“Seriously, Mommy. We live in America. Brooklyn. You don’t have
to do this.”
In the early stages of my French parenting experiment, I had
some approximation of the above exchange with my then 6-year-old daughter almost
daily. After first getting over how
funny it all sounded, another pleasant sensation settled in; my French-inspired
job was to ignore her gripes. Bon!
I don't blame my daughter. What little kid wouldn’t buck a little bit if she woke up one morning to
find that their mom was ... different, and that her reign as family dictator (or
co-dictator, as in the case of my two kids) had ended.
Although I was never really comfortable with all of the
negotiating and endless discussion that is de rigueur here in today's parent-child
relationship, somehow I, too, adopted these tendencies. One small example: I always seemed to end instructions to my
children with a pathetic "OK?"—as
though I were asking for their permission. Once upon a pre-French time, I might
have said to my girls, "We’re going to go out to Chinese food and then head to
the playground, OK?" Even with
something so fun, I was practically inviting them to debate with me. One kid wanted pizza, the other wanted to
ride bikes. I was just trying to make my daughters happy, yet I often ended up
making us all miserable.
One fateful night, a high school friend of my husband's came
to dinner with his Parisian wife and their two children. Cue parting clouds.
These little Frenchies didn't argue or complain. It just
wasn't part of the deal. (They also ate
like champs, played peacefully—with my kids!—in another room for a
gloriously long time, and kissed me on both cheeks, but all that is beside the
point right now). I admit it, I was
jealous—I wanted this for my family. To borrow from Cher Horowitz in the film
I dedicated the next year to investigating French parents
and then applying whatever wisdom I could to our little Brooklyn maison. Although my initial goal was to improve the
flow of our daily lives and relationships, I ended up with so much more. I couldn't go full-French because: a) My daughter is right, we’re not
French; b) There’s a certain side to
French parenting that I'd rather not incorporate, thank you very much; and c) This
is America, with a vastly different social structure.
The result of my French-inspired parenting revamp was a
hybrid of our two cultural approaches. I
like to think of it as "The Best of the Best." These days, my kids are still their free and
boisterous selves, but they are also more amenable, more self-sufficient, sound
and independent sleepers (hallelujah!), better eaters, courteous and,
I'm not out to convince anyone that the French hold the
championship belt in child-rearing or that their way is the only way to go. I just know I stumbled on something that
works, and I'm here to shout it from the sommet de la montagne.
To wit, here’s a little inventory of my Five Favorite French-Inspired
Lessons, with a bit of explication:
1. Chill out
Just because you have a child doesn't mean
that you have to start worrying 24/7, but this happens to the best of us. Part of my earliest memories after bringing
my first-born home from the hospital involves the acute anxiety that she'd be behind
the curve because we hadn't managed to procure one of those infant crib mobiles
said to stimulate the intellect with black and white shapes. It sounds so ridiculous now. For me, checking out the French attitude toward newborns was truly enlightening. It's
not as though French parents ignore the presence of little, helpless people in
their midst—let's just say that I didn’t meet one French mother who knew
what I was even talking about when I described this snappy crib accessory (and
many of them looked at me like I was unhinged).
2. Be the Chief
The Chief: These two words changed my life. Once I defined my new role to my kids, we
were all able to breathe a little easier. Although a good chief listens to their subjects, they are the ultimate
decision makers. Before we got French,
most of our arrangements (anything from what the kids could order at Starbucks
to where we would go on vacation) were excruciating. Now, as soon as the Chief (me!) has spoken,
the decision is made. Gone are the days
of endless bargaining and negotiating. Along with them went the tantrums and begging. It only took a few instances of saying, "I am
The Chief, I’ll decide. That’s final," for my daughters to realize that arguing is futile. It’s fantastic, mostly because the newly
established hierarchy made life clearer, less complicated, and easier for my
kids to navigate. And in my experience, that’s almost always a good thing.
3. Noshing Non, Non
If you want to get French in the
dining room, the best place to start is with an overhaul on le snacking. When kids are hungry, they will eat. However, if you give in to their pleas for
Pirate Booty and yogurt-covered pretzels throughout the day, a 6 p.m. mushroom
ragu probably won't appeal to them.
4. Dust off Those
There's so much more to you than mom
jeans. In my case there were also sweat
pants, but that’s splitting hairs. For
me, procreation meant not only babies, but also a lamentable farewell to almost
all aspects of my personality that didn't relate to being a mom. I love being a
mom, but I also like being a wife and a fun-loving girlfriend. Les mamans françaises showed me that I could have
it all. I just had to let go of some
guilt, book a babysitter and get back out there. There, of course, being the karaoke lounge.
(My karaoke song, if you must know, is "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Don’t
5. Less Can Mean So
Every time I entered the bedroom of
a little French citizen I was struck with how much less stuff they had than
their counterparts in Les États-Unis. For that matter, kid clutter hadn’t overtaken the rest of their homes like it has in practically every American pad
I can think of with a resident tyke. Somehow, those enfants didn't seem—or act—deprived. In fact, they were usually better able to
play on their own. I decided to see what
would happen if I thinned out the juvenile paraphernalia on my own turf. Voila! When my kids aren't given stuff all
the time, they actually appreciate what they have.
This is far from everything I learned. In fact, I’ve been ruminating, researching and,
in turn, Frenchifying ever since that portentous dinner party in 2010, before
even Tiger Mothers graced the stacks. Little did I know then that I'd be part
of a cultural parenting trend. Well—it’s on, and if you have a particular dilemma with your child, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll put it through the Franco-American mainframe; in other words, I'll consult
my French experts and then temper my advice with a dose of Americana. After all, this isn't Paris. Just ask my youngest. Last night at dinner, using her chicken
skewer as a microphone she delved into a spontaneous, admirable rendition of "Good Morning Baltimore" from the Hairspray soundtrack. When she realized what she was doing with her
food, she looked up at her father and me sheepishly: "Sorry. That's not very French, is it?"
"Carry on, doll," I said. "It may not be French, but it's fantastique."