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.
The impact of these family benefits cannot be overstated. And yet, I was still surprised to discover just how different parenting is here on issues big and small.
Some of the differences shocked me (and not in a good way). There is sometimes an iron-fist disciplinary style that can make 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.
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 four lessons I’ve learned thanks to my exposure to parenting à la française.
1. 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 quality time. 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.)
2. Mothers matter, 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.
3. 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 français are savoring puréed 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.
4. 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 (Internet? 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. Mothers (and a smattering of nannies) sat on benches absorbed in conversation, 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 family but still making room for adult life. Finding, perhaps, that most elusive of parenting qualities: balance.
French Parenting vs American Parenting – What to Know
In France children are punished for misbehaving and teachers may be quite critical of their work. In America children are encouraged to be creative. French parenting is centered more on discipline while in America they focus on patience.
Clear expectations are set from an early age as to what is acceptable behavior. The parenting style makes clear who the authority is.
French parents educate their children in a loving but firm way, making it clear that no means no. French children understand from a young age that they are not the centre of their parents’ world.
- If you’re visiting Paris with family, staying in an apartment is more kid-friendly – a washing machine to clean clothes after accidents, room to roam and a kitchen to cater to for your most finnicky eaters. Here are 12 vacation apartments to consider on your next Paris trip!
- Check out one expat mother’s experience in Paris after having kids.
- Need to connect and make friends? Here’s how to meet like-minded parents in Paris.
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