French school and French education are definitely in a cultural league of their own, as one parent writes — coloring books define a child’s future, competence, and overall fate.
If you adhere to the ‘All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’ approach to life, then you’ll cut me some slack on the argument I’m about to make, which is going to reduce much of a great nation’s behaviour to the child’s relationship to the colouring book.
But hear me out, the primordial of education to French society is important — nobody disagrees with this one. And education starts with nursery school, yes? And a constant feature of every nursery school classroom is the colouring book, isn’t it? So, who’s to say the colouring book is not a legitimate topic?
A flash of inspiration
I had this flash of inspiration while recently talking to a veteran expat mother, and family friend, who raised her two sons in France before returning to the US some 20 years ago.
I went to her for advice on schooling because her children were the same age on arrival in France as my children on our arrival, and one of her sons still to this day agrees vociferously when my son lets loose with his favourite gross cultural generalization: “French teachers are mean.”
What’s more, these two Franco-American sons share this idea for the same reason, the thing that has become the bête noire of my son’s life, the activity that prompted my son the other day to declare himself “doomed”: handwriting.
(I tried to explain to him that, in terms of academics, no seven-year-old who can use the word “doomed” correctly in a sentence, in two languages, can possibly be doomed. But he seemed unconvinced.)
My mom-friend first realized something was off at her son’s sixth birthday party when the other [French] kids made a point of commenting on his inability to colour inside the lines. She wondered to herself: Why ever would a six-year-old care about another six-year-old’s fine motor skills?
Replicating the model
Yet, in that mysterious ability of children to identify and horn in all subtle signs of someone else ‘not fitting in’, somehow they knew: this boy is not like us. (And, sure enough, he lives in America today.)
She explained that French colouring books of that era included two images on facing pages: the pre-coloured modèle and a second, outline version for the child to colour. For French children, the goal of colouring is not to develop their artistic expression, or even just to keep the little monsters quiet, but to teach them to replicate the model as closely as possible.
Since then, globalisation has hit and French colouring books now feature Dora the Explorer and Scooby-Doo and other royalty-producing trademarks that are printed in China.
But, in terms of child-rearing and educational methodology, two important axioms from this era still apply today and are consistently—in many cases, constantly—repeated to French children: suivez le modèle and don’t, just don’t, colour outside the lines. American parents may say something about colouring inside the lines, but they don’t really mean it like French parents do.
Colouring outside the lines
Here is the logic: Colouring outside the lines indicates a lack of precise control of the crayon that will later lead to poor handwriting which equates to poor linguistic expression which leads to poor grades which leads to failure to obtain the correct bac which leads to chômage and, probably, chronic delinquency, which leads to high unemployment and crime rates which leads to the failure of the French social model which makes France look bad to the rest of the world. So, for the sake of the République, make your children colour inside the lines!
It was apparent from the outset that my own son is not a colour-inside-the-lines kind of kid. And now, sure enough, writing is a terrible chore for him and this is having a bit of a snowball effect on his grades.
The consensus vote amongst my French relatives seems to be that this is my fault for having failed to scold him when he coloured outside the lines when he was younger.
And, to use a French construction, they are not totally wrong: in the context of French schooling, this is the expectation and it’s a parent’s job to help their children adapt to the context in which the parent has dumped them, however uptight and archaic and crazy-making the rules seem to the parent.
(Or, conversely, my job may be to pay for outrageously expensive international schools, which is the question I needed advice on in the first place.)
When we arrived three years ago, my father-in-law noticed right away that my son wasn’t colouring inside the lines and he nagged me then that this boded ill for future academic success. I shrugged it off: “Ha, ha, silly, old father-in-law.” But I understand now what he was talking about.
Helping them bloom
Or, as my mom-friend explained it to me: French schooling is not about helping the little blossoms bloom. It’s about getting them in line so they can become model French citizens. And model French citizens do not colour Dora’s hair purple when it’s really brown, they don’t make the oranges red and the apples orange, and they stay inside the lines.
And what about the fact that model French citizens are sometimes given to dramatic public venting of frustration and resistance, sometimes for reasons not apparent to other nationalities who tend to write it all off as histrionics? Well, that’s just the flip side of the coin: it’s what happens when you don’t let children scribble.
My point here is not to debate the merits of each educational system; French teaching methods seem rigid to me, but I can also see how soft and unfocused American educational philosophies might look to a French person. French children do get out of high school knowing more than their American counterparts.
French cultural standards
My question is if indeed I am really capable of helping my children absorb and adapt to French cultural standards?
Because, while I may begin to understand them intellectually, I probably will never really digest all of them: I just don’t care if my kids colour outside the lines. As for handwriting, well, typing is much more important. And even spelling is, in my book, a minor virtue in the world of the spell-checker.
It’s like being able to make your own mayonnaise. On the one hand, that’s a cool thing to know how to do. But, mostly, who cares? It does not compare to being able to change the oil in your car, for example.
But then my son bursts into tears when I inadvertently sign his school papers with a red pen after the teacher had specified a black or blue pen. What I am supposed to say at this point?
“Well, son, my deepest apologies for my ignorance of the desired pen colour, and I promise to always have a black or blue pen on hand for future occurrences so that the you and the teacher will know that I respect his authority.”
Or, will my son still turn out a functioning, happy member of French society if I do what I actually do: roll my eyes, sigh heavily, and loudly grumble, “For God’s sake, who cares what colour the pen is? I signed it, didn’t I?!”
Now, there are uptight teachers everywhere, of course, and lots of expat kids do just fine in the French school system. But ask any expat parent or, for that matter, any former French education minister: French teachers really do have a very specific idea of what is a “good student” or the “right way of doing things”.
I also know for a fact that a lot of expat parents stumble over these same questions: partly just because it’s your kid and this is the emotional region where all the guilt and anxiety and sense of powerlessness and inadequacy live.
And partly because the French really do have a deeply engrained and differing idea about the colouring book.