What is our role as parents? Is it to protect our children from the harsh reality of the cruel world out there, to preserve a Disney varnished version of My Little Pony, La La Po and Tinky Winky until the law says they are old enough to get bladdered in the gutter – or are we supposed to gradually teach them that the world contains dangerous people, dangerous items, and show them how to ski off piste in our chaotic environment? It is a debate as old as human history, but never perhaps as polarised as it is today.
Walk the half mile to school with an older sibling, or chauffeur driven in the 4 x 4? Pretty pink fizzy pop or half a glass of watered down Rosé? Knee deep in muddy water collecting Frog Spawn or dressed in Gucci and taken to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Your marriage preserved ‘for the sake of the children’ or taken to live with Dad’s new partner, the nicely camp interior designer that Mum introduced him to? British society divides like the Red Sea along these lines.
The French have no doubt that children are trainee adults. They might slip up occasionally; a howl when they fall over, the odd conversation interrupted, but in general they know full well the difference between ‘kid’s space’ and ‘adult space’ and are cheerfully included in every activity. Lunch in any restaurant will include tables full of all age groups, from Grand–mère down to newest baby, all talking to each other, discussing the food choice, savouring every offering.
Schools too, also training grounds for adult life. Walk past any school at play time and there will be raucous cries of joy and exuberance – walk past at lunch time and you will see numerous tables of well behaved children, discussing the food, talking quietly amongst themselves, no bun fights, no shrieking. Even meal times are part of learning how to conduct yourself in the world you are hurtling towards.
I have written before of the shock felt by British parents when ‘dear little Gabriel’ encounters a French school – in that case the parents sold up and moved back to England when they discovered that ‘dear little Gabriel’ was expected to sit behind a desk and pay attention to what the teacher was telling him…they eventually found a school in Cornwall where the head master was happy to let Gabriel play ‘holistically’ with his play dough all day!
Disaster! The perils of travelling ‘abroad’ with young children hit home. What had Emily, far from the reassuring Fabian society of Britain, inflicted on her vulnerable young? Can you believe that the school only ‘taught’ and everything else was down to the parents? What kind of society is that? Parents expected to provide educational entertainment for their children, no music, no clubs, no more face painting and after lunch naps?
At 6 years old young Gabriel was expected to sit at a desk all on his own, pay attention, and learn something! If anyone misbehaved they were publicly identified and their name written on the backboard. Inhumane!
His teacher used a cane – panic not, not on the children, but to point at words on the blackboard in a way that young Gabriel found positively threatening – and this in a European country!
Now I hear that French children’s books are, I quote ‘Terrifying‘. To sensitised British ears, that is.
Jenny Colgan writes ‘chick-lit’ books for grown up girls who still want to believe that handsome princes will emerge from the primordial swamp and sweep them off to a life of gracious homes, heavy breathing stallions, and lunch in West End restaurants. She is highly successful, one of the Sunday Times Top Ten best selling authors. She recently moved from the Netherlands to France – and, shock, horror, encountered French children’s books; full of wolves that live in the forest and prey on children who wander off alone; girl’s who come to an untimely end after pulling a plastic bag over their head, and toys that come to life after you go to sleep..
“I don’t know why so many French children’s books are so bafflingly, needlessly frightening. Before moving there, we lived in the Netherlands; they had the same rabbits with ethnically varied chums and dinosaur mummies tucking up dinosaur babies as we do in the UK. I also can’t envisage the publishing meeting in which someone says ‘Hey! I’ve got this great kids’ book where a girl puts her head in a plastic bag!’
Has Little Red Riding Hood been re-written then? Does the nice wolf take her home for current buns and Ginger beer? Did the kindly man from the ‘Save the Rabbits Charitable Foundation’ carefully move Hazel and Fiver to their new home lined with pure organic sheep’s wool? Did Eric and Martin import a cuddly Yummy Mummy into their masculine household to make everything all right for little Jenny? Have British children’s books all been rewritten with ethnically varied chums and happy endings?
I learnt French from the Bandes Dessinées, the superb French comics produced for all ages. Starting with the ‘recommended for age 3′ – I figured they were just learning to speak French as was I, so we should be at the same level. I progressed through the ages with the aid of the usual collection of retired farmers ever present in our local Café, who were happy to listen and correct me as I laboriously read out tales of mountains and wolves, steam ships and oceans, goat farmers and cheese making wives – I was amazed at how sophisticated reading material was for even three year olds. They were learning about the world, how it worked, given subjects to discuss with adults, not ‘ethnically varied rabbit chums…’
In short, are children’s books and children’s worlds the new ideological battleground? Protected from the world, or tipped into it at the deep end without warning?
An ‘it’s raining, what can I do with myself’? occasional post from Anna Raccoon.