Two years ago, I published this post about the so-called French way of parenting, and how to me it seemed like common sense to exercise your authority as a parent, setting boundaries, teaching delayed gratification, and generally not letting your kids run the house. I wrote it in anticipation of our son being born in May 2012. A friend on Facebook suggested that I do a follow-up piece in two years to review how things have gone, and that suggestion has always stayed in the back of my mind. So here are my thoughts.
My son is now nearly 21 months old, so he’s not quite two, though as most parents know, the “terrible twos” tend to show up well before the second birthday. I can’t remember exactly when he started showing a “will,” but it was some time after the first six months. We’ve dealt with our fair share of tantrums and grumpiness. However, he is still very much a baby in many ways, and as we cannot yet reason verbally with him (except in very rudimentary ways – he has only just learned the words “wait” and “soon”), my analysis of this strange situation of being a parent is still in its…infancy. (Haha.)
First of all, I should mention that I have avoided reading parenting advice books and blogs, including the book I mentioned in the previous post, Bringing up Bebe. I’m not against those kinds of books in principle. It’s just that, if I find that I have any time to read, I’d just as soon be reading something by Marilynne Robinson or a book about the sugar barons of Barbados. Not kids. (Exception: I have actually read Parenting from the Inside Out which gives a lot of helpful insights into how to interact with your children based on recent research on brain development and human psychology. It’s excellent.)
But back to my old post. I talked about the idea of cadre, a word the French use to describe the non-physical boundaries they set for their children. These are, of course, often accompanied by the word “no.” And this brings me to my first thought: The word “no” is a beautiful thing. It is remarkable how early toddlers can learn the meaning of this word, and learn to say it themselves as well. It’s taken a lot of persistence from us, but our son is gradually learning the consequences of his actions if he ignores the “no.” And he is even starting to obey us! Right now, the consequences usually consist of something that will bring harm to him, like spilling milk all over his lap or burning his hand. We’re not using punitive discipline yet – all my instincts tell me it is pretty ineffective at this early of an age. And it’s important to say no in the most helpful context and spirit, not out of spite or general annoyance, but in a constructive way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use the word, and use it frequently. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results. Setting limits really does pay off, and we’re already seeing that in how he’s interacting with us, and with other adults.
Let me now move swiftly to my next thought: The word “yes” is even more beautiful than “no,” and a lot more satisfying. When my son does anything from naming something correctly, to building something with his blocks, to saying “thank you” to his grandmother for giving him some fruit, I want to shout “yes!” from the rooftops. The freedom that comes in praising a young child is truly a rush. But of course I don’t just do it because it feels good. I do it because it’s important for him to hear, and to hear it over and over again. Now, this may change as he grows older, and how I respond to different things he does will become more complex. But right now, this is one of the most basic, helpful things I can do to encourage him.
Third: Parenting truly is the art of distraction. At least right now it is. The good thing about this age is that, even though the tantrums can be bad, it is not that hard to get him to focus on something else, like what’s going on outside the window or what’s inside the book on the couch. It gets him out of a rut that he might not be able to get out of on his own. It’s all about following up that “no” with some redirection to “why don’t you go and see what the postman is bringing to the door?” As he gets older, this will obviously become harder to do. But hey, I’ll write that piece when the time comes.
Fourth, and last: Always encourage the good, even if I don’t feel like it. If my son wants to finish off the bowl of green beans or wants me to read him a book while I’m in the middle of writing an email, I’m trying very hard to not say no to these kinds of requests. Obviously, if I’m doing something very urgent in that moment, I can’t always fulfil his desire. But if it’s something that falls in the “good” category (e.g., going outside as opposed to eating junk food), then if I can’t do it right in that moment, I tell him to wait and we’ll do it in a minute. Of course, he doesn’t really “get” waiting yet, but he is slowly coming to understand what it means. Persistence. Always persistence.
There is a strange freedom in trying to be an “in-charge” parent. Over and over again, I have been in situations where I’ve said to myself, “I’m the parent here. It’s up to me to decide what is going to happen.” And the wonderful thing is, it doesn’t always involve saying “no.” When my son wants to play with play-doh in the kitchen and I don’t feel like cleaning up the mess, I remind myself to “encourage the good” and let him do it anyway. Conversely, if he wants to play on the iPad before bed, I always say “no, it’s book time,” because I’m the one who sets his routine, and the iPad is not part of his pre-bedtime routine. And he loves books, so this is not a hard sell.
I’ve written mostly about the parental impact on the child. But the truth is, the impact that becoming a parent has had on me is far more surprising and profound. That topic will have to wait for another post. (And I’ll need to write about something completely different in between, since I don’t want this to become a parenting blog!) Cheers!