My teenager is a junior in an international high school in Paris. Which means she has lots of exams for programs in the US, UK, Canada and France. Letters fly through the air in our home these days; SAT, DELE, BAC, and IGCSE all mean something in some country. Sound overwhelming?
It kind of is… But this is the official stuff, with rules and deadlines and plenty of assistance from guidance counselors. Unlike the challenges of raising a teen in a foreign country, for which there is no guidebook or standard testing procedure.
Some of the differences I’ve experienced raising a teen in a foreign country can be wonderful, like all the international travel these kids get to do. Recently my teen announced that she’d be in three countries in less than a week. On Monday her class was taking the train for a day trip to the EU headquarters in Brussels, and on Friday she was Madrid bound for another class trip. She was shocked when she learned that French soccer player Nicolas Anelka had been refused entry in to the UK because of an anti-Semitic gesture he had made on the playing field. “A European country can refuse to let a Frenchman in?” she asked, in total bewilderment, revealing just how mundane international travel is for kids on the continent.
All this easy travel, and France’s colonial history, make for another wonderful part of raising teens in a cosmopolitan city like Paris where multi-cultural households are as common as our corner bakeries. My daughter’s friend Clara, for example, has a Moroccan Mom and an English Dad raising their daughter in Paris. Even in my daughters’ public school, which is located in a very traditional, French-Catholic part of the city, about half the teens in her school were at least bilingual. C’est normal! As the French would say.
And then there are the not-so-wonderful aspects. The worst is tabagism, which sounds like Catholicism or Judaism, but it’s not a religion, it’s a habit, and a bad one: smoking. 26% of French teens smoke, the majority of them before they’re 15, although it is illegal to sell cigarettes to anyone under 18. Tragically, 40% of the smokers in France are under 25. The good news is that 74% of teens don’t smoke, but if you have a teen who is at all tempted, it is nearly impossible to keep them from lighting up.
Growing up in Paris, teens can start going to bars with friends when they are 18, but are rarely carded after 16. Chances are, they have already had their first drinks at home, over dinner with their parents. It is rare for French teens to go out and get wildly drunk. In the US, statistics are measured by whether a teen has ever had a drink, if they have ever been drunk, and if they are binge drinkers. Comparable French reports only take into account first drinks and being drunk, because binge drinking is not (yet) a problem in France. My older teen is currently in the US for university and this relationship with alcohol is one of the biggest cultural differences she has from her peers. “Mom,” she declared while savoring a glass of Bordeaux over dinner, “you don’t understand, if I want to get embarrassingly drunk, it’s not a problem, but enjoying a nice glass of wine with a meal is almost impossible until I’m 21!”
Of course, driving is one of the reasons teens have such limited access to alcohol in the US. Raising teens in Paris, I have never once had to worry about my child getting behind the wheel after a drink, or getting in a car with a drunk friend. While 16-year-olds can drive alone in California, you can’t drive without your parent in the car until you are 18 in France. Public transportation is so easy and parking so difficult, that even after reaching official adulthood, most young people find getting their license is too much of a hassle. Besides, it is much cooler to dial up Maman’s VIP taxi service if they really want to impress the girls (or boys).
What I do have to worry about is if she is being responsible while on holiday with her 6 best girlfriends in a foreign country — without parental supervision. I don’t know why, but French parents are very OK with letting a group of 16-year-olds go off alone on holiday. When my daughter first asked me if she could go on an unsupervised trip at such a young age, I thought the other parents were crazy for saying yes. Then I got an email from her school. A French news station was doing a story on French teens and how they planned their first independent trips and would any families be interested in being filmed as their teens planned their first summer holidays on their own. The news station and the school had just assumed that as high school juniors these kids would all be planning solo trips over the holidays. I was flabbergasted. She was thrilled, and got her holiday. I can identify the six grey hairs that grew on my head over the six days the girls were in London savoring their first sip of independence.
In my daughter’s pediatrician’s office there is a cartoon posted just above the exam table. It is the illustration of a very grumpy teenager, replicated 8 times and under each illustration is a brief text… a grumpy teen, a sleepy teen, a hungry teen, a happy teen. The moods change, but the teen’s face remains the same. For me, this cartoon perfectly illustrates just how similar teens are to each other across globe. While there are cultural differences, ultimately, the challenges of being the Mom are pretty much the same. We love them madly, but we’d sometimes love to ring their necks.
Written by Sylvia Sabes for the HiP Paris Blog. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, London, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven in Paris.