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5 Ways French Moms Do It Better

Mom! We aren’t even French!”


“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 classic Clueless—"Project!"

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, amazingly, happier.

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 Heels

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 judge.)

5. Less Can Mean So Much More

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 mommecs@bermanbraun.com 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."

Have a French (or any nationality) parenting question for Catherine? Email her at mommecs@bermanbraun.com.

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