume he was once traumatised by some little Frenchpeople thoroughly besting him in a food fight), French Children Don’t Throw Food (titled Bringing up Bébé in the US) is an excellent parenting read. I don’t really understand all the resistance it’s received across the Atlantic. Oh, wait no, I do understand. If you’re an urban, middle class American parent, helicopter-parenting for all you’re worth while consumed by guilt, and you read a book in which you painfully recognise your tired self, your strained marriage, and your child-king kidlets, and discover that lo! there is another easier, and much more sanity-inducing way in which you could have been raising charming children while continuing to look chic and fancy your husband all along, it’s not remotely surprising that all that guilt transforms itself into vitriolic anger in less time than it takes you to say Baby Einstein. (Plus, British readers have the benefit of feeling smugly superior to the US throughout, since the utterly demented sounding Park Slope type parenting hasn’t caught hold quite as well among our yummy mummies. I’m sure that goes a long way to easing some of our pain.) All of which makes me suspect that the more angry this book makes you, the more likely you are to need to spend some serious quality time holed up with it and a set of highlighter pens.
Basically, I loved the book because it described largely how I was raised, and how I definitely want to raise any offspring that one day come our way. (It turns out that my mother is a Parisienne! Who knew? Actually, it was evident the first time we all visited that city, but I digress.) I also loved it because it was better than valium for soothing my residual anxieties about breeding. It’s tone is immensely reassuring: It’s OK to let go of your anxieties about which parenting theory is the ‘right’ theory, and just stick to one overall common sense approach! It’s fine to relish your adult life, space and time, and not automatically believe that this will have to be completely turned over to your children without feeling like a selfish, unloving prick! It’s downright recommended that women still remain sensual women and not automatically morph into some strange mumsy other being just due to having reproduced! Feel free to take a relaxed approach, and for God’s sake stop beating yourself up with guilt about everything! Just have some conviction in what you’re doing, and it’ll be fine, and JUST STOP WITH THE GUILT, ALREADY! It’s also hilarious in parts, and because the author basically starts off as a hot neurotic parenting mess, it doesn’t feel preachy, or smug. More, if she can do this, by gum, so can you.
It’s also more than common sense (although, ‘common’ sense ain’t so common anymore, at least not in my professional experience) in that many of the approaches that she puts forward are based in solid child development theory and research. And when in chapter four she started throwing around basic psychoanalytical principles that are thought to underly the development of a secure, resilient, integrated personality, as if they should make up part of every parents’ understanding of how they’re raising their children (they should), I was pretty much sold. The lady clearly knows what she’s talking about. What are we arguing about, then?
And yes, yes, it’s not only French people who parent this way. Pedants. (Case in point: my parents aren’t French. But I’m not buying the argument that small town America does all the same things. Small town America is fat, yo – so there’s at least one very evident, significant difference.) But the observational perspective felt so very true to me. When I wandered round Paris with one of my best friends last spring, both of our ovaries exploding with sap-rising baby fever, we spent an awful lot of time gawking at the women and families around us. They all seemed so… relaxed. The parents looked exactly like the childless adults of similar age. The children were so well behaved, and how on earth did they keep those ridiculously chic outfits clean?
So, even though there was little in the book that felt like genuinely brand new insights to me, that isn’t its point. What it is, is a lot of solid, scientifically backed, sane and soothing parenting sense packed into one well-written, highly readable little book. It makes the whole enterprise of having and raising children seem, well, doable. It shows a way that is straightforward. It highlights that it can be done without guilt and anxiety, and with many an uninterrupted nights’ sleep. Frankly, I don’t understand why we aren’t all moving to France tomorrow.