Before we moved to France, I had lots of illusions about what parenting would be like here. Kids wouldn't be so scheduled and micro-managed; each and every Saturday wouldn't be slavishly devoted to soccer. Kids wouldn't spend their afternoons strapped in the back of a minivan shuttling between swimming, karate and piano.
Parents would be OK with kids learning to read at six or even seven. They wouldn't wring their hands over what exactly was going on every minute of their kids' preschool day. Were they spending enough time learning letters? Numbers? Were "preliteracy" skills being emphasized? Were they following a schedule? Was there enough structure to their days?
These were worries that preoccupied me (and almost every other mom I knew) in our Boston area town. Even though my kids were barely three and five, much of our "free time" was spent on scheduled activities -- getting to them, participating in them, and rushing home from them. It took me a while to stop and ask myself why, exactly, where we doing all this?
If I was honest with myself, I would have admitted that the kids didn't really like it all that much. They were often far happier spreading their toys out on our playroom floor or chasing each other around our neighbor's house next door.
As I look back on our happiest times in Boston, I recall winter hours building snowmen and forts, summers in the backyard with friends splashing in the inflatable pool and afternoons inside shaking toy maracas and tambourines. Memories of Music Together, Mini-Gym and the like just don't come close.
When we moved, I felt ready to try another way.
Since our arrival in France nearly a year ago, I've learned that yes, there are certainly many differences here but when it comes to scheduling, programming and over-managing our kids' lives, the French are as guilty as we are.
French children don't attend school on Wednesdays, a time-honored tradition that dates back decades. But for most French kids, it's the busiest day of the week. Schedules are packed with lessons and classes, the most important of which is often English. The activities are undoubtedly different (my son's school offers chess and mime). But many are the same: dance for girls, soccer ("le foot") for boys. Almost none of my kids' French friends are ever free just to play on a Wednesday.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for encouraging kids to learn, to explore what excites them and find outlets to develop their passions.
But I'm also in favor of just letting them play. Is there anything as magical as the games children create when given time and space to let their minds wander? The more I get out of their way, the better my kids play and the more creative they get. A game of "mom and baby" morphs into hide n' seek which soon becomes pirates or knights or "Batman and Poison Ivy."
Yesterday, we spent more than an hour in a little park tucked away in the 15th arrondissement. We were in the neighborhood to do errands and the kids needed to burn off some energy. The park was simple, just one slide and a few benches under the barren trees. But to my kids, it might as well have been Disneyland. That one slide was all they needed for an afternoon of fun. They must have climbed it a hundred times, their scarves becoming "crocodiles" that chased them as they slid through an imaginary swamp. It was something to see.
When I let them be, they learn how to work out their differences, share, take turns and explore their imaginations. The more I meddle, the more they fight and bicker. Quite simply, they learn to love each other more when I'm not hovering about.
As they get older, extra-curricular activities will matter more. Learning new skills and developing their abilities will be important and appropriate. But for now, while my little people are still so young, I'm making a simple parenting resolution: Get out of their way and simply let them play.