Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Some thoughts on European vs. American attitudes towards childrearing

In Spain or France, it is perfectly acceptable to outsource your children. In the US, it’s not even acceptable to admit you might (occasionally) “want” to outsource your child. In fact, if you are an American mother and haven’t breast fed your child until age three and home-schooled them for the duration of their secondary education, and aren’t out there driving yourself ragged taking your children to all kinds of enriching extra-curricular activities and tutors, muffins for mom, doughnuts for dad, volunteering to be class parent, field trip parent, co-ordinating class parties, birthday parties and playdates -- completely terrorized by the possibility that you are failing to give them every advantage in life and Your Child Might Fall Behind…you’re probably falling short as a parent.

When I sent my children to an International school, I learned of such old-fashioned and quaint practices as “cocktail play-dates” -- your children play, while you nurse a drinky-poo and chat with your friends. At the end of such playdates, it might be acceptable to briefly lose your children and wonder out-loud: “I wonder where the little horrors are now?” The first thing I noticed about school in Spain was the schools’ failure to send me a directory with the names of my children’s classmates and the contact information for their parents. Somebody explained that this would be considered an un-acceptable breach of privacy here.

When my then 6-yr old sons each made two best friends, being an intrepid American sort, I went and bought some nice “I am not a psycho” stationary and set out to writing:

“Hello, I am X’s mother. X and Y are friends. My son would be very happy to invite Y over to play some day at your convenience. Here is my contact information.”

Some of the mothers responded relatively quickly and graciously. However, others took weeks to respond and gently re-buffed me. I was crushed. I had gone out of my way to make an overture to these people and they made it clear that I was wasting their time. I did not understand. I wasn’t asking for their friendship or any real social interaction with them, I was simply looking for a way for our children (who were already friends) to play together outside school. Another friend explained to me that the idea of a play-date was completely non-existent in Spanish culture and the idea of going out of one’s way to drive across town to facilitate your child’s social life was simply preposterous.

Well my move and the lack of need to co-ordinate playdates left me with more free time. I didn’t have a job. Meanwhile, the children’s schools hadn’t sent me any notices about muffins for mom or doughnuts for dad, reminders about bringing food for friendship salads or snack weeks, or asked to help with science day or field day, so I figured I might as well do the civic thing and volunteer. Once again I sent a hand-written note to my children’s teachers in their correspondence folder…and never heard back. Only later, did a woman who had grown up in the US, and understood my confusion, explain. She told me “Oh the schools are afraid if the parents get too involved they will start telling them how to run things, so they don’t want the parents around.”

No need to worry about school fund-raising auctions, either. My sons’ school is a for-profit entity and my daughter’s school is a joint effort of France’s Education Nationale and Foreign Affairs. Her teachers have been wonderful but you can forget trying to communicate with the administration or (more likely) the secretaries in the administration. My experience of the Lycee Francais administration’s attitude towards the parents is: “The parent has the right to fuck off at any time.”

And, you know what? I’m getting used to it. I take Pilates now; I have a museum-visiting group; I take more lunches with my friends.


Klaus Dreher said...

So you don't drive your kids around for play-dates. Where do they play/meet now? On the street? I live on the country side in Germany and it's quite usual for us (my wife) to carry the kids to their friends and pick it up in the evening or even the friends stay over night. But not all parents are doing this. My impression is that it's a matter of how I care about my kids. And we have many parents who don't care that much.

Nathalie said...

With the exception of the (very few in Spain) other parents I've met who care to organize playdates, the children socialize (out of schoo)l at birthday parties or sports. However, at their age sports isn't affiliated with school and the boys haven't made any real friends on their league futbol team.