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Well–adjusted Children

photo: toy shop window

Display in toy shop.

Paris Journal – No 44

by Laurel Avery

Paris:– Friday, 26. March 2004:– What I know about babies can fit into a thimble, but good friends of mine had their first baby recently and I gained some insight into what it's like to be a parent in France.

There is a great deal of support here for people who decide to have children. From the time a woman becomes pregnant until the child moves out on his own, the government provides plenty of help to make sure children are taken care of.

It's quite a contrast to what the U.S. promotes as 'family values,' meaning your family is valued only if you can take care of it all by yourself.

This is mainly due to France having one of the lowest birth rates in Europe since the mid–18th century. This trendphoto: baby, 2 days old was reversed only a short time ago, but now with nearly 800,000 births annually, France now has the second–highest birth rate after Ireland.

I visited little Alexandre Thelonious Mortkowitz in the maternity hospital when he was only two days old. Neither of his parents, Siegfried and Ladka, are French, but they have been residents of France for a few years now and benefit from the French social security system.

As opposed to the way citizenship works in the U.S., just because he was born here does not make Alexandre French automatically. With American and Czech parents, he can be American, Czech, or both – and he can apply for French citizenship when he is 13 years old if he has lived in France for the previous five years.

Births must be registered at the Mairie within three days, at which time the child's name is also registered and is practically impossible to change. There used to be a very limited number of first names you could give your child, and it had to be taken from a list of Catholic saints, thus the profusion of Jean–Pierre's and Marie–Louise's.

The French state was concerned that its citizens would appear silly if they sported an unconventional name like 'Bambi' or 'Biff.' This law has been relaxed somewhat, but the issue still comes up from time to time. The registering official has the right to try to refuse a name if they think it will adversely affect the child, though courts often rule in favor of the parents.

Most births are attended not by the doctor, but by a 'sage–femme' – or midwife. The doctor only appears if a problem arises. Ladka informed me that they used something like 'spatulas' to help in the birth of Alexandre. What, are they so relaxed about the birth process that they feel they can make pancakesphoto: creche while the woman is in labor? Ladka then explained that these spatulas are something like shoe horns to make it easier for the baby to emerge.

Whatever they used, Alexandre was born healthy and happy, and as someone who does not dote over every baby I see, have to admit he's a real cutie. It must be some kind of law, any child born in France must be beautiful.

A crèche in the 14th arrondissement.

Another plus to having a child here is that the hospital doesn't throw you out the door within hours of the birth. Ladka was encouraged to stay in the hospital for five days, in order to be sure that both she and Alexandre were off to a good start.

In France almost all childbirth costs are paid for by the state. Upon confirmation from the gynecologist that you are pregnant, you are sent a 'carnet de maternité' which records all of the mandatory pre–natal checkups required in France – all paid for by social security. You will also be issued a pass allowing you to go to the front of all lines and be able to use reserved seats on all public transportation, which in itself is practically worth being pregnant!

Women receive four months of paid maternity leave, and their job is guaranteed to still be there after it ends. They then get allowances which increase as the child gets older, and are eligible for tax breaks as well. Maternity leave is also allowed to fathers.

The recent baby boom has put more than a little strain on maternity services and pre–schools which are scrambling now to cover the increased demand. A place in the 'crèche,' a full–time nursery which babies are eligible to attend from three months of age until kindergarten, must be applied for when the mother is pregnant. They are state–supported and the cost to the parents is on a sliding scale based on their income.

Then everything from kindergarten through college is mainly paid for by the government, apart from expenses for books, supplies, and various fees. Nothing like the hundreds of thousands of dollars American parents have to spend to educate their children.

And the education here is considered excellent, though if you have a child with a learning disability it is said that they are better off in a private school, because public school teachers are disinclined to give more attention to students who lag behind.

Just to look at the clothes and toys here for toddlers is a wonderful contrast to what I was used to seeing in the States, apart from how expensive everything is. Young children really look like children, which I find refreshing.

I saw a little girl the other day who was perhaps six years old, wearing a pinafore, black patent–leather shoes and a hat! Just like the little girls in the children's book 'Madeleine.' Once children are old enough to choose their own clothing, however, they look just like every other child the world over, in baggy jeans and navel–revealing shirts.

One of my favorite toy stores is 'Les Cousins d'Alice' in the Rue Daguerre, chock full of soft bunnies and teddy bears, and lots of books. There are a few mega–stores such as Toys–R–Usphoto: kids clothing stocked with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the latest plastic squirt guns, but they are mainly relegated to hypermarchés located in the suburbs.

French children seem truly valued and their parents take great pains to ensure that they are 'bien–élevé' or well–raised.

Some children's clothing is fancier than adults.'

French schools are considered strict, though I think it's mainly because the society as a whole finds polite behavior important. Children are expected to behave in class so that teachers are not forced to become glorified babysitters, wasting hours on disciplinary problems when their job is teaching.

Children are very visible in France, not locked away from adults until they are 18, and seem generally much better behaved and integrated into society than most of the children I have encountered from elsewhere.

French society is structured around spending time with the family, resulting more often than not in happy, well–adjusted children who go on to become happy, well–adjusted adults.

Text & photos, Laurel Avery © 2004

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