Parenting in Provence

A few years back New Yorker Pamela Druckerman wrote a best-selling book called French children don’t throw food. The thesis behind the book – based on Druckerman’s experiences living in Paris – was that French parents raised better behaved children than their Anglophone counterparts. According to Pamela the crucial parenting difference was that Gallic children learned patience from an early age. French parents didn’t rush to the crib at the first mewl of their precious darling. Instead they waited until the cries reached a certain pitch. This wait and see attitude apparently continues through French children’s formative years. Mothers first concentrate on themselves, finishing conversations, sitting apart in the playground, and thereby teaching their children patience. A skill which according to Druckerman prevents the entrees from flying in the local bistro.

It all makes nice logical sense. Plus conveniently nothing sells books like dissecting Anglo-Saxon failings into bite-sized chunks and adding them to the feeding frenzy of our Gallic insecurities – French men are better lovers, French women can eat all day without putting on an ounce of weight, French women have better orgasms etc….

I was thinking about all this after a recent disastrous family lunch in Juan Les Pins. It all began well, with one of those beautiful barmy days which reminds me why I live in the south of France. We took the family off to the beach while smugly thinking about friends back home in England already sheltering by their fires.

My wife and I sat back and let the Autumn sun warm our faces. For one of those rare blissful half an hours everybody in our family was happy. Seven year old played happily with five year old and five year old in turn with two year old. There were sand castles and splashing and an all-round sense of well-being. Then came lunch.

The great and the good of Juan Les Pins had decided to avail themselves of one of the last opportunities of the year for lunch on the beach. Everyone was dressed smartly, and despite the high temperatures some of the older ladies had their furs hanging from the back of the chairs. The restaurant wasn’t smart – it was pizza and pasta on the beach, made posh by the clientele, apart that is from us. We brushed as much sand as possible from our summer clothes and sat down. Well, in the case of our two-year, she stood on her chair, and promptly demonstrated that our intense week of potty training had not been as successful as we thought. She didn’t just do a wee, she let go of a torrent that drowned out conversation in the rest of the restaurant.

By this stage in my parenting life I’ve learnt to ignore disapproving looks. Acting as if nothing had happened I took the two year old off to clean her up and then we resumed our lunch. No harm done. The food arrived.

We’d ordered two Spaghetti Bolognese to share between the three children. I started to divide the food up. The two year old shrieked. She put her feet up on the table and kicked as hard as possible. Water and wine overturned. Not finished yet the two year old grabbed fistfuls of pasta and flung them in anger at her sisters. There was no controlling her. Food was flying everywhere, back over our heads onto neighbouring fur coats, into my hair, the only happy thing in the restaurant was a dog which no doubt wondered why it had never rained spaghetti before. Nerves shredded, we ordered another Spaghetti, consoling ourselves with the knowledge that we had learnt another important parenting lesson – our two year old doesn’t share. We finished our meal eavesdropping on a Gallic inquest into the inability of the English to parent.

Later I wondered how a French family would have coped in the same situation. Is the truth as Druckerman would have us believe that they would never have got themselves into that situation in the first place? By two years old a French child would have learnt patience and deferred satisfaction and probably be well versed enough in fractions to supervise the proper division of the two plates…perhaps but I suspect the truth is somewhat more prosaic. Watching earlier on the beach, a French toddler had tried to swim rather than paddle as instructed by his mother.  A raised hand soon put pay to his aspirations. It would also no doubt stop spaghetti throwing but personally, despite being willed on by an entire restaurant, I don’t to corporal punishment.

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