Short Cuts

Jeremy Harding

There are plenty of reasons for parents to push their children about, or rally them when they seem to slump. But it’s important to listen to them too, unless they’re rehearsing the plot of a movie that’s just sent the nanny into a coma on the beanbag. Listening is one of the many things that Pamela Druckerman feels French parents get right. The source of this success, she tells us in French Children Don’t Throw Food (Doubleday, £15), is Françoise Dolto, one of the major figures of French parenting theory (the other, Druckerman says, is Rousseau).

Dolto became a name on the parenting scene in the 1970s, having completed her analysis with René Laforgue in the 1930s and founded the Société française de psychanalyse, with Lacan moments behind, in the 1950s. In 1971 Seuil published her doctoral thesis, Psychanalyse et pédiatrie, and Le Cas Dominique, her case study of a boy with a phobia about revolving objects (bicycle wheels, roundabouts). For Dolto, the autonomy of the patient was always the main objective; language, truth-telling and symbolic exchange were the means. After her clinical sessions, she would ask older children for a token payment, a stamp, a pebble, a drawing. In 1976 she started doing a radio show, at which point her ideas about listening to children and talking honestly to them – no babble, no ‘nearly there’ halfway through a five-hour car journey – went viral. The format was a bit like a phone-in for parents, but Dolto, by now in her late sixties, insisted that listeners should write down what it was they wanted to know and she would respond to their letters on air. Committed by psychoanalysis to the idea of the speaking subject, she also believed in the writing cure.

Druckerman, a worried parent, has been immersed in a kind of writing-through. Alert though she is, she’s failed to remark the powerful backlash against Dolto’s ideas in France, led by Didier Pleux, a cognitive therapist who thinks it’s time to worry less about the child’s autonomy and buttress the say-so of the parents. Druckerman mentions Pleux, whose book De l’enfant roi à l’enfant tyran (2002) is aggressively post-Dolto, but she sees a seamless development, à la française, from one to the other when in fact it’s been more like a fight to the death over the role of paediatric therapies.

Psychoanalysis, Pleux has said, should not stick its oar in everywhere, and has nothing useful to say about a child’s performance in school: Dolto in his view was ‘against education’. But this is also an argument between French and North American approaches to the study of the mind, since Pleux is a torch-bearer for Albert Ellis, the clinical psychologist who dreamed up Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. The argument is taking place in France, where Pleux has set up the Institut Française de Thérapie Cognitive, with the approval of Ellis Inc. (Ellis died in 2007.) Yet Druckerman, oblivious to the war going on below her balcony, can’t insist enough that the French have a unique, homegrown attitude to children.

French Children Don’t Throw Food has annoyed a lot of readers. Its defence of French parenting over Anglo-Saxon versions, of laisser vivre over helicoptering, is a new source of worry to parents in North America and the UK, for whom controlled panic is the sine qua non of decent child-rearing. Druckerman’s disingenuousness is another issue: she is sceptical about the heaped shelves of how-to books on parenting in English but French Children Don’t Throw Food bears a striking resemblance to a how-to book. In English.

The winning chapters are about sleep and school. In the first, we’re introduced to a long line of French parents whose babies began a cycle of near unbroken nightly sleep anywhere between a few weeks after birth to four months, which is considered late. Druckerman trawls the internet for French books on infant sleep, but instead of finding five-step manuals and soporific baby bedding, she stumbles on cryptic books with epigraphs from Proust. She turns in despair to experts and neighbours. The trick, apparently … well there are a couple of tricks, but it helps to be in a culture where the adults are as sure about how to handle children, Dolto or no Dolto, as they are about the benefits of red meat.

School in France might as well be central Africa to Druckerman. No one is patted on the head for shining, there are very few breathless congratulations for getting it right. The system rarely plays to the strengths of pupils: it rounds consistently on their weaknesses. Once children are out of the soothing, many-mothered chamber of the école maternelle – the cradle of Republican education – they must stand in their size-ten trainers and face the curriculum together as citizens. No one will ask them to do an impression of a tropical rain forest, or recite a Prévert poem on stage as dewy-eyed parents flap their wallets at the school head. There are no end-of-term plays, no multicultural carols, no verdant sports fields; there is no Harrow or King Alfred.

But there are superior lycées, much sought after, and in Paris Druckerman will find a way to steer her children into position. She already grasps that their marks will make her and her British partner lunge at the pastis, because they’re used to a ten-out-of-ten Anglo-Saxon regime. In the baccalauréat général, ten out of twenty is a pass; 12 and 13 earn an assez bien; 14 or 15 a bien; 16 is a très bien (summa cum laude), a big bouquet of starred As in the British system. Cambridge expects 17 from a French bachelier; only Einsteins and stylites need apply. For the moment anyway: like the British system, the bac général is showing signs of grade-inflation. In 2010 7 per cent of the nation’s candidates received a très bien. I make that a 15-fold increase on 1990.

Druckerman’s franglo youngsters have a way to go before they wrestle with the bac. In the meantime, she is shocked by the lawlessness of the school playground, where small people go at one another hammer and tongs, and the teachers stand by, decidedly off-duty, generally smoking. After a primary school playground in London, where staff roam about like a UN task force, this takes a bit of getting used to. Druckerman consults a journalist, who tells her that ‘in France we like it when kids brawl a bit … we’re not bothered by a certain level of violence.’ She is upset when her daughter comes out of school with battle scars, but impressed that she won’t denounce the perpetrator. Outside the classroom notions of good and bad behaviour are broad and largely a matter for parents. You wouldn’t hear of pupils being expelled for ‘a sexual encounter in a sandpit’, as the Daily Mail reported last year on a case at Bedales. But no school in France charges £30,000 a year for the privilege of a sandpit.