Emanating the French

Written by on November 27, 2012 in Cool Stuff and Reviews - 13 Comments

Whoever once coined the phrase “desperate times call for desperate measures” must have been a parent. The phrase is very much akin to what I’d been feeling since the return from a summer trip to the land of well-behaved children, where my own children seemed to be the only ones who stuck out as the truly not so well behaved.

Ok, I may be being a bit overly critical, or overly sensitive, now. In reality, in the good old lands of England and the US, where we spend most of our time these days, my kids actually don’t stand out at all. If anything, they’ve often been commended for their lovely manners and good breeding, with particularly good table manners (at times) and an ability to sit still (at least occasionally), especially at restaurants: my older daughter in particular. But in many other European countries, in particular one noted in so  many books these days, my kids don’t quite pass the “proper behaviour  test”. Plus, our proper behaviour — while at times extraordinarily commendable — can also, many other times, be much, much less so. This is above all true when time is a factor or when one child doesn’t get exactly what she wants.

Having endured copious tantrums; evenings of bedtime rituals that get stretched and stretched by lines like: “I’m hungry” and “but mommy I’m scared”; mealtimes that somehow must include at least one of my children spilling something or falling (or sliding) off her chair and another just jumping around or dancing between bites; and supermarket shopping, and just basic walks from here to there, that include my kids running miles away from me and me shouting for them from across a wide distance; I was finally at the end of my rope.

I have to admit that most of the disciplining that I intrinsically believed in and was raised with (from my Russian background, which is certainly no less strict than the French as witnessed by my niece and nephew behaving extremely well whenever we visit them), went very quickly to one side (the side facing away from me apparently) when I was going through the separation process with my husband. In fact, one can easily tell when meeting my two lovely daughters exactly which one I’ve been more strict with. While my older daughter can be called (mostly) a very good listener and rule follower, my younger one has perfected the various tones of which to whine something to me when she wants it and I’ve become much too adept at reading her “I’m just in the process of doing something naughty or testing my limits” look (maybe better now than when she becomes a teenager and everything gets ten times more extreme, from what I’ve heard). My older daughter and I once made a song out of one of my little one’s whines. I swear it’s quite good and has since become one of our favourite melodies. My older daughter has even taught it to some of her visiting playdates, whenever my little one turns back to that strategy of getting her way, and, I must say, it has quite a ring to it as a chorus of little fed up six year olds.

What’s interesting about my daughters is that they seemed to have almost flipped characters since the time of my divorce process. My older one was, in fact, a very difficult and anxious baby. She didn’t sleep or nurse well (not helped, of course, by the fact that my milk came in late and was never abundant enough for her, forcing me, eventually, to give in and supplement with bottle feeding while still continuing my guilty attempt at nursing). I did, in the end, manage to sleep train her quickly though (while my husband at the time was away on business as he would have nothing of it). She also weaned very easily (at least something positive to come out of being forced to supplement with bottle-feeding) and toilet trained in less than a week (again when my husband was away). Get the point? During the time of my rather argumentative marriage, my older daughter was a very nervous child. This is not surprising considering the amount of arguing between my then husband and me that she had to witness and the mixed messages from the two of us that she had to contend with. I can remember quite a few incidences of when I would very clearly say “no” to something that my then husband would just as clearly right after say “yes” to. I mean poor girl! It was certainly a confusing time for her. I remember my mother — who kept insisting  that my husband and I try to work things out for the sake of the children — coming back crying from a supermarket trip with my daughter after hearing this little three year old tell her in very grown-up language about some of the things that went on at home. After that, my mother’s apprehensions about my separation from my husband seemed to have disappeared. It was no surprise that my older daughter relaxed significantly (as did I) when my husband and I finally began to live separately. She was the less vocal of the two of my daughters in the “I wish mommy and daddy would fall in love and live together again” department that came shortly after the divorce.

