Mum is 'The Chief': French parenting style

"Bad temper is not tolerated ... because of the French mother's view that her word is law" ... Glenda Cooper
"Bad temper is not tolerated ... because of the French mother's view that her word is law" ... Glenda Cooper 

The French, long regarded as experts in food, wine and fashion, have now cemented another string to their bow - parenting.

While we agonise over our enfants terribles, in France chic mamans preside over impeccably behaved children who like nothing more than tucking into seven-course menus, who never smear mud on their Petit Bateau dresses, and who can certainly never be found lying on their backs in the the street refusing to move until the promise of a babyccino has been extracted.

A new book - Why French Children Don't Talk Back - which is following hot on the heels of recent bestsellers, French Children Don't Throw Food, French Kids Eat Everything and Bringing Up Bebe, is enough to make the non-Gallic mother feel totally inadequate.

The book is the work of Brooklyn writer Catherine Crawford, who, having compared her unruly daughters with those of an expat French friend, decided to adopt a French approach to mothering. It can be summed up in three rules: you, the parent, are le Chef (the Chief) and your word goes; if there is no blood [when a child falls down], don't get up, and - most importantly - drink more wine.

"We are so focused on the child here in the US," says Crawford. "It's different in France. What's good for the mother is good for the family - and that approach sounds wonderful to me."

We are so focused on the child here ... it's different in France. What's good for the mother is good for the family

Elsewhere, if a pregnant woman comes within sniffing distance of a ripe Brie she faces social ostracism, but in France, Crawford says, a mother-to-be will often be told by doctors that wine is fine if accompanied by a meal, and will be routinely marched to the front of the queue in any shop (presumably to spend her pregnancy subsidy of $185 a month).

Post-birth, French women are famously given pelvic floor rehabilitation and abdominal therapy to help restore their figures. And the French expect their babies to sleep through the night from two months (they employ le pause, which means they do not immediately pick up a crying baby, but allow it to self-soothe).

So what is the theory behind continental parenting? Crawford - like Pamela Druckerman, the author of French Children Don't Throw Food - discovered that for French mothers manners are paramount: even tinies are expected to greet their elders with a polite bonjour and kiss on the cheeks. Bad temper is not tolerated; Crawford claims the "terrible twos" do not exist as a concept in France because of the French mother's view that her word is law.

French mothers, says Crawford, also make their children wait for attention if they are otherwise engaged talking to another adult, and have no hesitation in telling their offspring if they are being boring.


There is no demarcation between what adults and children eat and how they eat. Children are expected to use adult utensils; Crawford says she saw three-year-olds making vinaigrette, and under-sevens sitting through a three-course meal with no problem. The key is that the family sits down together for a meal on a daily basis, respecting the food they eat, and respecting the time they spend with each other while eating.

Yet, combined with these strict rules, the French also do not engage themselves with the minutiae of their child's life. For them, a mother standing by the climbing frame, applauding her child's skill ("Well DONE, sweetheart! You slid down the slide! That's brilliant"), or swooping to pick up the child as soon as it cries, is ridiculous.

Crawford - and Druckerman - also admit though that the French view la fessee - roughly translated as a spanking - as a normal part of parenting; something that would be seen as unacceptable by many British or Australian parents today.

Finally, a lot of the French parenting ideals would not be attainable without their well-funded, state-run nurseries that take children from an early age.

Leaving corporal punishment aside, the French attitude in general is one that can make sense, agrees Amanda Gummer, a psychologist specialising in child development.

"I don't like to generalise," she says. "But it is true that if you pay attention to bad behaviour, it encourages it - if it's safe to do so, you should ignore it."

Yet, hang on. This all sounds vaguely familiar. Children who don't speak unless spoken to, who eat what they are given and like it, who speak respectfully to adults, who go out to play for hours without their parents hovering … it has now become clear.

The French have ripped off the '50s approach to child rearing and called it their own.

Telegraph, London