Frenchitude Lesson #35: Screen Time In The Land of Baguettes

Today’s Frenchitude topic was suggested to me by Kecia Welt, who was a recent guest at Le Relais du Vieux Beaune and writes a blog about her quest for a simpler life.
She recently sent me an email: “I don’t believe you have ever touched on “screen time” issue… The time kids spend in front of the television and/or computer. Clearly that is a problem in the U.S. with very alarming statistics. I’d love to learn how the French find balance with these technologies.

First of all, let me start off by saying that I certainly don’t think the French have found the magic bullet to dissuade children from spending the better part of their lives being entertained by a screen.

That being said, I have found that French parents don’t struggle with the “screen time” issue with their little froglets to the same degree as their North American counterparts.

Here is my hackneyed attempt to understand why…

Let me just preface this by saying that I am not one of those anti-screen zealots. Both my girls have Nintendo DS‘ (I think that’s where the apostrophe should go…). Camille’s is turquoise and Charlotte’s is pink with a plethora of horse stickers on it.

When we are stuck in Heathrow’s Terminal 4 after a trans-Atlantic flight and our flight to Lyon has been delayed another two hours, I actually find myself wondering if the person who invented these nifty little wonders shouldn’t, in fact, be awarded a sainthood.

Also, I have also observed that many children who are ill-served by reading programs in primary schools learn to read, and learn to read fluently, via video games. This can’t be a bad thing.

TV watching is naturally curbed in France by the long school days (9:00am to 5:00pm more or less) and the large amount of homework given from Grade 1 onwards. Most French children I know watch almost no TV during the week because there simply isn’t the time.

As for the video games, sometimes when my girls’ friends come over to chez Germain with their Nintendo DS‘, they can spend hours holed up in their bedroom brushing their virtual horses or engaging in battles with their Pokemons. However, this remains a rarity. Most of the time Charlotte and Camille and their friends forget about their DS‘ altogether, and prefer to play Playmobil or the imaginary game of Orphan Children Under The Bridges of Paris.

Now here is where I go out on a très, très shaky limb….

I am undoubtedly making a gross generalization here, but I have noticed that the issue of regulating screen time seems more problematic with little boys than with little girls.

I don’t know what it is in the male psyche that is attracted to screens, and particularly video games, but I am convinced there is SOMETHING different in there.

I would rather cut off my left arm than be forced to play a video game whereas when we were staying in Paris at a friend’s apartment two summers ago Franck kept sneaking off to play some mafia video game in a curtained off alcove.

The huge majority of little girls I know get bored of video games way before parents start to have to intervene. Left to their own devices, they moderate their video game use quite naturally. There are surely little boys out there who do this as well.

In the case of these kind of children, the French take a typically “laissezfaire” approach. If there is no real problem, there is no need for gratuitous parental intervention. Rather, treat the whole video game thing as a positive first step towards autonomy. French parents are as a rule very big on encouraging autonomy in their children.

Then we are left with the children who, if left to their own devices, would go through life with a video or TV screen glued to their right eyeball. This requires a completely different approach – these children really need firm limits.

In the case of one of my French friends, this means deciding not to buy her son, who is the kind of kid who could happily watch 8 hours of non-stop cartoons, a DS or WII or any kind of video game.

She is unapologetic about her decision.

She believes that childhood is short enough, and it is better spent playing outside than staring at a computer screen. She feels that she knows her son, and that if she lets the screens, besides a limited amount of TV, inside the house that it wouldn’t be fair to him; the temptation for him to spend all his time either playing video games or lusting after playing video games would be too great. She feels that as a parent she knows what is best for her son, and truly believes she is doing him a huge favour.

I think this hits on another reason why perhaps French parents have an easier time with the whole screen issue. French parents believe that being a good parent means setting firm limits. This is backed up by the fact that in France, setting parental limits is viewed as concrete proof that you love your children.

Another French friend has a son who loves his DS, but she puts firm limits on how long he can play when his friends come over (usually 1-2 hours). When the time is up and the kids whinge about the injustice of having to stop and inevitably complain that there is nothing else to do, she says to them, “There’s no point in complaining to me about it, because I’m not going to change my mind. You being bored is not my problem. Now, allezvous en!”

Her attitude demonstrates two other reasons why French parents have an easier time with the screen time problem. Firstly, French parents aren’t afraid of looking like the Bad Guy. Secondly, French parents believe that it is not their job to entertain a child or to ensure that their child is being constantly entertained.

The French believe that children, especially when they have friends over, have everything they need to entertain themselves, even without video games. Boredom is viewed as a necessary first step on the path to learning how to entertain themselves, an invaluable skill in life.

Besides, saying a firm non! to children enables them to practice another skill that is essential in French society – protesting.