02/14/2013 11:52 am ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

L'Amour With Less

My husband doesn't do Valentine's Day. He's dreamy in other ways, so I don't hold it against him. He just hates feeling that it's compulsory to act loving. Also, my birthday arrives three days before and now that we have kids, we've usually already decimated our babysitting/restaurant allotment for the week by the 14th. Valentine's Day is just like any other in our house: plenty fun, and happily free of Whitman's Samplers.

So you can perhaps imagine my shock two years ago when my then-6-year-old asked me if she should "make a Valentine's Day present list." At first, I was impressed -- what a sophisticated joke for such a little kid. Alas, no joke. "Seriously, Mommy. What are you going to get me? I mean, besides candy."

It was around this same time that I was beginning an experiment of importing certain aspects of French parenting into our domestic scene in an attempt to achieve a better balance (i.e. less begging, tantrums, bribing and guilt). I hadn't realized how all-encompassing this little enterprise would turn out to be, especially with regard to my relationship with stuff (and how often I'd dole it out to my kids).

It's hard to resist. Kids are big business -- $15 billion a year in marketing dollars, to be exact -- and Valentine's Day is just one of many easy targets. It feels like every day, at least in my neighborhood, there's some new alluring store or activity center opening up with our smallest citizens in mind. Parents are constantly blasted with advertisements and choices on how we can spend gobs of money filling our children's lives with fun... and junk.

When I was in Paris researching the ins and outs of French childrearing, I noticed that while there are certainly many activities and... things for kids to do, it's not nearly on the same scale as in the States. It hit me that this was, maybe, related to why French kids often seemed more equipped to hang out with no planned agenda, goal or bag of loot to keep them occupied. Even birthday party goodie-bags aren't a given over there. As a French mom told me: "The party is the prize -- they don't need anything more than that." Once this preoccupation with fun! and prizes! and treats! was removed, I noticed that many overseas enfants got a lot from their ability to exist in the adult world. For one thing, they began to see their parents as more than just servants. Important!

Well, if French kids could do it, so could mine. We simply had to tune out the interference. OK, simple might not be the right word. But it can be done. Here are a few ideas for how to swap out kiddie culture with something everyone might actually enjoy. Yes, even parents.

When your little maniacs are clamoring for Toys"R"Us and Chuck-E-Cheese, try one of these on instead:

  • Grab a delicious sandwich -- or even just a hunk of cheese and baguette -- and head to the nearest crest to watch the sun set. Don't live near a crest? Try the roof.
  • Go forth into nature and collect "beautiful specimens." These include leaves, rocks, branches and rainbows (it's recommended that you stick with the first three in that list). I'm continually and genuinely shocked by how much kids love beauty. It's weird.
  • My girls recently discovered that there's much more to a museum than the gift shop and cafeteria. Art and stuff. It took me having faith in their perceptions, though, to get in front of the Gauguins.
  • Play with photography. My daughters like to subway into Manhattan to see what kind of interesting shots they can take (Thank Zeus for digital cameras -- this never would have worked for my kids in the days of film; they aren't that French).

I am very much an American and, thus, I hate disappointing my kids. This year, we're making a Valentine's Day dinner together. Red and pink -- obviously, I know -- is the theme: Roasted red pepper bruschetta, poached salmon and blood orange sorbet topped with strawberries. I'll probably get them a little chocolate as well. Good, French chocolate -- not that Whitman's stuff.

catherinecrawford notforreuse