Elma Family Kitty Pip

The Parisian Stereotype and the Culture Chasm


Space for the Butterflies - the Parisian Stereotype and the Culture Chasm

We knew not to expect any facilities for the children in shops or cafes in Paris; no high chairs, no smaller child’s portions, baby changing is a shelf in one cubicle of the ladies if you’re lucky and I’d heard of the “seen and not heard” expectation for children. But I think I thought it was as much a stereotype as the idea that the English only eat roast beef; a bit of a joke, and last accurate in the 1950’s.

And for many of the people we met in Paris it seemed to be.

But as I mentioned in my Postcard from Paris, as soon as we tried to do more than simply wander the streets, we came smack bang up against the stereotype.

It started in the basement of the Musee d’Orangeries. Elma, up in H’s arms so that she didn’t run about or disturb people, dropped a shoe, and wailed to tell us it was gone.  We got it back and were calming her down and heading for the exit when one of the Musee staff came rushing up to us shouting in French and English that we had to take her out, she was ruining the paintings, and on and on and on.  It was unpleasant for us, and poor Elma was really scared, someone was attacking her beloved Daddy and she did not like it one bit.  The irony that in shouting at us, and having us stop, turn and face, he made more noise, possibly further ruining the paintings (I’m still going “what!!?” over that one), was apparently lost on this man.  We explained that yes she’d been upset and we were already on our way out but this apparently wasn’t good enough and when H finally in deep frustration asked (in French) whether it was forbidden for French children to cry, we got a final barrage that I couldn’t translate before he ran away. As in actually ran away into the next room.  The cultural divide has never seemed so much of a chasm.

We put it down to bad luck and I was determined not to let it spoil the day so we headed on to the Musee d’Orsay but while they didn’t shout and run at us it was more of the same.  They didn’t like the fact that Elma was walking, winced and hurried over to stand in front of her if she got within a metre of the cable that you need to stand behind (so still a good couple of metres from the actual paintings) even when she was holding my hand.  They didn’t like Pip being in a sling on my front but couldn’t do much about it and when the girls were tired they said we couldn’t carry them.  Their conversation was shushed and we were given ‘the look’ when Pip started making happy chatty noises.  None of this was by other visitors to the Musee, several of whom smiled at Pip and were rewarded with beaming grins and chatty noises (and frowns from the Musee staff), and a few of whom had small children and were getting similar treatment.

The museums might be free for children in Paris but it turns out they’d really rather you didn’t bring them.

I’m not writing a post just to say “oh the French people were mean to me!” While I will never ever understand their attitude, they’re perfectly entitled to it and there’s part of me that’s reading this back and thinking that perhaps I ought not to write it,

But I am writing and I will publish, mostly for the me that sat in the cafe of BHV, slumped over the table, tired, hot, on the point of tears, worried and feeling very very judged. What if our children are awful, what if they’re so incredibly badly behaved and we never realised, what if I am the super special snowflake mummy who thinks the world revolves around her children after all?

I know I’m opening myself up to a floodgate of comments from super mummies who took their seventeen toddlers to all the Musees in Paris and not only did they have no problems, but the Musee staff gently applauded them as she left for having such awesome children and in fact if I’d done a better job of parenting I would have been fine. But I also know it’s not just me or my family.

Because while H went for cake, I turned to Google, and with huge relief found this article from Bee Rowlatt writing in the Telegraph back in 2012 about a trip to Paris with her toddler.  Everything she described, I recognised.

I’m not trying to start a crusade to make Parisian museums nicer to children.  I think it’s really shortsighted that they don’t encourage the next generation to love and enjoy art in the same way that so many British galleries and museums do, but it’s their loss.  If they want to change their culture it will only ever come from within, not because some English people think that for all their geographical closeness, the culture might as well be on another planet.

No this is simply for anyone reading this in a department store cafe, or in the corner of a park in Paris, trying not to feeling hurt, judged and found wanting, and desperately googling “did I ruin my children”. Firstly, your children are awesome, secondly, you are a great parent. With a number of charming and lovely exceptions, the Parisians just don’t seem to like children very much, which is a tragedy for them (I don’t know what they do with their children but we didn’t see a single Parisian child the whole time we were there) and to quote Bee “I’m sure it’s a lovely museum. Maybe one day I’ll find out.”

