Parisian parenting

By Juli Min Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/9 18:08:39

French families in Shanghai stay firm in a society of little emperors

"The idea of a baby king is a nightmare," Emma de Guitaut says to me over tea. The svelte Parisian mother of four and Shanghai transplant of one and a half years is referring to China's "little emperor syndrome," whereby pampered only-children come to rule over an extended household of parents and grandparents. In France, she says, you would never see an unruly toddler being spoon-fed and coddled. French children are, by and large, independent, polite and most of all, obedient. For Chinese parents living under the iron fist of their little emperors, the practices of Parisian parents and their poised progeny may feel a world away. But for many French expatriates living and parenting here in Shanghai, Chinese parenting customs can feel just as foreign.

Photo: CFP

When it comes to misbehavior, French parents are infamous for their intolerance. Catherine Chauvinc, a French mother of two who has spent the last 20 years living in China and Japan, has taught her children to be polite, to behave properly while eating and to speak respectfully to others.

There are rules of behavior acceptable in society and inside her household, and if her children act out, they can expect to receive no leeway and no tolerance from her. "They know they won't get anything from me. They can't ask me for anything after that."

Marguerite Deperrois, a mother of three who has lived in Shanghai for four years, shares the same views on discipline. "We never bargain with our kids," she says. "You have to say no or else they try something else. By 3- to 5-years-old they know."

"If we misbehaved, there was a range of options: a slap, sent to our room, the naughty corner, no sweets or TV ...," recalls Justine Bottos, a 27-year-old recent transplant to Shanghai. "When we grew up we wouldn't be allowed to see our friends. The tough part was that they would stick to the punishment."

When Bottos compares her strict childhood to that of the Chinese children she sees in Shanghai, she notes: "I feel there is more room for the child (here) to negotiate his way out, and there's also a big difference in the misbehaving threshold. It would take a lot more for a (Chinese) kid to be reprimanded."

Just as parents set strict rules of engagement in their households, the menu at the dining table is likewise not up for discussion. There is no such thing as a picky child in France, according to Bottos. "As a child there was no option in what we ate, and treats were only for very special occasions. In France, generally, if a child is picky with food they can leave the table without eating."

(From left) French mothers Anne-Sophie Brabant, Marguerite Deperrois and Emma de Guitaut pose in Deperrois' house in Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy of Juli Min

Freedom of choice

Though most French children are raised with firm limitations on their behavior (e.g., elbows off the table, properly greet guests), they are given a relatively large amount of freedom and decision-making power when it comes to what they like to do for fun and how they manage their time.

This is in stark contrast to the restrictions of their Chinese peers, whose schedules are often managed closely by their parents, weekends spent shuttled from mandatory activity to activity, tutor to tutor.

French children may not have much flexibility with regards to behavior and manners, but they have much more freedom of choice in who they want to be.

Chauvinc, co-founder of The Little Blue Lotus, the first Chinese-French bilingual kindergarten program in Shanghai (in 2005), sees the lack of freedom for Chinese children as a result of the extreme competition to succeed.

"Parents take kids to extra classes to advance: more math, more music, etc. On the weekends, they have so much to do. There is no time to relax, no time for creation, free time or just doing nothing."

Her son, on the other hand, chose his own extracurricular activities. "We don't force (our kids). My son is playing chess because he likes it; he does judo as well; he wanted to."

Deperrois makes sure to spend quality time with her family on days off, but she doesn't let her children's extracurricular schedule consume their lives. "I don't spend my weekends organizing activities for the kids."

French children also have more freedom to socialize on their own terms. De Guitaut notes that her Chinese friends are shocked that her teenage daughter is free to go to parties at night or meet friends.

"But my daughter's actually been going out for the past two years!" de Guitaut laughs, adding that she views her children's freedom as a positive; a sign of their independence and confidence. "I show them that I trust them. My kids are out and about. They are not dependent on me."

Laissez-faire approach

The French use this same "laissez-faire parenting" approach to education, a far cry from the tiger parenting methods native to China.

French parents often expect their children to self-manage time and schoolwork, even as public schools are known to load homework onto its students and the days stretch from 8 am to 4:30 pm (or 6 pm for older students).

Deperrois, whose three children have all attended the Lycée Français de Shanghai, cannot remember once checking her children's homework.

