Monday, February 13, 2012

Yet another Guilt Trip for Parents, Founded on Some Feeble Notion of ‘Cultural Superiority’

Much has been made lately of an article by Pamela Druckerman on claims of the “superiority” of French parents, and it’s hard to make inferences of that kind without plainly telling the reader that the statement was founded on the writer’s limited observation of a few isolated days with the sort of French families that she would have as friends and acquaintances, and is also very much the case of an American who only seems to know Americans like herself:

Soon it became clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents were achieving outcomes that created a whole different atmosphere for family life. When American families visited our home, the parents usually spent much of the visit refereeing their kids' spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build Lego villages. When French friends visited, by contrast, the grownups had coffee and the children played happily by themselves.
If I might add an opinion here based on observation – a lot of it – Druckerman’s thesis is completely specious. Parents in any society are broadly varied in their ability, and that’s reflected in children’s behavior. What the writer observes are small piece of things that are present everywhere in the world. I can tell you quitter plainly that there is no shortage of trashy parents, indifferent parents, confused parents, over-active parents, meddlesome parents, good parents, and utterly helpless parents in France or anywhere else.

Druckerman’s assumption is reminiscent of a 1972 comment by Ney York film critic Pauline Kael, where she is reputed to have wondered aloud how Richard Nixon could have won since no one she knew voted for him. Yet while armed with that received wisdom, Richard Nixon won.

A French-American friend wrote me with a rather different view from her experience teaching in France:

I have taught French schoolchildren, teens and young adults.

The 9 - 13 year olds were hell. Complete and total hell. Not that each individual on his/her own was not, in general, a nice enough kid. But as a group, trying to teach them was a major effort and discipline was THE problem.

The 1 - 3 year olds were fine because they were in an English-language group all day with English-language educators and, so, we ran a tight ship, so to speak. When we walked across the hall to the French-language group, it was like walking into a zoo. The noise was unbearable. And the educators were standing around drinking coffee and chatting amongst themselves and just letting the kids behave that way. The German-language group was similar to our group but even quieter.

The older students I taught, when they had been to Catholic schools, were fairly well-behaved. The ones from public schools were not.
So the fact Druckerman decries that non-French children don’t behave like painter’s subject should be taken for what it’s worth: shallow intercultural babble dressed up as yet more meddlesome unsolicited advice offered to parents of young kids.