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  • sustainablemum 29/09/2015 at 5:33 pm

    I would like, if you will permit me, to offer you a slightly different perspective. As a home educator we spend a fair amount of time visiting museums, they are an important part of our learning as they are to any child at school or not. However every now and again we have a bad experience in a museum and it is always down to other visitors in the museum, large groups of school children. Now I am not for one minute suggesting that school groups should not be permitted to visit museums, far from it, but in a such a large group there is, inevitably, going to be several children who are just not interested. So they do other things like running around, shouting and generally being very distracting. Now a small family is not of course a large school group but I am thinking of those disinterested children, all the museums I take my children to have been carefully chosen, firstly that they are linked to a project we are following and secondly their size/suitability. Museums are unlikely to disappear they will always be part of our culture therefore the age appropriateness is crucial to me. I know some people say blink and you miss your children being children but that doesn’t mean that we have to take them to a museum that we love, regardless of the age of the child, simply because we want them to experience it too.

    I really hope you don’t think I am being critical, I am not, I just wanted to offer a different perspective. 😉

    • Carie 29/09/2015 at 10:09 pm

      I don’t think you’re being critical at all and I think it’s an interesting perspective. In our particular circumstances I know that one of our “we’re leaving now” criteria is the girls being disengaged with what we’re seeing. We had a day like that in Rouen, we could tell they just weren’t into going into a gallery so I took them to the park to let off some steam and H went in on his own. In Paris they did want to see the pictures of the places they’d just visited at Giverney, Kitty in particular was really looking forward to the giant waterlily pictures, and Pip was loving all the shapes and light (he kept pointing and waving at his favourites!), so while I take your point, and I’ve seen it myself in school trips in British museums, I think there’s more to the attitude than families or schools forcing children to be somewhere they don’t want to be.

  • Brandi 29/09/2015 at 7:10 pm

    I am very sad to hear of your experience! I find that I have often gotten the following eye of museum security and questioning looks from other parents that I would even attempt it. I loved art museums as a school aged child, and I want my kids to experience it. Maybe it won’t be for them, but you never know til you try. I wish I had the opportunity to take them individually, but it’s just not always possible. Kudos to you for giving your children the exposure!!!

    • Carie 29/09/2015 at 10:10 pm

      It would be nice to be able to take them individually but with the ages of my three and the spread of your five it just doesn’t work out like that. Good for you for attempting it too 🙂

  • Carie 29/09/2015 at 8:43 pm

    There should be a lot more comments on this post but I was being especially special in pressing buttons I didn’t mean too when I set this post up. Many apologies and this is what everyone said:

    Rachel at The Ordinary Lovely said: I’ve worked with a fair few French over the years and their attitude towards children pretty much mirrors what you’ve just described. I know a couple of the girls that I worked with thought I was a complete pushover as a mum … fancy having the baby sleep in the same room as us, fancy not returning to work after three months. It was a completely alien attitude to me. There’s something very culturally different in our attitudes to bringing up children. Admittedly, I do have a softly softly approach but I thought they were a little harsh in their ways. I don’t assume that the whole country is the same but you’ve seen similar to me.

    Hannah at Little Owls House said:
    I’m really sorry to hear they scared Elma, I never imagined any museum would be anti-children, and it’s a shame that they don’t encourage the next generation to enjoy art. I can imagine myself ‘googling’ for answers too. I wonder what other cultural differences there are Xx

    DJ said:
    Wow, that sounds awful. They don’t want you holding the children but they don’t want the children walking either? And how on earth can a child crying ruin a painting?

    and Mandy at Blossom & Sunshine said:
    What I liked about France when I took the boys aged four and 18 months was in restaurants they were expected to fit in and eat normal food, salads, vegetables, meat etc, no disgusting children’s menus. We didn’t do the museums though and spent a lot of time at Euro Disney, rather than Paris. And this was in the spring, I wonder if at the end of a long summer holiday the museum staff are just feeling a little threadbare which might account for this chap’s behaviour. I expect by the end of this thread you’ll have found the answer!

  • Preeta Samarasan 29/09/2015 at 8:59 pm

    Hmm — you already know how heartily I agree with your perspective, since I left a comment on your first post about your museum experience in Paris 🙂 . There is just no comparison between attitudes towards children in the UK and in France. I take your point, sustainablemum, but no, that isn’t what’s going on here. Sure, as parents we do have to be aware of our children’s limits and of what they are and aren’t capable of, but as aware as one might be of one’s own children’s limits, one will still run into the mainstream French attitude towards children, which is that their lives should be run in an entirely separate sphere from adults’ lives. You don’t see children in many places in France because they’re at crèche from 2 or 3 months old, then all-day, 5-days-a -week nursery from age 3, then school and after-school centres. What’s more, even the activities that *are* supposedly geared towards children — children’s theatre shows, story hour at the library — are SO STUNNINGLY different from the equivalent activities in France, I can’t even describe it. Attendance is taken, FULL SILENCE is expected, seating is assigned and the children are expected to stay in their seats. If a child is more needy or clingy than the average, the parents get told off in that special, polite French way. And when children’s participation is required — if it’s a workshop, or a crafting activity — the whole thing is so prescriptive — everything already basically done for them, with only trivial choices (this colour or that colour?) left for them to make, it hardly deserves to be called art. It’s like the 1950s, and it makes me want to weep.

