Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rambling thoughts on toddler discipline

We spend very little time with other children le Petit's age, beyond the anonymous interaction we have with other children at the park. As a result (and since le Petit is my first child, and even if he weren't, memory of such things is unreliable) I have no idea if he is more cooperative and easygoing, or on the contrary more stubborn and tantrum-prone, than most kids at age-two-going-on-three. I'm not even sure such comparisons are useful, frankly, which doesn't keep me from indulging in them or on occasion convincing myself one way or the other. I'm quite sure that his behavior is globally age-appropriate. Sometimes he makes me proud. Sometimes he makes me MAD. He's almost three: sounds about right.

A more important question is how to keep myself sane while ensuring as best I can that he'll grow up to be a respectful, functioning member of society, who doesn't scream in public without reason or knock cans off of supermarket shelves. Or cheat, or lie, or push people out of line, or burn cars, or forget to pay his taxes: you know, the universal goal of parenting.

A discipline strategy, in short. (Oh, how I hate that term.) My husband and I have discussed it, not exactly endlessly but enough. Luckily, our parenting style -- a sort of an ad-hoc, seat-of-our-pants thing -- is roughly in line. We both agree on the same limits, although we have slightly different ways of setting them. We believe in consistency, but aren't unreasonably wedded to it. We have agreed not to use corporal punishment.

For me, there was never any question on the last point. Although I was spanked as a child and don't have any traumatic memories of it (administered with all the solemn ceremony of a ruling of a court of justice, it was still rarely as effective as my mother's cold shoulder), I was always absolutely sure I didn't want to spank my own children. From what I understand, before we had kids, my husband, to the extent he'd ever thought about it, was not opposed to at least using the threat of spanking. It seemed to him like an obvious, and harmless, way of asserting parental authority. I convinced him that enforcing one's superior parental wisdom by purposefully inflicting pain was an untenable contradiction at best, and harmful to children at worst.

But every modern parent knows that. Right? Certainly true in the circle of American moms that I know in real life and read and follow on-line. But I found out today (in this article in le Parisien) that 87% of French parents spank their children, and that this is actually slightly higher than the percentage of French grandparents (84%) who spanked their children when they were young. Spanking, it seems, is on the rise in France. 95% of both parents and grandparents consider spanking "part of French tradition," and set it apart from other more violent forms of corporal punishment.

I was shocked. Not that I'm an anti-spanking crusader or anything (I'll say it again: "I turned out all right"). I'd simply assumed that most people had evolved beyond it, that it was outdated and ridiculous, kind of like force-feeding your children cod-liver oil or sending them to bed without supper.

So much for my familiarity with French culture. I guess, when it comes to parenting, I only know how things work in my own home. So how have we, personally, evolved into the modern parents that we are? How does discipline work chez Petit?

My husband is sort of the enforcer. Or the "bad cop," if you prefer. He tends to yell more than I do (usually a booming "Oh!" that has about a fifty-fifty chance of stopping le Petit in his tracks), although when I am pushed beyond my threshold of tolerance for something, oh man can I yell, too. He is fair and often flexible, but does not tolerate much pushback. His word is law. Usually.

I am the "good cop." I am the one who tries to explain, who gives three or more often scoffed-at chances to comply. I'll try and distract before I resort to enforcing. I'll let something slide if I judge it not worth the effort to fight. I'm also the one who has tried nonviolent communication strategies with le Petit, and successfully so. And once I've figured out how to uphold a limit, I stick to it, gaining in confidence as I figure things out.

Then there's how this all works in real life, which is never quite so simple. To illustrate, a few examples from Wednesday, my weekly day off, spent at home with le Petit:

As my husband leaves for work, le Petit, still in his socks, tries to escape through the open door and run off down the hallway. I have no energy to indulge in this, so I grab him by the shoulders, pull him inside, and explain that we will be going back out in good time. He promptly throws a yelling-throwing-himself-to-the-floor-screaming-wailing fit. I sigh, go about tidying the apartment, explaining wearily in a calm voice that his tantrum makes no difference to me. To no avail.

