When Pauline tried to interrupt our conversation, Delphine said, “Just wait two minutes, my little one. I’m in the middle of talking.” It was both very polite and very firm. I was struck both by how sweetly Delphine said it and by how certain she seemed that Pauline would obey her. Delphine was also teaching her kids a related skill: learning to play by themselves. “The most important thing is that he learns to be happy by himself,” she said of her son, Aubane.
It’s a skill that French mothers explicitly try to cultivate in their kids more than American mothers do. In a 2004 study on the parenting beliefs of college-educated mothers in the U.S. and France, the American moms said that encouraging one’s child to play alone was of average importance. But the French moms said it was very important.
Then one day you’re engrossed in something and your toddler gets whiney for your attention and soon she progresses to throwing a tantrum and you think for godsake, what’s your problem and then it occurs to you that she’s bored, that you’ve just had 45 whole minutes to yourself. She. Can. Entertain. Herself. Every time a little independence revealed itself in our baby we felt a growing sense of relief. Hand-to-eye co-ordination, crawling, walking, increased attention span – milestones to celebrate because it is a step closer to being able to occupy themselves. Now that she’s a toddler we’re seeing more and more capacity to entertain herself and we’re not letting it gently bud in its own good time.
We’re trying out the consequence-based, no-punishment parenting approach; essentially acknowledge the behaviour you do like and ignore the behaviour you don’t like, which is why in our house you will hear a lot of these statements flying around like we’re on some kind of stilted educational video:
- Good job playing by yourself.
- You’re doing really well occupying yourself.
- You’re really playing independently, well done.
If we didn’t swear so much we’d be the best parents.