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Principal's Blog

2013 TERM 4

French Parenting - Independence

I have recently read both Amy Chug's Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother and Pamela Druckerman's French Children Don't Throw Food. I enjoyed both books, but found Pamela Druckerman easier to engage with. This blog examines a small snippet of the contrast between the French and Anglo attitude to independence and parental-child separation. Bean is Pamela Druckerman's daughter - well, actually, Bean is her nickname, but is the name that is constantly used.


One day a notice goes up at Bean's school. It says that parents of students aged four to eleven can register for a summer trip... sans parents, which will last eight days. I can't imagine sending Bean, who's five, on an eight day school holiday...

This trip is another reminder that while I can now use the subjunctive in French, and even get my kids to listen to me, I'll never actually be French. Being French means looking at a notice like this and saying, as the mother of another five-year-old next to me does, 'What a shame. We already have plans then.' None of the French parents finds the idea of dispatching their four- and five-year-olds for a week of group showers and dormitory life to be at all alarming.

What I find really interesting here is that our understanding of what constitutes 'good' parenting has such a strong cultural context. Good parenting in New York can be considered neurotic parenting in Paris, while derelict parenting in Melbourne is quite possibly the norm in Paris. The Parisian idea of autonomy (and its benefits) is quite different to the New York (or Melbourne) model. Adventurous parenting / normal parenting / derelict parenting can be applied simultaneously to exactly the same situations, depending on the cultural setting.

Pamela Druckerman continues:

But what's the rush? Must the push for autonomy start so young? And aren't the French overdoing it a bit? In some cases, the drive to make kids self-reliant seems to clash with my most basic instincts to protect my kids, and to make them feel good.

While I understand and empathise with her feelings, I'm not sure that these are solely instinctual. I feel that her reactions as a mother are culturally validated, that worry begets worry and anxiety is contagious. My (French) wife said to me some time ago in a slightly frustrated tone that 'You have to be anxious to be a good mum in Australia.' Fleshing this out, she felt a keen pressure to be more (over) involved, to helicopter more, to worry about a greater number of intangibles, and to constantly critique her failings. To remain a French mother was not culturally supported in Australia. I would argue that to be a really good parent is a challenge, as it may (will) on occasion require us to step outside our own culture, and perhaps from time to time, to stand against it. The gift of the modern age is that we can not only read about other cultures, but experience them first hand. The challenge is that in our age of plenty, digesting all the theories and experiences and turning it into something that not only feels right, but works for us as parents, is not necessarily easy. To extend, in my family's case, the Paris end of Collins Street into North Fitzroy.

I feel blessed here, in not only having a French wife (who I think is a very good mother), but also for all of my time in Asia and Africa (and France of course), staying with friends and family and observing how they, and those around them, parent. This has significantly moved my understanding of not just the competency of children, but their resiliency and adaptability as well.

We all obviously have our own biases. Parisian parenting (as described by Druckerman) appeals to me as it shares my worldview. Autonomy is a quality I value, so of course I will engage positively with it being given status. While I am only touching on a snippet of Druckerman's observations my experience of middle class, university educated Parisian parents is as she describes them.

So, would I allow my daughter Charlotte, four (now five, but she was four when I wrote this), to head off with a teacher she knows well, as part of a group of four to eleven year olds, for eight days? I who clearly value independence and autonomy for children. How is it that a normal situation in France can be such a large challenge here, such a tough hurdle to overcome. Having given this situation quite a lot of thought, and really wanting but unable to give this proposition an unqualified yes, or just any sort of yes to be honest, I gave Philip (my father and co-founder of Fitzroy Community School) the relevant pages of French Children Don't Throw Food. I believe that his response is useful for all of us parents who find this a challenge.


Extension done incrementally can bring great results - look at what Fitzroy Community School has achieved without causing trauma to the child or conflict with the parents through taking on the culture of the day.

Philip is clear that the viability of our children - their ability to master and enjoy challenges is heavily dependent on what we, their parents, think they are capable of, and the challenges we expect them to tackle in their day to day lives. If the perceived jump is too scary or challenging for the parents - their parental fears and hesitation will be felt by the child, and will hold the child back. To move from Melbourne to Paris needs to be done in small, incremental stages. Makes sense to me.

Onward and upward, a couple of days, rather than eight, at a time! Camp for Charlotte next year will be two nights, and I feel confident that she will be more than fine!

Timothy Berryman (Principal)


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