My younger daughter too flipped character significantly when we separated. As a baby, she had been such a good sleeper since the day we brought her home from hospital, that I would at times wake in the middle of the night nervous that I was too late for her feeding or that she’d been either kidnapped or died of cott death (nervous mothers). She barely cried, and if she did, it was always for a very good reason. And she was such a quiet, calm, well-behaved child that strangers would come up to me in cafes and restaurants in order to tell me that they’ve never seen such a good baby and to smile and coo at her. She was (and still is) terribly cute and sweet too. But the separation had the opposite effect on her. She was only two when we moved out, so she hadn’t really witnessed the true effects of my relationship with their dad, but had instead been denied too much time of living as a family unit: something she often referred to as a part she missed and wished for (children are very surprisingly well aware of this ‘norm’ of mommy and daddy living together even if the way they live together isn’t particularly great and even if the situation they’re in with just one parent is, in fact, a more peaceful one than what they were living with two). I, of course, bore the brunt of the guilt of denying her that important part of her life, and acted upon that guilt by trying not to deny her anything else she may want: not a good recipe for good parenting practice as I’d come to learn soon enough.

Unfortunately, what my all too clever little one came to learn all too soon was that she could get anything she wanted if she just whined long enough for it. I am embarrassed to admit to the number of times that I heard myself say to my older one, “just give it to her so that she will be quiet again.” Oof, I loathe to admit this now, especially considering just how detrimental that kind of policy is to raising good, well-behaved children. And my poor older one had to witness her little sister getting away with murder when she still had to remain a good girl. Luckily, I realized the terrible error of my ways soon enough to start to put an end to it before the little one turned a year older and more clever.

Lucky also was the unexpected occasion which brought me to the bookstore where I would find the book that would begin my research into better parenting skills, and the conservation of my sanity. In fact, myself and another mommy friend had brought our kids to the cinema one rainy Sunday afternoon. We’d chosen our favourite children-friendly cinema for the occasion, as it was close enough to get to by bus from where we lived and had both several restaurants for an early dinner after if they were hungry and some places we could take them to distract them if we arrived too early for the film (which we, in fact, did). Fortunately, there was a big Waterstones just there with a significant children’s book section and a little play and lounge area where our kids could distract themselves meanwhile. It was close to that play area where I discovered the book that would be my salvation: Why French Children Don’t Talk BackThat happened right around the time that I was already considering implementing Super Nanny tactics to raising my kids (another book I ordered that’s on my queue to be read so look out for that review coming eventually too). French parenting, I really hoped, would have the impact and make the difference that I needed.

The book (available from Amazon too and on Kindle) did not disappoint. The author, Catherine Crawford, seems to come exactly from my own thought process with her personal situation with her two daughters. Not surprisingly, it’s her younger one too who is the more difficult and her issues are not dissimilar from my own younger one. So it’s not a shock that I dug right into that book and stayed up many nights reading chapters teaching how to get back on track with my kids, like the one entitled “Vous Etes le Chef” (or “You Are the Chief”). Yes, I want to be the “Chief” too! Catherine chronicles in a delightful and humorous manner her own journey from being a typical Brooklyn NYC mom to her discovery of how much better behaved French children are than their American and English (sorry to all my English friends) counterparts. Her discovery leads her to try and emanate the French disciplinary techniques in her own home (with some minor adjustments of course) and her results were dramatic and convincing enough for me to decide to try the techniques out for myself.

Since reading the book, we’ve been working on getting both my kids to always talk to me in their “big girl voice” and to “ask for things nicely” when they want something. I’ve been working at making good manners, kindness, helpfulness, and good listening skills a norm and shouting, whining, crying, fighting, etc behaviours to get rid of. I must admit it’s been a much easier lesson for my older one than my younger one, as she’s already quite helpful, thoughtful, and obedient; but I could still see wide strides in improvement in my little one’s behaviour as well, particularly in the much shorter tantrums since I’ve stopped paying attention to them. My little one, who is normally one of the cutest, sweetest, and most affectionate little girls you could meet (in her good moments) has become very much more aware of how much better it is to try to be the “good” her by the many praising reactions she gets from me when she is on her best behaviour and the more disappointed, unhappy glances and lack of attention she gets from me now when she tries to get what she wants in a way that doesn’t coincide with “appropriate behaviour” (or, in other words, in a way that gives mommy, her sister, and any unlucky passers-by a headache). Tantrums that used to be rewarded with me eventually caving in, are now completely ignored, disregarded, and, at times, punished after a number of warnings.

The results, I must say, have been staggering. Tantrums have not only gone down significantly in number, but also have now began to last significantly less time than less than a year ago when I would still give in. Both my daughters also demonstrate very clearly now that they are really trying to be on their best behaviour and that they really want to be seen that way. Of course they are still little growing, learning individuals, and testing some boundaries at some point in time is perfectly normal. But now I am getting to the point of being truly proud of my little ones and how well behaved they are starting to be.

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