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Cultural differences in parenting

Boy Blue

My son has started speaking French! 

He has said lait (milk), oh la la (very important), and oui (yes).  He hasn’t started to say no in English or French like the girls did.  No was pretty much one of the very first words that the girls said.  It is still one of their favorite words unfortunately. 

That brings me to rest of my post…

Parenting in France is not the same as in America.  In France, the children almost never act up in public and are mature.  I hate it when we are in public and our children are more active than the other children.  It is embarrassing to go to the grocery with them.  Everyone stares because they are running and playing.  The kids are having fun.  They aren’t really out of control but they aren’t exactly walking next to us in silence either. 

When we first went to the grocery in America after moving back I felt calm at the grocery.  I didn’t feel like I needed to yell at them every two minutes to settle them down because someone was giving us that look.  If you are a parent of rambunctious children you know the look I am talking about. 

Replaced by that look was men smiling big happy smiles rubbing my kids heads.  Older women would stop and tell them they were cute and full of energy (like it was a good thing).  People in America seem to enjoy that kids are kids.  It is accepted that kids will be kids.  Kids are not little adults.

Having said that I don’t want it to be said that I think French kids should be treated like American kids.  Not at all.  I think each culture is different and that is ok.  I am sure French kids are as happy as American kids.  

My point is that I am lost as to how to parent as a French mother.  I am not a French mother.  I was raised by an American mother and father.  I only know how to parent the American way.

Are my kids going to come out o.k.?  Will the French school system work out this glitch for me?  

I try not to worry about it too much.  However, it is hard not to at times like in the grocery store.  During these times, I hate myself for not being able to get my kids to walk quietly next to me.  I worry that I am letting them down as a mother because I am American.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • MEA February 20, 2007, 1:58 pm

    Hi Pumpkin,
    Don’t be so hard on yourself. Your children are getting the best of both worlds (in parenting styles), that’s how you have to think of it. It’s true I’ve also noticed a difference in parenting styles. They seem stricter here or harsher somehow. But I’ve also often seen at our local LeClerc, kids out of control, little ones having meltdowns, parents yelling at them etc. Typical scenes. I wonder when you see these kids who are behaving so well, are they with several siblings or by themselves with a parent? The reason I ask is when I’ve got my 3 together at the grocery store, it’s certainly more of a challenge to keep them from acting up. When I’ve got one by themselves, it’s a whole different child, an angel! Also, how old are they? A two yr old(in my humble opinion) no matter from what country, will act up, be silly have a meltdown…As they get a little older it’s gets better. A strategy I use (sometimes) when they are all together and I’ve got to do the big grocery shopping, I’ll tell them if they behave well in the store, they get something at the end, a coloring book or something similar. A little “carrot” to encourage good behavior doesn’t hurt either. Of course you can’t always be buying them something either. Sometimes their “reward” is something I was planning on getting anyway for their gouter.
    As for school, there are differences as well. This year for my son’s first report card (he’s in 1st gr)
    they handed them out in order of performance. The one with the best grades got his 1st and so on. The teacher also noted to the class that the 1st kid who got his grades was the best. I don’t remember that in my grade school!

    What I have a hard time with here is when my kids greet someone who they don’t know very well and they’re expected to “faire la bise”. I see the french kids going up to all the adults like robots giving kisses to everyone, and mine won’t do it. I’ll tell them before we arrive, you need to say hello, give kisses, but it doesn’t help, they won’t and I know the frenchies are thinking “wow, not very well mannered children”
    “Tant pis” as they say here. I just had it happen the other day and someone said, maybe they don’t because that’s not a custom in the US.
    I don’t really think that’s it, I’m guessing it’s more stubborness, but who knows?
    I’ve had the same doubts as you about being the “american” mother in France but in the end I’m sure they’ll be just fine.
    Bon courage! :)

  • Pumpkin February 20, 2007, 2:27 pm

    MEA, Thank you for your comment. It is when they are all three together and they are all very young. My children don’t faire la bise either. Even with family. I still am trying to get comfortable with it after over two years.

    I know the kids will be fine. It is just sometimes that I worry a little. I was writting about these times because I had a feeling that others felt the same way.

    In the end our kids will be better for having two cultures. I envy how easy it was for them to switch between each country and language.

  • Cheryl Antier February 20, 2007, 4:19 pm

    Just wanted to add my deux centimes! As an American mom with two American kids and one French stepdaughter, I can heartily agree with what both of you said!

    Parenting, kids and social life in general is very different here. For example, in the states, I was used to having kids running all over – our house was kind of kid central – I had kids over after school, on weekends, spending the night, showing up or staying unexpectedly for dinner – and definitely much rowdier.

