November 29, 2013

Why are French Children so Independent?

Ever since I've arrived in the US, people keep fussing over me. They get worried about things like me ridding the metro or bus by myself, or making my own dinner. It was surprising for me: never before had anyone worried me like that. I keep being called brave for spending a year abroad, and people keep telling me that they themselves would never be able to do such a thing.

I'm very surprised by all this. Back home, I'm used to people being less than casually concerned with my activities. And living abroad is no real problem for me, nor for any of my friends, who are now studying in at least five different countries, and yes, that is not counting the one they call home, France. It has led me to a shocking discovery: American kids, or at least a majority of American kids, are not independent.

I have thought long and hard about why this is, and have come up with a short list of things that could possibly be part of the puzzle. So here is why French Children are so Independent.

(Note: these are generalizations, and majorities: I am aware there are exceptions both with the french and the Americans. I have seen very capable Americans and very useless French. But for the most part, this is what I've found.)

1. Parents allow them the freedom to fail

In the US, I have found parents to be very protective of their children, not allowing them to try new things because they are afraid to see their kid get disappointed. Not the case in France.

The French see failure as an integral part of life, and remind their children that failure is unavoidable, which is evident in their grading system through school. As a child grows up, the main function of a parent is to provide a "cadre", or a framework for the child to live in. Americans find this very hard to grasp, seeing as how strict and controlling this appears: but the French believe that a child knowing his limitations will allow him to blossom. As a parent, your duty is to make sure your child knows his role in society and and to give him the ability to test these limits. Kids will be polite and calm, come when called, clean up their toys. Tantrums are rare. Actually, I have never seen a French kid throw one, though I am certain they must happen somewhere

In the US, I see parents lose it when their four year old finds a knife. In France, I have made apple pie with a four year old who was not afraid of cutlery. Knowing his limits has enabled kids to have advanced skills compared to their US counterparts.

2. School limits parental interaction

In the US, the school experience with the child is something his mother or even father is a huge part of. They help with events, they bring food on special occasions, they help with homework, an they talk with teachers if they have a problem with what is being taught.

Not so in France.

In France, there is a clear distinction between school and parents. Home life and School life never cross over. Not even for lunch - children go eat at a cafeteria all through kindergarden and up, with full sets of Cutlery. There is no finger food. I once got reprimanded for eating a chicken drumstick with my fingers, as my father had shown me. Nope. Knife and fork.

A friend of the family's once brought valentines' day cookies to school with her daughter on february 14th. She was kindly escorted out of the school, and reminded that valentines' day is a couples holiday, and children celebrate what they will outside the confines of their education.

Education is sacred in France, tried and trusted, and parents should not intervene, except during student council meetings (once a term) when they can bring a few points to the attention of the school board. Other than that, they have no connection to the school whatsoever. Some may never set food inside the doors. And they can say what they will about the reading list, they are not going to be able to change it. I read dangerous liaisons in 8th grade, my mother was worried, but could not say anything. It was a good book.

School is all about the student. Every child had a cahier de liasion or, later on, a carnet de correspondance, which is a physical link between the school and the parent. Hour changes, school trips, disciplinary action, tardy slips and absentee notes are all kept together, for the parents to check out. My mother never touched mine.

And then there is homework. Parents can try to help, but rarely do. If kids need help at school, usually their older sibling is the one to provide it, because of how specific teachers are about methodology. I haven't had homework help since I was six.

Parents are kept at a distance from their child's school, on the fringes of their school life. This enables them to join society on their own, without interference.

3. Sleep-aways

In first grade, I spent ten days in the mountains with my teachers and school friends. I didn't see or talk to my parents in all that time.

Classe verte (Green class) are week long field trips organized by the school so that the children can discover part of France by themselves. In first grade, I went to the Ecrins park (a little like a national park) to see the alps, see how cheese was made, meet some beekeepers, and much more. I got the flu and a temperature of 106, which lasted for two days, and my parents didn't know until I got back. In second grade I went to the beach to lean how to sail and kayak; in third, how to ski; in fourth, we went to the mountains to mountain bike; in fifth, to the Basque region, to learn about marine biology. They were awesome trips, and helped kids learn to distance themselves from their parents.

4. Freedom of movement

You may think than an American child has much more freedom; they have time (school ends at 3) they have a car and the ability to drive (at 16), they have jobs and can pay for things. But the French children are a lot more free than their american counterparts. Why?

We have a bus; a train; and blurred european boundaries.

With my friends, we often joked how we could go to London for the day, and our parents wouldn't even notice. You pay 100 euros for an unlimited yearly bus pass; and trains are cheep and frequent, so that if, say, you wanted to go for a day at the beach on a whim, you hop on a bus, reach the bus station, pay 3 euros for a ticket to the coast, hop on the train, hop off, grab a soda and a baguette at a bakery, walk down to the beach and relax for the day. No hassle.

And most parents encourage this, because of how much fun they will have with their friends. And it's not like we don't have a phone.

(Sidebar here: you kids will never be independent if you get those tracker apps. Come on.)

5. You grow up, you work accordingly

I was 8 when I started doing my own laundry, cooking for myself, and cleaning my room with a vacuum cleaner. Today, I see kids in the US only learning to do this when they are getting ready for college. I mean, what?

In France, you get old enough to stick clothing in a washing machine, you are going to be sticking clothing in the washing machine. That's just how it is.

6. Teens left to their own devices

French children do not act out, because they have nothing to act out against. I have never seen anyone go through a phase - well, I saw a goth once, but I think he was in his twenties - to rebel against their parents. Why would they? Their parents are not holding them back!

Once you reach the age of 18 and are legally allowed to drink, you've already passed the age where you've tried some, abused some, and gotten used to it. So like in the US when you turn 21, the eighteenth is a booze fiesta; and then you calm down, have a bit of beer or rosé at a few parties, you drink moderately and you don't over indulge. You've grown up knowing you could. Why revolt?

After this, you graduate, and you are a fully formed adult. There is a huge difference between american 18 year olds and french 18 year olds, comparable to americans after college graduation. Not to say that they are mature - just that they have all the skills they need to move out, get their own place, take care of bills, insurance and taxes, or travel. Of course, there are many American teenagers who are capable of this. but it seems as though most are still babied, even through college.

I am not used to the fuss. People (very kind people!) send me care packages, and I wonder what I did to deserve them. I speak to my parents once a week, to the surprise of many, who assume I have to see them every day. I can't tell you how happy some family members were that I mentioned missing them, because at least they could relate to home sickness.

I have trouble making friends with teenagers my age here in the US, because we lack so many shared experiences. Their school experience is all about success, events, shared with their parents. I find it easier to relate with college students, college seniors, even, who have gotten this freedom, and enjoy discussing travel plans.
Plus, I haven't had a beer in months and it's annoying as heck. And when I mention cider int his country, all I get is sweetened apple juice!

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