My husband waits five minutes behind the door, which he then opens unexpectedly. "Oh!" he yells, "That's enough!" He closes the door again and leaves. Le Petit ceases his tantrum and goes off to play with his toys.

Later, we go to the park. Le Petit tires of playing on the playground equipment, and runs off to follow some older kids into the thickets of the surrounding flower bed. I say, "You need to stay where Mommy can see you. I'll give you to the count of three to come back out, or we're leaving the park right now." He appears on the count of three. Last Wednesday, the same threat resulted in leaving the park abruptly, albeit without protest, after I had to go back behind the bushes to retrieve him. I consider both outcomes a victory. I explain to le Petit that it is about safety. I have no idea if it strengthens my cause.

I promise le Petit in the morning that we could go to visit the lion fountain in front of Saint Sulpice (with which he's suddenly, inexplicably obsessed) after lunch if he would cooperate throughout the day. I reminded him of this when we needed to change his diaper, eat lunch, put on shoes, get in the stroller, anything that got any resistance. It worked.

Standing on a street corner across from Saint Sulpice, we had a difference of opinion about the direction to follow. Le Petit wanted to circle around the church. I wanted to go into the Origins boutique, the only place in Paris I can get my shampoo. I explained what I wanted, and what I understood he wanted. "How's this: we'll go into the shop, Mommy will buy her shampoo, and then we'll walk around the church. I just need you to be patient for a moment." He agreed, and we walked hand-in-hand into the store. Score one for nonviolent communication.

In the late afternoon, we meet up with my husband and go together to Parc Monceau. After a good long time at the playground, it's time to go home. We warn le Petit, give him three last climbs up the slide, and then pick him up and carry him, protesting, away. He's unhappy. We have no time or energy to negotiate. And honestly? It's time to leave. Nonviolent communication, you say?

As we're preparing dinner, le Petit sits in his high chair, helping my husband shell peas. He's eating more than he's putting in the bowl. I don't care: he's eating fresh vegetables, people! But my husband is irritated, even more so when le Petit stops shelling altogether, grabs the bowl, and starts greedily shoving raw peas into his mouth. He prevents him. Le Petit goes into Full-blown Tantrum Number Two of the day, and this time the "Oh!" of my husband is no help.

On a whim, I carry him into his room and sit inside on the floor in front of the closed door. As le Petit screams and tries to climb over me, I wait and say quietly, "Mommy wants to help you, but I can't until you calm down and tell me what's the matter." Eventually he does calm down, and climbs into my lap, but the frustration is still bubbling to the surface. "I want to help you." He says nothing. "You want to leave this room." He nods (I think).

"We will go together back into the living room. But what's going to happen when we get there?" I know him well enough to know the peas won't have been forgotten in the interim. "You want peas. Daddy doesn't want you to eat all the peas. How about if we ask Daddy if you can have a small bowl of peas all for yourself?"

"Je veux des peas s'il te plaît," le Petit begins to rehearse.

"Yes, that's what you'll say to Daddy. OK, let's go together." Calm is restored, a compromise is reached, and I am pretty damn proud of myself.

Fast-forward to bath time, the last hurdle of the day (for me, at least, since my husband handles the bedtime routine). Le Petit has thrown his cups out of the bathtub, spilling water all over the floor. He is either trying to climb out of the tub or perch precariously on the edge. I take the cups away, and I prevent him from climbing, but the last straw comes when he refuses to let me brush his teeth. That's when words that are among the most embarrassing that I've uttered since I became a parent came out of my mouth:

"Stop it right now or I'm calling your father."

Really? Am I that pathetic? Apparently. Because of course, my husband came promptly with a gruff "What is this all about?" and le Petit let him brush his teeth without a word.

The only thing I've figured out is that when I'm resourceful, creative and empathetic, while at the same time remaining firm and determined, discipline goes relatively smoothly. When I'm not there, it all goes south. Of course, when I'm not in my game is usually when le Petit most needs me.

It's a work in progress.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Toddler dream interpretation

On Monday morning, le Petit woke up crying. This is rare. He only wanted Mommy to help him out of bed, and luckily I hadn't yet left for work. This is less rare: he's very, very Mommy at the moment. I hugged him for a long time, and then told him that he'd just had a bad dream. It, whatever it was, wasn't real, just a nightmare.

