Parisian Parenting: The Basics

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.

  • BGT

12 thoughts on “Parisian Parenting: The Basics

  1. This was a refreshing post. My wife and I often get strange looks when we correct our children in public. Getting down on one knee and demanding my child “look at me” as they speak to their errors and explain why they were wrong is very powerful. It educates them, while reinforcing that everything they do matters above everything else that’s going on… because it does. We often get compliments on how well behaved our daughter is and that is because we educate her on how she should behave, not just demand that she behave.

  2. My greatest-generation parents raised us very much this way. An additional twist came when my dad was sent to be a Managing Director of his company’s UK subsidiary for several years when we were young. His job involved entertaining his many European counterparts, and, corporate America being what it was in the sixties, we kids were often “on display”. My parents were determined that we were not to be ugly American kids, as they’d gotten an earful about ‘les Americans’. So, many of these techniques were used with us, and very very consistently.

    1. yes, often children who are raised to be in the company of adults have a real advantage. They know how to greet strangers and introduce themselves. It seems like a small thing, but it is so nice when a young person acknowledges you with a smile and outstretched hand.

  3. Really enjoyed reading this post, and it echos what I noticed several years ago with a Parisian couple and their two sons, 7 and 10, the father of whom was a visiting professor for a year at our small liberal arts college.
    ‘Charming’ is the word that always comes to mind whenever I recall our evenings with those two boys, both of whom helped set and clear the dinner table, behaved and conducted themselves very well, could converse with adults without dominating the discussion (in good English mind you), and in general were a pleasure to be around and interact with.

    The two boys in question even said good night and excused themselves for the evening at around 9-10pm respectively without any hoopla, fanfare, or unpleasantness. And I heap all of this praise on them as someone who is not really a fan of children to begin with. To be fair though, I’ve seen the same kind of thing, when it comes to pleasant children and teenagers, among Mexican, Danish, and Norwegian families with whom I’ve interacted over the years.

    At the risk of drawing ire, we’re doing something very wrong with child-rearing in the U.S. ‘Charming’ is hardly apt for many (most?) children and teenagers here, who might cross your path in public or within more intimate settings. It is certainly unusual when you do meet a young person who fits that description. Perhaps the answer might be that we cease trying to be best friends and buddies with our children and revert to the role of being parents? It’s worth at least considering the possibility.

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

  4. One big difference that I’ve noticed between French and American parenting styles is that French parents encourage their children to talk about their food like adults. The parents will ask the children “What do you like or not like about it? What do you think of the preparation technique? Do you think it would be better with more of this or less of that? How does it compare to a similar dish we had last week?”
    This encourages the children to really think about their food; to savor and appreciate it. They probably develop more sophisticated palates because of this and they are able to discuss food like grown-ups. I don’t think I’ve ever heard American parents talking to their children this way.

    1. Oh, I really think you are onto something with this. In general, kids in the U.S. are often not given credit for having the ability to understand adult things. They absolutely DO, and are always listening. Involving kids in the experience is respectful of them as people.

  5. It is not just Parisian parents who ‘educate’ their children in this manner. Italians do the same. My grandparents, whos parents came over from Sicily, Italy, used the same techniques, then passed them down to my parents, and my parents passed them down to me. The policy was your parents would take you aside to a quiet place and tell you what behavior was wrong and why it was wrong, and then you immediately corrected it, and apologized to whomever was the recipient. You could question what made it wrong and give additional context, but the conversation was done respectfully and you still apologized.

    I think sometimes today’s parents (American) are either embarrassed or afraid of making a scene as much as trying to be ‘friends’ with their kids. My son threw a tantrum in a store when he was two. He was angry because we would not get him a toy and figured if he made a scene he would get what he wanted. When he would not listen, we did the time honored tradition. My husband carried him to the car and told him they would stay there until Mommy was done shopping, then we would go home. We did that one more time and he got the message. Never threw a tantrum again. I told my friends the ‘secret’ to his polite behavior in public and they were astonished that we were that ‘bold’, but we have received many compliments on his public behavior throughout the years.

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