Th Bentzon: About French Children (Osa artikkelista)

The Century Magazine 52 / 1896


I would now beg you to consider the less pronounced persons of our little boys and girls, who are required, above all else, to be aimable in the sense the word has in France, where it means lovable, having nothing of the lukewarm and hollow meaning of the English word "amiable." The aim of their education differs in the two countries. In America good parents have but one thing in view - the rational development of individuality and of responsibility; while this, in the girls' case as well as in the boys', is the constant labor of parents in France - to keep their children in tutelage, to prevent them from seeing what is going on outside, and to give discipline and complete submission the first place. In fact, their children are being more specially trained for the exigenxies and the accomplishments of a social life whose machinery has been running on for centuries, while Americans are being prepared for individual struggles such as they must necessarily make in a new country.

In France every young mother, to whatever class she belongs, may say, in speaking of her baby's outfit:
* And by the weight of all the skeins I wrought
I kept the measure of my loving thought;
Among the broken threads serene it ran
And, interrupted oft, anew began
Au poids des écheveaux usés
J'avais mesuré ma pensée
Sereine entre les fils brisés
Et chaque fois recommencée.*

I know nothing more perfectly French than this little piece of humble and exquisite poetry, showing the stitches that keep a dream imprisoned so purely in snowy linen; nothing more motherly than the last wish of the careful embroidener, who bids a bird building its nest pick up bits fallen from the finished work, and mix them with its own materials, so as to keep and protect the impatient wing that is growing. That growing wing is threatened with many an embroidered and beribboned bond both in the present and in the future, yet less hedged in than in the past, since people have begun to bring uop their children more according to English notions. The swaddling-clothes are no longer as tight-fitting as a sheath; the cap which covered the bald little head, and framed it so prettily with its ruche, has been given up; the lace pillow for the lolling head to rest on has been banished: yet, in spite of all this, the infant in the early stages of its life is a sort of bundle, very much like a bolster, from which two arms and a wrinkled little face protrude. The advantage of this system is that the child is very easy to handle; but it has its critics, who maintain that the natural condition of the spinal column is not a straight and stiff line. Paris has made many concessions, and the swaddling is less rigid; but the provinces have not followed suit, while in the country everywhere new-born infants are tied up as hard and fast as ever. In the south of France they go to the length of putting this papoose in the bottom of a basked, where it is kept in place by strong bands passed zigzag from head to foot. This is how we prepare our sons for making use of their liberty. However, leading-strings have been given up; that is one step toward progress. Twenty years ago they were still considered indispensable, - at least, country people thought so, - and there was no end to their intricacies.

It is quite remarkable that swaddling-cases, bands, and various other fetters are the only essentially French contributions that have ever been made to a baby's equipment. Although fashions in general have for centuries been promulgated in France, clothing every one à la Française, yet the fertile imagination which could do this stopped short at children's clothes. *Padded head-protectors for infants. Look at the paintings and engravings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and see the little creatures who, as soon as they gave up their plumed bourrelets* and long tulle aprons over a blue or pink dress, agains which a jewel hung instead of a teething-ring, had to wear uncomfortable costumes, the miniature reproductions of their parent's clothes. Little girsl, particularly, were put into whaleboned bodices and sumptuous robes, which necessitated lessons in deportment to be properly worn, and consequently the dancing-master was one of the first professors employed. It needed the revolution of simplicity brough about by the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau before children could be comfortably clothed - girls in muslin slips and heelless shoes, boys in short jackets borrowed from English styles. Ever since then we have followed English fashions for our childredn, and now America lays down the law, with its blouses; its quilted, somewhat oldish winter coats reacing to the ankles; its pretty Puritan caps trimmed with fur, a thousand times preferable to the immense, caricature-like bonnets copied after Kate Greenaway. But I am anticipating; we are still at the swaddled infant's long cloak. In every Catholic family infants are consecrated to wear white; that is to say, placed under the protection of the Holy Virgin by a vow which does not permit the child to wear any colors but blue and white, those of the patron saint, for a fixed period, usually year or two, sometimes longer in the case of a girl. This must be some remnant of chicalrous times, of service professed by a knight for his lady when he wore her colors, for it is not, properly speaking, a religious tradition.

The birth of a new citizen in France at once gives rise to countless formalities, and an avalanche of legal scribblings, which would teach him, could he but understand, that his country is par exellence the home of legal ceremony and administration. Within the first twenty-four hours notice of the birth must be sent to the mayor's office (there is such an office in every village in France), so that the official physician may call and make the necessary legal statement. I suppose he wants to convince himself that the declaration already made was correct, and that the family, when it announces the birth of a girl, was not trying to screen a future soldier from his compulsory service. Then the father, accompanied by two witnesses, goes to fill out the birth certificate, and give his child its legitimate, documented position, to which he or she will be obliged to have recourse in all the great, and frequently in the minor, circumstances of life, from one end of it to the other. Without it the child could not enter a school, nor draw lots on entering the army, nor get married, nor be buried. The least mistake of form would have most serious consequences; the baptismal name declared must always be placed in the same order on all future deeds.


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