On our daughters’ first daunting day of French school, we were not reassured at the sight of parents swooping past the school in a variety of large vehicles, then opening the car doors and hurling various small offspring and their enormous cartables out into the middle of the road before speeding off without so much as a backward glance. I have to admit that I have rather lost track of whether French Children Don’t Throw Food or not, such has been the fierceness of the polarised debate on French versus “Anglo-Saxon” methods of child-rearing since Pamela Druckerman’s book first came out in 2012. However, on that first day of school it seemed that the British stereotype of French parenting was justified: ejecting children from cars and telling them to tais-toi whenever they said anything even slightly irritating were characteristics broadly indicative of an unsentimental, even callous, approach to parenting.
Living in France, you have no choice but to welcome a vast number of French habits into your family life. It is, for example, futile to resist the insinuation of a cheese course into every meal from the day on which your child first comes home from the school cantine and requests some 30-month-aged comté, or a piece of St Marcellin before they will even consider eating a crème caramel. Similarly, we fairly swiftly adapted to a French family timetable. This dictates that breakfast (comprised mostly of sugary cereal soaked in a large bowl of coffee) is eaten before work and school; lunch is eaten at no later than midday and lasts for at least an hour; anyone under the age of 6 is expected to sleep for at least an hour after lunch; a sizeable goûter is eaten after school at 16h30 (my fervent belief is that, if you do the school run, you are just as entitled as your children to eating an entire slab of chocolate wrapped up in a baguette at this time); dinner is eaten as a family once the baguette-winner gets in (by 19h, of course); and bedtime for the children is any time from 20h onwards.
Having followed this gruelling regime for over a year now, I can report that, without ever having resorted to la fessée (spanking), we have noticed some pleasant changes. Our childrens’ table manners have improved, for one: our oldest daughter no longer gnaws at her food with her mouth open like some small ape; they can both use a knife and fork correctly; and we are frequently upbraided by both children for not having provided napkins with every place setting. Following a visit by one school friend who thought that everything we did, including our provision of melamine plates for the kids, was drôlement anglais, the children now have glass glasses and china plates. Yet the biggest change is not in the girls, but in us. Instead of watching in passive horror as they smear tomato ketchup over the largest possible surface area, we find ourselves roaring with laughter at the conversations we have with them, lingering at the table because we are actually enjoying their company, instead of counting the seconds until they go to bed.
Has this happened because we have adopted unsentimental French parenting techniques? Well no. It’s all about the rhythm of life here. It seems to me that our life in London was designed in order to enable us to avoid contact with our children as much as possible. For all the cult-like adherence in the UK to attachment parenting, co-sleeping, breast-feeding until the child reaches its majority, sling-wearing and baby-led weaning, it strikes me that the stereotypical UK parent really doesn’t enjoy their children that much. All that self-immolation is rather wearing, so English families still feed their offspring tea at 5.30 and pack them off to bed as early as possible so that the parents can finally “get on with their lives” and relax. Here in France, children are an integral part of family life: they eat with their parents and they participate in the conversation. Life does not stop when they are around, nor start when they are not. Because they are part of our lives, they demand less special treatment in theirs (who knew that all it would take would be a daily dose of boeuf bourguignon to bring about the much-longed for death knell for interminable games of hide-and-seek?).
Whether or not French parents show their children who is the chef, and whether or not French children wish all adults a polite bonjour, there is something to be said for the positive impact that the French way of life has on family existence, and begrudgingly I have found myself admiring the French way. That said, it will be a long time before you catch me doing the school run in a pair of leather trousers.