After 3 years of living here in Paris, I’ve begun to pick up on some of the more obscure but fascinating details of this unique culture.
Parenting is a prime example, and I may have discussed it here before. I know I’ve discussed it with French and American friends at length.
The overall behavior and manners of Parisian children and adolescents here are much better than those of American young people. That’s just a given.
(And note I say ‘Parisian’ and not ‘French’ because all Parisians are French, but not all French are Parisians. And Parisians, it should be noted, have their own cultural idiosyncrasies that many French people from other cities and regions are quick to distance themselves from. Think of the relationship the same way you would with regards to New Yorkers and Americans: a very distinctive subset with a few common attributes. Also, I interact daily with Parisians and only occasionally with other non-Parisian French.)
Factors that contribute to better-behaved young people, in my opinion, include: not being bombarded with as much television (average television times from 2015 to 2018 are decreasing, in fact, in France, and hover around 3 hours per day, as opposed to the 4 hours per day for American children); French children from kindergarten to 9th grade are not allowed to have cell phones in the classroom, limiting the early influence of social media; and, most of all, in Paris there is a particular, lovely tradition referred to as ‘bien eleve’, meaning to be ‘well-raised’.
This term not only includes manners, but also education and a certain amount of culture. For Parisian parents, it is a serious issue, if not the most critical: if you are given a good education, your parents have done their job. If, as a parent, you fail at this, you have failed, regardless of your other accomplishments.
The sharp edge is also there for children. Do not complain about the lack of communication between you and your mother, whine about an emotionally distant father, or feel disadvantaged because you didn’t get a pony for your 16th birthday. ‘You got a good education,’ so shut up and live your life.’ This is the Parisian attitude I’ve heard expressed on several occasions by the working class and elite alike.
This concept of ‘education’, however, begins before formal schooling and extends beyond classroom walls. It is a daily exercise that involves the parents, and it is something my wife and I see frequently in Paris. The scenario usually involves a (4, 5, or 6 year old) child who has, intentionally or accidentally, done something that is inconsiderate, disruptive, or rude in public.
The Parisian Parent Strategy for handling this ‘learning opportunity’ has, I’ve come to notice, several key components that are worthy of note. They are as follows:
First, the issue is addressed immediately. There’s no, “When we get home, we’re going to have a serious conversation about this, Jimmy.” Oh no. It’s right then, and it’s right there. Changing behavior happens in real time, while the issue is fresh. A Parisian parent will put everything but life-saving heart surgery on hold to address a problem with their child’s behavior. And you know what? The rest of Paris is happy to wait patiently while they do it, silently supporting and appreciating a parent who is doing their duty, regardless of any minor delays it might cause.
Second, the parent gets down on the child’s level. The parent will not speak down to the child, literally or figuratively. They will kneel down, get within inches of the child’s face, and very quietly and calmly explain the issue with the child’s behavior. There’s no yelling or screaming involved, but trust me, that child is getting an earful.
Logic and reason are applied relentlessly until the child understands what they’ve done wrong and why they can’t do it in the future. I’ve heard more than one Parisian say that it’s their job to ‘educate’ their children, not ‘discipline’ their children, and this approach confirms that philosophy. Le petit Jacques gets his etiquette lesson, firmly but politely, up close and personal, and in public.
Finally, the child must acknowledge that they understand and accept the correct way to behave before the issue is put to bed. And this can be an extended period of time for a stubborn child, but, in the end, the parent wins out. They simply won’t go on with their shopping, walking, or dining until the matter has its d’accord. I would imagine that, after a few encounters with the iron will of a Parisian mother, that a child would soon learn that prompt surrender would be the best strategy. To resist is futile, as they say in the best science fiction movies.
This constant intervention and grooming during childhood results in a society of young people who are polite and considerate at an older age. Here, social status is a multifaceted concept. Wealth and privilege play but a part, and those advantages can be compromised severely–or completely–if you’re not well-mannered.
I think it was a Frenchman who once remarked that it’s not the hand of cards we’re dealt, but how we play it. Teach your children well, early and often, so they have their best chance in the game.