One day, I arrived unexpectedly at Claire’s day care just before noon. When my husband had dropped her off that morning, he had forgotten to tell the staff that I would be picking her up early to take her to a doctor’s appointment. I opened the door to see Claire, red-faced, standing in the middle of the room.
Her mouth was open in a long, drawn-out O shape that meant only one thing. Sure enough, her crying soon picked up where it had left off. She was so angry she didn’t even notice me standing in the doorway. All of the furious attention bundled up in her little body was directed at the children who were eating and the people who were feeding them.
Four toddlers were seated primly in low-slung high chairs, aligned in a tidy row. Four staff, one per child, were seated facing them. Each of the women had an apron, a tray, a dish, a spoon, and a smile. They were all steadfastly ignoring Claire.
“She is hungry, but she is still learning to wait her turn,” remarked one woman, while slowly scraping the last bit of purée from a bowl.
I bit my tongue, reminding myself that North American frankness was not appreciated here. Controlling my urge to stuff something, anything, into Claire’s mouth, I took her into my lap, sat down, and waited. I’m not leaving until she gets something to eat, I thought, forgetting all about our doctor’s appointment.
As Claire (and I) slowly calmed down, the meal quietly continued. The children were served the traditional four courses — entrée, plat de résistance, fromage, and dessert. Portions were relatively small. The children had to do their best to finish them and were given lots of time to do so.
One by one, the chairs were liberated, and the next four children settled in. Again, an adult sat in front of each child, slowly offering food, smilingly accompanying them right to the end of the meal. Considering that the day care had 16 kids, this seemed incredibly labor-intensive. But every child left the table full and happy.
Even Claire: when it was finally her turn, she sat with the other little children and smiled delightedly as the first mouthfuls of food came her way. She finished every morsel and had a long and delicious nap after our delayed visit to the doctor (who, by the way, was completely understanding about why we were late: “The most important meal of the day!” he said, smiling).
What a contrast with Claire’s day care back home, where kids would sit at their tables, open their lunch bags, and eat what they could in 10 minutes. Most food was served cold and eaten with fingers and hands, and lots of leftovers came home every night. It was the children’s responsibility — even as toddlers — to feed themselves. In fact, the ability to feed oneself is viewed, in North America, as a major step toward independence.
Food is also a matter of individual choice and preference. Early on, children are given lots of choices. Most American parenting books suggest that kids get to decide whether, what, and how much to eat. Others go further and suggest that kids should also get to decide when they eat. In practice, most families give a high degree of choice to children. And processed foods enable this, as even fairly young kids can find ready-made food in the pantry, or heat it up in the microwave.
Choice is important for North Americans because it is about one of their most dearly held values: individual autonomy. Even young kids have control at the dinner table, and over the dinner menu. Sophie was already used to this, which is why she found it so difficult to have no choice about when and what to eat.
So, unsurprisingly, the lack of choice at the cantine also bothered me. I thought that the food itself seemed both tasty and healthy. But I worried about Sophie’s refusal to eat it, and I worried about the effects of suppressing her autonomy about something so important.
My husband thought this was funny. “My autonomy isn’t too suppressed,” he joked. “After all, I married you even though my mother was totally against it!” This was true, although my mother-in-law had long since reconciled herself to her foreign daughter-in-law (or so I could convince myself on my good days). “And besides,” he said to me one night, “if the food is delicious, why do you need to have a choice?”
This was a good question, and I didn’t have a good answer. The best response I could come up with was that choosing made me happy. But the French don’t see it that way.
And, thinking about it, I could see their point. The cantine didn’t allow choice, but as a result, kids ended up with a highly varied diet. So French parents didn’t mind the fact that the kids didn’t have choices about food — they didn’t think they were ready to handle it.
But the different views on choice held by Americans and French run deeper than this. A simple example of this is their response to the following question (used by scientists in the largest-ever comparative survey of French and American eating habits): “You have the choice between two ice-cream parlors. The first offers 50 different flavors. The second offers 10. Which one would you choose?”
Thousands of people in France and the United States responded to this question. The answers were complete opposites. Nearly 70 percent of French people chose the store with only 10 flavors. But 60 percent of Americans preferred the store with 50 flavors.
As a very unscientific test, I asked this question of all of my in-laws. Unsurprisingly, they answered just like an average French person. When I asked why they’d answer this way, their response was straightforward: “If someone is only making 10 flavors, they’ll put more care and attention into making those the very best quality. If they’re making 50, the quality will probably be lower.”
Aha! I thought. For Americans, having lots of choices is synonymous with quality; it makes us happy. But for the French, choice doesn’t mean better quality — in fact, just the opposite. Too much choice is (potentially) a symptom of lower quality, which certainly wouldn’t make the French — who have such high standards for everything — very happy.
This new perspective on choice seemed to make sense. And that’s what I told Sophie. “They’re only making one thing because they want it to be absolutely delicious. And it is!” I’d say firmly but cheerfully, as she balked every morning in front of the menu posted on the school door.
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