Then, as I was getting him dressed, he actually told me about his dream. "Il y a un chien !" he said. A dog. It made perfect sense, for we've cultivated a perhaps-more-than-healthy respect for the dogs we see at the park. It was the first time he'd explained one of his dreams to me, and I was pretty amazed, as I am with all his firsts.

He pointed at his crib, "Le chien, dans le lit."

"That must have been pretty scary, a dream about a dog in your bed," I agreed, "But it wasn't real. Mommy and Daddy would never let a real dog into the house. You're safe in your bed."

On Tuesday morning, le Petit woke up happy, but still early enough (groan) so that I had not only not yet left for work, but not yet even gotten out of bed. I was still genuinely happy to spend some time with him before heading off.

"Did you have a nice sleep?" I asked. He smiled as I fluffed up his hair. "Did you have nice dreams?" He looked at me, confused. "A dream is when your mind tells you stories in your head while you sleep," I explained, not terribly lucidly. Le Petit looked even more confused.

Then he ran over to a stack of books, picked one up, and tried to balance it on his head.

"On your head!" he said.

Makes perfect sense, of course.

(And if anyone has any tips on explaining such abstract concepts to an almost-three-year-old, please let me know.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It wasn't all that clear from my last post, I realize, but what I love about the French (and my husband) is their ability to argue about everything under the sun, taking sides at will, without any hard feelings (usually) in the end. Not that an argument ever ends, exactly, for no conclusion is reached and no one is declared winner or loser, the conversation simply changes course, is suspended to an amicable truce, or tapers off into the end of a meal.

This intimidated me at first, mostly because French arguments at their most animated get quite loud. When I was still learning to speak French, I could barely follow, much less voice my point of view. To help me out, when I opened my mouth at the family dinner table, my in-laws would all uncharacteristically fall silent to encourage me. I knew I'd truly become fluent when they would no longer stop talking and the decibel level would rise, not fall, when I'd add my two cents.

Back home in the US -- certainly back home in Seattle -- we're too nice to argue. Having a difference of opinion is considered rude. Better to smooth over things with a little disingenuous nodding in agreement. We waste less time talking as a result, we're better listeners (since we're actually absorbing what we're hearing and not formulating our counter argument) and we rarely offend one another, but I feel like something's missing.

Here in France, though, I'm in my element.

Today I gave a presentation at work, and at the end watched (I had little to add, alas) as my colleagues argued on and on about the specifications of a project. It was clear from the beginning that there was no resolution possible; no one in the room would or could change anything, and they didn't even truly disagree. They just had to express themselves.

I attempted to say something clever, and a colleague I barely know jumped up, ran over to my chair and ostentatiously agreed -- by kissing my cheeks! I'm still American enough to blush. But I thought it was pretty cool anyway. Not that it resolved anything. Not that I expected it to.

Friday, April 23, 2010

He said it, not I

We're still working through great quantities of Easter chocolate. I, uncharacteristically, am utterly untempted by it, and in fact can barely stand the sight of it, even though it is good stuff: Lindt, mostly, along with some from a Troyes chocolate shop. My stomach has gone decidedly strange on me.

Luckily, my husband and le Petit are eating through it slowly but purposefully. And every night at the end of dinner, my husband offers le Petit a poisson du chocolat, or chocolate fish, which are more traditional than chocolate eggs and bunnies here in France.

Tonight I ran to the kitchen and came back with a chocolate sea horse. Le Petit looked at it skeptically.

"Ca c'est un hippocampe," he correctly identified before popping it in his mouth.

Out of nowhere, a discussion ensued about whether or not a hippocampe (sea horse) was really a poisson (fish). My husband maintained that although I was scientifically correct, I was still wrong. I wasn't really interested in understanding his argument, but I was still quite interested in proving I was right, so I pulled out the Petit Larousse 2000.

I first read the definition of poisson, then the definition of hippocampe, then cackled in triumph.

My husband turned to le Petit and said matter-of-factly, "You see, just as I was saying, maman is right."

