Missing Word #1

I believe I realized this word was missing from the French language after becoming a mother. Just as in the States, French children, not surprisingly, love to play.  It’s the playfulness of French adults — or more precisely the lack thereof — that I take exception to. Watching a pack of parents stuck to their park benches, sporting vacant, impatient or sour expressions while their kids cavort in the sandbox or climb on the playstructure, I often had to repress the desire to yell at these over-serious grandes personnes (French for “grown-up”): “You’re allowed to have fun, too!” “Get off your arse and chase your kid around!” “I know it’s really hard but do you think you could just put your smartphone down for 2 or 3 minutes and at least pretend to be watching your kid?” and especially, “Stop telling your child he is going to fall, don’t you know anything about positive reinforcement?”

 isabel cooney

 isabel cooney

But I digress. French adults and the model they (typically) present to their children are a whole other ball of cire, and from what I understand, many writers and commentators are already on it. Let us return for a moment to French children.

In the best case scenario, and the same goes for American kids of course, children here—when not zombied out by their hand-held video games or myriad other passive-screen-staring activities—are expert players. Expert movers, expert shakers. Staying still has limited appeal. Water gun battles, endless variations on the game of tag, hide-and-seek, sports with balls, sports without. Make-believe, cops and robbers, playing house. Jump-rope, hopscotch, red-light green-light. Oui! Ca existe! Running, skipping, jumping, now you’re talking. Wait, did you say ‘skipping’?

And here, suddenly, I’ve slammed into one of the aforementioned walls. You don’t have a word for ‘skipping’? Comment ça?! What single way of moving, of getting from point A to point B, better symbolizes the lightness, playfulness and freedom of childhood? Skipping, of course! When I stop reeling from the shock of it, I try to figure out which is preferable: a) skipping but not having a word for it, or b) living without skipping, but not knowing what you’re missing. I opt for a), but not without feeling the need to grumble at the French.

Option a) seems to me to exemplify a sad sort of denial. Beautiful things like a child skipping should fill us with empathic joy (not to mention make us itch to skip, too), but deserve at the very least to have a name. Otherwise, what is the children’s book author going to say that the protagonist is doing on the way to her best friend’s house? Running? Walking? Hopping? It’s just not even vaguely close.

In skipping, you can sense the nonchalence, the—albeit temporary—reprieve from heavy concerns, the carefree nature that distinguishes children from adults. There is no rush to arrive at one’s destination, as with running. There is no awkwardness of motion, as with jumping or hopping. There is no boredom or slowness, as with walking. When you skip, your destination is practically insignificant, and time no longer matters. It’s how you’re getting there that fills you with satisfaction. And multiply that all by ten when you’re skipping hand in hand!

This unique manner of moving forward that combines speed, balance, and lightness, is a sort of low-to-the-ground flying practiced by almost all children at some point. Strangely, adolescents and adults quickly forget the glee so easily available to them and skipping is relegated to a cobwebby corner of their minds. But at least when an adult, in a culture that does not deny the existence of skipping, hears the word, or reads it in a book, there is a chance that that cobwebby corner might briefly light up while they recall the joy they once knew. In France, skipping quickly fades away, without even a word to connect to that memory.

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