Monday 2 January 2012

Vive la différence ! - the French-Anglo Parenting Divide !

Earlier this afternoon, I saw a tweet go by that piqued my interest and I headed off to discover an article in The Guardian entitled "The parenting gap: why French mothers prefer to use the firm smack of authority" with the subtitle "As a new book asks why French children don't have tantrums, Kim Willsher, who has raised her own children in Paris, looks at contrasting views of family life". You can read the article online here but the key points are :

- American mother-of-three Pamela Druckerman, who lives in Paris, has brought out a new book entitled French Children Don't Throw Food

- She asks how the French manage to raise children who, unlike many of their US or British counterparts, sleep through the night at two months, are not picky eaters, do not throw tantrums in the supermarket and go to bed without making a fuss, while their mothers continue looking so cool and sexy

- Discipline versus encouragement, chastisement versus laissez-faire, a sharp shrill "ça suffit!" (that's enough!), versus the mollycoddling "now let's not do that, shall we?" and "that essential Gallic parenting tool", la fessée, or smacked bottom, versus the British naughty step

The article concludes with a tongue-in-cheek GALLIC GUIDE TO CHILD REARING :

■ Put your child aged from three months to three years into the local state-run creche for up to 12 hours a day, five days a week, and return to work. It is cheap (an individual or family with an income of €3,000 a month will pay around €1.80 an hour) and the child will learn to be both independent and sociable.

■ Instruct your child to say "bonjour" every time they meet family and friends. They should also present their face to give and receive "bises" (pecks on the cheek) when prompted, even to strangers. The same applies to an "au revoir" when someone leaves. A child who does not say "bonjour" is considered virtually a savage.

■ The dining table is sacrosanct. Any hand not in use must be placed flat on the table. NO shouting. NO getting down from the table without asking. Absolutely NO throwing food, particularly bread which has a quasi-religious significance. French children are encouraged to eat a wide variety of food from an early age at home and at school, where packed lunches are not allowed. Love of things like garlic, frogs' legs and Camembert must be largely genetic.

■ Ça suffit! (That's enough!) the single most effective weapon in the French parent's arsenal. Said loudly and curtly with the emphasis on the 'ça'. Usually follows an 'arrête!' (stop!). Nine times out of 10 it cuts short any arguments, whining or bad behaviour.

■ "La Fessée" or smacked bottom. On the rare occasions 'ça suffit!' fails, and they are rare, French parents will not hesitate to employ a sharp slap to the rear or leg. French children become so used to this, they hardly ever cry and have learned a subtle body swerve to lessen the impact. Particularly strict grandmothers may prefer to pinch an ear.

Well, I had to smile when I read this because it sums up, in a nutshell, what causes 95% of the arguments here at The Madhouse and when we visit the respective grandparents' houses in the UK and France ! While this is obviously based on a huge amount of generalisations and stereotypes, I have to say that, within the bounds of my experience, it's also largely true. I've spent 15 years in France but there are still certain viewpoints and statements that I hear and have to make a conscious effort to compose my face to not show any reaction to. French Madhouse Daddy Mike is the same on our trips to Britain. These are statements that come from people who I work with or socialise with, get on well with and think I have a lot in common with. Yes, I know - you want examples, you'll get me in trouble now !!

1) "I stopped breastfeeding because my husband got fed up of me sharing my boobs with someone other than him" / "I'm not going to breastfeed because I don't want to ruin my boobs and have to stop wearing sexy underwired bras". Conversely through, breastfeeding in public is much less frowned on in France than in the UK and nobody bats an eyelid if you see someone feeding a baby even in a crowded place like a restaurant.

2) At weddings or family parties, the kids are put together on a table, far away from the grown-ups. The idea is that the parents won't be interrupted by the kids and the older kids are expected to look after the younger ones, help cut up their food, take them to the toilet, etc.

3) The "put your hand on the table" rule has always left me feeling perplexed because I can't honestly see the point, but on a recent school exchange, the French host families were shocked to see that some of the British teens didn't know how to use a knife and fork properly because they only ate finger food like burgers, fried chicken and pizza and said that they didn't like vegetables full stop and never ate them at home. (How much of that is true and how much was them showing off though is another question ...)

4) In France, in general, mums go back to work after 3-6 months and the kids go to a childminder's or creche, with the government reimbursing a large chunk of childcare costs for under 6's. The idea of taking 5 or 6 years off to bring up the kids is pretty much unheard of - even 1 or 2 years is considered a long time over here. (Again, with exceptions, obviously.) Kids can start school at age 2, going from 8.30-11.30am and 1.30-4.30pm, with some of them staying all day if they eat at the canteen. In the afternoon, the youngest children all head off to the dormitory for a sleep, the slightly older ones take a cushion and have a nap in the classroom with their head on the desk. (Which possibly explains why I still get the odd pupil in my secondary school class falling asleep !) When kids are 18 months old, parents suddenly get extremely anxious and full-on about getting their kids potty-trained in time for going to school at age 2, otherwise they'll have to keep them at home or pay for a childminder for another year.

