I’ve just finished reading Pamela Druckerman’s French Children Don’t Throw Food, which has apparently been making the headlines across the pond in the US. An American mother of three in Paris (married to a Brit), Druckerman writes about the wonders of French parenting in a style that’s part exposé/part manifesto.
Through it all she draws a sharp line of distinction between what she refers to as ‘Anglo’ parenting (the majority of parents in the US and the UK) and the way the French do things, which, on most important counts, is very different. From sleeping through the night to breast-feeding, it seems the French all follow a shared set of practices handed down through generations that are now so codified as to not even need referring to – Druckerman calls this system their cadre and refers constantly and enthusiastically to its miraculous results. The first thing, of course, that will strike you is how within the Anglo parenting world, there is no such system. The precise lack of a single system of parenting conventions (the kind that everyone agrees produces results that everyone is happy with) is exactly the reason why, I think, so many Anglo parents spend much of their waking time worrying about whether the school of parenting they’re following for Susie’s teething or or her piano lessons is the right one. In a client presentation the other day, one of our Ogilvy One planners shared this chart below. It got me thinking.
British mums obviously spend a great deal more time and energy worrying about parenting styles than mums in other parts of the world. But does that mean their parenting is any better? Does it mean that mums who think less about parenting issues are doing a worse job? That’s also the question that French Children implicitly asks, and my answer would be, in a word, no. What struck me repeatedly while reading French Children was simply how hard Druckerman had to dig to get at the hidden rules behind French parenting behaviour (and writing a quasi guidebook she couldn’t very well make them up herself via observational gleaning à la Kate Fox) – French mums she spoke to were either reticent about the cadre they followed, or reluctant to specify their specific rules and patterns, often resorting to a ‘you just know’ or ‘that’s just how we do things’ kind of answer. There are many societies in which the way you raise your kids just follows one mainstream, socially accepted, pattern. I would say that I was raised in one myself, in Muslim Bangladesh. I would argue that all majority-Muslim countries (where most of the population are Muslim and public life generally follows an Islamic pattern) share a parenting cadre of their own that’s very much codified by the rules of good adult behaviour set out in the Qur’an. If you’re going to raise your children to be those good adults, of course you’re going to have to drill these habits in early – habits like good hygiene, respect for adults and the elderly, compassion and charity, and so on. Of course I know that there’s a line between deeper moral behaviour and everyday habitual practices, but in Islam as in all the big religions these lines are blurred. Anyway, my point is that there are many, many countries in the world which hold an invisible framework of shared and codified parenting practices. And unsurprisingly it’s in these countries that parents naturally spend the least amount of time wondering about which style of parenting they should espouse.
Which leads us to the question of whether the decline of religion as a source of lifestyle guidance for the majority of the British population today (I wouldn’t be able to say this for America) is what has led, in some part, towards the obsessive and inconclusive debates over parenting that hold sway. You only need a single visit to Mumsnet or Netmums to be convinced about how big this really is, with millions of British mums logging in to opine, advise, nitpick, troll or just surf popular opinion on every imaginable parenting issue from how to deal with the dreaded MIL (mother-in-law) to what to line your DS’s cot with (that’s Dear Son). Someone said to me yesterday that Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet, is going to be awarded a CBE – an indication of how important and influential this collective ‘voice of mums’ is that she’s unleashed into the British public sphere. But I’d be really interested in seeing whether British mums are, on the whole, any closer towards acheiving a sense of consensus over what consitututes good parenting, and the relief that goes with that consensus. The general middle-class thing to say is ‘only you know what’s best’ ( as in that grating Aptamil ad that’s so afraid of the breast-feeding brigade it practically unsells its own product) – but I wonder if all this ‘you know best’ only brings with it a mountain of worries and anxieties that even a basic set of normative rules would have quelled?
All this has been swirling around in the recesses of my mind lately and came to a head recently, when at a wedding, I found myself sat at a table with a toddler and her doting (British) parents. Bored between courses (incidentally, Druckerman is enamored by how French children are never ‘bored’ and ‘needing entertainment’ between courses, signalled also in the way French restaurants welcome children but never crayons), this little girl decided she was going to blow ‘raspberries’ into the palms of all the guests at her table, and proceeded to do so with encouraging prods from her parents. This involved spitting loudly into the other guests’ reluctantly proferred hands and then grinning widely at her doting parents’ coos over her cleverness/cuteness/both. I was, of course, appalled – I can’t fathom how spitting at strangers (however cutely branded) is acceptable public behaviour in a child. I could also sense the general unease felt by more than one other person at the table amidst a growing hope that dessert would arrive soon. Her parents were obviously the least concerned, but what struck me most was how no other adult at the table felt it was their place to lean over and say firmly but kindly to the little girl that yes, it was rather dull to be waiting so long between courses, but that, regrettably, one can’t really spit at strangers to pass the time. This is what would have happened in Bangladesh, and, by the sounds of it, in France. I remember as a child being regularly told off by aunts – of whom I had many and with whom I had the same parent-child dynamic as I did with my parents. These are cultures in which parenting is shouldered as a collective responsibility, and good behaviour is schooled easily by any adult to any child (within bounds) since there is a shared rule-book in the first place.
It strikes me that rather than spend hours taking sides on heated forum debates full of mums in violent disagreement, British parenting would be much better served by a concerted effort to find that shared rule-book, if it ever existed, and figure out what everyone can actually agree on, for a start. Not having even had a child yet, you might say that my tune will change when I do. It may well, but from what I’ve seen so far of both sides, I’m starting to think that parenting by some sort of cadre may be no bad thing.