Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Is Bad Parenting the Root of the French Riots?

One fact that has (particularly) stunned the French in the recent riots and car-arsoning is that about half of the youths burning cars and clashing with the police were under 18, and sometimes as young as 8 or 10.
Many people have been dumfounded and even outraged. How can that be? How can those young kids be left outside so late at night - while there is danger and social unrest? "How can 'those' people be so bad parents? It must be because they don't care". Such moral positions are natural but they do not help. There is something to understand there.
The immigrants are not necessarily bad parents, and the situation is more complex that it looks. Only the gap is so wide that it ecomes really hard to relate to their lives and their background. The problem is that if you don't understand the problem, you can't even conceive a possible remedy.
Here's a very good article from the Herald Tribune, called "Immigrant Parents Pressured in France", which gives some analysis of the riots from the angle of the parents whose kids may have been involved in the riots. What I find interesting is that it also correponds to my experience as a teacher in one of those 'banlieues'

Here's a good excerpt:
Illiteracy and poor French language skills are still common among immigrants, especially mothers who tend to be trapped inside the home, intensifying their alienation from a generation that grows up text-messaging and downloading music. The fathers, the traditional family authorities, often work long hours and do not see much of their children - and then find themselves stripped of their traditional way of diciplining their children who challenge them by citing recent French legislation against beating in the home.
Sometimes when teachers want to meet the parents, only a clueless mother shows up and sometimes with an older brother who translates for her. Even if they speak good French, those families are often clueless about the school system or French law anyway. Their kids are thus endowed with amazing power. The parents often depend on their kids to know what is really going on, they are told what the are 'really' supposed to do in France. Like other kids, they lie but the parents sometimes can't tell. This clearly undermines their authority. The backlash is that punishment often comes in bad beating too. I remember that one kid whose father had found out he had lied about going to school, started beating up his kids (even as we were in the school) so bad that we had to call the police. In the end the police could do very little and the kid eventually ended up in hospital a few days later.
A few more important things are not mentioned in the article, however. The fact that some of those kids live in crowded apartments (sometimes a family with 5 kids in a 2 room apartment) so they literaly live outside most of the time, and in the halls in the winter time, something not necessarily uncommon in the countries where the parents may come from.
Another issue is that some of the men have several wives who themselves have several kids who all live on family allowances under the same roof. But the problem is that even though their traditional life styles may not be a problem in a rural environment where ther grandparents and the entire vilage may be involved in the education of the kids, it cannot work in a French city environment. As a result the children are neglected and they are not given the proper education at home.
Also, and this is a more touchy topic, the lack of authority of mothers sometimes reflect the highly patriarcal culture they come from. As a result the boy in the family can get away with a lot, he is sometimes a little king of his own, and so it becomes hard for the mother to have any say. (that is why some teachers sometimes prefer to meet with the father...). It must be noticed that things are changing and a lot of women in those areas have become gradually more independent. In fact, it is mostly the women who have been in charge of many associations and clubs in the 'banlieues'. The daughters are also rebelling against such patriarcal system (a movement such as Ni putes ni soumises, contributed to the emergence of a how women should regain their authority.).

Clearly, I'm like everyone else, I dont have the solutions but those elements can partly explain the situation today. It does not mean we should not hold the parents accountable at some point but severe measures against them such as heavy fines and prison terms may not help that much in the end - at least in the case of many of them even if there are also those bad uncaring parents among them of course. It may only add to their sense of humiliation and undermine their authority even more.
I tend to think that parents are the basically the same anywhere - the vast majority of them care about their kids. There is no reason why those particular parents should be any different unless we think they are "genetically" made that way. But that is something I leave to Le Pen and his friends.

UPDATE: In the Financial Times this morning, French minister says polygamy to blame for riots:
France’s employment minister on Tuesday fingered polygamy as one reason for the rioting in the country.
While I agree that in some cases,
Overly large polygamous families sometimes led to anti-social behaviour among youths who lacked a father figure, making employers wary of hiring ethnic minorities,
I'm not sure this is a major reason for "the racial discrimination which ethnic minorities faced in the job market". It is good to address the issue but problems should not be mixed either.

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