    As a home-educating parent myself, living in France, I’ve had almost the exact same experience in museums and other supposedly “adult” environments, when in fact my children *are* exceptionally well-behaved — and maybe all parents say this about their offpspring, but most objective observers notice that my children are extremely reserved and quiet in public. When I last took them to a museum in Paris, my older child was five, and she *was* very interested in the art (my younger child was in a sling, nursing and bothering no one). The older girl loves art, and we only ever stay for 45 minutes maximum at any museum, anyway. On this occasion she was pretty much walking sedately next to me, but she did one single twirl to show off her skirt, and got told off and followed for the rest of our morning because her skirt had brushed against a piece of art. I’ve had the same experiences with people disapproving of slings (“Is that good for them?” “How will your child learn to be independent?”), though I cannot for the life of me understand why it should bother them if you carry your tired children, Carie — what was that all about?!?!?!?

    • Carie 29/09/2015 at 10:16 pm

      I strongly suspect that we have very similar views on parenting so yes, no surprises! (And I was gutted we didn’t come through your part of France this summer and have the chance to meet up, maybe next year!) And also, lightbulb moment – that explains the issue with the sling – we didn’t have a buggy with us because it wouldn’t have fit in the car so Pip was in the sling when we were on the move and we took our back up sling for when Elma was tired too and I got out and out stared at in Annecy for pottering around the campsite with Pip on my back. Which led me to discover another culture difference – it seems it’s not rude to stare in France like it is in the UK, but the English response – turn, face and “puis-je vous aider?” – is equally alien!

    • Carie 29/09/2015 at 10:17 pm

      Oh and the reason for not wanting us to carry Kitty or Elma was that we might bump into something. In a gallery with ropes a metre at least from the walls – ???!!

  • Preeta Samarasan 29/09/2015 at 9:00 pm

    Oops — I meant the activities are so stunningly different from their equivalents in the UK, obviously. Can’t edit now!

  • Nikki Thomas 29/09/2015 at 10:23 pm

    I think that is really sad. We should all be encouraging our children to embrace art, culture and more and museums play a huge role in that. My children love wandering museums and you don’t get that sort of attitude in the London museums.

    • Carie 02/10/2015 at 11:14 pm

      It’s true, London museums are busting a gut to be accessible to everyone and I know which one I prefer!

  • suzy mae 30/09/2015 at 1:59 pm

    It really surprises me that children are not encouraged to learn and absorb the art and culture of a city that is so famous for it. Such a shame 🙁 We recently took our five to the London museums and National Portrait Gallery. The museums are so interactive and simply invite play and participation. Although it’s very prim, our girls spent ages rummaging through the costumes at the V&A (they are quite a lively bunch though mean no harm 🙂 Thankfully, we were met with indulgent smiles from the staff and other visitors. I would have felt heartbroken if they or we had been scolded. Life devoid of the tears, laughter, mess and noise of children is a very sterile one indeed.

    • Carie 02/10/2015 at 11:23 pm

      It’s one of those things that I don’t think I’ll ever understand – I love the way the National and the V&A invite engagement from everyone, and even our local galleries have grab bags to help little ones understand and appreciate what they’re seeing.

  • JOjo 30/09/2015 at 2:27 pm

    I’ve read all this with interest. We came across similar attitudes in France when our children were young, and when visiting a French family though there was space, our children then aged 10, 8 and 5 were put at a different table ” so that the adults won’t be disturbed”. We kept our peace in the name of diplomacy but afterwards the children made their feelings felt in no undcertain terms.

    I’m currently volunteer archivist at Clevedon Pier in Somerset where a new visitor centre along with an interpretive area is being built. The latter will encompass: the history of the Pier, the Victorian town and the the Bristol Channel as an SSI. The key to the interpretive centre is that we want it to be as interactive as possible… to appeal to all ages, backgrounds and learning styles. Touching and ” exploring will be positively encouraged. I think that this is the way that most museums, exhibitions and interpretive experiences is going in this country… and three cheers for that!

    • Carie 02/10/2015 at 11:26 pm

      Oh that sounds awesome, I’ll have to add that to our list of stopping places on the way to Devon when it’s open, thank you 🙂

  • sally 05/11/2015 at 9:59 am

    How sad, I always thought this was just a stereotypical misconception too. And I can safely say, from reading your post, that I will never attempt to take my children to a French museum! I don’t think they are bad or spoilt children in any way, but they are most definitely not ‘seen and not heard’ children!