Carrousel, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

Michelle Schwartzbauer

By Alyssa Glawe

Books, stories, and testimonials have been written over the years about French parenting. Are the French better than Americans/Anglophones at parenting? How do the French have such polite and courteous children without lifting a finger? After five months in a French home with three children, ages 16 months, 4- and 6-years-old, and yet I still feel I have only skimmed the basics of French parenting. Every day leads to new cultural shocks and humorous situations.

One intriguing contrast between French and American child-rearing is revealed in what my au pair kids eat. “Kid-friendly” food is not eaten in this house—no macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, fish sticks, spaghetti, etc. My kids eat pot au feu, fillet of fish with lemon butter sauce, roasted pork with carrots, camembert cheese, and for dessert, plain yogurt. If this isn’t shocking enough, the parents do not force the children to eat this food, but instead, the kids are asking for second or third portions.

Have you heard about France’s love affair with yogurt? Take a trip down a yogurt aisle in France and you will see what I mean. My French family eats yogurt for dessert for dinner every night and the children love their “yaourt nature.” They eat their yogurt as if it was chocolate birthday cake, wanting more and more. Per week, we buy in bulk over 60 individual containers. We have a joke in the family. After dinner, someone will go to the fridge and list all the different types of options for dessert. If someone wants a “yaourt nature,” everyone shouts “C’est la fête!” and the kids start waving their arms in the air. It’s the one yogurt everyone loves and no one can get enough of. The joys of working with kids!

This love and respect for food is found in the basics of French culture and life. The French people have an ingrained sense of necessity and pride in their food. Children learn from a young age how important a meal is and can name various regional products of France. An example of how well French children eat may be observed in a monthly calendar of lunch meals provided at a public school. On the menu, you will never see pizza or hot dogs, but rather what appears to be a fixed-price menu at a 4-star restaurant!

French children know how to behave at the table as well as in public and around adults. This is where French parenting can differ from American. French parents know how to be strict. There is no negotiation in the house. Dinner plates must be finished and dessert must be eaten (example of the importance of a complete meal). For my au pair parents, “no” is not a well-received response. Temper tantrums and crying are also discouraged and often ignored by the parents. Instead of attending to their child, they ignore their child until their behavior has subdued.

This same approach is seen in French elementary schools. The last school year, I worked with 6-11-year-olds (CP-CM2) and found the behavior of these students astonishing. A teacher is never called by her or his first name and daily greetings are required at the beginning and end of the school day. Watching my students reminded me of the well-loved children’s book “Madeline”. Before entering the classroom, my students would line up two by two, in silence before taking their seats. When a teacher loses control of the classroom and misbehavior gets out of hand, it’s the perfect opportunity to single out a student or make a point. Mockery of a student is common in the classroom.

Aside from the cultural shocks of living in a foreign country with a new family, a few humorous situations have arisen. Nudity is more widely accepted in Europe than it is in the States, but I never thought I would find myself involved in so many instances of nudity. My au pair children have seen me naked about a dozen times. Usually I’ve just stepped out of the shower and the little girl wants to watch me get ready for the day. Nudity is not a big deal in the eyes of my au pair children. Many children’s vocabulary books can be found with not only the basic human body parts, but also point out the names of your “zizi” or “zézette.” Furthermore, the presence of another person in their house does not stop my au pair parents from keeping their doors open while being naked. I’ve found myself facing a naked mother in a bathroom, as well as accidentally seeing the bum of my au pair father!

After my five months with the family, I’ve come to understand the personalities of my children and the method of parenting shown by my au pair parents. Not all French families are like mine. I have many more personal anecdotes of my life as a French au pair, and I’m sure that many more are yet to come.

A Woman’s Paris Recommended Links:

Elementary School Cantine Lunch Menu, 20th arrondissement, Paris

Zizi, Zézette, mode d’emploi par Séverine Duchesne

Alyssa Glawe is a jeune fille au pair in France and has been an English assistant teacher, working for the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF). Her teaching placement was in Grenoble, France where she worked at two primary schools, teaching French children from the ages of 6 to 11. She received her B.A. in Communications/Journalism and French Language, but it was when she interned at the Alliance Française de Minneapolis/St. Paul, where she fell in love with French culture and language.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Children fashionistas: Why French children dress better than you do. French au pair Alyssa Glawe tells that a child’s clothes in France are more than just something to cover the body. “It’s safe to say that, French parents would never put an item of clothing on their child that they would not wear themselves,” she writes. “Comfort is important, but in all truth, it’s really about the fashion.” Including a list of children’s labels and websites. 

The Child Madeline, by writer and educator Natalie Ehalt who shares her love of Madeline and brings a deserved respect for girls and children worldwide. Including excerpts from Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales, by Ludwig Bemelmans.

Haute-Couture Barbie (A French story), by French writer Laurence Haxiare who remembers the “Barbie train” that stopped in every big French city in the 1980s. She tells of the Barbie Train in France and the exhibition, “Le nouveau theater de la mode” (New Theater of Fashion), created by expert collector and multi-talented artist, BillyBoy. * Christophe de Menil, Emanuel Ungaro, and Yves Saint Laurent were the first to dress Barbie. Including book recommendations for Barbie in haute-couture clothing and the complete biography of BillyBoy* & Lala.

A French Girl in Greece: On Teenagers, the Sea, and Raisins, by French woman Flore Der Agopian. “In Greece, all foods are natural and we noticed it when we had one mouthful,” Flore comments about her adventures in Greece. “You feel the real taste of the dishes. In France we have some exceptional restaurants, but it can be really expensive when you want to have the same sensation of taste.”

Colette: Gigi meets Anne of Green Gables, by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who contemplates French novels and their heroines, and wonders if French fiction may well be the important key to the mystery of what makes Frenchwomen the way they are. Including a recommendation of books by Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, and Colette. 

A Fairy-tale Weekend in the French Countryside, by Parisian Abby Rodgers who writes: “Cars rolled in, guests suited up in white, delicious cuisine, divine choux pastry tower, sparklers, dancing till dawn…”

Text copyright ©2013 Alyssa Glawe. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.