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Difficult, moi? Feeding les enfants, French style

Modern parents are bombarded with controversial child-rearing manuals – and the guru of the moment is Pamela Druckerman, advocate of the 'French style'. Charlotte Philby meets her

Charlotte Philby
Saturday 19 May 2012 00:00 BST

Pamela Druckerman lives several floors up on a lively boulevard in central Paris. At the door to the apartment she shares with her husband Simon and their three young children, the American author of French Children Don't Throw Food flits between one conversation, in French, with an electrician, and another with me, in English, apologising for the "chaos": "We had a sleepover last night, one of the kids was awake at 5am. I'm not in the habit of doing that for other people's children – what do I say to his mum?"

Druckerman has just returned from dropping her six-year-old daughter at school, while her sons – three-year-old twins – are at nursery. I wait in the living room for a few minutes while she changes into a black dress; the flat is quiet but for the sound of rain beating against large windows. If this is the chaos of parenthood, sign me up. In the flesh, Druckerman is slim and composed, unrecognisable from the anxious, bloated ex-pat described at the start of her bestselling parenting bible, which tells the story of her personal metamorphosis from neurotic New Yorker to poised Parisian.

In the book, by way of anecdotal evidence and some scientific research, Druckerman makes the case that French children are better-behaved than their British and American equivalents, and Gallic grown-ups generally more satisfied by their parenting experience. Since its publication in March this year, the book has topped countless bestseller lists across the world, in the process making Druckerman a household name. Last month, Time Magazine nominated the 42-year-old writer as one of the most influential people in the world, alongside Barack Obama and Lady Gaga. She was as surprised as anyone to be nominated. "My husband's first response was, 'But you're not even the most influential person in this apartment!'." Nevertheless, the level of success has been unprecedented. Just managing the publicity and book tours, she says, has become "a full-time job".

T he seed for French Children Don't Throw Food was planted in 2006 on a beach holiday in France with her husband, Simon, and their then 18-month-old daughter. While families around them enjoyed lunch together, their toddlers "sitting contentedly in their high-chairs, waiting for their food or eating fish or vegetables", she watched aghast as her daughter lobbed bread across the room, transforming their table into a crime scene. Over the course of 14 chapters, such as 'I Adore This Baguette' and 'Let Him Live His Life', Druckerman draws a vision of French women as rational, intuitive and self-assured. In chapter one, "the ideal Parisienne 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". Her "Anglophone" equivalent is neurotic, controlling and obsessed with her offspring; she is incapable of trusting her own instinct, treating her pregnancy "like an independent research project". While English-speaking mothers bloat and fret, pushing their babies from one developmental stage to the next, the maman gets on with life, refusing to forgo sex, her slender figure or immaculate style: "[They] pride themselves on being able to detach and relax," she notes. "Pleasure" is still a priority.

The unscientific notion that French children are particularly well-behaved has been met with some derision, not least from the Mumsnet brigade, one of whom quips, "They are just as brattish and arsey as English children". But what is interesting – and understated – in Druckerman's research is the performance of the French state and the impact that has on the early parenting experience. In France, people from all income brackets fall over themselves to get their children into state crèches, where staff are trained to very high levels; compare this with recent reports exposing illiteracy in nursery staff in the UK. "France trumps the US and Britain on nearly every measure of maternal and infant health. The infant mortality rate is 29 per cent lower in France than it is in the UK, and the under-five mortality rate is 50 per cent lower in France," Druckerman points out in chapter two, 'Paris is Burping'. Despite spending less of their GDP on healthcare in France than in Britain, the experience for women giving birth across the Channel – where 87 per cent of women have epidurals – is generally much more positive, she says, with women feeling physically and emotionally "accompanied" throughout the process.

"It's not a perfect system," Druckerman tells me over tea. "They're not very good at teaching you how to breastfeed, for example, but you're kept in for days after birth, they teach you in the hospital how to care, how to change a nappy". The French, she notes, do not make a virtue of suffering.

In order to get a taste of Gallic parenting in action, I have brought along my daughter, 18-month-old Rosabel. She is, in the main, well-behaved on the train journey from King's Cross, though I find myself apologising endlessly to the people in our carriage as she repeats the words to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", and – inexplicably – "Can't! Can't! Can't!" in rotation, at the top of her lungs.

En route, I devise a list of questions to help Druckerman instill in me the essence of Parisian parenting prowess. I put my questions to the author over lunch. Rosabel spends five minutes sucking and spitting fistfuls of pistachios and pomegranate at our hostess before spotting her toy monkey at the other side of the room, and chanting "Out! Out! Out!". Before I can lunge at her, Druckerman intervenes. "Explain quietly and firmly why they have to do what you want them to do," she says. "Stick to your guns, and keep calm." It works, but it is, well, I hasten to add, rather obvious. "The French have not come up with shocking Nobel Prize-winning solutions," Druckerman says. "They have common-sense methods and they stick to them."

