A few years ago the book Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman came out and created so much buzz and controversy that it was all the talk in the mom circles and I was consistently asked to weigh in as a French mother living and raising my children in the US. The author, Pamela Druckerman, is an American mother of three who moved to Paris and claimed to have learned how to better raise her kids by watching French parents.
I found the book to be patronizing of American parents and unnecessarily flattering of French parenting with some of the habits described by the author as not exclusively French. The reality of parenting is, I believe, much more complex, a beautifully exhausting and humbling marathon that no one country, culture or mother necessarily masters better than others.
What I have found fascinating however is observing and pondering the cultural differences, within households and countries. I love the introspection, sometimes I get inspired and try to adopt ideas within our home, other times I take mental notes of what would not work for us. So for those of you who are curious about what might be different about parenting in France, here are a few things I have observed. Shedding the guilt:
Childcare is widely available, and most French mothers count on it from the time their babies are still young without feeling a negative cultural imputation. Parents of babies and toddlers receive tax credits of up to 85% of the cost of attending child care centers called crèches or hiring home-based nannies before public preschool begins at age 2 or 3. This is one reason that France has one of the highest rates of women in the workforce in Europe. The culture supports working mothers, allowing them time to do things on their own, seemingly guilt free.
Kids can start school at three years old and preschool is full day, from 8:30 to 4:30, with nap time. There are usually two teachers for 30 children. Teachers can be quite strict and conformity is expected. My children have lived and gone to school in the U.S. their whole lives but I insisted on putting them to school in France in June and early July which is when the school year ends in France. This month of French school inspired a lot of comedic mimicking of their maîtresse (mistress/teacher) at our house Ah non, c'est pas possible (That’s not possible, that’s not okay), retourne t'assoir immédiatement ! (get back in your spot IMMEDIATELY). Still, both of my children loved their teachers and have fond memories of their time in school.
The food culture in France is rich and the rituals around food are taken seriously. Even children in crèche (daycare), ages 0 to 3 years old, sit around a table for their goûter (afternoon snack) and children aren't allowed to begin until all the other children have put on their bibs and passed the plate around. In French culture taking part in food is a daily ceremony, taught and practiced. Other than the goûter, children don’t eat between meals. It is believed that a child should feel hunger before each meal in order to fully appreciate the food being served.
French parents are very serious about school lunches. They often huddle around the school gate to check the lunch menu for the week, which includes beets, goat cheese, endives, zucchini, veal and so on. When parents take issue with the menu, they bring it up to the next PTA meeting. Very young children are taught to identify fruits and vegetables according to the seasons at school and parents favor food grown locally.
Doing things the French way:
French people definitely believe there's a specific way to do things in France. My American husband can tell you that my French family isn't shy about telling him what he is doing wrong, even when it comes down to peeling vegetables :) This applies to parenting as well. When I was little my parents insisted on us taking our bath, putting on our pajamas and a bathrobe, and then coming to dinner at 8 p.m. When my children were little, I preferred bathing them after their messy dinner and they found it soothing right before bed. My French family found it outrageous that I would do it that way versus the French way.
Praise: French parents don’t often praise their children. When my husbands says to our own children, ‘Wow, Lia, what a beautiful drawing! Teo, great job pushing yourself on the swing!’ French parents look at him strangely. I on the other hand don't find it natural to say ‘That’s wonderful!’ I am not used to external reinforcement and assume that my children enjoy what they are doing because of the joy it procures and cheering them on does not even occur to me. Children’s books: French books often take on heavier and darker topics such as death without a blink. Stories don’t always have a happy ending. Some of the classic French books we have on our bookshelves include Peau d’âne (the story of a girl who uses a donkey skin to hide from her father, who wants to marry her!) or La Barbe Bleue (about Bluebeard, a wife murderer). The graphic images and matter of fact way these stories are told to children seem definitely cultural and surprise our American friends.
Puberty and sex:
When it comes to puberty and sex, the French talk openly with their children and contraceptives are easily accessible in high schools. In France sex is seen as a natural and healthy part of growing up and this broader cultural attitudes about sexuality for adolescents seems to coincide with lower incidences of teen pregnancy, births, abortions, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).