Anne-Sophie Brabant, a mother of three who has lived in Shanghai for the past four years, likewise believes that her children must take responsibility for their own success in school.

"I am not behind them. They are autonomous. If they need help, I'm here. I will provide tutors but not too many. Even if they have bad grades, they have to learn to work. It's their life, their problem. They learn by themselves if they are left by themselves."

Growing up, Bottos' parents had a similarly light-touch approach to her education. "I was very independent. I never asked for help, even when we were home-schooled when I was 10. (Our parents) would only take an interest if we were getting bad grades. It was a great motivation to work hard, as you wouldn't want to have your parents on your back or stop you from going out and seeing your friends."

For Bottos, the combination of minimal management and the threat of guaranteed punishment effectively helped her learn, on her own, the lessons of discipline and focus.

If one were to think of French parents as bosses and their children as direct reports, one could describe the managing style as results-driven, firm, with an abhorrence for micro-management.

Florence Faucheur, who now lives in Shanghai with her husband but raised her three children in Paris, believes China's former one-child policy is to blame for creating an atmosphere of extreme academic pressure. "There is so much attention, weight, projection and fear placed on one child."

The one-child policy also creates an imbalance in the family structure, creating a co-dependent network between parents, grandparents and child that most French would heartily reject. Indeed, French children are raised to be independent; but adults are equally expected to enjoy their lives and preserve their identities outside of parenting.

Deperrois remembers her own parents as affectionate and loving with one another. "I felt the love between my mother and father. That created a real sense of security at home." Taking a page from their book, Deperrois, a busy mother of three, commits to waking up early in the mornings to spend quality alone-time with her husband.

De Guitaut and her husband make sure to maintain their independence as a couple, separate from their role as parents. Recently, the two of them took a one-night impromptu staycation for themselves in a Lujiazui hotel while their teenage children stayed at home alone.

Chauvinc, who handles a full-time job and is a wife and mother of two, says: "Balance is something important whatever you do. If you spend too much time parenting, the kid won't be self-confident and will become very dependent on you."

Silent education

In China, grandparents are often saddled with a laundry list of expectations and responsibilities to tend to their children and grandchildren. On the topic of grandparents in France, however, there seems to be little to say. Their role is simple: to love and enjoy the children.

Furthermore, the idea that grandparents would live with their children and grandchildren is virtually unheard of in France, unless an extenuating situation or illness makes it necessary.

Faucheur's own mother-in-law came for the birth of her grandchildren just for a few days before leaving. "In France," she says, "grandparents just enjoy life."

But parenting for the French is not all fun and "joie de vivre." For every French parent I spoke with, it was of utmost importance to set an example for their children through their own actions and to avoid hypocrisy in their demands.

The French have an idea called "education silencieuse" (silent education). "Just by watching and reacting, children learn. At home, they see what you do and how you talk to your neighbors, how you talk to each other, etc. The way you behave as a parent. The kids are constantly observing you," Chauvinc said.

Because de Guitaut wants her children to be generous, open-hearted and caring toward others who are less fortunate, she herself has found work with an NGO in Shanghai. "You can't tell the kids to be a certain way without being it yourself."

Options and opportunities

Fifty years ago, it would have been easier to define the rules and standards of French parenting, just as it would have been easier to define a parent's role in China or the US in the 1950s.

But after the cultural liberalization of the 1970s in France, the traditional model of parenting has slowly broken down and changed over the decades.

Today, as the world globalizes and as exposure to different cultures and parenting styles become the norm, there is no more black and white to parenting.

Children also grow up with more options and opportunities to live and work abroad. Parenting has become more fluid and varied than ever. To some extent, as a result of this, parenting has become more difficult.

"We need to create our own ways now," Faucheur says. "Every time one of my children comes to me and asks a question, I have to think of what is right for the situation at hand. I can never be sure of what is the right thing. You try to do your best but you're never sure."

Though many French parents living in Shanghai may be raising their children with a style based on French tradition, their children will grow up more aware of and fluent in the cultural codes of both the East and the West. How they choose to parent in the future, and the world in which their own children will grow, may be vastly different from what they experienced.

For Bottos, however, the French style does not seem to be the worst choice available. "I think my education is largely responsible for making me hardworking and independent, which is very useful as an adult. I would definitely like to replicate my parents' education, although I'd want to be slightly less strict. I hope it is possible to find the right balance."


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