Transforming Kindergarten, Part 2

The case of The French Primary Education System v. X continues, but the litigation has become convoluted, testimonies contradict one another, and eyewitnesses are scarce. As I am inclined to project every little thing onto the macrocosm of cultural differences, it’s easy for me to lose track of the fact that all that’s really happening here is one poor five-year-old kid coping with a tonne of change.

There are three levels of concern, along with three separate ongoing assignments – two for X, and one for us, his parents. Level One is called sois gentil, or be nice. Level Two is sois ensemblefollow instructions, stick with the class, play nice with others. And Level Three, our level, is about bonne santé, or good health. At all three levels, Canadian expectations clash with French ones, but the terms of each collision is not always clear.

Sois gentil. The last time I reported on X’s progress, I reported what he’d told us, that other kids were hitting him on the playground “for no reason.” But we received contradictory evidence, in the form of X’s scratch marks on a French kid’s face; X was not a passive victim here, but a participant in the cycle of schoolyard violence. Since then, the maîtresse has reported a few more scraps, but it’s been impossible to assign blame, and X has not added much to paint the picture.

Sometimes he describes playground “fights” as if they are all part of a consensual game between respected peers. When S noticed that some of his long, fine hair was coming out, she asked if anybody had been pulling his hair. “Oh yes,” he replied cheerfully, “but it’s just part of the battles.”

On another day, the mother of a classmate accosted me in the cloakroom – the liminal zone where teachers, parents, and kids all collide twice a day. “Look at this,” she pointed to a barely-visible scratch on her daughter’s face, “Your son did this. You need to tell him to stop.” I asked her when it had happened, and whether it was an ongoing problem. “Tell him to behave,” the mom repeated, then she crouched down and got into X’s face. “I know you can’t understand me,” she said in rapid French, “but you need to learn to be gentle with other children.” Eventually I pried X’s version of events out of him: the two kids had been fighting over a marker, and the fight escalated. It only happened once, weeks ago.

The incident troubled me, even though most reports indicate that X is learning to control his anger. First, it happened not in the playground – the traditional zone for letting off steam, testing limits, and settling scores – but in the classroom. Why hadn’t the teacher mentioned it to us? Second, were French parents truly so naïve that they believed a child will stop misbehaving if you tell them they “need to stop”? Not for the first time, I felt like a colonial savage raising a half-feral child; X’s exposure to extreme winter temperatures or foetal double doubles had rendered him incapable of “just stopping” whenever his barbaric emotions boiled forth.

But in general, the sois gentil project seems to be working. This week, the only incident we heard about involved spitting on the slide and taking a swing at the teacher when she made him clean it up – not stellar five-year-old behaviour, I’ll admit, but spit is better than scratched cheeks. Meanwhile, S and I read Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child and How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk, hoping for a magic formula that will teach our tightly-wound child how to self-soothe sans violence – like all French children automatically do, if you believe the hype.

Sois ensemble is tougher, for a lot of reasons. French kindergarten is more structured and hierarchical, and a lot of the social contract is not explained explicitly but taken for granted. So I don’t think X always even knows when he’s supposed to fall in line. And when it is apparent, X tries, or so he claims; but he’s not just a Canadian child, he’s a bright Canadian child, so he gets bored easily. At home, he’s used to self-directed play. Every day after school, he greets us with elaborate, artistic take-home projects – none of which were assigned.

From my clumsy perch, this speaks to a profound divide between North American and European educational theories. Since at least the 70s, our curricula have accounted for differences in learning styles and paces – imperfectly, and often with dire financial limitations, but at least we know those differences exist. In France, the goal seems to be averaging out. The ideal student is also the French everyman; if your child has special needs, they are an inconvenience at best. is learning to hold his pencil “the right way.” According to one expat observer, precise fine motor control isn’t just a stepping stone; it’s a necessity without which nothing in your child’s future will ever go right. The thing is, X knows how to hold his pencil the way the maîtresses want him to. But as soon as they turn their backs on him, he switches back to the fist-clutch method. So is he learning essential coordination skills? Or is he learning how to be sneaky?

I feel like I cannot control the extent to which X falls into line at school. Telling him to sois ensemble feels hypocritical and presumptuous. Why listen to the teachers if the teachers are unfair? Why make friends if the other kids are jerks? One thing I can control is X’s health. He hasn’t been sleeping well, and by mid-week he’s exhausted. So we’ve bumped back his bedtime, and we’ve taken him out of the optional Wednesday classes, as a change of pace. Of course, we’ve already filled up those Wednesdays with judo classes and field trips; I guess that’s one thing Canadians and French have in common: we may surrender, but we never give up.


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