"You know what? I just realized, you're just like my boss," I said, remembering similar surreal discussions I'd had at work.

"I think most French are just like me," he admitted, happily.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Oh say can you see

OK, I probably wouldn't be teaching le Petit to sing the national anthem at such a young age if we lived in the US. But my determination to raise a small Yankee in Paris, fueled in part by my recent homesickness, has led me to exhibit more patriotic zeal than I would ordinarily. And le Petit loves the song right now, for some reason, and frequently asks for it by name.

"Tu veux 'The Star Spangled Banner?'" he asks, "Tu veux que maman chante?"

And so I sing it just as everyone does, with more pride than technique, though I'm happy to say I can finally produce a rendition that doesn't make me cringe when I hit "o'er the land of the free-e-e." Le Petit sometimes joins in, and I think we sound even better à deux.

I decided nonetheless that I shouldn't neglect his French cultural education.

"Daddy will sing 'La Marseillaise', if you ask him," I offered helpfully. My husband looked reluctant to play along, so I started to sing it myself.

"Allons enfants de la patrie-e-e..."

Le Petit cut me off abruptly. "Non! Non! Ce n'est pas la bonne musique!" Not the right music. OK, then.

"How about 'Home on the Range?'"

That one he approved of, probably thanks to Cowboy Small, and he even started singing all by himself:

"'Ome, 'ome on the range! Where the deer and the ant all go play!"

I'm ridiculously proud of this, "ant" and all.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Seven years

The seventh anniversary is rumored to be a rough one, when a marriage hits its make-it-or-break-it year. Yet my husband and I are going on nine years this summer, and I'm happy to say, our seventh anniversary came and went with no upheaval at all, during the delicious summer of le Petit's first birthday, when our life as a family of three was finally settling into a recognizable routine. Seven years, big deal, I thought. Now another seven year anniversary is coming up for me, and it looks like it may be harder than I expected.

This summer will be my seventh living in France, and recently I've been experiencing something between a mild malaise and chronic homesickness. I can and do list the things that I appreciate about living here, starting (and gratefully) with affordable health care, generously subsidized child care, and flexible family leave, and ending more frivolously with I-won't-admit-how-many-weeks-of-vacation and real cheese. But more and more, it sounds like I'm trying too hard to convince myself. I could come up with just as tempting a list of advantages from the other side, but I don't dare.

What am I doing here, I wonder. Is it what I dreamed or even what I expected? I already knew that life in Paris isn't as glamorous as I'd initially imagined. I don't know what I'd imagined, really, seven years ago. Shopping for clothing in confidential boutiques, spending my afternoons wandering museums or strolling along the Seine, writing my memoir from some sidewalk café? Maybe not. I don't think I was ever so stupid as to think my life would completely adhere to a stereotype of Paris, however alluring. I did genuinely think, however, that workaday life would be more seen from over here. Even life as a software engineer would somehow magically become exotic.

It was no big surprise, then, that I was wrong. I figured that much out three years into the experiment, got in touch with a pleasant reality, made peace and moved on.

What I'm feeling now is different. I think what is bothering me, though I'm not sure, is that I am suddenly aware that I've gone too far down this road to turn back easily. Even though I met my husband in the US, and even though I instigated our move to France, I doubt I could convince him now to move back. I'm not sure I would want to move back myself. But I fear a door is slamming shut for good, and I honestly don't know how I feel about that.

The flip side of the sharing and growth that is part of a bi-cultural and bi-continental relationship is the loss. For years, I only saw what I've gained: a new language, a new family, a wider perspective on the world. Now I'm starting to see what I've lost: the physical presence of my own family, the familiarity of my first culture, the landscape of my childhood. No matter where we move together, either my husband or I or both of us will suffer this loss. The other loss that hides behind it is my parents': I used to shrug and laugh when asked how they must feel about my emigration half a world away. Then I became a parent myself.

