I went to bed with a smile on my face after I hung up the phone with my niece, who teaches kindergarten in America, because of three simple words, “Good for her.” This might seem a strange phrase to be so happy about, but for the last few weeks I have felt culturally adrift.
Every year the primary school in the small village we live in the south of France has a school trip. The ‘voyage scholaire’ becomes the focus of life for a few weeks beforehand. I think it’s quite good, our school is privileged to actually have it, but this year I saw a different side to the journey.
My wife and I come from a background of attachment parenting. ( http://theattachedfamily.com/?p=2388 ) When we first moved to the village we now live in our son was seven soon to be eight. As we had moved around a few countries since he was born he had been home educated till that point. He made the decision to go to school as he wanted to learn French. When he came home with an itinerary for the voyage scholaire and it was a week of skiing in the Pyrenees we were astonished. Kids would be going away for four nights and five days, and this was primary school. Then we thought okay cool, what a great thing.
Louis was in turmoil, he had never slept away from us, but an outdoorsy just-turned eight year old boy was being teased daily by the snow covered mountains in constant view from our house. He went up and down in his decision, then we came up with a plan. We’d come to the mountains on day two, if the night away from us outweighed the skiing, we’d take him back home with us.
When we showed up on Tuesday morning he all but said, “See you on Friday.” As parents we were proud he made such a strong decision, but we were also happy that we were able to take the pressure off and he went on all subsequent trips for the next four years.
Little sister Chessie started attending the same school when she was five. Her decision was a bit longer in coming as she was much younger than her brother when he began school. We eased her in with half days in the ‘maternelle’ (kindergarten) section. Although the official age to begin school in France is six, the unofficial rule is two years old and out of diapers and you can attend. It was amazing to see red-eyed toddlers attending school, and even the older section of the maternelle going on the school trip for two nights.
From our attachment parenting background we feel a secure person develops in their own time. Sleeping away at too young an age or being raised in daycare centers by strangers didn’t help a child find inner strength, but may actually cause lifelong feelings of insecurity that will ultimately take much longer to come to grips with. At the school gate we saw many children with pacifiers, security blankets, and tear-stained faces. I know we consider it normal for crying faces at the school gate, but is it really? Especially if the crying goes on well into the school year. We knew our cultural divide would bring up and even polarise the differences, but we hoped from fellow adults there would be mutual respect.
Respect wouldn’t be the word I would use to describe how people reacted to the two sets of attached parents that happened to be around. (both families coincidentally consisting of an English mom and American dad). The parents and teachers thought we were being overprotective and verbally said so. When our friend Rachel sat in on the class where her five year old daughter was attending, it was deemed most peculiar. Funnily enough it wasn’t deemed strange to have kids lost in their own worlds clinging to blankets or comfort toys. Kid’s sucking their thumbs in silence all day wasn’t worth a mention. The mornings were very difficult as we would watch various two year olds being pried from the fence as their mom or dad walked away from the school. Every attachment instinct in me was saying, “No, please keep her home a few more years, cuddle him, don’t just walk away.” Luckily Myriam, the helper in the maternelle oozed love for the kids and the children were drawn to her like a sort of Pied Piper, but the people those two and three year olds should have been with were starting their engines and driving off – some maybe to therapists to deal with their feelings of abandonment;-).
These past few weeks once again brought to the fore the cultural differences and how a strong decision by a young person in a culture of subtle detachment doesn’t get it’s due respect. My daughter went on her first school trip at age seven because her mom Angie went along as a parental helper. Chessie wouldn’t have never gone otherwise. The school was happy to have a helper during the day, and the nights were basically my wife sleeping with my daughter. Maybe we should have not bothered, but we were trying to match two very different worlds. It wasn’t a disaster, but the next year Angie wouldn’t go for sure, and Chessie? Well we’d see.
The next year came and now Chessie was eight and her personality and French language skills were blossoming as she made the decision to start school a bit earlier than her older brother. Although Louis and Chessie are four years apart they share friends and a love of outdoor play and bicycle riding that helps to bond their relationship. Chessie made the decision to go on the school trip the following year because her brother and his friends were all going to be there and the trip to the Dordogne exploring the Chateaux of the area intrigued her no end.
Now the school trip was upon us once again. The voyage scholaire was starting out on Chessie’s 9th birthday, and was headed to the Atlantic Coast, but since it was March, swimming wasn’t on the menu. Her big brother was in secondary school, so Chessie’s decision came quite easy and early that she had no interest in the school trip. As it is billed as not obligatory we thought okay, no problem. Although a problem it was. I respect the teachers at the school and feel they are doing a good job in an educational system that fails the children on many other levels, ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/24/french-taught-to-be-gloomy ) it was obvious a child saying no to the school trip was seen as a form of defeat for the teachers.
I was at the school gate a few times listening to the traumas of other parents and kids. One child losing sleep over the decision to go, another changing his mind daily. Some parents nervously laughing off the crying, seeing it as a right of passage, but we all knew on Monday the kids, barring grave illness, would be going. The two or three kids who decided not to go were not so subtly being persuaded by both the teachers and their parents to attend. I don’t want to paint a total grim picture here. Many of the kids adore the trip and are mentally and physically ready for such a great adventure, but I feel those who aren’t shouldn’t be given such a burden at so young an age.
We spoke with Chessie and explained that the trip was going to be fun even though there was no swimming involved. We also were aware that her other friends who decided they weren’t going on the trip were now succumbing to the parental and social pressure. We let Chessie know there wouldn’t be any of her friends around nor her brother during the day. She was as firm the day before her trip as she had been throughout the few weeks preceding it. “I have no interest in going.”
We sat back and respected her decision, but Chessie came home a few times saying that all the students in her class and the teacher talked with the two girls who were still ‘hesitating’ about going on the school trip. Chessie came home angrily telling us she wasn’t hesitating, and her friend Lilu who was the other ‘rebel’ was brought to tears.
On the Friday before the trip I was there meeting Chessie for a picnic lunch. The teacher of the grades below hers was there. He was Chessie’s teacher the year before and quite a nice guy, but culture runs deep. Although in a different mindset he would have supported his students on making a strong healthy decision, he was pursing his lips in a show of disappointment at Chessie still trying to persuade her to go. Chessie looked at me as if to say, “You see dad, they don’t like it.” I said to him that she’s made her decision and we are all happy with it. He countered with saying how the trip would be a chance to grow. He proudly did a small dance saying how all of his three lower classes had 100% attendance. I knew many of those same kid’s were having a tough time with their decision and some even being coerced. I laughed inside thinking how much I respected my little girl standing up to cultural and social pressure. Yet I was a bit sad that her former teacher with his French blinders of forced independence at too young an age on missed the point entirely and my little girl had already grown quite a bit in the last few weeks.
“Good for her!”