Let’s take a moment to talk about children, shall we? Spotted today, within the splendid courtyard of Le Palais-Royal: a small child, of no more than 4 years, seated on the edge of a large fountain. He is sandwiched on both sides by his mother and father who, along with the hundreds of barefoot sun worshipers around this courtyard, are dining outdoors and taking full advantage of the unseasonably warm afternoon. The boy sits quietly, nibbling on his lunch and patiently listening to his parents’ conversation taking place above his head. He doesn’t interrupt. He doesn’t cry for attention. He just sits, like the lovely little person he probably is, and allows his parents to enjoy their meal and the beautiful afternoon.
Now let’s cross over to the other side of the Atlantic. Similar setting, somewhere in North America. It’s a lovely day, and mom, dad and child eagerly take to the park for a picnic. They take a seat; mom hands the four-year-old his sandwich. He takes a bite, then throws it onto the ground. He starts to run around the park, chasing pigeons, torturing dogs, throwing handfuls of sand, eating sand, screaming, yelling, and eventually runs off toward the street, where cars whizz past. Mom (or maybe dad) jumps up to run after him, frazzled, exhausted, her barely-touched meal left to the birds. The boy turns around, runs back toward the fountain, falls into the fountain, and the chaos continues.
OK, so I exaggerate. Somewhat. But it is undeniable that there is a noticeable difference between the behavior of French children, and that of their American counterparts. I have been in France many times now, and not once can I recall seeing a child throw a temper tantrum in a grocery store – or anywhere, for that matter. Not once have I seen a child running up and down the length of a metro car, a bus or a train. I have yet to witness a meltdown, a scream-fest, or any similarly out-of-control behavior whatsoever. French children are... different. They are dignified. Civilized. Delightful.
Don’t misunderstand: I do not wish to give the impression that French children are somehow creepy or robot-like in any way. Au contraire! They giggle, they laugh, they play – just like children anywhere. As I sit in the park now, a group of schoolchildren walk past – maybe 15 in all, around the age of 6 or 7 years old. They stop at the fountain, reach in to touch the cool water, their innocent faces full of delight. But they don’t yell out, they don’t splash any water, nor do they bother any of the adults who are here on their lunch break. These children clearly know how to be children, but at the same time, understand that there is a time and place for everything, and a proper way to behave - especially when in a public setting.
Their restaurant etiquette is particularly strong. Dining in France is an art form in and of itself, an essential part of French culture, and children growing up here quickly learn how to fully experience the pleasure of dining. These little (French-speaking) people sit at tables and eat with their families (most likely consuming wholesome meals made without any chemicals or preservatives). And they wait to be excused before leaving the table. While staying with friends in the south of France, an afternoon snack of tea and freshly baked brioche was served. My friends’ two very small children sat with the adults at the table, quiet and unobtrusive, and enjoyed their own brioche along with everyone else. They never demanded attention. They didn’t get up and run off – nor did they ask to leave the table – until given permission to do so. The French children I have witnessed seem to take pleasure in eating their meal, while respecting the cultural importance and the experience of eating their meal.
Debra Olivier writes about French children in her book Entre Nous. She observes Parisian family life: homes that are not overwhelmed by toys; a family dynamic in which the parents dictate the schedule and the rules, not the child; consistent bedtimes that children actually adhere to. Olivier writes that children in France are brought up with the understanding that they have a distinctive place in the family and in society; they are something like little adults, and their parents set the example and expectations early on as to what constitutes adult-like manners and etiquette. Steve Fallon and Annabel Hart echo this in Lonely Planet’s guide to Paris. They write, "France treats its children as adults until they reach puberty – at which time they revert to being children again". Rather than overindulged and spoiled, French children are "corrected and disciplined", and are brought up understanding what proper behavior means.
A Parisian friend has invited me over for champagne and cheese in her home. She has two small children, and she tells me they will be asleep at 8:00pm, so I should come over right around 8:30pm. Based on what I have seen, read and heard, I have no doubt that when I arrive, her house will be neat, her children asleep, and we will enjoy an adult conversation over delicious champagne. My friend Anne tells me that my view is glorified; she doesn’t want to burst my bubble, she says, but times are changing, and French children are not nearly as perfect as I make them out to be. Maybe she is right. Nevertheless, I tell her that if I could somehow guarantee that my own children would come out to be so lovely and dignified, just like these little French-speaking people are, then maybe the idea of actually having them would be less horrifying.