The sleepover: American versus French standards

Bringing Up Bébé (Druckerman 2012) talks about trips by French children without parents:

One day, a notice goes up at Bean’s school. It says that parents of students ages four to eleven can register their kids for a summer trip to the Hautes-Vosges, a rural region about five hours by car from Paris. The trip, sans parents, will last for eight days. I can’t imagine sending Bean, who’s five, on an eight-day school holiday . She’s never even spent more than a night alone at my mother’s house. My own first overnight class trip, to SeaWorld, was when I was in junior high. This trip is yet another reminder that while I can now use the subjunctive in French, and even get my kids to listen to me, I’ll never actually be French. Being French means looking at a notice like this and saying, as the mother of another five-year-old next to me does, “What a shame. We already have plans then.” None of the French parents find the idea of dispatching their four- and five-year-olds for a week of group showers and dormitory life to be at all alarming.

I soon discover that this school trip is just the beginning. I didn’t go to sleepaway camp until I was ten or eleven. But in France, there are hundreds of different sleepaway colonies de vacances (vacation colonies) for kids as young as four. The younger kids typically go away for seven or eight days to the countryside, where they ride ponies, feed goats, learn songs, and “discover nature.”

It’s clear that giving kids a degree of independence, and stressing a kind of inner resilience and self-reliance, is a big part of French parenting. The French call this autonomie (autonomy).

It’s not simply that Americans don’t emphasize autonomy. It’s that we’re not sure it’s a good thing. We tend to assume that parents should be physically present as much as possible, to protect kids from harm and to smooth out emotional turbulence for them. Simon and I have joked since Bean was born that we’ll just move with her to wherever she attends college. Then I see an article saying that some American colleges now hold “parting ceremonies” for the parents of incoming freshmen, to signal that the parents need to leave.

 The latest opportunity to see if Druckerman is right comes courtesy of a five-year-old. Here’s a pattern that has been repeated about four times: She invites her five- and six-year-old friends to sleep over on her trundle bed. The other little girl agrees readily, especially if bacon and pancakes are promised for breakfast. If the father of the child is present, he agrees to the idea. If the mother is present, she says to her child “We’ll have to discuss it,” then explains to us “She’s never been away from me overnight and I don’t think she is ready for it.”

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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