The Land of “Non

They paired up automatically, so accustomed to their organized method of moving from point A to point B. I suppose it must happen ten times a day: down and out of the school at each recess and back up the stairs for class, or when they descend the dark stairway to go to lunch, and again at the end of the day before they rush out the door into the arms of waiting parents and nannies. They fall into line, two by two, ready to be herded along.

Holding hands (sort of) they followed the teacher across the street and to the bridge to Ile St. Louis. We parents – the five who’d volunteered to assist with the trek to the children’s library – fell in step, guiding any stragglers back into the line and pressing the lollygaggers for a bit more speed.

I’m not that parent who eagerly volunteers to help with every activity at school. The adult hours I have are precious to me and I’ve never been a rah-rah-stir-up-the kids kind of mom. But Buddy-roo’s pleas for me to be a chaperone on one of her monthly library trips were too insistent to say non. Besides, I like a good library.

The maitresse received us with a formal enthusiasm and we responded in kind. Despite my occasional grievance about the amount of homework she levels on our children, I do try to give her the benefit of the doubt. Buddy-roo seems to be fond of her, and there are anecdotes of her individualized attention to students in the class that indicate she truly cares about helping the kids learn and succeed. It’s hard not to respect a woman who passes
the entire day with nearly thirty 7-year-olds and still smiles. During the Christmas concert rehearsals, the parents had an impossible time controlling this unruly pack of kids. Watching their teacher do it inspires awe.

“I’m counting down from twenty,” she said, “and when I’m done, all children will be quiet.” The French word she used was sage, which also connotes being well behaved. She started counting backwards and by the time she was at eleven, the foyer outside the library was soundless except for the shuffling of winter coats and an occasional cough.

That’s when we entered the library. A staff member watched the children file in, and the five adults accompanying them. “Non, non, non.” We were too numerous, he said. It was not possible for everyone to be upstairs in the storytelling room. I was one of the three mothers relegated to wait on the ground floor. We sat at the table and whispered to each other, recalling our younger days in childhood libraries. I was cheered by the whimsical décor and the stacks of bright, colorful books so I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures.

Non,” said the librarian sitting at her desk, “c’est interdit.” I explained that I wasn’t making a phone call, just taking a photograph. “C’est aussi interdit!” That was also forbidden.

Finally we three moms-in-waiting were invited up the curved staircase to join the children. “Maman!” Buddy-roo broke her vow to whisper, “Why weren’t you here for the story?” I explained that there’d been too many people. Except I hadn’t seen anyone leave before we were summoned, so I’m not sure what was the reason for being banished below.

Children were rifling through boxes of books, strategically placed around the room to permit easy access from many angles. The mother-helpers were reading stories to small clusters of children, other kids were reading to themselves or rolling around on the cushions on the bench by the window. A pillow fight ensued.

Mais non!” the upstairs librarian admonished the children fiercely. A few moments later he yelled at them for letting the cushions drop to the floor. “Non!” I heard it again and again, he was constantly correcting some child for some act of anti-library behavior. It doesn’t help that there is something particularly dismissive about the French way of saying non. Is it because it’s another language, not my native one? Is it because of its clipped sound, sharper and more abrupt? Is it the pleasure that seems to accompany its repeated use?

Children – in France and elsewhere – must hear no or non hundreds of times a day. No, you may not watch a movie during breakfast. No you may not wear your princess dress to school. No you may not talk in the cafeteria. No you may not, until you’ve done your homework. No you may not, just before bed. No you may not, it’s time to go to bed now. All day long a series of negative commands are fired at them, reminders of all the things they cannot do. Slowly we’re beating the optimism out of them.

Not that I’m opposed to no. In the how to raise kids debate, De-facto and I lean toward setting limits. (Or so I think, but do we ever really see ourselves clearly as parents?) I believe kids need structure and boundaries; too much freedom and too many choices can be overwhelming and anxiety-producing. Though I’d pale in comparison to a Tiger Mom, I see the value in being strict. It just feels so restraining to be negative and forbidding about it. Isn’t it possible to set limits and use yes?

I try to say yes, when I can, or at least say no without saying no. Yes, you may have another piece of candy, tomorrow after lunch. Yes, you can watch a movie, after you’ve done your homework. Yes, you can wear it on Saturday when we have a princess tea party. Yes, you can sleep with me, next time Papa’s traveling. It may just be a no in disguise, but at least there’s hope within it, hope for a future possibility, something to look forward to, an alternative to the restrictive, option-less brick fortress that stands around the land of of non.

6 Responses to “The Land of “Non“”

  • Caroline Fraley Says:

    Yes, French bureaucratic rule-bound attitudes at their best, with typical enforcement strategies – no thinking required. The one thing I always notice is how the French tend to focus on what you cannot do – or what article thingyboop forbids you to do – rather than on how one might do it… I can’t help feeling sorry for you when I read this post and then I remember you have chosen to live there! 🙂 I used to go to such library to study after school and your post reminded me of it: it was like entering a convent each time! From a land decried for many things by the French – mostly through ignorance – where ‘yes, and’ is most often implicit, that’s what I love about living in the UK, and not in France… It’s just about ok for me to visit these days, especially Paris. So, my hat off to you, I just couldn’t bear the daily bruising and grazing… Nice, thought-provoking post! Thank you for that. Caroline

  • Tom Perry Says:

    In Spain, they have taken ‘no’ to a higher level. I remember back in 1971, soon after I decided to live in Spain, I was talking to the daughter of the owner of the rooming house where I lived. I expressed an opinion and received a curt ‘no’ as an answer. In other words ‘your opinion is SO wrong it doesn’t even deserve an explanation. Often when one goes to a shop to ask for something, ‘no’ is the only reply.

    I used to construe this as impolite, but now realize that adding an explanation, normal by our standards, is not perceived as necessary by Spaniards.

    The same goes with ‘por favor’ (please), which is often construed as begging. I remember once I asked my father-in-law, an extremely polite, well-educated man, to pass me the salt shaker. ‘Le importaria pasarme la sal, por favor?’ (Would you mind passing the salt shaker, please?) His reply: ‘Sin favor’ (it’s not a favor).

    Sadly, in Spain today, ‘please’ is the exception rather than the rule. We taught our kids to say it anyway.

    Can you imagine anyone in France asking for something without ‘s’il vous plait’ or saying ‘oui’ or ‘non’ without ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’?

    Un beso, Tom

  • Amanda Says:

    Yes. I like your way.

  • Franca Says:

    Jeez I’d be out in the banlieue trashing cop cars in no time if I had that much “non!” in my life.

  • Elizabeth Marie Says:

    The French children’s librarian would have a nervous breakdown in our little library here where children are encouraged to be happy to be in the library. It’s not always quiet enough for those of us who go to the library to focus, but I rather like the sound of giggling and happy shrieking.

    I’m more inclined to say “yes” than “no” unless “yes” would be bad for my daughter.

  • Andi Says:

    I love the “yes” spin on the “no” answers. I only wish I had your blog to guide me when my kids were young. However, with the hopes of grandkids in the nearer future … perhaps I can still use!

Leave a Reply