Why I don't parent like the French (with one exception)

(This post originally appeared on the HuffPo Parents blog….where I express my ambivalence about French parenting, and argue in favor of a ‘best of both worlds’ approach, rather than the wholesale, uncritical adoption of any one idealized model of parenting. Would love to hear your thoughts!)

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. I’ve taught in universities in both places. So I’ve seen French children in action from cradle to college. 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 also a hierarchical society, governed by a small elite which is accessed through fierce competition–which starts at an early age. The top universities in France are engineering schools (not law 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 (yes, zero). And 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 most French parents worry that it negatively affects most children’s mental health, productivity, and creativity. As the adage goes, one never succeeds in the French school system, one simply avoids failing. (Note: this has left of a negative effect on self-esteem than you might think: if you’re just one of many people getting bad marks, you don’t feel quite so bad as you might otherwise!)

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 students become less creative, and more motivated solely by following the rules, rather than thinking for themselves? Although it risks offending some, my answer (based on my experience teaching in French universities) is yes.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many things I love about the French (after all, I married one): their wit, charm, style, even their cynicism. Their approach to parenting has some elements I really like; 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 are wonderfully open to ideas from other cultures, but shouldn’t lose sight of the great things our culture does offer to our children.

We could, in turn, learn from the French 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 idealized “model” of parenting, French or otherwise.

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7 thoughts on “Why I don't parent like the French (with one exception)

  1. This is great! I’m so glad I came across your blog (while looking for beet recipes). I am only partway through your book. The French clearly have food figured out, but I like a little dose of empathy with my firm limits. There is a happy balance out there for every family if we are willing to learn from each other.

    Also, I was shocked to read about the breastfeeding rates in France and the strict feeding schedules right from the start. Starting on a schedule a couple months into life seems a little more reasonable, but give that newborn baby a break (and a boob/bottle)!

    Your book is inspiring, so far.

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  2. I am French, married to an ‘amerloc’ and living in the USA, with 3 great kiddos. First let me say I am enjoying the book so much ! Thank you Karen It is sending me back to my roots, really! and
    I would agree with Karen on what I would call the ‘negativity’ that french parents unwillingly throw at their kids. I do not remember my parents ever say a positive or encouraging word to me regarding, well anything I think. I would hear from bad grade for weeks on, but the good and excellent ones would have the comments ‘t’aurais pu avoir plus’, ‘you could have done better’, and most of my friend’s parents were the same. It was normal for me (may be that’s why you do not remember it as harsh Karen Frenchy), and I never though much about it until I spend time in the USA.
    When I first came here, I was stunned to see how students could speak so confidently in a classroom ( i think it is mention in the book?) and how the teacher would be so positive about it, regardless of the quality of the answer. It was so different from home where very few people would actually volunteer to speak up, the ones that did were considered the ‘best of the class’ and the teacher would just move on. Being aware of it, I am working on being more positive and encouraging, though I will never find myself to the extreme I sometimes see here and that Karen Frenchy described very well. Rewards (may it be words, food or goodies) for everything and anything is just deceptive in my opinion and the kids are growing up thinking they will always get something for what they do, regardless of the commitment, hard work or quality dedicated to …, it’s ‘n’importe quoi’ 😉

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  3. I may be biased on the subject, being French and raised in France ; that could explain why I do not remember (or acknowledge?) the French education (family) and instruction (school) being as harsh as described.

    Now I am raising my French-American daughter in the USA, I can see the difference, even though she went to a French preschool until grande section (kindergarten). She just learnt cursive writing and some basic maths. She will join an American elementary school in August (oh boy! She will lose her writing skills -_-)

    What I noticed in her activities (ballet and swim lessons) : almost all the parents are just amazed by everything theirs kids do. Me? not so much… I mean yes, for me she is the most wonderful kid in the world or even the universe, but for example when she spends 30 minutes out 45 just giggling in her tutu with her other friends with the teacher repeatedly asking them to stop , I do not find it cute/charming and will not tell her “Good job!” like some other parents. I tell her it wasn’t nice for the teacher and she wouldn’t learn anything. Will that break her spirit and self-esteem? Some may say yes but for me, it helps her being more focused and respecting the teacher’s work in that case. I am not asking her to be the best at everything; we, her parents, are certainly not and we were super proud of her and her classmates after the recital (even if none of the kids were in sync hahahaha). I just want her to do her best and to ask for help when she needs some.

    The most important, my husband (American) and I agree on the education at home (Actually, he thinks I am a bit too strict about table manners. I honestly think it is because I told him we had to be a good model for her so he had to quit drinking sodas at the table and properly use his fork and knife ^^)

    As far as the instruction is concerned, I may comment next year after her full year in an American public school 😉

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  4. Hmm, a very interesting perspective. I think this is just how “traditional” cultures function. I’ve only spent time in France for work (rarely encountering children) so I don’t have much to go on here but I did grow up in Taiwan and everything that I’m reading here just reminds me of my own home country (am now living in the US) and its rigid education system.

    I’m sure we all remember the Amy Chua firestorm last year. I wonder then, why people seemingly frown upon the rigidity of the asian system while at least giving credence to the french system? So it is good to see this bit of pushback here.

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  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. As a French instructor who lived in Paris for many years and who has raised my kids in the U.S., I heartily concur with the author’s point of view and have taken the same approach with my children who pride themselves on eating “weird” foods by American standards. This year I taught a course on French intellectuals and America and was amused by the constant diatribe against conformist American culture. My years in Paris taught me just the opposite. Never have I felt so regulated and forced to adapt to others’ lifestyle down to my hairstyle and foot apparel. I emphasized repeatedly with my students that one always feels that another culture is conformist because we take our own cultural norms to be, well, normal, (they have been “naturalized”) and judge what is different as aberrant. And yes, I am am an ardent francophile as well.

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  6. Having read just about all of the books on this subject, including French Kids Eat Everything, I have to say that this article is the best explanation and description, a to the point and precise description of French society. I’m always amazed that my French friends’ children turned out to be well-adjusted people. While some of them are the high achievers Karen talks about here, the others are average. Yet none of them have psychological problems or suffer from low self-esteem. In the US, we do everything to boost self-esteem (each little kid on a team gets a trophy or ribbon whether they won or not) and our kids seem to struggle with esteem issues. That’s the one contradiction in this otherwise well articulated argument. I look forward to reading more.

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  7. Thanks for this article Karen~ I enjoy learning about parenting across different cultures, but like you, I don’t embrace just one strict philosophy. I pick and choose, buffet style, what works for me and my family. I have the same attitude about parenting authors and gurus.

    Enjoying your blog!

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