UNEXPECTED EXPECTATIONS IN PARIS
RAISING MULTICULTURAL KIDS IN FRANCE
Guest post by: Amanda Otto, edited by: Caroline Sandiford
“The theme of our relationship from the start has been, “Jump in and worry about the details later…” I think this must be true for many relationships, but international romances also involve: very long distances, language barriers, varying cultural habits and family expectations, different religions, and standards for ‘normal’ behavior.”
LEAVING THE U.S. FOR PARIS, FRANCE
I arrived on the 2:05pm train from Alsace at Gare de Lyon with great expectations for my semester abroad in Paris. Twenty years old, blonde, and flagrantly American with an enormous suitcase in tow. My new French host-mother graciously offered to pick me up with a car, saving me from the embarrassing and physically challenging feat of dragging the better part of my worldly possessions through the metro. I hopped in, delighted to start an adventure that I anticipated would be the best four months of my life. Freedom and cheap wine were calling my name!
HOST FAMILY WOES
Living with a host family during this bout of freedom was not my preferred living arrangement, but it was required by the exchange program who told me I had been assigned a family with kids my age. Apparently, that wasn’t the case. As my French host-mother drove me up Boulevard Raspail, she profusely apologized that even though I had requested a family with kids, her three children had all moved out to study abroad or work. I was 20-years old, in a foreign country, and now anticipating four months of living with the French version of my parents. Shit.
FROM A SEMESTER IN PARIS TO LIFE IN PARIS
The theme of our relationship from the start has been “Jump in and worry about the details later…” I think this must be true for many relationships, but international romances also involve very long distances, language barriers, varying cultural habits and family expectations, different religions, and standards for ‘normal’ behavior. Many of these differences are what attracted me to my husband in the beginning. These differences have also recently have become more amplified as we raise our three little blonde French-American amalgamations. Together, we decide which cultural attributes we want to impress on our girls and how to do it. Our decisions on these choices aren’t always easy or straightforward.
FINDING A CULTURAL BALANCE TO RAISING MULTICULTURAL KIDS
For example, I didn’t realize when I married a Frenchman that the French ideology for raising children varies greatly from that in America. One of the pillars of this ideology is the preparation for autonomy. The French start teaching children to be autonomous much earlier than in the US. My husband took his first plane ride without parents at age four. I, on the other hand, was age sixteen and I remember my mother crying.
When we moved to Paris and my daughter started 1st grade in the French school system, I quickly got acquainted to this ideal of child autonomy. At the end of the school year, the teachers had organized a week-long trip for the 1st grade class…on a sailboat…with no parental chaperones. While I thought the idea was really fun, had no one seen The Perfect Storm?!? I immediately pictured horrific scenes from the movie that haunted my nightmares for weeks! Despite my reservations, I played it cool and decided to acclimate to this new world order. I shipped my 7-year old daughter off to a week-long sleep away pony camp. Much to my surprise, she came back in one whole piece and emotionally undamaged. In fact, she had fun and was proud of herself for enjoying seven days away from us without ever crying, while also rendering her younger sisters insanely jealous.
ADAPTING TO DIFFERENCES IN CHILD REARING AND LIFE SKILLS LEARNING
My younger children started French public pre-school at age 3. Unlike the preschool my eldest daughter attended in New York that lasted 2 hours each morning, the school day in France maintains a regular 8am-4pm schedule. Children eating at the school cafeteria often are not ‘served’ lunch, but rather serve themselves in a family style fashion. The children are also responsible for properly wiping off and stacking the dishes after the lunch. This approach teaches table manners which is an extremely important lesson in French life. While observing lunchtime at my daughter’s’ school, I couldn’t believe how well the children participated in the process of serving and cleaning up. I immediately ran home and made a list of the things I did for my children that really, they should be doing for themselves. The list was long.
My husband expects that my eldest daughter will walk herself and her younger sister to school by age 10. I read a story recently about parents in Arizona who got arrested for allowing their children to do just that. In this situation and others, I think it’s clear that neither ideology is perfect or the sole source of child-rearing. What I have come to appreciate about the French ideology that I believe is disappearing from the American, though, is that we can expect our young children to take on responsibility. We can teach our kids to participate in housework. We can expect them to sit peacefully in a restaurant without an iPhone. We can and should raise our expectations of our children because they can participate and thrive in these autonomous situations if we give them the opportunities to do so.
“BENDING AND LEANING!”
While I do think I’ve been able to adapt my child rearing methods to a French environment, I still struggle with ‘letting go’. I did not have many of these independent experiences at such a young age, so I worry that by giving my children more autonomy I’m not ‘protecting’ them. I think “What’s the rush? They are so little!”, while my husband lived through and exemplified these autonomous ideals. So, my husband and I both bend. He doesn’t push me to send my children on planes over oceans without their mother, and I am dedicated to training my daughter to safely walk to school by age 10. I think with my bending and my husband’s leaning, we will end up creating a beautiful structure for our children that looks something like the Arc de Triumph.
Are you in a multicultural relationship or marriage? What has your experience been like in raising a multicultural child/children? How have you and your spouse or significant other adapted to each other’s cultures? Post a comment below! Feel free to share this post! Like our content? Subscribe!