The Art of Discipline: Lessons from the French

I belatedly read “French children don’t throw food” (Pamela Drukerman, 2013) and loved hearing about France from an outsider’s perspective; I was also intrigued to hear about the French recipe for raising a family.  Whilst the French have also received some flak for being harsh, as a Francophile, I was happy to be swept up in the portrayal of their supposed parental utopia – and belief that their chicness translates into a similar tour de force en famille….

One of the main things that stuck with me from the book was the notion of a bêtise – meaning ‘a small act of naughtiness’.  It reminded me of the ‘green warning’ cards that are given at my sons’ school.  The appeal lies in the distinction between a grand mal (or ‘red card’ in the school context) and something which isn’t ideal, or advisable, but is recoverable.  This brings shades of grey into the telling-off process.  If everything is nuclear, kids don’t have space to breathe, test the boundaries or make mistakes.  Green warnings and bêtises give them scope to be on the edge of trouble, without the wheels falling off.

At home the equivalent is the rhetorical “do you want to go into the corner?”.  The irony is that I’m sure we try harder to keep our kids out of the corner than they do.  I always hope that the threat of it may work magic, however I remember a painful day about four years ago that I put my then three year old in the corner before 7.30am (I know, I know…).  I knew it was going to be a long day, but the threat of it didn’t work, so I felt my hands were tied…  My prediction was right though, having already been there once, he was like a boomerang in/out of the corner all day.  Let’s just say if he’d got out of bed on the wrong side, it would have been a better bet for him to go back to bed and get out the other side instead…

Even at the time, I knew all was lost with that first visit to the corner.  His ego had taken a knock in the battle for dominance and ‘the corner’ became a self-fulfilling prophecy – he stopped trying to be ‘good’, he was no longer trying to live up to an expectation.

Trying maintain our kids’ self-esteem  when they’re being told off is certainly tricky, but is essential to give them the confidence that they can do things differently in future.  Whilst they are liable to over-generalise (‘I’m in the corner, I must be bad’), it’s up to us to explain behaviour is just that – it’s not a personality trait.  After all, it’s entirely their choice what they do and how they behave.  Like a lot of things, this is of course easier said than done because as well as them whipping themselves up, they also whip us up.  Each difficult interaction is wearing and our patience is likely to wane as a result.  We may then be quicker to chastise than we would otherwise be for a similar bêtise on a different day.

That’s why the notion of a bêtise is so appealing.  It’s an allowable weakness and enables the kids to see that whilst they’ve had a minor lapse, it doesn’t have to continue.  A case of ‘your past does not define you’ if you like.  And for us, a bêtise is just an early warning sign that they need a little support to get back on track.

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