The more you truck in metaphors, the more cognizant you are of their ubiquity. When I went to dog training school eight years ago to turn our “noble savage” puppy into a civilized canine, I realized after one session that it was actually “owner training,” and that the whole exercise was a metaphor for teaching. Firmness, calmness, firmness, consistency, firmness, fairness, firmness, kindness, firmness, caring. Woof.
Now, having finished Pamela Druckerman’s (pictured with children) Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, I see that parenting can be a metaphor for good teaching, too. Treat your students like the French treat their children and life will all be magnifique (read: better than your average Monday).
Those French. They sure know how to whip a kid in shape from the get-go! If Druckerman is to be believed, French parents make French teachers’ jobs a cinch. There, the kids have the Gaul to grow up respectful, independent, considerate… and healthy (read: thin). None of this entitled, whining, lazy, rude stuff you often find in chubby America and (according to Druckerman) England. Oh, no. The French know a chose or deux (read: a lot more than we do).
How do they do it? Glad you asked. It’s the raison d’être for Druckerman’s book! I’ll just share a few highlights. Let’s start with civility, shall we? In America, “please” is the magic word, but in France, in addition to s’il vous plaît , there are three others: thank you (merci), hello (bonjour) and good-bye (au revoir).
Druckerman goes on at great length about French parents’ insistence on bonjours. All children must say it. Adults do, after all — to waiters, salesmen, taxi drivers, and anyone else they might deal with on a daily basis. “Saying bonjour acknowledges the other person’s humanity,” Druckerman writes.
She continues, “In the United States, a four-year-old American kid isn’t obliged to greet me when he walks into my house. He gets to skulk in under the umbrella of his parents’ greeting. And in an American context, that’s supposed to be fine with me. I don’t need the child’s acknowledgment because I don’t quite count him as a full person; he’s in a separate kids’ realm. I might hear all about how gifted he is, but he never actually speaks to me…
“… in France, kids don’t get to have this shadowy presence. The child greets, therefore he is. Just as any adult who walks into my house has to acknowledge me, any child who walks in must acknowledge me, too. ‘Greeting is essentially recognizing someone as a person,’ says Benoît, the professor. ‘People feel injured if they’re not greeted by children that way.’”
Unlike most of my students in the morning, this section spoke to me. I immediately thought of the fall in school when all of my new 8th graders attempt to enter their homeroom by walking by me in the hallway without a word — as if I were a stump or something. This is not OK. This is not civilized.
Where I come from (the French province called Connecticut), we greet each other when we meet. “Good morning!” “Hello!” “How’s it going!” “Good to see you!” Something! And so, I train my students. We say good morning when we meet everyday and good-bye when we part. Part of the social contract, it’s yet another example of how little things loom large in life.
Later, Druckerman riffs on French parents’ legendary strictness — at least by American standards. When she asked French parents why, many spoke of its necessity. One father offered words of wisdom that should resonate with new teachers: “We have a saying in French: it’s easier to loosen the screw than to tighten the screw, meaning that you have to be very tough. If you’re too tough, you loosen. But if you are too lenient… afterward to tighten, forget about it.”
In other words, the thought of what Druckerman calls a “child-king” is foreign to France. Who wants to negotiate, to offer alternatives for dinner, to chase them around the park, to lose an hour getting them to bed? It cannot be a happy experience for parent or child. (We’re reasonably sure it isn’t for parents, anyway.)
Reading this brought to mind students who seem bewildered when they face a teacher who does not brook any questioning of his authority. It’s clear that they rule the roost at home: that their parents get dragged into long negotiations that they will eventually lose; that their parents bend, retreat, surrender; that their parents reliably back their children up no matter what misadventure the youngsters get into. Is it any wonder these spoiled goods become outraged when they run into real authority, a person who refuses to genuflect at the altar of their entitlement?
That said, French parents pick their battles just as good teachers must: “French parents do speak sharply to their kids. But they prefer surgical strikes to constant carpet-bombing. Shouting is saved for important moments, when they really want to make a point. When I shout at my kids in the park or at home when we have French friends over, the parents look alarmed, as if they think that there’s been a serious offense.”
Personally, I think a teacher should shout about as often as a driver beeps his car’s horn — almost never, and only then for safety reasons. Shouting quickly gets old and loses its value. Like milk gone bad, it curdles into whining in the ears of the students — whining that is readily ignored.
Druckerman offers much, much more, including how French children learn to eat whatever is served at a very young age (vraiment!). For one, they are not obsessed with snacks and snacking. There is but one snack time for French children, the goûter, at four thirty P.M. sharp, so no teacher has to tolerate slurping and chomping while trying to teach (or while burning 15 minutes not teaching).
Of course, this assumes children are getting three meals — healthy ones, too. As a rule, French children eat fruit, not fruit roll-ups, or any other processed foods that are marketed mercilessly by Big “Food” in the States. And yes, kids in France might yearn for a snack before the 4:30 goûter, but they quickly learn the meaning of “Non!“ and the patience of waiting — valuable skills, as we know, in an adult world that doesn’t exactly cater to our every whim.
Also, the French typically serve meals in courses. This means cut-up fruit or some form of vegetable is on the table first while kids are hungriest — and they are because they are not inhaling snacks all day. Thus, as the cook (Mom, Dad, or even one of the kids when he or she is old enough) continues to work on the next course in the kitchen, les petites eat. Despite themselves, French children sample good food at a very young age and learn to like it. They do not throw tantrums and demand the same food (e.g. hot dogs or boxed mac and cheese) every night, as if the house is a restaurant and their parents are waiting staff.
I admit Druckerman’s book is best suited for young or expectant parents, but there are relevant thoughts for teachers as well. Ask any teacher who has “kids” in school and “kids” at home. It’s similar in many ways and, philosophically, parenting can be considered a metaphor for teaching. You know: Firmness, calmness, firmness, consistency, firmness, fairness, firmness, kindness, firmness, caring.
Woof. And au revoir.…