Thursday, March 31st, 2011

France: Behind the Times and Unconcerned


In France, officials and pundits like to talk about how France is 20 years behind the United States. Sometimes this is portrayed as a positive (obesity rates, crime statistics), and sometimes as a negative (technology, business, customer service). As an American living in France for over ten years, I can see how it’s both.


Those Americans who grew up before the 80s may remember certain freedoms we had as children: playing outside on summer evenings on the sidewalk with the other neighborhood kids, riding bikes around aimlessly, walking to swimming pools and friends’ houses to play. I have fond memories of long road trips in our family station wagon. The part we called “the back-back” would be transformed into a small but cozy nest where we lounged with pillows, listened to cassettes and read books, without a seat belt or car seat in sight. Now, of course, you could go to jail (or at least get a hefty fine) if you dared drive around without properly securing your children. And obviously that’s a good thing. But some other simple pleasures seem to have been lost in the United States. It’s rare to find a neighborhood where kids play together freely outside as parents sit on porches or work in the kitchen, popping their heads out from time to time. Bike riding alone through the neighborhood? That’s dangerous! Even something as simple as letting your children play at the park playground has become parent-intensive, as parents hover to make sure no one gets pushed, stepped on or has any toys snatched out of their hands. Recently, a woman in New York City created a huge stir when she allowed her nine-year-old son to take the subway home alone, armed only with his MetroCard, a map, a cell phone and cab fare.


Not so in France.


Our apartment is in a residence of six or seven buildings built around a series of courtyards. There are large green lawns, a sandbox, lots of trees, little paths that are safe for walking and biking and no busy streets to worry about. After school, if the weather is nice, or even bearable, these courtyards are filled with children, some accompanied by parents, others not. If the parents show up, they sit on benches and use the time to smoke, play with their phones, read books or chat. The kids run around in groups, teasing each other, playing games (Remember the games we used to play? Those games.). Sometimes there are tears, occasionally even blood. That’s when the parents intervene. Some kids are sent out to play without supervision, which feels very odd to my hyper safety-oriented American sense of How Things Should Be. But why? In reality, there is very little danger. No cars, plenty of people around to supervise, people who know each other—even if it is only to nod to each other in the elevator.


Kids as young as nine regularly navigate public transportation to go to school—this is considered normal. Depending on their schedules, children may even have gaps in their day where they don’t have classes. They are free to come and go between home and school. It’s a common sight to see groups of pre-teens and teens biking around the neighborhood or playing complex games at the parks. They also get themselves to after-school activities without relying on their parents chauffeuring them around.


Other ways that France is behind the times seem far less benign. An acquaintance, who I know through a local Anglophone parenting association, recounted a bone-chilling story last week. She dropped off her seven-year-old son at a city-run sports program one morning, taking him into the gym and nodding hello to the coach. When she went back to pick him up at noon, he was nowhere to be found. The coach in charge shrugged his shoulders when she asked where her son was and told her that he had marked the boy as absent. She did find her son. He had wandered off to another city-run daycare program, but when she called the director to complain, she was told it was her fault that he wandered off. And this is not the first time I’ve heard a version of this particular story. Luckily, all the stories I’ve heard have ended with children reunited with their parents. Still, the lack of security measures and the unwillingness to accept responsibility for a mistake mean I’m unlikely to ever use one of these programs.


How else is France behind the times? Children’s birthday parties are a great example. Among middle and upper-middle class American families, birthday parties seem to have become the childhood version of extreme sports, with parents competing to see who can create the most magical moment to mark the arrival of their offspring. Bouncy castles, entertainers, lavish goodie bags, extreme decorating, party themes, heck, party planners. Among similar circles in France (in terms of education and income) the simplicity of the parties is like a breath of fresh air. Decorations are limited to balloons and the odd “Happy Birthday” banner and food is copious quantities of candy, soft drinks and a birthday cake (usually simple and homemade). Party games include Simon Says, egg-and-spoon races and other simple pastimes. Gifts are modest, goodie bags contain candy. Fabulous as they are, it turns out that five-year-olds don’t need magicians, live animals or bouncy castles to have a great time.


The downside of birthday party simplicity is the way invitations to the parties are handled. No attempt is made to disguise the fact that some kids in the class are invited and others aren’t—parents hand the invitations to teachers, who distribute them to the kids in front of everyone. On the other hand, kids learn early on that you aren’t always invited to other people’s parties. But the American notion that you should protect kids’ feelings by a) inviting the whole class or b) using extreme discretion if you don’t, do not apply here.


What about playdates? The American culture of fear, for lack of a better expression, means parents are reluctant to send their children to homes that haven’t been thoroughly vetted. While this attitude is understandable and even commendable, French parents are much more relaxed about the playdate. No questions about firearms, strange men, whether there’s smoking in the home…French parents drop their children off at the front door and don’t look back. Three or four hours later, they return. I’m not claiming that this is better than American protectiveness, but it certainly is different. And a reminder that most kids will be just fine.


