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12 Jul 2009

Are French kids happier than British?

The other night I went to a bal populaire in a small Normandy town. A free event, in the local salle des fetes, with a three piece band, organised by the local comite des fetes as part of the summer activities. There was no bar, and not even the possibility of buying soft drinks.
There were I think about 150- 200 people there, including a couple of dozen children under ten. The kids spent the entire evening running around, across the dance floor, around the seats at the sides. If they bumped into someone dancing, or were knocked over, they just got up and kept on running. Nobody minded. When I left at 11.00, they were still running, and still laughing. They had been laughing all evening. I did not hear a single child cry, or whine, or have a tantrum all evening. They had no sweets, no fizzy drinks, no snacks, and never demanded any, or complained about anything. Their parents were there, but left them alone to play.
I have been at other fetes, dances, dinners and sports events, and it has always been like this. The children are happy, active, and, well, children.
At restaurants, the kids often discuss what they will eat with their parents, and evaluate the different dishes and their preferences, before making their choices, At school, even the under 10 group have a three or four course lunch every day, with sometimes choices of two or three dishes for each course.
Increasingly over the last few years, young British children seem to me to be becoming more unhappy, angry, needy and greedy. They seem to have a wealth of material stuff like computer games, TVs in their rooms, mobile phones and I-Pods, fancy trainers and brand name clothes, and all the other trivial things to distract them, but seem so miserable. They cannot go for more than a few minutes without a fizzy drink or a snack, and are constantly demanding something else or whining that they are bored.
If you go to the cinema, they have huge buckets of salty popcorn and enormous paper cups of fizzy caffeine and sugar. Even apparently leftish parents are part of this: a Guardian commentator complained that the cost of popcorn and coca cola in cinemas was so high it made it an expensive visit with just one child. Seemed not to occur to her that it is weird that her child could not go an hour and a half without unhealthy artificial snacks and drinks. In restaurants they have no idea of how to behave, or awareness of other people, screaming, throwing food and running around, and their ridiculous parents just indulge them and become seriously aggressive if you say anything.
Many of their parents hover over them all the time, and seem terrified that some huge disaster will happen if they lose sight of them for a second. They exercise no control or influence over appalling behaviour, but intervene to stop their children doing anything fun and childish. They won't let them play in the grass because they will get dirty, or their clothes will be stained, or there might be insects, climbing anything is too dangerous, running involves a risk of falling over, and every adult male is a proven child molester and every adult woman is a probable kidnapper, so they can't move more than a few feet from their parents.
There are middle class parents with children called things like Persephone and Hector who manage every second of their children's lives, who have become intimidated by everything, have no initiative or energy, and have never made a decision themselves, or those with kids called Demi-Jordan or Tyson (or is that just the pit bull dog?) or some other invented and hyphenated name, who alternate between yelling at them or stuffing crisps and chocolate into them. Either way, it is hard to find English children behaving normally, such as having fun or playing.
Is this an over-simplification? Maybe in some ways, but every time I go to England I am more appalled by the sad state of the children.
A National Trust survey this week finds that 'eight out of 10 (British) youngsters feel they spend too much of their time indoors' which suggests that the children are aware of some parts of their lives which are wrong. But the same survey also found that 'about 87% of (British) parents wished their children spent more time outside, but one in four would not allow them to because of safety concerns'. Seems that the parents are clearly part of the problem.

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