Civilized to What End?

Recently there was an article in the Guardian, written by a self-identified “Italian-American” journalist who lives in Paris. Frankly terrible from a scientific standpoint, potentially unethical from a journalistic standpoint, the writer just interviews her friends about parenting practices, and observes anxious mothers hanging around in les Jardins du Luxembourg. For the upteenth time since the invention of the printing press, American and other Anglo-Saxon ex-pat mothers are reported to opine that French mothers are cold and cruel. And the writer reports herself, based on a single experience with a certain boy from the Upper West Side (of Manhattan), that American mothers are indulgent and produce uncivilized monsters. Both depictions are hideous clichés and you can imagine the activity on my friend’s Facebook page when she posted the link to the article. You can go read the article yourself if you want. One Tiger-Mother-like conclusion that the writer draws is that the French mamans are cold and cruel because they love their kids so much. The cold and cruelness assures – are you ready for this? -- that their offspring will become “civilized” adolescents and adults.  More civilized, that is, than Anglo-Saxon adolescents and adults.

Who is this person’s editor?

First, there is the assumption that French children are more civilized than children from some other cultures.  I say, as I have in other posts, “Kein Systemvergleich.”  That is, this depends entirely upon how you define civil.  If “shaking hands” makes kids civil, perhaps.  If “not talking in school” or “letting people get out of the métro before trying to board it” makes them civil, then far less. 

My experience of university teaching, both at French universities and les grandes écoles has been that university students do not (cannot would be too strong) listen to lectures.  They talk to each other.  All of the time.  You might think I am not worth listening to, but you would be wrong.  And when I taught at an école supérieure de commerce (business school), an entire group of international scholars and professors was simply told by administrators, as fact:  “Hey, don’t forget that the students come in late and talk all the way through lecture.  That’s just what they do.”  Apparently they talk in more people’s courses than just mine.  So, how is that civil?  When I complained to a colleague about the students’ unwillingness to attend in lecture, she shrugged (thinking that I waspsychorigide) and said, “It is easy, you just lecture to the bottom third of the amphitheater. They are usually listening somewhat more.”


So, I won’t repeat myself except to say that civility is like politeness is like psychorigidé: A nation or culture cannot define it for another nation or culture. Just like somewhere else is not the world’s authority on civility, neither is France. If you don’t believe me, and you can read French, then go read this article from Le Monde. Or watch French talk shows. If you think that people all talking and screaming at the same time are manifesting civility, then that is fine.  It means that “listening to other people” does not figure into your definition of civility.  And you have that right.  But if you have that right, then so does everyone else. Then other people get to define civility too.  Perhaps for them, “children yelling while playing in the park” is perfectly acceptable within a civil society.  It is for me.

And, second, let’s talk about making children civil.  A Russian woman living in France told me that she was bothered by the -- what appeared to be (and I do not have specific frequency data, though I would like it) – very heavy use of the pacifier in France.  Outside, in strollers, in daycare centers, in restaurants.  You do see a lot of pacifiers.  When I ask people to explain this, they both say that babies need to suck (although is a 5 year-old a baby?) and they say that it makes the baby quiet.  Even in the park.  So I would guess, but would never presume to know, that French mothers (like some mothers in other countries) think that pacifiers are expressions of love and instruments of civility.

But I have some data to tell you about.  I have conducted three studies involving in total over 600 participants that suggest that pacifiers can have some negative effects on emotional development.  The underlying theory goes like this: Recent research shows that mimicry is important in helping us understand other people’s emotions.  We mimicry their facial expression, this mimicry exerts certain neural and subjective changes, and these changes help us know what the other person is feeling.  Our mimicry can also show the person we are looking at that we “get” what they are feeling.  It is both an encoding devise and a form of communication.  Some of the most important people to mimic are our caretakers.  Before we learn language, their facial expressions are very important in signaling to us which things are good and which things are bad.

Now what happens when a baby sucks on a pacifier?  You might think they can mimic and be mimicked, but you would be wrong.  Pacifiers appear to mess up that process, and my preliminary data (that have to be explored in other confirmatory studies) suggest that in particular boys who use pacifiers for a long time mimic others’ faces less (even without the pacifier in their mouths) and have lower levels of emotional intelligence and empathy as young adults.  Don’t go calling any pacifier makers.  I am just telling you about these preliminary findings because if they hold up in other studies, then it might just be the case that at least one behavior that is claimed to express love and enhance civility actually harms the developing child.  Harms more than their teeth.

I’ll bet that the “Italian-American” journalist would not be able to use her brute intuition to come to the conclusion that my pacifier studies are coming to.  So why should she be allowed to conclude in print that one style of mothering yields more “civil” children, and in so doing also define for everyone what civility actually is? 

Faulty logic from beginning to end.

Paula NiedenthalComment