The influence of environment on our behaviour - fantástico
I was sitting in a French brasserie the other evening and I noticed something very odd. My sons were behaving impeccably.
To put this in perspective, they are eight and ten year old Australian boys. Their normal behaviour in cafes, let alone restaurants, throws down a large gauntlet to animals summoned to feeding time at the zoo. (My apologies to the higher apes).
We’re on our first extended family vacation. We chose Paris because my husband speaks excellent French, I love the city and we wanted to stay in one place for a month. Part of me dreaded bringing the boys here.
Prior experience told me that the French - while very fond of pleasure - are also highly rule-bound. I’d seen French children sitting at those bloody zinc bars and nibbling expertly at their steak frites while their immaculately scarved mothers sipped on their Beaujolais.
I wondered, quietly, if there were special Gendarme des Enfants who swooped down on ill-mannered ankle-biters and forced their parents to walk through the streets eating McDonalds and singing Britney Spears songs.
Despite centuries of sieges and citizens spilling each others’ blood, I figured that Paris was probably not ready for my sons. Yet, to my eternal surprise, my sons were ready for it.
Watching children enter a different cultural environment is an important reminder of how strongly they intuit social cues. And how quickly they respond to them.
My oldest - a child who has pretty much lived in board shorts and T-shirts to date - began the European transition by asking me to buy him some buttoned up shirts and to “iron them please”. He decided he needed to accessorise said shirts with a black suit jacket of mine - sleeves rolled insouciantly to the elbows.
Not to be upstaged, the youngest recently walked the streets carrying a baguette under his arm with a black cashmere opera cape of mine flung around his shoulders in some weird imitation of a 19th century flaneur. Deeply odd behaviour certainly, but clearly an attempt to “adapt”.
Before I had children I had extremely strong views about them. Particularly about the influence of their parents. Screwed up kids, I was sure, were a sign of screwed up parents. Badly behaved children, a sign of parents without boundaries. Charming children a sign of selfless parents who’d spent the right amount of time in therapy. And so on.
The truth, as many parents willl probably attest, is that your children come out with strong abilities, weaknesses and personalities from a young age. You do your best, which is often your worst.
What hadn’t registered for me until now is how strongly and quickly a cultural environment can imprint itself on children. They instinctively look for social rules - and lots of the rules have nothing to do with how their parents tell them to behave.
I’ve long suspected that the rules of the playground have a lot more influence than the nightly lectures we give our sons. But what I hadn’t noticed was the tacit effect of ‘how we do things around here’ that marks different ways or dressing, eating, speaking and even walking down the street.
Not that my children have turned into angels. Nor do I want them to become perfect examples of bourgeois civility. It’s just interesting watching how quickly they get the social language of a different place.
Paris is a city in which it’s normal to greet people in shops politely, to speak quietly in cafes, and to avoid karate fights in the supermarket. It’s also a city in which it’s normal for kids to stay up late and eat with their parents in restaurants.
It’s a city, in other words, which takes children seriously. They’re expected to behave more like adults - and they do.
Granted, there has been the odd ‘Australian incident’ during our vacation. I, for instance, told one of my kids very loudly to “Get stuffed” on a crowded Boulevard after a long day of walking.
I guess the Parisiennes will have to get used to our family too.
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