How Can We Toughen Our Children Without Frightening Them?

The Atlantic in Paris: Dispatch #2

Dispatch 2.jpg

I went out this morning for a quick run along La Seine. That was fun. There were very few people out, which made it easier. Paris is a city for strollers, not runners. In this small section of the city, everyone seems to be offering a variation on the phrase "And I wasn't even trying."

Women pedal their bikes up the streets, without helmets, in long white dresses; or they whizz past in pink daisy dukes and matching roller skates. Men wear orange pants and white linen shirts. They parler un petit peu then disappear around corners. When I next see them they are pushing porsches up St. Germain, top down, loving their lives. Couples sit next to each other in the cafes, watching the street. There are rows of them assembled as though in a spread from Vogue, or as a stylish display of manequins. Everyone smokes. They know what awaits them--grizzly death, orgies, in no particular order. 

I came home. I showered. I dressed. I walked across the way and bought some bread and milk. My wife brewed coffee. We had breakfast. Then a powerful fatigue came over me and I slept till noon. When I woke, my son was dressed. My wife was wearing a Great Gatsby tee-shirt, shades, earrings and jeans. Her hair was pulled back and blown out into big beautiful Afro. We walked out and headed for the RER. My son was bearing luggage. This is the last we'd see of him for six weeks.

It was on the train that I realized I'd gone mad. I started studying French through the old FSI tapes and workbook. I then moved on to classes at Alliance Française. Next I hired a personal tutor. We would meet at a café in my neighborhood. Sometimes my son would stop by. I noticed he liked to linger around. One day he asked if he could be tutored in French. It struck me as weird, but I went with it. In June he did a two-week class--four hours a day. He stayed with my father. He woke up at 6 a.m. to get to class on time, and didn't get back until twelve hours later. He would eat dinner and then sleep like a construction worker. But he liked it. Now I was sending him off to an immersion sleep-away camp--Française tout les jours.

It is insane. I am trying to affect the aggression of my childhood home, the sense of constant unremitting challenge, sans the violence. A lot of us who come up hard revere the lessons we learned, even if they were rendered by the belt or boot. How do we pass those lessons on without subjecting our children to those forces? How do we toughen them for a world that will bring war to them, without subjecting them to abuse? My only answer is to put them in strange and different places, where no one cares that someone somewhere once told them they were smart. My only answer is try to mimic the style of learning I have experienced as an adult and adapt it for childhood.

But I am afraid for my beautiful brown boy.

A few weeks ago I was sitting with my dad telling him how I had to crack down on my own son for some indiscretion. I told my dad that the one thing I wasn't prepared for about fatherhod was how much it hurt me to be the bad guy, how much i wanted to let him loose, how much I felt his pain whenever I challenged him. I felt it because I remembered my own days, and how much I hated being 12. I was shocked to see my dad nodding in agreement. My dad was an aggressive father. I didn't think he was joyous in his toughness, but it never occurred to me that he had to get himself up to challenge us. He never let us see that part of him. His rule was "Love your mother. Fear your father." And so he wore a mask. As it happens, I feared them both.

I told my son this story the day before we dropped him off. I told him that I would never force him to take up something he wasn't interested in (like piano). But once he declared his interests, there was no other way to be, except to push him to do it to death. How very un-Parisian. But I told him that pain in this life was inevitable, and that he could only choose whether it would be the pain of acting or the pain of being acted upon. C'est tout.

We signed in. He took a test. We saw his room and met his room-mate. We told him we loved him. And then we left.

"When I e-mail you," he said. "Be sure to e-mail back so that I know you're OK."

So that he knows that we are OK.

When we left my wife began to cry. On the train we talked about the madness of this all, that we--trifling and crazy--should be here right now. First you leave your block. Then you leave your neighborhood. Then you leave your high school. The your city, your college and, finally, your country. At every step you are leaving another world, and at every step you feel a warm gravity, a large love, pulling you back home. And you feel crazy for leaving. And you feel that it is preposterous to do this to yourself. And you wonder who would do this to a child.