Back in our blissful, kid-free days when we actually had time and disposable income, my husband I used to love to go to restaurants. Good food, nice conversation, maybe a bottle of wine and a fancy dessert. It was wonderful. And then we had kids.
These days, going to out dinner happens almost never, and when it does, we always leave wondering why we thought it would be a good idea. Neither of our children want to sit down for more than a few minutes, it takes longer than 30 seconds for our food to arrive, and when it does, it’s “too hot” (this is the only time in my life when I’ve ever wanted a restaurant to serve us lukewarm meals). Then one child spills their milk, and the other one decides they aren’t actually hungry. And somehow, half our meal always seems to end up on the floor. I’d assumed this was the reality of bringing toddlers out in public, but apparently there exists a magical land where children sit quietly and wait patiently and eat all their food without complaining. And that land is called France.
After reading Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe, a first-person account of the big differences between French and American parenting, all I could think was, I need this in my life. Kids who don’t lose their minds at every little thing? Who aren’t always demanding snacks, or that you do everything for them? And parents who actually get to have space and alone time, who still feel like individual people instead of just being someone else’s mom 24/7? It sounded like a dream.
Realistically, I knew I wasn’t going to magically turn into an authoritative and confident French-style parent overnight, but I did think there were some ways I could incorporate some ideas into our daily lives that had the potential to make a big difference. I gave myself a week to put them into action, and then reassessed to see if life as a French parent (who has never actually been to France) was as great as it sounded.
Here's how it went.
Saying "Non" And Meaning It
French parents know how to be the boss. While American parents may try to assert their authority through time-outs and consequences and counting to three or five or a 1,000, French parents seem to come by this ability naturally (likely because it’s just what everyone does). The key, it seems, is to say no sparingly, but mean it without ambivalence when you do. Or, in other words, remind yourself, as French parents do, that it’s me who decides. This attitude isn’t meant to control children, but to remind them that there are boundaries and expectations they need to follow. You give them the framework (or the “cadre” as it’s called in France), and then they can have the freedom to decide what they do inside of it.
As a mom of two almost-3 year olds, I’m finding myself being challenged more and more on a regular basis, mostly because that’s what almost-3 year olds are supposed to do. But I definitely was not feeling confident about the way I was handling it, or whether or not I was being a clear and authoritative boundary-setter, so it was this aspect of French parenting that appealed to me most.
It didn’t take long at all for our first stand-off to happen on day one of my experiment. We’d returned home after nursery school, and I told them, as I do every single time we come home from anywhere, that they were to go inside and take off their shoes. They only actually do it about 50 percent of the time though, and that morning was not one of those times. A perfect time to break out the cadre and an ambivalence-free “no.”
“Take off your shoes, please,” I asked, trying to sound like I felt confident it would actually happen.
“No,” my daughter responded automatically. “I don’t wanna take off my shoes!”
Deep breath. You are the one who decides.
“It is time to take off your shoes,” I said, giving her the “big eyes” — the stern, expecting stare French parents give their kids to let them know they’re serious. She refused again, turning around and standing in the corner of the door as a sign of defiance. This is not working, I thought. My exceptionally-stubborn kid was not one to back down easily. I gave it one more shot.
“Shoes off.” Brief, and with conviction, eyebrow raised for emphasis.
She refused to turn around, so I left her at the door and went to the kitchen to start making lunch. I heard her banging on the front door and singing to herself — mostly, I figured, to get under my skin — but after a minute or two, she went quiet. Not long after, she came into the kitchen without her shoes on.
“Hi Mom!” she said, a little too enthusiastically. “You’re making lunch, Mom?!”
She’d done what I asked, but I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it. I knew that there was value in being my children’s fearless leader, but being stern and curt felt foreign and uncomfortable, and when she came back in, it felt like she wasn’t sure whether or not I was mad at her. It was exactly what French parents criticize American parents for — being too soft and afraid of saying no — and surely it was true in my case. I decided I would keep trying throughout the week and see if it got easier.
Patience Is A Virtue My Children Do Not Have
As much as French parents value effective boundary-setting, they also consider teaching children to wait very important as well. Unlike many American kids, who are used to mom carrying a plethora of snacks in her purse just in case (my own included!), French children generally eat only at set mealtimes, with one snack occurring around 4 p.m. each day. Want something in between? Sorry, you’ll have to wait.
This concept seemed almost radical to me, a mother whose kids snack endlessly, all day long. They’ve even started to specifically ask for “snacks, please,” which usually ends with me listing off a bunch of different options for them to choose from as though I’m announcing the specials in a restaurant. In truth, I hadn’t really seen that as a problem — all the options are healthy, and they’re growing, energetic kids, so why not let them eat when they want to? But from the French perspective, teaching kids to wait patiently for things they want (like snacks) encourages resilience — the same kind of delayed gratification concept hailed by the famed Marshmallow Test. I personally didn’t much care either way whether we had set meal times with firm expectations about how and when to eat, but the idea of teaching my children how to be OK with waiting for something they really wanted sounded important.
