Books have been written and a few clever ladies (e.g. Pamela Druckerman and Catherine Crawford) have made money on the premise that French kids are better behaved and better raised than their English counterparts. These books play right into parents’ insecurities that there might be a better way to react to fussy or badly behaved children. Indeed, that the better way may even be ‘The French Way’.
A recent article in The Times by Adam Sage (25th October 2012) disputes this view strongly, highlighting that France has more than its own share of unruly youths – who assault teachers and burn cars when the mood takes them. I guess here in our gorgeous little hamlet in the middle of Provence, we’re pretty shielded from the crass issues faced by teachers in inner-city schools (such as nearby Marseilles), so we can only report on what we see here in a rural setting.
The general gist of these “self-help” parenting books appears to be that French kids don’t talk back, know how to behave in public spaces and above all eat a wide variety of foods that would turn any English school-child into a quivering wreck.
After three years of living in France, it would appear that some of these assertions are really true and I’ve experienced them with my own children. The school menu at the local school is amazing in terms of variety, all for 2.80 € per day. For this they conjure up 3-course meals usually containing a salad of some sort, soups, steak haché, moules, veal escalopes and a healthy desert with fruit. In our village (Cotignac), all of it is freshly cooked, but I know this is not the case in all schools. Kids really do eat a much bigger variety of food from an early age (they are nearly all at school at 2 years old) and my very fussy son has started eating some things I wouldn’t have dreamt of before. It’s also true that the concept of kids’ food here doesn’t really exist, the closest you get is a steak and chips or some chicken nuggets but kids generally eat with their parents – and eat grown-up food.
In terms of manners it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I would say that kids are treated in a stricter manner by both school and parents. French people have the view that the Brits treat their kids as “enfants roi”, i.e. “royal children” who are allowed to interrupt conversations and generally run riot around peoples’ houses and public spaces.
I would agree that French kids have a very different attitude to adults compared to English children. When I go to school every child I meet comes and says hello with a mwa-mwa on both cheeks and they have no fear of making eye-contact or even of holding a conversation with an adult. I am very used to seeing English and German kids looking at the floor when you talk to them and mouth an overly shy greeting, or none at all. I have forced my kids from an early age to greet adults properly (not always with great success either) and luckily they’ve taken well to the way things are done here.
French teachers are more of an authority figure to the kids than I remember from the UK and even though French law states that teachers can’t smack the children, it doesn’t seem to be enforced with the same vigour here. In fact one big difference is that parents seem to be fairly and squarely on the teacher’s side if their kid gets told off and that must help the overall discipline. I had my son treated quite roughly, both physically and mentally, by one of his teachers and not a single other parent would have backed me up had I gone to war over it. In fact everything turned out fine in the end, but we had a worrisome few weeks.
The Teen Years
When we get to teenager-hood and general yobbsim I think the French kids seem in there with the best of them. It appears to be generally accepted here that during college (middle school) most kids lose their ways, become academically un-ambitious and discipline is much harder to keep.
The tales from our local public college are pretty hair-raising with plenty of smoking, drinking, very early sexual activities and teachers voting with their feet through “absenteeism”. Some kids don’t seem to have certain subject classes for months on end. We have opted for a Catholic private school for our daughter and matters there are better, but kids are kids. We’ve had a kid with a knife at school, a 14 year-old rumoured pregnant and other assorted incidents, which don’t seem to mark us out as very different from the UK.
I guess it’s often the same story, there are some parents who care and some who don’t, or worse. Some kids buck the trend, but most will follow their parent’s lead, be it good or bad and that will determine childrens’ outcome more than a national stereotype.
It’s probably true that very young children from difficult backgrounds benefit from the French nanny state, which basically takes them away from their parents and puts them in a more ordered environment at the école maternelle, though a lot of this investment appears to be lost by the time those kids turn 11 and go to secondary school.