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French for Beginners: Catherine Crawford's 'French Twist'

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Are French kids really better behaved than their American counterparts? Are Gallic parents just more relaxed American ones? These are some of the questions Catherine Crawford examines in French Twist: An American Mom's Experiment in Parisian Parenting.

Crawford, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, sought tips and advice from French experts and friends in an effort to turn her young daughters into thoroughly modern mademoiselles. Did it work? And can it work for you? You'll have to read the book, out March 12 from Ballantine, to find out.

T+L sent Crawford (who, it should be noted, is a friend), a few questions. Here's what she had to say.

Q. What drew you to the French style of parenting in the first place?

Curiously, it came to me. Namely, an old, dear friend of my husband's came for dinner with his Parisian wife and their two astonishingly well-behaved children. Everything was so easy and pleasant that night. My first reaction was jealousy--why couldn’t I have that kind of chaos-free rapport with my kids? That envy morphed into resolve, and la grande experiment was born.

Do Americans over-idealize the French? Or do they really have childrearing figured out?

Our relationship with France is so fraught. We love it… and we hate it. What I find fascinating is that we are culturally so competitive yet our societies are so very different. I discovered that the French do have many aspects of childrearing figured out – or rather they haven't over-thought and distorted them in the way many of us parents have done here. However, American parenting has some real upsides, and I’m happy that my kids are still filled with grit, fire and guts. They just needed to learn a little respect and restraint as well.

What things are American parents already doing that's pretty French?

Breathing. No, hmmm, let me think. It really is quite different. American parents are much more likely to put their kids on a level equal with themselves which, I believe, has led to a lot of ineffectual negotiating and bargaining. In France, children are children and their parents are The Chiefs. This distinction did wonders for my family. Still, I often consciously tempered the French lessons because I wanted to maintain that enterprising streak in my kids that is so cool – and common in Americans. Even many of the French parents I interviewed marveled approvingly at this American individualism instilled at such a young age.

What can American parents learn from French parents, especially when traveling with kids?

The best lesson I learned was that, given the chance and some direction, my kids could really hang. After about six months of "French-ifying," we took a beach vacation that was revolutionary. The difference between this trip and our previous vacations is that we didn't plan it around the kids and "kid-friendly" activities. For the first time, they had to adapt into our world (and not the other way around). Instead of spending gobs of money at amusement parks and mini-golf, we hiked, cooked, and communed with both nature and each other.

What's your one can't miss French trick that parents can try right now?

My personal favorite, offered to me by a French friend with whom I was drinking wine and chatting when my youngest daughter launched a tantrum in the other room: "If there is no blood, don't get up."

See: Taking the Kids to Paris and Best Family Getaways.

Photo courtesty of Catherine Crawford.

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