Since publishing her book, Druckerman has received a number of letters from grandparents and teachers who note that the approach of nurturing rather than worshipping children is reminiscent of the old days, and also what is widely considered best teaching practice: setting boundaries and sticking to them in order to teach kids what limits are, giving them something to push against in order to help them feel safe. What is packaged here as French parenting is, in fact, known by many other names. "I've had other letters saying 'This is Montessori exactly,' or 'This is what this Hungarian expert talks about'," Druckerman agrees. "There are certain things that work, and people have presented them and given them different names. I'm presenting them like this." Who can blame her? The baby industry is booming – worth more than £1.1bn in the UK alone at last count – and the market for parenting literature, packaged and repackaged, has never been stronger. According to a piece in Publisher's Weekly last month, the number of new childcare books coming on to the market has doubled, from 20 submissions in 2010 to 44 new titles last year in the US. It is not a singularly American phenomenon; most of these titles soon crop up on British nursery shelves, and along with more extreme publications – such as the forthcoming title from Dara-Lynn Weiss, whose controversial article in Vogue detailing her battle with her seven-year-old daughter's 'weight problem', promptly resulted in a book deal – exotic niches are a popular format.

French Children Don't Throw Food is not the first title to cash in on the aspirational vision of the foreign superwoman, coming hot on the heels of last year's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a manifesto from unapologetically competitive American-Chinese mum-turned-parenting-guru, Amy Chua. When it comes to cultural copycatting, the French 'joie de vivre' is endlessly appealing.

Buy your copy of Druckerman's book online and expect to be directed towards a 'few more titles you might like' including French Women Don't Get Fat, French Children Don't Fuss, and What French Women Know. Last month, Paris-born philosophy professor and author Elisabeth Badinter's European bestseller, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women – a contentious diatribe against breastfeeding among many other things – was translated into English. It is clear why her publishers felt this was the right moment. But since when was raising a child an exact science?

Druckerman grew up in Miami in the early Seventies. Her father worked in advertising; her mother, who owned a shop and ran her own business, gave up work for a while when Pamela and her younger brother were kids: "We came home one day and she'd spent the day making pickles; my brother and I were like, 'This has gone too far. You've got to get a job'." It was overall, she says, an all-American Jewish childhood: "This was America in the 1970s. I did ballet lessons and piano lessons and I went to summer camp, but not all on the same day."

After high school, Druckerman moved to New York. She joined the Wall Street Journal and met Simon Kuper – a sports journalist from London – in Buenos Aires, while working for the foreign desk; after being made redundant from the journal in 2002, she and Simon got in touch and a few months later she sold all her stuff and moved to Paris to be with him. They had their first child in 2003, when Pamela was in her late thirties.

While the average first-time mother in the UK is 27 years old, for the middle classes it is often much higher. "All my friends were in their late thirties or early forties," Druckerman says. "When you have kids later there's so much more deliberation involved, you might only be able to have one child; there's so much more intention in everything you do."

Late parenting, she says, is further complicated by the tyranny of choice: "When you're further along in your career, you probably have more money and more means; you have to stop yourself from giving your child too much. Whereas, if you're in twenties you might just get by."

The collective anxiety about inflicting the same problems on the next generation is one of a number of other factors converging to create an environment where children are all-powerful, she says: "Things have swung to the other extreme, now we feel that everything has to be about the kids."

A shift in parenting attitudes in the Western world can in part be traced back to America under Bill Clinton: "In the Nineties there was all this new research into brain development, with evidence saying poor kids fall behind in school because no one is talking to them at home, no one is reading to them. And middle-class parents seized on this research."

Swinging to the other extreme, she says, America has since seen the rise of the devoted 'Tribeca Mum', who can be found in parks in the nicer parts of NYC narrating their toddler's every move, cramming their children with information, desperately optimising their development with every breath. In recent years, this phenomenon has gone global; and it is, in fact, largely a middle-class rather than a geographic trend, Druckerman concedes: "I've got letters from all over the world saying what you're describing as American parenting is Chilean middle-class parenting, or it is Finnish middle-class parenting, or it is Slovak middle-class parenting."

'Oprah-culture' has a part to play in the rise of obsessive child-rearing, too. "You don't have to be in therapy to know the basic assumptions and to be scared that you're going to damage your kids somehow." This spring of hyper-attentive, affluent first-time mothers has created a ripe environment for manufacturers and publishers hoping to cash in – all over the world.

Yet in France – unlike most other Western countries – Druckerman insists, there isn't the same level of middle-class angst. "It is a more centralised country. For the book, I did interview mostly people in Paris with university degrees, but I also spent a lot of time in crèches with workers from all over the country, and I read lots of books... The slim mother-of-three who is also a corporate lawyer may be a very Parisian model," she observes. "But she is likely to agree in parenting terms with someone who is middle-class from Toulouse."

Where the French really excel, she concludes, is in their ability to "clear away the white noise, and all the conflicting advice from different books and gurus that we rely on. Instead, they trust their instincts and home in on a couple of key things that really work." While there are plenty of French parenting books, magazines and websites, she says, "these aren't required reading and nobody seems to consume them in bulk".

Druckerman doesn't miss the irony. She smiles and gently wipes at a piece of partially masticated penne stuck to Rosabel's forehead: "I hope I haven't contributed to the sum of anxiety in the world by writing this book – that was not my intention," she says. "I just wanted to write something that was fun to read."

Bringing up baby

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: A manifesto for competitive parents by American-Chinese Amy Chua, it was the controversial hit of last year

What To Expect When You Are Expecting: First published in 1984, Heidi Murkoff's book has sold 15 million copiesand inspires a new film starring Cameron Diaz

The Heavy: A suggested title for Dara-Lynn Weiss's contentious forthcoming book about raising kids to watch what they eat, commissioned by Random House

Beyond The Sling: Child-actress-turned-writer Mayim Bialik's 'Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way' divided critics when it was released this year

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