Two weeks ago, I began a review of the book Bringing Up Bebe, by P. Druckerman, a commentary on French parenting by an American mother living abroad. To read the first post in this two-part series, click here. Having already spent some time exploring French approaches to both eating and sleeping, it’s time to turn in a different direction: education and independent play.
Area #3: Education
Most infants are enrolled in a nursery-type program when they are still less than a year old. Spots are limited, and the competition is fierce. Since most French mothers return to work when their children are three months old (and most French mothers do return to work; stay-at-home moms are few and far between), affordable childcare is a must. As French toddlers reach the age to begin school, there is a definite focus on teaching communication and socialization skills, rather than your traditional reading, writing, and arithmetic. French school children have ample time for play and socializing, where they are placed in an environment that naturally encourages sharing, cooperating, and patience. Most French children do not learn to read until they are seven or eight, since parents believe it’s more important for children to learn socialization skills prior to that point (Interestingly, French school children reach the same reading level as their American peers fairly quickly, despite learning to read “late” in their education).
There is a definite lack of competition in French schools. Parents might still be tempted to compare (it’s only natural), but there is more focus on behaviors like cooperation, rather than how quickly you can get your children to read. Here in America, parents sometimes feel pressured to enroll their toddlers in early reading programs to help their kids get a leg up on their peers prior to entering Kindergarten. Parents can be made to feel that if their child isn’t reading and writing before entering Kindergarten, they’ve destined their child for inevitable failure in life.
When I started Kindergarten, I already knew how to read, the result of having attended a very prestigious Jewish preschool the year before. This was very fortunate in my situation, since I missed most of my Kindergarten year thanks to a bout of mononucleosis and two fractured wrists. From what I remember from Kindergarten, there was lots of time for play and socializing. We learned our letters and numbers, but we also spent lots of time running around outside. If you already knew how to read, you were the definite exception to the rule, and I was one of only a handful in my class.
Today, there are Kindergarten programs out there that expect your children to be able to read. There are transitional classes for pre-schoolers who are not “ready” for Kindergarten. In some cases, this might be because of a behavioral problem, but for many children, it’s because they can’t read. When I was in Kindergarten, we had a fifteen minute recess period in the mornings, as well as a lunch period that included fifteen minutes of outdoor play. In many European countries, this would have been considered too short. Here in America, many elementary schools have shortened the lunch period, as well as completely eliminated the morning recess. In addition, many elementary schools have chosen to lengthen their school day, creating even more time for lessons. And that doesn’t mean that kids don’t get homework either. Some Kindergartens send home daily assignments, while others have opted for a more moderate weekly homework assignment. If I recall correctly, I never had any homework in Kindergarten; I actually got to spend my afternoons outdoors when I got home from school.
School programs have become incredibly competitive, and so have parents. There is always a temptation to compare, and even French parents are faced with the same temptation, though our country makes it entirely too easy. We beat ourselves up when our children don’t excel at the same rate as their peers. We are sending our eighteen month old children to early intervention programs when they don’t have a fully-developed vocabulary. We stress when our children are not walking before their first birthday. When they begin school, the comparisons become even more intense as we are given the ability to quantify our child’s comparative success in school. When our children don’t meet our country’s expectations, we take it personally, blaming ourselves for our children’s apparent failure to thrive in our competitive culture.
French culture really seems to find such comparisons to be in bad taste. Naturally, parents recognize that the temptation to compare is a human one, but that does not mean that we must become enslaved to it. French mothers have a saying, “The perfect mother doesn’t exist.” They repeat this phrase to themselves in moments of weakness, and to one another when the need arises. Comparisons serve no purpose in French culture. The perfect mother doesn’t exist, and neither does the perfect child. Where one child flourishes, another flounders. The toddler that can’t speak at eighteen months began walking at nine. The toddler that speaks in full sentences at twelve months doesn’t walk for another six. The school-aged child who excels at math struggles with her reading. The teenager who has mastered the violin can’t kick a ball to save his life. Each child has particular gifts, and no child is expected to be a jack of all trades.