Who knows where our children will find themselves when they are old enough to decide. Part of me wants le Petit to feel as American as I do, and would be thrilled if he chose to live someday in my own "back home," following the path I didn't take. Part of me wonders if I'd be ready to let him go as gracefully as my parents have let me go. I remind myself that it isn't my life he'll be living, and there won't necessarily be a choice between Seattle and Paris for him. There could very well be a point C that I haven't even imagined elsewhere on the globe.

I am aware, too, that this is a problem any number of people would give anything to have. I also know how lucky I am to have all that I need to live well either over here or over there. It's a privileged, navel-gazing, full-of-oneself expat problem. Know that I am duly ashamed.

Still, to make it over the seven-year hump I've got to do something. First, perhaps most critically, I need to make some friends. Beyond work acquaintances, I can count on only two fingers of one hand (eek!) the friends I've made since I moved here. My close relationship with my in-laws fills much of the void, but still, it isn't enough. By nature I prefer to have a few very close friends than a large network of people I can only partially relate to, but I'm afraid I've hit an unhealthy extreme. I'm not sure how to go about fixing this, alas, but the first step is admitting there's a problem, right?

[Realizing as I get ready to post this that only a real loser could be lonely and complaining about living in Paris, of all places, right?]

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Snack time

My husband tells me that "snack" is his least favorite word in the English language.

He hates the sound of it, the idea of it, the typical content of it. "C'est tous les chips and crap!" he tells me with disgust. He takes it a bit far, if you ask me, but I understand where it comes from. Although a four o'clock snack, le quatre heures, is part of the daily routine for young children, snacking is culturally forbidden in France for adults. I endure stares and ironic "bon appetit!" remarks from my colleagues when I dare to indulge at my desk. It is considered the slippery slope to obesity, and worse, the undermining of one of the very cultural foundations of France: the respect of three true square meals a day.

It just isn't done.

While nutritionists here toe this party line, nutritionists in the US generally embrace snacks, as long as they're composed of healthy foods. This, in a nutshell, is why I'm skeptical of nutritional science: when we talk about food, the cultural element is so huge, it necessarily pushes a good portion of scientific impartiality to the side.

For my part, I think that the key to eating healthfully is eating mindfully. This means reading labels, making balanced choices, and most importantly, listening to your body's hunger cues. With the occasional exception, you shouldn't eat something just because it is there, available, and tempting. In my opinion, it is a heck of a lot easier to maintain this mindfulness when eating is confined to a specific time and place, and perhaps has a certain ritual about it. It is dinner time. We sit down, serve ourselves a little of everything, discuss, eat, enjoy. The television is off. Books are closed. Toys are put away. In a French household, the most important piece of furniture is the dining room table. For the record, this is the way my American family ate when I was growing up.

In the US, it is stupefying easy to eat all the time without thinking about it. We drive-thru. We munch. We super-size. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an American household, the most important piece of furniture is often the couch.

I'm exaggerating, of course. It isn't as if they've got everything figured out over here, and I'm as sick as the next person of all the gushing about the "French paradox." France is no longer, if it ever was, a country of food snobs: my colleagues invite me to go to McDonalds (or Quick, the native French equivalent) for lunch, and I ostentatiously refuse. Yet this cultural meal time vs. snack time difference intrigues me. Just stop at a freeway rest area at midday on any weekend during French school vacations, and you'll see families sitting at picnic tables or on the grass, napkins spread, forks, knives and plates at the ready. The whole ritual of lunch time is respected, and the traffic visibly lets up for two hours between noon and two o'clock.

Le Petit's nanny religiously gives him a snack at four o'clock every day. When he is with us on Wednesdays and on weekends we usually forget, unless, rarely, he asks -- usually around four o'clock, as if his stomach were programmed to remember. He's a good eater (genetic, I'm sure, that is to say lucky for us), and never seems to have trouble holding on until dinner, which in France usually comes late, near 8 o'clock.

Mind you, in the past, before he chilled out about being in the car, we managed entire road trips by handing cookie after cookie to le Petit in the back seat. My overarching parenting strategy is all about what works. I just wonder if so much snacking is truly necessary, especially for adults and older kids, or whether a little cultural skepticism (and some "Tisk, tisk, mon dieu, but it's almost dinner time!") would be a healthy thing to add.