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Let Them Eat Cake

Patience isn't a fixed quality. It's more like a muscle, which grows stronger with practice. And French kids get a lot of practice.
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This post is part of Stress-Less Parenting Club's first workshop. Pamela is sharing her best advice on everything from improving your kids' eating habits to asserting your authority as a parent. Here, she tells us why baking a cake is an ideal way to teach kids patience.

When I was researching why French families seemed calmer than my American one, I came across an interesting clue: lots of cake. When I'd visit French homes on weekends, the children would almost always be either baking a cake, or eating it.

Often, even 2 and 3-year-olds did much of the baking. They measured and mixed the ingredients, as maman looked on. Things sometimes got messy, but the process was generally quite orderly. It certainly wasn't the total chaos it would have been at my house. These little French kids were obviously used to baking. They enjoyed the autonomy -- and later, the cake.

French parents aren't perfect, and neither are their kids. They don't even all eat cake. But watching all that cake baking taught me some things about patience and made me realize that they don't view small children the same way I once did: as wild animals who can't reign in their impulses or understand the rules. They generally expect even little kids to have some patience and self-control. And quite often, the children do.

Living in Paris, I see lessons in patience all the time. Instead of chasing kids around the house to minimize the damage, French parents tend to calmly show and tell kids what to do instead. This seems to work even with children who can't yet talk. At brunch one morning, I watched a French friend pull her not quite 2-year-old onto her lap, and calmly explain that we always eat sitting at the table. (An American child was at that very moment charging across the room with a croissant in his mouth).

What I've learned, however, is that patience isn't a fixed quality. It's more like a muscle, which grows stronger with practice. And French kids get a lot of practice. Their parents are willing to give them hundreds of lessons in patience, if necessary.

Take food, for instance. Kids here typically wait to eat at mealtimes (parents don't panic if their kids get a little hungry). Kids mostly eat meals in courses, rather than all at once. They taste foods, even ones they don't like -- a form of coping with frustration. And that cake that they baked in the morning? They wait until the afternoon to eat it (and even then, they show restraint by having reasonable portions).

In French homes, there's also typically a no-interrupting rule. If a child tries to break in while his parents are talking, they'll usually turn to him and say, "I'll be with you in a minute." That's more practice in patience.

This respect is supposed to be mutual. If a child is absorbed in something, his parents try to just let him be. They don't burst in offering snacks. If you're used to interventionist American playgrounds, the ones in France are a novelty. It's mostly adults sitting on the perimeter, letting the children play. They treat being able to occupy yourself as a valuable skill.

I hope all this patience training doesn't sound too severe. The French children I know aren't robots; they're normal, boisterous kids. But with practice, they get better at coping with a bit of frustration and boredom. They don't expect to get what they want instantly. They can patiently proceed through a simple recipe.

I'm pretty sure this is a good thing. French parents think a child can't be happy if he's constantly subject to his own whims. They believe that kids get pride and pleasure from being able to choose how they respond to things.

American research seems to back up the French approach. "I think what's often underestimated in parenting is how extraordinary...the cognitive facilities of very young kids are, if you engage them," explains Walter Mischel, the Columbia University professor who pioneered the famous "marshmallow test," which measured how well little kids could delay gratification. (They were left alone in a room with a marshmallow, and told if they didn't eat it, they'd later get two).

Mischel discovered that the children who managed not to eat the marshmallow were the ones who distracted themselves -- by inventing a little game or playing with their toes. That made the waiting bearable. He said kids can learn how to do this, if they're just given enough chances to practice.

In a follow-up study years later, Mischel found that the children who managed not to eat the marshmallow were more likely to become teenagers who could handle setbacks, and who were good at concentrating and reasoning. The study didn't cover the obvious benefits for parents: we get to finish a conversation and a cup of tea.

French parents are playing the long game. They don't expect their kids to become expert delayers (or bakers) overnight. They know that even teaching patience requires patience. In the end, it seems that we all get the brunches we expect, and deserve.

Want to put Pamela's advice into practice? Jump into the first week of her Stress-Less Parenting workshop and get the recipe for a wonderful first cake to make with kids. If you haven't signed up yet, visit the purple box on the right side of this page to receive our weekly newsletter.