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I'm Trying to Be a French Papa

While I prefer Kentucky bourbon to wine, pronounce the “g” in Champagne and find the concept of tartare preposterous—uncooked meat, on a plate, WTF?—I have been a French Papa ever since my 3-year-old daughter discovered the art of negotiation.

Because as we all know, a French parent does not enter into negotiations. We speak to a child like a child, drawing attention to the power structure in our relationship. “I am your Papa,” I generally begin, and ever since I started watching Orange Is the New Black, I preface this with, “Inmate,” to further dehumanize my daughter and make it clear I am in charge. In the midst of my well-prepared speech, she usually interrupts me with demands to watch Sofia the First, or she insists that I bake her oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. I, of course, end up baking the cookies, while she watches her show. I’m not a monster.

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Aside from tartare, I have nothing against the French. I’m sure they’re a fine people. But I find the fawning over the French as a nation of parenting experts, who know the dark arts of child mind control and the secrets to having tantrum-free children, rather baffling. To be clear, the goal is not to raise inquisitive children, or children who engage in imaginative play. It’s to raise well-behaved children, who will shut the f*** up when you want to pretend you’re still spontaneous and can have conversations that don’t involve bodily functions. This means no tantrums, a stress-free dinner out, and the ability to host a cocktail party without the burden of parental obligations.

American parenting certainly has its flaws, with over-parenting running amok, but the goals of American parenting seem more in line with the kind of little human I’d like to raise: one whose critical and social skills are constantly being developed at school and at home, who can have conversations about anything, and isn’t forced to fall in line as a matter of routine.

In Kavya’s world, trees are often purple, princesses have tea parties and slay dragons, and yet still need a prince for the sake of protocol. She loves to yap it up and assumes anyone who comes to the house is there for her entertainment. When we take the subway together, she’ll immediately break two major New York taboos: smiling at people and starting conversations with strangers, no matter how unwilling they are to disengage from doing nothing. Who am I to force my boring realism on her? Let the trees be purple.

One of the cardinal rules of French parenting is never to have your children think of you as their friend, which I think is an absurd binary. I’m Kavya’s friend—she tells me so all the time—and I’m also her papa. American parenting makes it more likely she will know she can talk to me about anything that’s bothering her, without fear that I’ll be annoyed she’s invading my space. But it can also lead to the misperception that our home is a democracy, where freedom of thought and expression reigns, rather than a dictatorship run by a swarthy man named Papa.

There isn’t a nation or person who has truly mastered the art of parenting.

When certain family members claim I’m not performing my Papa duties properly, I have to explain to them I’m a French Papa. The first time my Papa qualifications were called into question was in Central New Jersey, where my in-laws live. Kavya, the one-tooth wonder, was about 6 months old and crawling around at full speed like a wind-up toy that had just been released. Out of nowhere, a carpeted staircase appeared and sure enough she smacked her face onto the bottom step. She stopped to look over at me and gauge what her reaction should be. Since her one tooth seemed intact and I saw no blood, I continued to stuff my face with pakoras my father-in-law had made from scratch earlier that day. In the interim, my wife, Sona, and her mum went rushing toward Kavya, which is when she understood this is a time to at least attempt a cry.

Ignoring my daughter when she falls down in public or at home used to be quite effective because she’d forget what she was supposed to be angry or sad about and move along. But now, my manipulation doesn’t work quite as well. The strategies that worked just a few months ago are constantly in need of updates. I can’t even ignore her fake crying when she falls anymore. And she falls a lot. She gets it from her mother.

It started when she saw I wasn’t reacting properly and folded her arms. When I turned my face away, she walked across the room and repeated the performance, complete with exaggerated stomps and loud, enunciated sighs of despair. Finally, she was so exasperated with me that she grabbed my face with both palms and screamed, “Papa, did you not see me fall down? Over there!?” That’s when I was coerced into kissing her boo-boo, and calling it that ridiculous name. All was well for awhile. She’s now 3, much more coordinated in the way a large-headed, small-bodied woodland creature is coordinated, but the falling, cuts, gashes and knee-scrapings have only intensified. She’s much faster now. My response is still to make an attempt at doing nothing. If she insists that retribution is needed, we beat the shit out of whatever it is that caused her boo-boo. The wind didn’t know what hit it. Neither did the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

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There’s only one thing that stays consistent in parenting, and that’s the knowledge that everything will go wrong. Your kid will stay up past her bedtime at her grandma’s, at some point she'll eat ice-cream for dinner, and will throw a tantrum to publicly test your parenting skills (you will fail). And the world won’t be on fire. There isn’t a nation or person who has truly mastered the art of parenting. That’s why every country will always need a Supernanny to make them feel like there are some people who know what they’re doing. The truth is nobody does. So call my parenting strategy, which largely revolves around the complex philosophy of “winging it,” French, American or Desi. I just try to be the best Papa I can be to my daughter.

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