When we decided to move to Paris, I knew parenting here would be different. Not only would the moms (and les petits enfants) be better dressed, they’d enjoy luxuries not known to their American counterparts like guaranteed, paid maternity leave and high quality, state-subsidized childcare.
Some of the differences shocked me (and not in a good way). There’s an iron-fist disciplinary style that makes little ones quake in their parents’ presence and a culture of yelling that left me drop-jawed. The word “non” (shunned, albeit somewhat absurdly, by some American friends) is central to French parenting. Many smoke openly in front of kids and don’t shy away from spanking to discourage unwanted behavior.
Still, other aspects of French parenting inspired me to seek out a new mothering style of my own; one that’s more relaxed (on myself) and family-focused as opposed to manically kid-centric. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned thanks to my exposure to parenting a la francaise.
Weekends are for family. One of the things I’d begun to dread before we left the U.S. was the approach of the hyper-scheduled weekend, chock-a-block with kids’ activities. I wasn’t opposed to a Saturday soccer game but it started to feel like every minute would be devoted to a militaristic stream of classes, parties, tutors and events with very little time left to just be together. In France, weekends are still considered sacred for family QT. They sit down together to eat their meals, take cultural outings to museums and concerts, or venture to the country to visit les grands-parents. We now make these things a priority, too. (It’s a whole lot easier when those around you are doing the same.)
Mom matters, too. I’m not sure when it happened but sometime in the last decade, being a “good mom” became synonymous with self-sacrifice. At home, taking time out just for you had started feel distinctly selfish. Here in France? Pas du tout! French moms I know routinely prioritize on self-care (think midday naps, visits to the spa and evenings a deux) and do so without a flicker of guilt. Moms here are not expected to abdicate their adult interests and pursuits (let alone their careers) in order to have thriving families. And of course they’ve got those social benefits that make it all possible.
Mealtime is sacred. Everyone knows the French adore their meals. Enjoying food together is also a cornerstone of French family life, especially on weekends when days are structured around carefully prepared and ruthlessly scheduled meals. Kids’ food, per se, doesn’t really exist here as little ones are expected to eat just like maman and papa.
While American babies are cutting their teeth on rice cereal and cheerios, les petits francais are savoring pureed leeks and vegetable soup. When we first arrived in Paris, I was amazed how quickly my little ones abandoned hot dogs (albeit organic) and pizza in favor of camembert, duck confit and even escargots.
Kids must learn independence. In my neighborhood, I’m often surprised by the number of kids I see out on their own: buying baguettes at the boulangerie, walking to and from school and zooming around the streets on their trotinettes. As of age eight or nine, French youngsters are afforded greater opportunities to develop independence than many of their American peers. Blame what you will (Cable TV? Gun violence? Fear of the unknown?) but French parents foster independence like we encourage achievement. A bit more independence could do both kids and their parents some good.
I considered much of this during a recent outing to our neighborhood park. Moms (and a smattering of nannies) sat on benches absorbed in conversation or books or iPhones, not hovering under climbing structures or careening down slides. Kids dug in the sandbox, kicked soccer balls and chased one another amid screeches of joy and bouts of tears.
Parents sat on the sidelines, present if needed but not meddling. It struck me that this was the beauty of French parenting: being there without overdoing it, prioritizing on family but still making room for adult life and finding, perhaps, that most elusive of parenting qualities: balance.