    Here, especially for older kids, social life (when it happens) seems to happen only on weekends (and definitely not as often because of studies).

    But, my kids are getting used to the kissing, although my younger one still prefers to shake hands.

    So glad I found your Blog! Some days I feel like the only American mom in France – and I’m not complaining about life, because I love it here. But still, it’s nice to “dish” and know that I’m not alone with trying to fit in! I’m going to bookmark your site, and then sit back and read all your posts!

  • Margie February 20, 2007, 9:46 pm

    I’m sure at one time or another, all expat mothers must have moments like you’re describing, me included. It’s normal to worry, we want so much to do what’s best for our children. Like you said it is so easy for them to switch back and forth. That’s the beauty of it.
    Btw, congrats on getting through the visite médicale for your daughter. I’m sure you wanted your husband there, but maybe that was good to do it on your own, gives you confidence. Even if you didn’t say everything perfectly, that’s alright. You got through it and next time you can say, “hey I did it once already, I can do that again”. It takes a long time to get up to speed. You’ll get there, I’m sure of it!

  • Cathy Y. February 21, 2007, 3:49 am

    I’m curious, Pumpkin…what do French parents do that is different, to make their children so well behaved? I was raised in the 60s and 70s and we were more “well behaved” back then, but then again, parents could punish more harshly then they can now. What was done back then could sometimes constitute “child abuse” in the U.S. today. Is that also the case in France — or not? Is the difference in the type and level of punishment, in consistency, in the concept of authority (which is very low in the U.S. now, I think), or what? I’m not saying one way is right or wrong or better or worse than the other — I’m just wondering what it is that makes the difference between the two places.

  • Pumpkin February 21, 2007, 9:01 am

    Cathy Y., I don’t know what they do that is different. I think that it is authority and respect. I overheard someone tell a child that they must obey their mother. It was not an option. I have seen parents sit their children down on the ground and scream at them in public more than in America.

    I wish I knew how the French got their kids to behave so well. I would love my kids to do the same.

  • Loin du PDD February 21, 2007, 4:16 pm

    I do not believe that French kids behave better than American Kids. And please do not believe that. But I know as a French Women raising two kids in New York that when my kids misbehave the people around me think this is beacause I am French and I am raising them the French way. There is no French way. Kids are not misbehaving in the store because the terrible one stayed with their grand mother or their dad at home while the mother is doing the shopping.
    I am not the mother of the year. I got so many advices from perfect stranger about how my kids should behave that I can write a book and of course when you are a foreigner you are clueless about raising children.
    Give yourself a break. You have 3 children (under the age of 5 I presumed). Good luck in France .

  • L'Amerloque February 21, 2007, 6:46 pm

    Hi Pumpkin Pie !


    /*/ … I don’t know what they do that is different. I think that it is authority and respect. I overheard someone tell a child that they must obey their mother. It was not an option. I have seen parents sit their children down on the ground and scream at them in public more than in America.

    I wish I knew how the French got their kids to behave so well. I would love my kids to do the same./*/

    Amerloque is reading this thread with a great, great deal of fascination indeed (smile). As an American father who has raised Franco-American kids in France (they’re young adults now) with his French spouse, Amerloque can contribute several observations.

    How useful they’ll be in the current circumstances are another question, of course. (smile)

    1) Kathy Y. has put her finger on the generational question, and that is part of a possible “answer” to the “I wish …” statement. Amerloque was raised in the 1950s in the US, when parents had far more authority than today and when punishment was meted out much more frequently and severely for even slight infractions. (Amerloque sometimes rubs his eyes in disbelief when he sees some punishments in the USA being called “child abuse”, for example.) Children here in France are generally raised much more in line with procedures in 1950s America than with those of 1990s or 2000s America. Things change far more slowly here in France. Of course, some of the parenting views of, say, Doctors Francoise Dolto and Julien Cohen-Solal have become part and parcel of what French parents are supposed to “learn” and are part of the “accepted wisdom”, but the tried-and-true methods of the past still hold sway,

    2) Another part of the possible “answer” is what Pumpkin has stated in (6). It’s the big D: Discipline. Children are expected to obey. They are neither expected nor encouraged to question or to discuss or to negotiate with their parents. French children just don’t, generally; they are not trained for it. Amerloque will never forget the look on Mrs. A’s face when, one summer day when American friends with children were visiting, the wife asked Amerloque’s kids “So, what you want for dinner ?” This question was never asked of the children in Amerloque’s household except for special days like birthdays or holidays. Ever. The very idea that a parent would ask this type of question of a child is not in the French universe – at least it wasn’t in the 80s and 90s (but with globalization things are probably changing a bit). (Mrs. A’s comment by the way at the lady’s question was the very French “Et puis quoi, encore !” (smile))

