When it comes to baguette, wine and Parenting, do the French do it differently – or just better?
DEC 27, 2012 · BY HANNAH SUNG | PHOTOS BY LEDA & ST. JACQUES
As we arrive in Paris, the skyline is cloaked in grey that
matches the city’s cool temperament. My family’s look is less refined – dominated by a bright red stroller festooned with Technicolor toys.
Our plastic caravan arrives at L’Écritoire, a perfectly French bistro (and former haunt of Charles Baudelaire) on the Place de la Sorbonne. Young Parisians stroll by while a busker plays French folk tunes, strumming a guitar; a fountain burbles in the background. There’s not another child in sight.
I unravel the travel high chair, a strap-covered contraption that makes our son, Tokki, look like he’s about to go skydiving. And before even glancing at the menu, I unpack a roll of puffy rice cakes and a tube of purée. I consider myself always prepared, but according to Karen Le Billon’s rules, I’ve already racked up two strikes.
Last year saw a mini-boom in “momoirs” exalting a no-
nonsense French style of parenting. French Kids Eat Everything, by Vancouver academic Le Billon, and Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of the French, by Pamela Druckerman, focus on how well French children eat and behave. Tokki was a serene baby at birth, but has since perfected a shriek that’s between Mariah Carey’s high C and a dog whistle. So when my husband was invited to a film festival in France, I decided to go full-immersion. What self-respecting, macaron-eating, fleur-de-sel-sprinkling urbanite wouldn’t like to become un petit peu more French? Every first-time parent is looking for answers. The French seemed to have them.
Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner
Tokki is not used to being in a bistro in Paris at the decidedly adult hour of 9 p.m. From his perch, strapped into his seat on the terrasse, he cranes his neck to make saucer eyes at a nearby foursome: chic adults who manage to sip wine, oblivious to the Parisian rive gauche. Laying out silicone baby spoons in triplicate, I feel a creep of self-consciousness rise within me. Never mind looking like tourists – looking like nervous parents is so much worse.
When our plates arrive I crack open Tokki’s food tube, but he purses his lips and shakes his head. He only has eyes for the steak. Since there’s no way I’m feeding him my husband’s medium-
rare meat, a chewy choking hazard that’s red in the middle, I break my burger open to examine it for pinkness. As I rack my brain for the rules about babies and blue cheese (which is softly melting into the bun), Tokki’s lightning-fast fingers, tiny and persistent, are already in my food.
I fashion a morsel of hamburger meat, running with jus, and offer it up: He examines it for a moment before pushing it into his wide-open mouth. Still saucer-eyed, he chomps furiously as I cool off a small pile of lightly crisp, golden fries – another first – which he scarfs as quickly as 10-month-old coordination allows. Is he even chewing? As I process the fact that grown-up food is evidently what he’s been waiting for his entire life, Tokki lunges for my salad.
At the end of the meal, the rice cakes and tube of purée sit untouched on our bistro table like a North American calling card. Across the pond, we tend to concentrate on the nutritive elements of food (the food I packed was organic), whereas the French focus on pleasure. Watching Tokki eagerly fill his chubby fists with my meal, I had to admit I’d never seen him devour a vegetable purée with such passion. I had survived my first French lesson.
The sun shines brightly on the heads of children riding ponies along the Jardin du Luxembourg’s gravel paths. Little boys and girls scurry around with sticks, angling to push their miniature sailboats back across the Grand Bassin. Unlike other playgrounds in Paris, this one is so tricked out it has a massive rope structure in the shape of the Eiffel Tower and a zip line.
We park Tokki’s stroller and step into the darkened Théâtre des Marionnettes to wait for the puppet show to begin. Children sit on long wooden benches surrounded by old portraits of French puppets beloved by generations. There’s a rustling behind us and Tokki turns to stare as a grandmother opens up a packaged cookie for her granddaughter’s goûter (snack). Offering one to me, I shake my head no politely, but the little girl protests. “Non. Il n’a pas le droit,” the grandmother says brusquely to her charge. French children either have le droit – the right – to do something or they don’t. Case closed.
Evidence of this strictness is everywhere, including Annecy, where centuries-old stone buildings seem to rise out of the canals filled with turquoise water. One rainy afternoon, Tokki and I take shelter in the town library as a kindergarten class files past us. I watch in awe as they neatly hang their purple pinafores on hooks. Two guardians mix among the class, neither shushing nor raising a voice. No one fights over a book. Why are these children so well-behaved?
We spend the next afternoon sprawled on the lawn of L’Impérial Palace overlooking Lac d’Annecy. Families cluster around peacocks in the open-air aviary, while little girls with shiny hair bat around badminton birdies in Sunday dresses. When a toddler starts to scream, I observe the cool, non-panicked French mother in action for the first time.
Marching the girl into an empty field in full view of everyone, the perfectly coiffed mother takes several paces before turning her back (arms crossed) while her daughter wails. This scene would have drawn everyone’s attention in our neighbourhood park in Toronto, but the French parents don’t seem to notice. After what feels like an eternity, the child is tenderly collected and they walk away hand in hand. I’m in awe: Had the mother been too harsh? Or did I want to be more like her?
French parents do not panic in the face of meltdowns, but I am not that French. On our last night in Annecy, in my desperation to feed the baby on schedule, we sat down at a coffee-and-sandwiches place. It was a sad scene for our last dinner, but they had a high chair and no wait. As Tokki’s fussing turned to shrieking, I became so stressed that I tersely parted ways with my husband and hoofed it back to our hotel – forgetting that he was about to find out whether he’d won a festival prize. He did.
That night I was filled with pride and then remorse. Why couldn’t I have calmly finished eating and given my husband a kiss for good luck? Looking back on my own childhood, I wonder if my Korean immigrant parents were secretly French. When I was growing up, they let me know who was in charge, and it most definitely was not me. In France and Korea, it seems, adults still rule supreme.
Two’s company; three’s loud
The French don’t understand the way North American children can eclipse the very thing that brought them into existence: the couple. The night I forgot to wish my husband good luck, I learned of his big prize alone, hunched over a laptop in the dark. While Tokki slept spread-eagled in the centre of our queen-size hotel bed, my husband was in a ballroom at L’Impérial Palace, plucking canapés from an endless table staffed with waiters in dinner jackets, while thumping party music and laser lights added to the dizzy, cocktail-soaked revelry.
In the crowd of filmmakers was a European duo who had decided that their children weren’t going to keep them from enjoying the party. The French father pushed a snoring toddler in his stroller while the Dutch mother had their sleeping nine-month-old strapped to her back – the party swirling around them. When Isaac told me about them the next morning, I was full of admiration and bewilderment: Where did they get the nerve to keep their babies out past midnight?
Now that we’re home, I still prioritize the baby ahead of ourselves. Does this mean he will become a “child king,” as the French say with disdain? Is the idea of a well-mannered toddler who eats without a fuss a fantasy I should file alongside my dream French wardrobe and flawless accent? At the end of the day, my child is perfect to me just the way he is. He doesn’t need to be French, and I don’t think he minds that I’m not, either. Although I may keep trying.