October 8, 2020

Parenting a la Francaise

Looking for silver linings in the summer of COVID, I found the French style of parenting. I had read about it (Bringing Up Bebe etc.) and been unimpressed. I had experienced it when, years ago, we decamped with our then six-week-old daughter to the south of France for a year. We got a French doctor. Once I sought his advice because the baby was keeping us up way too many times a night. “Mettez-la dans le garage,” quoth he. That was it. Wasn’t so impressed with parenting a la francaise.

But then came Marie- Laure and Nicolas. I first met her the day we dropped off our son for first year at Queen’s. Leon and I were the last parents to leave the res. I made his bed. Had to be evicted by the senior res student. Not so impressive for a camp director. We cried on and off for the whole drive home from Kingston.

Arrived home at 7 pm.

Our grown nephew Nicolas met us at the front door with lichee martinis.

I walked to my kitchen, where a strange woman (Nicolas’ new girlfriend, from near Paris) was just pulling a tray of gougeres (cheese puffs, home made) from my oven.

Fast forward 13 years. Marie-Laure and Nicolas and their two girls, ages four and six, spent five weeks with us at camp this past summer, thanks to COVID. Elli and Charlotte quickly discovered how much fun it was to run from their cabin to JoJo and Leon’s cabin and play. Which started to get somewhat annoying when it interfered with peace, quiet and our tidy cabin. It felt awkward. Wasn’t sure how to say it to the parents. The next day, I heard Nicolas, in an almost-stern voice, saying to the girls outside my cabin: “You can’t go barging in to JoJo and Leon’s cabin. You have to knock and ask if it’s a good time.”

Logical, yes?

But would I have done that? Never! I always assumed that my kids were the cutest beings in the world, and whoever they reached out to would be over the moon. Just because.

Then there was the Marie-Laure reprimand. I’d been hanging out with the girls for a couple of hours and it was time to set the table for our weekly family dinner. I said to them: “Please set the table.” They both said no. Ouch!

Ten minutes later Marie-Laure arrived and I told her. She sat the girls down immediately and gave them a quite stern lecture about their obligations as members of the family. They cried. Then they set the table.

The French connection was her reaction to their tears, which she ignored.

From a distance I could see it. The tears were a distraction, a smokescreen. Not on purpose, not (necessarily) with intent to manipulate. But we North American parents in the Me Generation tend to get distracted by our kids’ big feelings. You’re sad, let’s pay attention to your feelings. I will comfort you. It stops being about about setting the table. Empathy rules. The subject gets changed from actions to feelings. Which then costs us an opportunity to teach the kids an important lesson. And gives them good intell about how to deflect accountability.

This is a gross generalization. Not all Canadian parents do it my way, and not all French parents do it her and Nicolas’ way. But the table-setting example was oft repeated in five weeks. And I kept seeing the same result: Tears or not, the girls were held accountable for their actions.

It was stated in Bringing Up Bebe, but I hadn’t ever seen it. One night I was planning chicken pot pie for family dinner. I asked Marie-Laure if her kids would eat it. She said: “I don’t know but it doesn’t matter. They won’t starve, and this is what you’re serving.” Which may seem harsh. But I was pretty excited not to have to cook noodles.

The food thing was like the waiting thing. Kids suck at waiting. Patience is not kids’ long suit. It’s a learned skill. When the French say that the child is not the most important person in the household, one implication is that from early on, they teach kids to wait for…. Attention, assistance, a snack.

This all comes under the heading of setting boundaries and limits. Very challenging with small children. They fight back so well and so loud. It was interesting to watch Elli and Charlotte for five weeks. One night they slept over with us. They brushed teeth and put on pyjamas without being told. I read them one book and said lights out. No whining ensued. I had set out cereal for them and told then they weren’t allowed to come in our room till after 7, and showed Elli (age 6) 7 on a clock.

At 6:45 I heard the kitchen door close. Somebody was being considerate of us. Patience, not being #1, being held accountable for their actions: Seemed to produce responsible and considerate little people. Oh, and they packed their own backpacks when they left.

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