By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Parenting is never easy, especially in a city that's devoid of backyards yet full of subway platforms. Tired of constantly quelling her two daughters' meltdowns, Park Slope mother Catherine Crawford decided to adopt a unique approach to raising her children. After observing a French friend's well-behaved children, Crawford resolved to spend a year experimenting with Parisian parenting techniques.
In her new memoir "French Twist: An American Mom's Experiment in Parisian Parenting," Crawford recalls her French-inspired attempts to mitigate her daughters' bad behavior, exposing the humorous and unexpected situations that ensued.
Brooklyn Eagle spoke to the author about her "French Twist" parenting style. Crawford tells us which French parenting techniques worked for her (and reveals which did not), and she offers advice for Brooklyn mothers.
Do you have any particular connections to France that inspired you to adopt these parenting practices?
Most of my ancestors are Irish, although I do have a couple drops of Huguenot blood in me. My parents always held a special reverence for France, and growing up Francophilia was in the air. Until I had kids, however, I equated France with being cool. Things like Jean Paul Belmondo and the Champs Elysées were irresistible to me.
It was when some French friends came to our house for dinner one night with their spectacularly behaved kids that I began to think about and then research differences in the way the French raise their children. Had my friends been Bulgarian, my book might have a very different title.
Was the motivation to take some strain off parenting or to improve child development or both?
I wanted it all. The more time I spent with French families, the more envious I grew of everything from the children’s palates to the parent’s social lives. I would hesitate to use the words “child development” though. I think that our kids here in the U.S. have a leg up in some aspects of that arena. There’s a lot to be said for self-confidence and gusto so, in an effort to preserve those qualities, I didn’t import all of the French parenting lessons I learned.
What would you say is the most important (or successful) French practice that you tried out? ...and what was the least successful?
The thing that has had the biggest impact on our home life is the French inspired idea that I am The Chief. My husband is also The Chief. And our kids are not chiefs; they are kids. I am a benevolent chief, but just this simple act of defining our roles has cut out so much confusion. It truly has been a relief for the whole family because my daughters no longer feel like they should negotiate over everything. We are all much more efficient and happier.
This delineation of roles has affected practically every other aspect of my endeavor to “be more French.” For example, when I wasn't The Chief, I didn’t really have the power to control the constant snacking that went on after school. As soon as I stopped caving and my daughters snacked less, they evolved into better dinner companions. They were excited about dinner, they tried more things, and they ate.
Many of the French parents I spoke with are very involved in their children’s wardrobes and won’t let their kids leave the house in an unsatisfactory (in the parent’s view) outfit. My youngest has a pair of leggings – a gift from my mom, think neon angels … or maybe they are supposed to be amphibians – that makes me wince every time they come in range, but my daughter loooooves them. This was an instance when I could not go full French. I definitely try to help my kids more with cultivating a fashion sense, but I’m an American mom at heart and I can’t bring myself to shut down their self-expression.
Did you modify your own approaches after seeing what worked and what did not?
We have such an interesting, often fraught, relationship with France. The more deeply I delved, the more I realized how strange it is that we compete with each other so, given how very different French culture is from our own. Even if I’d wanted to, I could never really raise my children here like it’s done in France because our societies are so divergent.
We are very focused on ‘the individual’ in the United States, and the French operate much more as a unit. So, in France everyone knows exactly how a seven-year old child should act, and if he acts out of turn it’s okay for others (i.e. not his parents) to point that out to him. On the other hand, I’ve seen parents at the playground here come painfully close to fist fighting when a stranger dared to reprimand another’s kid.
There are so many differences, and it isn’t always possible -- or fair -- of me to expect certain French behaviors from my daughters when everyone else is doing something different. Take the French practice of children always greeting their elders respectfully (‘Bonjour Madame’). It’s lovely, and when I was in France I was completely charmed by this on a daily basis. However, my girls would seem weird going around greeting everyone formally. They are on a first-name basis with many of their teachers. So, I’ve required my girls to say hello to grown-ups they know, in the lobby of our building or the like, but that’s as far as it goes.
What I ended up with in most facets of this French parenting undertaking is a hybrid of our two cultural approaches.
Do you think French mothers seem happier or more at ease than do Brooklyn mothers?
Happier in general? I’m not so sure. But certainly in their lives as mothers I believe that French women are happier. I attribute this to the fact that the role of being a mother doesn’t completely consume French women like it does moms here. There is less guilt, anxiety and pressure involved for them. Again, the French have a completely different societal structure and mothers there receive much more support, so we Americans shouldn’t beat ourselves up when compared to our French counterparts.
That being said, I found it inspiring to see women who have children and manage to simultaneously maintain other interests. All of their free time isn’t spent researching summer camps or organizing the 152 photos that they took of their kid at the playground that weekend. The French would find such an obsession with their children unhealthy for the family. Whereas we’ve internalized that our duty is to do absolutely everything in our power for our kids – that’s what makes us good moms -- a French mother’s duty is to maintain balance.
I was surprised at how difficult it was to convince myself that getting a babysitter (on a regular basis) and going out with my husband was a good thing for the family. It wasn’t easy to shake the guilt of not spending time with my kids in favor of going out with friends until I saw how much happier we all were. My kids got used to it, and then they began to see me as a woman outside of their mother. I want this for them, especially if they grow up and become mothers.
Did you notice any differences between your children and those of friends and neighbors as a result of your French practices?
Well, mine are the only ones on the playground who point out when other kids “aren’t acting very French.” It’s a confusing comment for any eavesdropping parents. But yes, they are different now (thank God, or else my whole endeavor would have been futile). My friends are constantly asking why my kids don’t seem to do things like interrupt or beg. It feels good.
Why did you decide to settle and raise your children in Brooklyn?
If only I’d made a conscious decision! I am from San Francisco, and when my husband and I moved to NYC thirteen years ago, we’d planned to live here no more than five years. Never did I dream I would raise a family in Brooklyn, but now that I’m deep in, I can’t think of a better place to be doing it. I love it here.
Do you have any advice for Brooklyn parents in particular -- perhaps certain locations or activities that parents should look into (or avoid)?
I would advise all of the Brooklyn moms out there to relax a little. It’s so easy to get caught up in the race for Best Mom, but that can really take its toll on our psyches. If you are a working mom, quit the guilt. You are providing for your family and furnishing a great example to your kids.
This might sound insane, but I would encourage Brooklyn parents to look into their own homes. Before we added some Frenchness to our lives, my kids thought it was their God-given right to have an exciting activity lined up for them at all times. When I noticed that French kids often seemed better able to play autonomously and needed less excitement and cheerleading, I cut out at least half of the after-school activities and playdates. My girls were forced to figure out how to entertain themselves.
Now, they spend much more time playing independently in their room. For them, this was born out of desperation and necessity, but it’s had a truly lovely effect on our household. Everything has calmed down, my daughters get along better – kind of the opposite of what I would have predicted – and I’m not exhausted and resentful from having to schlep everyone everywhere all the time. I can often be found sitting at my kitchen table with a novel and a cup of tea while my girls play in another room. Who would have thunk?