In terms of my parenting choices, I often feel like an oddball here. I seem to be the only parent worrying about which school my child should go to (the vast majority of parents would never consider sending their children anywhere but the default public school), whether it’s safe for my son to play at so-and-so’s house since I met them only at the beginning of the school year and don’t even know if they smoke, how to discipline my kids (corporal punishment is the norm here) and even what to feed them (what do you mean, bread and Nutella isn’t a nutritious after-school snack?). Am I over-thinking things or are the French too unconcerned?


There are plenty of old-fashioned and behind-the-times things I adore about France like merry-go-rounds in every park, the puppet shows featuring Guignol, which has been entertaining French children for two hundred years, the pony rides in the park.


One of my absolute favorite ways that France is behind the times has nothing to do with parenting, although it has a lot to do with family life. I’m talking about Sunday. With a few exceptions, all stores are closed on Sundays. No grocery shopping. No trips to the mall. Sunday is a day to eat long family lunches, play in the park, go to a movie or just relax at home. The only shopping that one can do is at the market and the bakery, and then only until noon. It’s a day free of consumer temptations more complex than that delightful eclair au chocolat calling your name at the boulangerie. The simple pleasures of life still reign supreme here. I feel lucky to experience them and am thrilled that my children will grow up with them.


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Mary Hackett was born and raised on the Texas/Mexico border. She moved to France in 2000 after graduating from the University of Chicago, and aside from a year back in the US has lived there ever since with her Franco-Lebanese husband and their two sons. They are raising their kids trilingually in English, French and Arabic.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsFF, Berkeley CA   |  Friday, 01 April 2011 at 7:07 am

    This is a fantastic article. I always try to explain the reality of French life to my American friends who see it through rose colored glasses. You really hit the mark here.

  2. Commentssue   |  Sunday, 03 April 2011 at 6:09 am

    I live in Germany and my son (age 12) has the same childhood experience as your kids. I love how birthday parties are simple. Most of the kids go to either the local bowling alley or public pool for their birthdays. Standard party fare is chicken nuggets, fries, cake, ice cream, and lots of candy. The parents drop the kids off and pick them up when it’s over. Kids learn early that they can’t be invited to everyone’s party and they deal with it without any lasting trauma.

    My son also rides his bike everywhere, including school, and has used public transportation on his own to visit friends who live in nearby towns. I appreciate how Germany, like France, is “behind the times.” May it stay that way.

  3. CommentsYann   |  Monday, 30 April 2012 at 12:05 am

    This article was really insightful. As French, I have some remarks thought.

    1. French public school is generally as good if not better than many private school. In my experience, people that were in private school had a level inferior to those coming from public school. For example, I remember a friend who failed two times his “BAC” and his parent paid him a third try in a private school.

    2. Corporal punishment is yet the norm, but I believe it will change Many people are still opposed to this change. In my experience younger people will tend to accept it.

    3. As third point, I also believe French won’t be too over-protective, even if more and more parent are. Because it is clearly believed by French that giving too much to your children can harm them. We raise future adult.
    We are here to protect them from the hardest part of life. But in the same time we must train them for their adulthood. Making your children believe life is like a disney cartoon is the best way to make them feel bad at some age. Because, when something will go wrong they will believe it is their fault and not the natural way of life.

  4. CommentsMathoche   |  Monday, 30 April 2012 at 7:40 am

    As a french people here, even though I agree with the main ideas, I am shocked with the story of the child being sent to a city-run: usually even if the kid changes group, you pick him up at the same place and the coach knows at least that there has been some changes done.
    I also want to mark that corporal punishment is not the norm, and that parenting other people’s children is certainly not common, and (at least) not seen with a good eye, unless the parents are very close friends.
    Usually when kids go to someone else’s home, parents there only supervise.
    As a kid, I was taught to obey them and to be good, and I can tell you that I’ve never been parenting by any of my friends’ parents.
    (As a french, also, your fears are quite funny and seem quite useless, as the danger is really, really minimal. To us, at least.)

  5. CommentsLionel Barret   |  Monday, 30 April 2012 at 10:12 am

    This is just a very anedoctal experience (or fantasy ?). French education is not perfect, but it is far from the caricature seen in the article.

  6. CommentsGg   |  Tuesday, 01 May 2012 at 1:51 pm

    I’m surprised by your obession with “being behind”, “being ahead”, “old-fashioned” etc. as if national cultures were at different stages of the very same (American traced of cours) road… This is of course ridiculously simplistic. I would even dare to claim that it shows you still have a very US-centered vision of the world, and have not wrapped your head around the fact that other countries are not following US’s lead.

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