We had a small box of cookies in the cupboard that I opted to leave out on the counter for the kids to see, and it didn’t take long for them to ask excitedly if they could have one.
“Sure you can, but not until we’ve eaten lunch.” (Waiting until 4 p.m. seemed a bit extreme on the first attempt.) They didn’t like this answer. They wanted their cookies, and they wanted them immediately. Meltdowns ensued.
Standing my ground on the cookies was much easier than standing my ground on the shoes. I sat on the floor while they screamed and tried to scale the cabinet shelves to reach the cookie box, shrugged my shoulders and told them calmly that they could absolutely have a cookie but they’d have to wait until we’d had lunch. I wasn’t entirely sure what French mothers do during full-on tantrums, so I borrowed a tip from my experience with RIE parenting and continued to sit there calmly until they’d gotten it out of their system (waiting for a cookie that is right there is pretty tough after all!). Once things were finally calm again, I told them it was time for lunch.
By the end of the meal, they’d both completely forgotten about the cookies they’d cried so hard about only 10 minutes earlier, but I gave them cookies anyway as a reward for at least attempting to be patient. Teaching two toddlers how to wait for things wasn’t something I would be able to do in a week, but trying it out made me realize that it was definitely something I wanted to keep on my radar after the experiment was over.
I Need Quiet Time, Too
If there’s one thing my friends with kids and I lament most often, it’s the lack of personal time (and personal space!) we have in our lives these days. Taking care of kids can be unbelievably exhausting — far more than we often expect it to be. We play with our kids, we cook for them, we answer their unending streams of questions and constant requests. We supervise them closely at all times (even in our own backyards) and they more often than not come to expect that they can rely on us for just about anything, whenever they want.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be there for your children as much as possible, but I do think that it’s very easy to forget that parents are people who have needs too, and it’s all too easy to ignore them for the sake of your children. But French parents seem to be better at maintaining a balance, of not at all feeling guilty for carving out adult time, or for expecting their kids to play independently if they have work to do or if they have company.
Throughout the day, when I’m home with my children, I long for a little bit of time where I can drink my coffee uninterrupted, and maybe check my e-mail or go on Facebook, or pin random things on Pinterest just to take a break from being so intensely needed by two little humans all the time. But when I do take that time, I feel like I’m being selfish, and that I should be with my kids, playing with them; engaging. In other words, no matter what I do, I feel bad about it. As someone who works from home, I also struggle a lot with scheduling my work around my kids, stealing time here and there during naps, or staying up late at night to finish assignments even though my kids will be up with the sun the next morning. I thought it was time to incorporate a little bit of French-style self-care into the mix, and so I sat myself down with a cup of coffee and my laptop, determined to take at least a small break. And then the interruptions began.
Can I have a drink, Mom? Can I watch Paw Patrol on TV? Want to build a tower with me, Mom? I have to go potty! Normally I’d have dropped what I was doing — nothing important, but still, something I wanted to do — and done what they were asking me. But instead, I tried a different strategy. “Mama needs a little bit of time by herself right now. I need you to play on your own for a little while until I can help you again.” The requests continued for a while, but after a few reminders that Mom needed some time, they both went downstairs by themselves and found something to do.
Initially I felt kind of awful about that (what kind of Mom tells her kids to go away?), but then I realized it was probably important that I did this more often. I wasn’t ignoring any pressing needs, I was just letting them know that I needed space sometimes, and that I knew they were perfectly capable of playing without me for a little while. I hadn’t done it harshly, and they really were just fine being by themselves. And maybe, one day, by showing them that taking care of themselves is important, they’ll be better able to stand up for their own needs without feeling bad about it.
Did I Like Bringing Up Bebe Like This?
When I first read about French-style parenting, it seemed like they knew the magic formula for raising well-behaved, easy-going children who had great self-control and were incredibly respectful. But the reality is that there are many things that would affect that other than just individual parenting skills — like a long line of trickle-down societal expectations; the way kids are treated at school; not to mention a high-quality, state-funded daycare system that most parents choose over staying at home permanently with their children.
It’s true that we have very different ways of raising our children, but we also have very different beliefs and expectations about parenting that are reinforced in lots of ways both in and outside of the home. As much as French parenting is an individual parenting style, it’s also one that it shared by the majority of that child’s community, which surely makes it easier and more effective.
After my short foray into the French-inspired mindset, there were things I definitely wanted to remember and continue working on — like encouraging patience and getting better at setting boundaries confidently. But there were other things I still appreciated about my soft American-style views, like the way we’re more laid back about our expectations sometimes, accepting that kids are still just kids, and that it’s OK if parenting is sometimes exhausting and a sacrifice. As much as I’d love my children to listen to me the first time I say something, or for them to easily accept my expectations of them, it might not be the worst thing in the world if they don’t.
But I am pretty sure that we still won’t be heading out to a restaurant any time soon.