    3) Cheryl in (3) pointed out still another possible part of the “answer”: the differences between how children act in America and how they act here. Kids here just don’t show up in other people’s houses unannounced, for example, nor do they stay for dinner or sleep over in some kind of unplanned or impromptu pajama or barbecue party. Children hear have defined roles – and major part of the role is to go to school and do well, which means that their free time is somewhat limited. None of this parking the kids in front of the TV for two or three hours per day, either. (Amerloque allowed his children one hour of television … per week … and … was considered a bit too liberal by some parents at the school, who didn’t allow any television whatsoever for their children).

    4) Another part of the “answer” is “school”. To be “successful in school”, children must work hard: Amerloque’s kids, for example, did at least two hours of homework every day, rain or shine – and that was simply the assigned classwork, which, by the way, was reviewed by Maman and Papa religiously, every day. There is/was none of the “fulfillment” or “self-esteem” nonsense as there is in America, either: students are/were graded on what they do/did in class and what they turn in/turned in. Of course the best student receives/ received her/his report card first, in front of the other students (as Mea pointed out in (1)): why would it be otherwise ? Class is a competition, after all, designed to “former l’esprit”. Teachers grade on a curve here, the average is 10/20, and most students are at that average. A good grade in a class in a decent school is, say 14 or 15 out of 20. It’s as simple as that: none of this business about handing out 27 As in a class of 30 kids for example, so that some kids won’t “feel bad”.

    5) Finally, the last part of the “answer”, at least in Amerloque’s view, is … the whole relationship of children to society – heck, of people to society – is somewhat different in France than in the United States. Parents don’t necessarily see a trip to the shopping center as a social event to which the children should be taken en famille, for example (Amerloque can’t remember one time in his life when he went shopping in France with his wife and children, for example). Shopping is shopping, and raising children is raising children.

    Obviously Amerloque’s experiences are only Amerloque’s and other parents undoubtedly have other experiences. Too, he is looking at things from a father’s viewpoint and not a mother’s. Finally, the world has undergone quite a few changes since Amerloque raised kids twenty or so years ago (smile), so when he says might be considered simply as a blast from the past rather than a hard and fast guideline for the future.

    It can be very frustrating for Americans to raise their children in France, especially within the French school system. Certainly if he were a young American mother raising young children nowadays – a young American mother born in the 1970s or afterwards, for example – he would contact something like the AAWE or the Bloom Where You’re Planted people at the American Church in Paris, ho can be very, very helpful in concrete, day to day issues.

    The old saying “It ain’t better or worse, but it sure is different !” holds true here. (wide smile)


  • Cathy Y. February 22, 2007, 12:52 am

    To Amerloque — Enjoyed your post.

    I have read on another web site that France is a more hierarchial society, where the concept of “authority” actually means something. It used to be that way in the U.S., but things certainly have changed. I am 42-1/2, born in the 60s. My two oldest daughters who are from my first marriage (age 21 and 14) have always argued with me, pointed out my faults, etc. I can’t seem to get anything across with them a lot of times (thankfully the oldest one no longer lives with me, what a relief!). I would have never gotten away with treating my mother that way, no way! Unfortunately, when I tried to discipline them the same way my mother had with me, it didn’t work. Afterwards they would go to school or other social situations (or see things on TV) that made them see me as some kind of caretaker/babysitter/money-giver and not as their parent. Philippe and I have another chance with our own daughter, who just turned 2, but we fear that she will still be affected by the same influences if we stay here in the States. I’m not sure when or even if we will ever be able to move to Europe, but it’s something we’ve been considering.

  • Cathy Y. February 22, 2007, 4:57 am

    Pumpkin, I also meant to say this is an absolutely adorable pic of Boy Blue. What a cutie! Makes you just want to scoop him up and cuddle him! :-)

  • Pumpkin February 22, 2007, 10:48 am

    Thank you, l’Amerloque. Your explanation helped me to understand better. Vilay has often said that in America children are the little kings and queens of their parents…that in fact the children are the bosses and everything is done for them.

    I can remember the first time Vilay heard me ask Angel what she wanted to eat. I thought he was going to lose it! He was so angry. It was not long after we were first married. I don’t do that anymore.

    I am going to search out good French parenting books. Not only will it help me better understand the French culture in regard to parenting and more I suspect but it will help my French. :)

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