In the extremely best-selling parenting book, Bringing Up BeBe, author Pamela Druckerman flanuers happily through the rules of French parenting, which apparently incubates incredibly well-behaved kids who sleep through the night, eat everything their plates at dinner, and potty train themselves at three months. Naturally, this appealed to my starred, barred, and hypertensive heart. I want to import that lifestyle. I want my kids to be chill and cool and maybe end up wearing Cheap Monday jeans while listening to house music. Whatever improves on the fickle, sleepless, whiney status quo my 4 and 6 years old have worked assiduously to establish. So I decided to just go full French for a little while. I wanted to see how it went.
As I read up on French parenting, it became clear that there were two main tactics I would have to utilize to gallicize my offspring: Not letting them be the center of attention and speaking to them as if they were adults fully capable of grasping the nuance of social interactions. I do not naturally do either of these things and it’s worth noting that there’s a reason why. Not all research supports the idea that this arms-length approach to caretaking results in well-adjusted adults. Still, finding the best way forward is all about experimentation so I decided to give it a go.
The first thing I did was pump the brakes on my responses to the boys’ needs. I told them to wait. I told them to be patient. I was dismissive. They started pleading louder and more annoyingly. I doubled down. They doubled down. It sucked, but then, around the fourth day, a switch flipped. My boys suddenly understood I wasn’t going to stop doing what I was doing to attend to them and, though they were confused by this development, they resigned themselves to this dreary fate. They began standing beside me quietly while I finished whatever I was working on before addressing their concerns. We started operating on my schedule.
Naturally, I was pretty pumped. Also naturally, I quickly began abusing my new-found power. One of the things I told them not to interrupt was me talking to my wife about what to watch on Netflix. Another was me scrolling through my Twitter feed. And sometimes what they wanted was so achingly simple I felt profoundly guilty for making them wait.
“Pappa will you play with me?” they asked.
“Be French,” I told myself, imagining taking a long pull on an unfiltered cigarette. “Tell them to fuck off.”
I did not like this version of myself very much. Still, it was nice to feel the balance of power swing my way. It was nice to feel like I had both feet in the adult world. And it was nice to talk like it too. That’s not to say that I was talking down to my boys. That was never really my approach. But I’d also never spoken to them like adults who were capable of moderating their actions either. The first time I tried I shocked both myself and them. The boys were engaged in an epic struggle over masking tape (yeah, they’re kids). There was yelling and no compromise. So I stepped in and spoke to them like I would a couple of adults:
“Okay. Hold on. I know you think this is important, but I also know you are capable of being reasonable. Be reasonable.”
“But … “
“I expect you both to behave better because you are very capable of sharing and cooperation.”
They looked at me askance. They were perplexed. They didn’t know what I was talking about because I hadn’t given them an emotional cue. I didn’t come in hot and tell them to knock that shit off. They had to consider my actual words. They tilted their heads like confused dogs. This same pattern repeated at bedtimes, at dinner, at cleanup. The transition was weird for both of us, but started working quickly. I told them to solve problems and, lo and behold, they did. We didn’t become coworkers overnight, but communication was more forthright. They got actionable feedback. They got managed.
I did not dislike the version of myself that spoke to them. Unlike Distant French Dad, he was reasonable and present. And he’s not going anywhere. The truth is that I don’t have the fortitude or desire to make my kids operate on my schedule. I also don’t trust myself to not be selfish on the other side of leaning into that arrangement. On the other hand, I do trust myself to talk like a reasonable adult because I am a reasonable adult. I’m going to keep doing that. It’s not Parisian magic so much as Vulcan calm. But it’s chill. I want to be chill and I want my kids to solve their own problems. Ultimately that’s the most American thing to do.
As for my surrender to childish demands, isn’t that kind of French too?
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