Pin It
Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

The Burning Question Part 2: Education Issues for Multicultural Families


One of my greatest fears as a new parent, right after Matthew’s birth, was about putting him in school in France. While I hadn’t done much research on the system, its results surrounded me: a culture where it’s a bad idea to accept responsibility for one’s mistakes, where apologizing is seen as a sign of weakness, where people talk down to one another in a way that sounds suspiciously like what you would hear a caregiver say to a naughty two-year-old. Not to mention, I didn’t know how to work the system.

My family in the United States is pretty much 100 percent in the field of education. So I feel comfortable talking about American standardized tests, how to work with teachers, what level of knowledge is expected and appropriate for different grade levels, etc. Living in France and putting my child in school here would mean mastering all of these things in a different culture, and doing it without exploding any of the hidden minefields inherent in any cross-cultural exchange. In fact, my concern about the French education system was so intense that it fueled my desire to move back to the United States, which we did when Matthew was about 18 months old. As fate would have it, we returned to France right before Matthew turned three…the age at which children start school in France.

I’m happy to say that it’s been a much more positive experience than I expected. Have there been surprises? Absolutely. In France, parents are not involved in their children’s school life. We get a little notebook filled with activities that our children have participated in when they have a school vacation. Otherwise, contact with the teacher is limited to a brief “bonjour” and “au revoir” at drop-off and pick-up. There are no classroom mothers, few calls for volunteers and the teacher will not chat with you about your child’s progress unless you make an appointment to speak with her. Don’t linger in the classroom, you’ll be reprimanded.

Being a cultural outsider has its benefits; being an English speaker occasionally has some, too. It certainly helped me have a special position in Matthew’s school. I was asked by the principal to come and teach the children Christmas carols. But, attention, they had to be secular carols. No Jesus, no God, nothing pertaining to religion. Because, although Christmas and Easter are roundly and thoroughly celebrated in schools, they are celebrated as cultural events, not as religious ones. Yes, it’s a head-scratcher, but that is France’s version of secularism. I asked the principal why we couldn’t sing a song that had the word that referenced Jesus or God, and she explained that the children might repeat the words to their parents who would be absolutely horrified. She was categorical. No religion in school.

Now, as an American, I’m used to people going on endlessly about their religion. After all, I grew up in Texas, the Bible Belt, where there were prayers over the loudspeakers before football games. I find American religious expression a bit overwhelming, a tad ostentatious. But this French idea of secularism, to pretend in public life that there is no such thing as personal religious beliefs, I find utterly ridiculous. And even worse is the hypocrisy of celebrating what are so obviously religious holidays while totally ignoring the religious meaning.

Of course France’s long and complicated history with religion means that this attitude is perfectly comprehensible and logical to them. We are all profoundly marked by history, which shapes cultural beliefs and norms. As an outsider, one of my privileges is to ask people to explain ideas and beliefs they take for granted, which makes them think about why they believe certain things. It was interesting to see the principal struggle to explain why they have a Christmas tree at school, make Christmas decorations, have the children open an Advent calendar and talk every day about Père Noël and yet pretend that Christmas isn’t religious. I learned some interesting things during that conversation. I hope she did, too.

© 2011 – 2013, Mary Hackett. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:

10 Best World Maps for Your Children’s Room

Because every little global citizen needs a map

How I Made My Forgotten Native Language My Child’s Strongest

I started off by speaking dodgy Cantonese. No word for remote control? No problem! ‘Pressy thingy.’

An Islamic Perspective on Child-Rearing and Discipline

Does Islam's reputation for severity and harshness apply to how Muslims raise children?

Primary School Privilege

Time outs due to whistling versus school's out due to poverty


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. CommentsKavita   |  Tuesday, 15 March 2011 at 3:29 pm


    Its exactly my story. Can I have authors mail id please.

  2. CommentsAmmena   |  Wednesday, 16 March 2011 at 12:24 am

    would be interesting to read what you did find out :)

  3. CommentsMary   |  Friday, 18 March 2011 at 11:36 am

    Hi Ammena,

    What I learned is that she couldn’t explain it herself! I watched her fumble for words. In the end I just nodded my head and told her I understood. :)


Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!

What Cultural Norms Around Bare Feet Taught This Mother in Guatemala

Her baby's bare feet ended up being a lesson on poverty and privilege.
[…] the breastfeeding culture in Mongolia compared to America. Did you have any idea that something as simple as breastfeeding attitudes can […...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
My mother born in the 1930's is originally from the northern part of Germany. I am in my mid fifties and have a terrible relationship with my mother. She is domineering and hurts those where it hurt...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
[…] JC Niala, InCultureParent […...
From Why African Babies Don’t Cry
[…] […...
From Breastfeeding Around the World
Although humanity is one Man (in a generic sense, including woman)has identified himself endless groups, religious, nationalistic, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, etc. Once you separate ME from YOU on...
From What’s an Asian? Race and Identity for a New Generation
[…] […...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
Some great tips here but not many working mothers could feed baby every hour especially if you work in a major multi-nationa...
From Why African Babies Don’t Cry
So true!!! Thanks for being so honest and self reflective. It's a proof of true characte...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
As a first-time mom I've spent the last two months of my four-month-old's life stressed out about her sleep and I recognize how crazy this is. It's clearly not working for me! I'm wondering how non-...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep

More from Our Bloggers