The view from here - France - Vive la difference in our child-rearing styles

2nd March 2012 at 00:00

From their convent school in provincial France, a dozen girls aged 13 and 14 arrive on an exchange visit to a convent school in southeast England. Most still wear socks and pigtails. It is the 1960s, England is swinging and the girls are mesmerised by their English counterparts, who roll up their hems to miniskirt length after school and flirt with the school gardener.

Advance two decades and one of those French girls, now my wife, is astounded when our children come home from their British primary school without a scrap of homework. "I had poems and conjugation to learn at their age," she says. Later still, in the 1990s, a French nephew cannot believe the indiscipline he witnesses on a school trip that takes him into a London comprehensive.

The differences between French and Anglo-American parenting and schooling have been explored by Pamela Druckerman, an American raising a family in Paris, in French Children Don't Throw Food. In her book, which is attracting attention on both sides of the Atlantic, she writes in awe of what she sees as superior French child-rearing.

But while parenting is praised, French schools are not: they fit the portrait drawn in a 2010 book by Peter Gumbel, an Englishman lecturing in Paris, who told of pupils deterred from participating in classroom discussion by the fear of withering sarcasm from teachers.

A French friend of Druckerman's attended an American high school and marvelled at how freely pupils expressed themselves. "In France, children become afraid of speaking up, being shown to be mistaken," Druckerman says in her book. "In the US, the idea is that there is no wrong answer."

A French translation has yet to appear, but Parisian friends who have read the book are surprised to see parenting described as something they do well, or even in a particular style. Druckerman says: "The early French response is surprise that an outsider has found something redeeming in the way they raise their kids." Druckerman, married to an Englishman, has also been struck by the emphasis in France on teaching kids to think. There is not the same rush to learn to read, for example, that you find in the US. It is more about learning to think, gaining social skills and developing emotional instincts.

Among those social skills mastered early, it seems, is a decidedly French attachment to solidarity. Druckerman offers two supporting anecdotes. Collecting her eldest child from pre-school, she notices a gash on her face. The girl refuses point blank to say how she got it; staff are surprised the mother is making such a fuss. And watching a French film, Druckerman is transfixed by a scene showing a top economist picking up his daughter from the police station after a teenage escapade involving shoplifting and marijuana. "On the drive home," Druckerman writes, "the girl defends herself by saying that at least she didn't rat on the friend who was with her."

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