And that leads me to my final point. I’ve known parents who literally just drove their kids from activity to activity after school- from 3pm right through to 8 or 9pm. Kids went from sports practices to dance class to evening violin lessons. Dinners were eaten in the car, if they were eaten at all. I’ve also seen these parents’ calendars, color-coded for each child, and I often find myself wondering how these mothers do it, unless they can bi-locate or something. French school children generally are allowed one extracurricular activity per semester, if they do anything at all. This limit is believed to benefit both parents and children- parents are not turned into glorified chauffeurs, and kids are given the opportunity to hone in on one gift that they have and to learn how to deal with boredom. And that brings us to the fourth area of French parenting that I wanted to consider…
Area #4: Independent Play
John has never been good at playing by himself. As an infant, his attention span was about ten minutes. If he wasn’t sleeping (which was most of the time), I was by his side, trying to keep him entertained. We would move from one activity to the next, a long, exhausting chain that only ended when the next nap arrived. That didn’t really change as he got older. Even as a toddler, the only way he would play without me was when I brought him to the playground. Mercifully, with the arrival of Felicity, his independent play ability improved immensely.
French infants and toddlers are given ample time to learn about independent play. In her book, Druckerman recounts a picnic lunch with her infant daughter. She spent the majority of the hour-long trip entertaining her child with various toys and songs. Not far from her, another mother sat with her daughter of the same age. She spent her hour talking to a fellow mother while her daughter played with the grass, her feet, and the single ball that her mother had brought to the park. French children are encouraged to play on their own, a challenge in and of itself, without the added detail that most French households would be considered lacking in the toy department. French children have toys, but their toys do not take over entire rooms, as they often do here in America.
French children are encouraged to be creative and imaginative with their playtime. Boredom is also generally considered to be a child’s problem to solve, not a parent’s. You’re bored? Find something to do. And I shouldn’t have to do it with you. This is especially true for older children, but it works well with younger ones as well. French parents are firm believers in the idea that boredom is a state of mind that has been established through conditioning and therefore can be reversed (or never fostered in the first place). Rather than providing them with millions of toys, children should be provided with multiple opportunities to be creative and use their imaginations. The effects are two-fold: children become more adept at pretend play, and parents aren’t forced to live in quarters that somewhat resemble a toy store.
I have always tried to keep the amount of toys in our apartment under control, though my efforts generally feel like a losing battle. Communal toys (at this point, mostly John’s toys and a play mat for Felicity) occupy a corner of our living room. We had one bookcase filled with toys, as well as a bin of balls and a bin of stuffed animals. When we run out of room on the shelves or in one of the bins, we purge. Older toys are either stored for future use, donated, or trashed if they are missing pieces. We do purges after nearly every holiday (if only to make room for the new toys), and if John hasn’t played with it lately, there is a very good chance that it will be donated or discarded. It’s the survival of the fittest around here, for sure.
France has given us so much. It has given birth to countless artists, musicians, authors, and intellectuals, as well as more than a few saints. It has produced some of the most delicious cuisine, as well as trend-setting fashion. But that’s not where the contributions of French culture end. French parents have something to offer as well. Their children generally sleep twelve hours through the night by three months old and have well-developed, sophisticated palettes well before turning a year. They do not require their parents to be babysitters as they play or chauffeurs as they are driven from one extracurricular to another. French parents can get a full night’s sleep most nights from early on, don’t need to fret over children’s menus that somehow lack chicken nuggets (what kind of children’s menu doesn’t have chicken nuggets?!), and have time for themselves every day because they don’t need to constantly entertain their children or drive them places. We American parents can definitely learn a thing or two from them.
I read Druckerman’s book while I was pregnant with Felicity, and so I was ready to implement some of her advice immediately upon birth. Already, we have seen some of the effects of our efforts. Felicity has been sleeping through the night fairly consistently since she was a little less than two months old, and the only tactics we’ve employed so far have been to put her to bed awake (with a pacifier) and to give her five minutes to soothe herself at night before going in to attend to her. Apparently, our minimal efforts (who doesn’t want to lie in bed for an extra five minutes, especially if there’s a very good chance you’ll never need to get up?) have taken us far. We still have a little while before we explore some of those other areas of French parenting, but you can be sure I’ll have updates for you in a few months when Felicity starts eating table foods!
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!