5) Children should be seen and not heard, especially at the dinner table where they shouldn't interrupt grown-up conversations. Parental decisions are not open to debate, ever. The idea of a "family conference" is totally unheard of. Noisy play, such as running around the garden playing cowboys and Indians, is frowned on. French parents apparently do not get involved in rough and tumble play with their kids, or do "naughty things" like take them jumping in leaf piles or splashing in puddles in their wellies. I almost caused a car crash once when a woman looked at me, open-mouthed and frowning, as she drove past and I encouraged the girls (in rain coats, wellies and old jeans, I might add !) to splash in a big puddle ! I'm the only parent ever, as far as I know, to have gone on the slide at the park or run about with a frisbee and the neighbours' kids still talk about me having a water pistol fight with the girls out the front years ago! Oops !

6) I often hear British and American mums/daughters saying that they're best friends. I often hear French friends say that parents are not and should not ever try to be friends to their kids. One memorable debate brought out the line (from a friend) "children shouldn't ever feel they can tell their parents everything, they should keep secrets from them, especially about behaviour they know their parents will disapprove of". That made my hair stand on end and afterwards, I specifically said to Sophie, "I hope it won't ever happen but if one day, you find yourself pregnant or take drugs or get in trouble, please please come and tell me, I'll always be there to help you whatever you've done !"

7) Expressions that don't have a translation in French because they're unheard of - naughty step, messy play, playgroup, playdate, ... My mother-in-law looked on dumbfounded as I had the kids doing finger and foot-painting on one visit, saying that she admired the things I did with the kids but she'd never have allowed it in her house with her kids. She explained that those kinds of things were done at school, not at home. Which is true because the kids go to school aged 2 and spend most of their holidays in a "centre aéré" (literally aerated centre !) where the kids are taken off your hands from 8.30am-5.30pm Monday to Friday throughout the entire school holidays !

So, the big question is, ARE French kids better behaved ? Well, I think they probably are as pre-schoolers and up to the age of about 10, because they better had if they don't want to be punished ! The smacked bum is certainly still in use, but I have also witnessed even small kids aged about 3 or 4 getting a "tape" (small slap) around the face or being told they'll get a good hiding they'll never forget if they don't stop acting up, which always makes my skin crawl.

On the other hand, I teach 11-15 year olds and, while there are some nice well-behaved children (as there are in Britain), on the whole, I compare my working environment to Waterloo Road without the Cooler ! Answering back to teachers, jumping over the school gate to bunk off, smoking, teenage pregnancy, happy-slapping, stealing, fights and insulting pupils and staff are all things that came up last term.

I think the thing to learn is that nobody brings up the perfect kid, wherever they live and whatever their nationality. There is no fool-proof method to parenting, otherwise everyone would have adopted it by now. When I used to watch the French version of Supernanny, she used to adopt a lot of "British" parenting ideas like the naughty step instead of a smack, but some of the "French" ideas - like all sitting down for a proper meal together - are good too. As for the title of the book - do French kids really not throw food ? Well, they certainly do in our school canteen !

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  1. awesome! I was fascinated by the article- it is so similar to the way I was raised in the middle east! now my children- being raised by their rebellious mother are having a whale of a time driving us all to distraction... but I hope they will be a lot happier than I ever was

  2. "She asks how the French manage to raise children who, unlike many of their US or British counterparts, sleep through the night at two months, are not picky eaters, do not throw tantrums in the supermarket and go to bed without making a fuss, while their mothers continue looking so cool and sexy" .....

    LOL !! I must be French :) I have to say that Emma is 80% of the time 'golden' and always has been.
    I have never been strict - just sensible and have set boundary's as in 'I am your Mum and you will do as I say!' however I do listen to her view and admit when I am wrong. It works both ways :)

    Great blog post! Very interesting :) but if anyone ever slapped my daughter round the face, I would smack them back!

    Oh ... another thing :) I understand that some people have to go back to work when the children are little for financial reasons, I was lucky to be able to stay home when Emma was little as she was my daughter and so I was going to bring her up and look after her. Even now I drop her off at school and pick her up - even as I teacher myself I can zoom to work and get to my lessons on time :)

  3. You certainly have given me some food for thought.
    As an Australian I'm sure I would not be seen in a very positive light by some French parents.
    My kids roll in mud, climb trees, chase snakes and don't come inside until the street lights come on.........funnily enough though they have always been so exhausted, and I mean from about a week old, that they have slept through the night - how very "French' of me !

  4. Amazing post, certainly a lot to think about. I do think that us brits can panda too much to our children sometimes and maybe a little cruel to be kind may be better in long run???

  5. Fascinating. Of course the question "ARE French kids better behaved?" isn't the only question (though a good one!) There's also "do French kids grow into well-rounded happy purposeful adults?" and "do French parents enjoy their kids?" and probably lots of others too. That's why it's so hard to assess a parenting method or approach - what are your criteria for success?

  6. Really interesting as there are marked differences between the Russian and British way of bringing up kids - but then, I notice that practically everywhere we visit, different nationalities have different ways of doing things. The main thing here seems to be the 'hands off' style of parenting - letting the grandmothers (babushka's) / nannies / teachers do most of the day to day caring. A lot of Russian mums think I'm crazy, getting as involved as I do...

  7. Gorgeous post. I'm still in touch with my lovely French exchange partner (a godmother to our daughter) and I giggle when I hear her say "Arret! Ca suffit" to her 3 sons as I heard her mother say just the same to her little sister all those years ago. I'm socialising with many french mums here as an expat in India (French car industry central here) and there's so much that's making me giggle here. Our daughter is the savage who won't present cheek for kissing. Hey ho. And as for the Indian parents who don't join in messy/rough play with the children out & about...


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