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Karen Le Billon

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Why We Don't Need to Parent Like the French (With One Exception)

Posted: 05/31/2012 9:46 am

My skepticism about "French parenting" is not due to lack of exposure. I'm married to a Frenchman, and we've divided our time between France and North America for the better part of two decades, living in small towns and villages in Brittany and southern France.

Our daughters, now 4 and 8, have been in school and daycare on both sides of the Atlantic. And I've taught in universities in both places. So I've seen French children in action from cradle to college. And there are many things I love about the French: their wit, charm, style, even their cynicism.

Despite this, I'm not an advocate for the French approach to child rearing -- although it is, in many ways, better for parents. Why? Because they get more support. Families (particularly those with three or more children) get generous tax breaks for everything from in-home childcare to daycare, train travel, school lunches, and after-school activities.

Another reason why the French approach to child rearing is good for parents is that France takes a collective approach to child rearing: everyone gets involved. My children have been taught life lessons (Don't interrupt! Make eye contact when you say "Bonjour"!, Sit up straight!) by our doctor and pharmacist, our neighbors, the plumber, bus drivers, cashiers, lifeguards, passers-by, and many of our French friends (who don't hesitate to discipline our children as they would their own).

The French do this because they live according to a relatively rigid set of social rules. France is a deeply regulated -- even regimented -- society. It's worth noting that the top universities in France are engineering schools, which produce graduates who can count on better job opportunities and higher salaries in both the public and private sectors.

This logic filters back to the French schooling system. Math and science (and rote learning methods) are prioritized, and the demanding curriculum puts French children well ahead of North Americans. It helps, of course, that they start school full-time at 3, which is viewed as a means of leveling the playing field amongst different social classes -- of central importance to the French Republic, given its (in theory) meritocratic nature. This also meshes with traditional French parenting values: children are obliged to comply with high expectations at a young age, from table manners to cursive writing (which many French kindergarteners have mastered better than I). The result: seemingly model children.

But this may come at a cost. The title of a recent book sums up this view: "They Shoot School Kids, Don't They?" As the author -- a British journalist teaching at the top French university SciencesPo -- notes (and as anyone who has put their child in a French classroom has likely observed), an unforgiving, even harsh, and sometimes demeaning classroom culture is widespread in France.

This starts early: our daughter's best friend was given detention in kindergarten because she didn't do her in-class work quickly enough. A poor paper might receive 0 out of 20, but it is almost unheard of for excellent students to receive more than 14 or 15 (no grade inflation here). This intensely competitive schooling system works wonders for a small proportion of top students. But the French worry that it negatively affects most students' mental health, productivity, and creativity. As the adage goes, one never succeeds in the French school system, one simply avoids failing.

The result? French students are so terrified of making mistakes that they're overly cautious (and even uncomfortable) when out of their (often narrow) comfort zone. The quiet demeanor of French children seems less positive when viewed in this light.

Moreover, the traditional French approach to child rearing pays relatively little attention to the notion of individual motivation, instead valuing imitation and strict observance of format and rules. Do French children become less creative, and more motivated solely by following the rules, rather than thinking for themselves? My answer (although I know it risks offending some) is yes.

This culture of schooling is, of course, a reflection of French values. Social networks in France are, for example, more regimented than in North America, with a greater emphasis on group activities and conformity. Within these groups, French children tend to form deep personal friendships that may last their entire lives, but they aren't very good at making new friends (with other French people, never mind foreigners), or dealing with difference. The consequences are not always positive, as most immigrants living in France will tell you.

Don't get me wrong. There are many aspects of French culture that I love (after all, I married a Frenchman). For example, I think the "firm limits" for which French parents are rightly praised are a good thing. But the French don't have a monopoly on this (or on patience, obedience, or manners). Indeed, there is much the French could learn from us, particularly the child rearing values that tend to be prioritized in North America: empathy, creativity, and individual motivation (that "can-do" attitude).

We could, in turn, learn from them about things they do well, such as the French approach to food education, which cures (and even prevents) picky eating, and teaches children to be lifelong healthy eaters -- and not to fear tasting new foods or eating "weird" vegetables. The French family meal (which is distinct from formal haute cuisine) is at once a celebration of national heritage and a cozy ritual; the table is where parents are at their most relaxed -- and where people let off steam in an otherwise rigid society. The "taste training" techniques used by the French at school and at home are based on positive encouragement (rather than punishment), and focused on fostering children's self-esteem -- through encouraging their capacity to learn to become good eaters (a skill to be acquired, just like reading or math). (After scientific studies confirming an increase in children's willingness to eat "healthy" and "new" foods, other countries -- including Finland and Canada -- are adopting the French approach to "sensory education").

After seeing the dramatic transformation in our daughters' eating habits when we first moved to France soon after my second daughter was born, I decided that -- despite my reservations about French parenting -- I should make one exception. Our family follows many of the French Food Rules (the label I use for the healthy eating routines instilled into children at a young age), although we've adapted them to the North American context. But this is a "best of both worlds" approach that requires some critical thought about values and habits, not the wholesale adoption of anyone's "model" of parenting, French or otherwise.

 
 
 

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