Being abroad makes you think about your own country in different ways, and whilst I was on holiday in France I was especially struck by two scenes. First, on a campsite with lots of British families, I noticed how nice many of the parents were to their children. On the pitch next to us was a large family, and I couldn’t help but overhear the kind concern of the parents throughout the day. I heard the father asking their little girl if was enjoying spending a little time on her own gazing at the sea, or was she feeling sad and left out? The children’s mother managed to prepare meals on a small camping stove for all the children, taking account of their food preferences and hatreds, with exceptional patience. It was the same at the shops, on the beach, in the restaurants – people talking to their children, taking an interest, listening. All very different to what I remember from the 1970s, when I was growing up.
It’s always striking that children on the continent are out in cafes and restaurants and playing on the streets. But I noticed that this culture goes along with other things which are unfamiliar. I saw a family coming into a café one evening, their two year old crying and whining: all very familiar until the mother turned to the child and said, very firmly in French, that she must stop absolutely. She did. The same evening, as some children’s play got a little out of hand in front of the café, a number of adults sitting there – who weren’t the children’s parents – brought things to a halt and sent the children back inside.
So the children who are out in the evening are not really free, and nor do they get much attention – they are on adult territory and they have to cope with what’s expected.
I know that I couldn’t possibly have silenced my own child at that age like that French mother, and nor would I have wanted to. I would not feel comfortable telling other people’s children what to do in a public place. Yet my own, admittedly superficial, observation of those French children was that they were able to conform to what was expected. It was a struggle for the little girl to hold back her tears, but a struggle which she managed, and it enabled her to enjoy being out in the company of adults. Perhaps the children felt safe knowing that they were being watched over, and that there were absolute limits which they could not cross.
Thinking about it now I’m back home, it strikes me that the time, care and attention many parents in Britain give their children is precious. But perhaps with this positive change has come a loss. I wonder if sometimes we are leaving children at the mercy of their own impulses, and giving them the freedom to be unlikeable; whether in taking away restrictions, we have also taken away their opportunity to be part of society.