Why French Mums Are Cool
Today I was boring a friend with yet another story of my daughter waking up in the night and screaming – ‘MUM COME GET ME!’ and he wearily rolled his eyes.
‘French Mums never have that problem,’ he said, ‘Their kids are always well behaved.’
‘I’ve heard that before,’ I replied.
And I have. Many times.
In fact it seems that whenever I bring up any personal story of toddler misdemeanour I get the ‘French parenting – it’s ace isn’t it,’ lecture. And this was a good friend; he has children of his own and often offers up an interesting perspective. He’s multilingual, has lived in lots of different countries and is the cleverest person I know. He’s not one of those people who enjoy taking a poke at my parenting skills for the hell of it put it that way.
‘We had dinner with a bunch of friends recently,’ he explained, ‘And all the French kids sat at the table and waited for the food to arrive and then played nicely on their own. The English kids were out of control and kept interrupting their parents all the time.’
‘I know,’ I said, ‘What’s that about? My daughter is always shouting ‘WHAT YOU TALKING ABOUT MUMMY? Whenever I’m trying to chat to a friend.’
‘French Mums wouldn’t put up with that shit,’ my friend said.
I nodded. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t.
Now I’ve always loved French women (in a figurative rather than romantic way). I love their clothes. I love the way they throw an ensemble together that would make most women (or more accurately myself) look like a bloke. I love the fact that when they smoke they look sexy. I basically have a truckload of clichés baking away in my brain that are based on French actresses – Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant (I mean how many women can get away with being called FANNY?) and Béatrice Dalle in particular. I also love Jane Birkin but I know she’s not French (but has lived there long enough to be cool). French women don’t wear saggy knickers. And they don’t change radically when they have kids. They probably don’t cry or get milk leaking out of their breasts whilst talking to the man in the corner shop. Just an aside – have you noticed that French slogans are still really popular on T-shirts? Do you think French women wear English slogans? I doubt it.
And their kids are cool too. They’re well behaved (which isn’t cool if you’re a rock star but is certainly cool enough for me thank you).
I’m obviously not the first person to have come to this conclusion. Pamela Druckerman wrote a popular child-rearing book – ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’ a couple of years ago. In it she compared her experiences raising kids the more permissive, laissez fair American way versus the stricter, more boundary-defined way of the French. One of the key things she points out is the importance of ‘waiting’ in the French parenting regime. They don’t rush in at the first sign of wailing/shouting. They allow the baby/toddler to self-settle. They also don’t make funky little kids meals with specific kid-friendly stuff. They expect them to eat endive, celery and walnuts (or whatever the grown ups are eating).
They’re also really good at clearly communicating the importance of ‘adult time’ (which isn’t something kinky but is simply time set aside for adults to talk adult stuff and not have food thrown in their face). All to often I’m having a conversation with another Mum and we stop because one of our kids is shouting and instead of saying ‘I’m trying to have a chat here- go away please,’ one of us will say – ‘Yes the snail DOES poke his ears away when you stab him with a stick!’ French Mums wouldn’t do this. A French Mum looks at her kid and with one glance says- THIS IS MY TIME NOW. GO AMUSEZ-VOUS YOURSELF (not sure this is proper French but you get the idea).
I don’t want to steer hard into the ‘children should be seen at not heard’ route of the past but there are times when I look around and think ‘Am I the boss in this situation?’ And if not who is?
At the moment I am going through something of a sleep deprivation crisis (I know -yawn yawn) and I’m veering from one parenting style to another depending on levels of tiredness. I start the evening off being my slightly too permissive English-style parent. I read stories, give cuddles, sing songs (for some reason it’s Christmas songs at the moment) but then once my daughter refuses to go to sleep I bypass the French Mum model (cool yet directive) and move straight onto the crazy – Mum model (wild eyes, pleading, wagging finger in face, bribery). And this isn’t what I want. I want some of that cool French parenting stuff. So do I put on some Serge Gainsbourg and dance out of the room to smoke a Gauloise? (ignoring the shouting and shrieking) Or do I simply say NON, toss on a silky nightie and flounce downstairs? (and watch a Fanny Ardent film to strengthen my resolve?)
There are no simple answers. But it’s pretty obvious that I can’t be a French Mum. I’m not French. My parents were born in the Midlands. I grew up in South London. I can’t get my hair cut in a ‘gamine-style’ without looking like I’ve just escaped from prison. If I throw my clothes on without any effort I look like a tramp.
But I need boundaries. And I’d like my kid to eat endive (once I find out exactly what it is) and I would definitely like them to sleep without me having to jump through lots of hoops.
Why didn’t anyone tell me about this whole French parenting thing earlier? Why didn’t anyone tell me I needed to be cool?