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Hugo Rifkind

Why should our children be more like the French?

27 April 2013

9:00 AM

27 April 2013

9:00 AM

I’ve no particular beef with the French, gruesomely tortured beef as it would no doubt be, but I’m a little tired of being told we ought to follow their example with our children. Elizabeth Truss, the normally quite sensible education minister, is the latest culprit. She believes that Britain’s nurseries are chaotic, noisy places. Children would be better prepared for school, she feels, if British nurseries were more like French nurseries, in which toddlers wear couture, click their heels whenever an adult enters the room, and never laugh.

I daresay she’s right, just as I’m sure people are often right when they marvel at the flawless behaviour of little French people. But they always seem to be overlooking something pretty major, which is that little French people turn into big French people. And pleasant as the French can be, in a social or catering trade capacity, they do also often give the impression of being unhappy, humourless philanderers, somewhat. Indulgent parent that I am, I’m just not sure I want that for my children.

It probably takes more than merely French nurseries to turn the French French, though. Let’s not be simplistic here. (There’s also the way they’re constantly surrounded by French people, for example. That can’t help.) In fact, I suspect the nursery thing is probably a pretty minor part of it. Kids are pretty resilient, and the kids who are the most resilient are the indulged, loved, -middle-class ones who have parents who spend their time agonising over exactly how like the French they ought to be at the age three and a half. You mess up a toddler by abusing it, neglecting it, or otherwise assaulting the foundations of its little bright-eyed life. Really, what Ms Truss is talking about here isn’t the welfare of kids at all. What she’s talking about is the welfare of mums, and it’s not the same thing at all.

I’m sick of mums. I really am. They make such a fuss about everything. Ms Truss is often feted as one of the government’s few ‘working mothers’, which is a term that, to borrow a phrase from P.G. Wodehouse, makes me want to lay about with staves. In truth, behind her views on nurseries lurk a whole battalion of presumptions about what it means for a woman to leave the house and earn a wage. ‘It is a woman’s right to work,’ is the subtext here, ‘but we also ought to feel incredibly guilty about it. So let us indulge that guilt, and bask in it, by worrying enormously about what happens in nurseries.’


Stop it. Your kids are fine. Before I had kids of my own, I found this constant chattering war about a woman’s identity merely boring. Now that I have two, and not least because they are girls, I actively resent it. Pull yourselves together. Think about the neuroses you’re bequeathing to future generations, and the misery you’re causing to women with fewer choices than you. Maybe your kids would prefer you to be at home, but your kids would also probably prefer a swimming pool and waterslide in the garden. What the hell do kids know, anyway?

Yes, it’s probably bad if you almost never see them, just as it would be if I never saw mine. But provided you remember their names, and they know who you are, and they get a hug whenever they need one… jeez, chill out. A man is just a man. He’s the same man regardless of his footwear; regardless of whether he’s wheeling a suitcase to a conference or a buggy to a park. Why is it so different for women? If you want to stay at home and can afford it, do; if you don’t want to, or can’t, don’t. If you must set great store by your role in life, feel free. Just stop inflicting it on everybody else. Trainers or spiky heels, your kids don’t give a damn. They’re too busy making necklaces out of pasta and painting their own arms. Unless they’re French, in which case they’ll just be sitting down staring at a wall, and not smiling at all.

Independent wealth

A nice fight this week, over what currency Scotland would use if it became independent. Obviously it doesn’t matter much, because Scotland won’t become independent, but still, it’s been fun. Alex Salmond, who used to be keen on the euro, has lately started suggesting that sterling isn’t so bad after all. George Osborne, though, has been making it plain that turning the pound into a currency union would come with strict conditions, which would make independent Scotland less independent than those who like independence would like.

If Scotland was not willing to meet these conditions, it could still use the pound, as could anybody, but would remain powerless over its mechanisms. It would also remain at the mercy of the Bank of England, which would, of course, finally actually be the Bank of England, and not something that is simply called that to annoy Scots.

Osborne is on pretty safe ground here, I think. The woes of the eurozone provide a solid example of what can happen when a large, functioning economy finds itself sharing a currency with an unaccountable spendthrift basketcase. The question is, what would this theoretical future Scotland do instead? Keep the pound anyway? Cleave to the euro after all? Craft a new currency of its own?

Personally, I favour a more forward-looking cyber option. As the Corries almost sang, ‘Whae fought and died for/ yer wee bitcoin and glen…’


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