7 surprising differences between French and Anglo-Saxon parenting

Thanks to books like Bringing Up Bébé, the French parenting style means well-behaved children who’ll eat just about any kind of food, and parents who are impeccably glamorous and unflappable.

But is there really a “French parenting style”? Are all French kids really well-behaved? And do French parents really stay flawless no matter the circumstances?

I’ve lived in France for most of my adult life, and I’ve been a parent here for the past seven years. It’s hard to define a culture by using uniform rules, especially when it comes to something as challenging and complex as parenting, but I have observed some interesting differences between parenting in France and parenting in the US and UK that seem to generally hold true.

But those differences may not be what you think, and their results may not be exactly what those French parenting books promise.

Here are 7 differences between French and Anglo-Saxon parenting styles:

1. French kids eat what everyone else does

According to books like Bringing Up Bébé, French kids are not given special treatment at the table. Unlike some other cultures, where children may start out with simpler (or tastier) fare, French kids eat what the adults are eating.

To some extent, this is true. At most meals I’ve shared with French people, the kids do eat what we’re eating. The French tend to see food as a matter-of-fact moment of enjoyment. Yes, that spread might have raw fish eggs in it, but it tastes good, so eat up!

The one exception is restaurants. Many restaurants in France offer kids’ menues that either feature simpler meals (pasta with cream or butter and ham versus a fully seasoned meal, for instance) or ones that are more certain to be eaten by little kids (burgers and fries are a classic). But at home, this usually isn’t the norm.

2. French kids eat at set times

When it comes to how French kids eat, far more surprising for me is the French insistence on regular meal times.

Most typical French households will have three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The rules of when these meals take place is strictly adhered to. For instance, when I visit my French in-laws, lunch is served between 12 and 1 pm, even if everyone had a late breakfast and could have waited till 2.

Dinner is always served quite late (for an American, anyway), at about 7pm at the earliest, often a bit later.

Between the early lunch and late dinner, it can be hard not to get a little hungry, but I’ve found that in France, snacking is looked down on more severely than smoking.  Luckily, kids get a pass and can have un goûter, a small snack served in the late afternoon.

The reason for all these rules is partially tradition and partially to try to keep children from disordered eating. Unfortunately, the idea behind this doesn’t seem to be mainly about health; it’s really about fat-phobia, which is rampant in France. The French believe that snacking between meals or even eating at irregular times causes weight gain.

3. French children do less housework

A broom and a red dustpan full of dirt and leaves

In America, it’s common for children to do chores, often for a weekly allowance. Besides being a big help to parents, it’s also intended to teach kids things like responsibility and a work ethic.

But while many French children receive pocket money, most don’t seem to have a lot of regular chores to do, or those chores aren’t tied in to the pocket money. In general, I find that French families tend to make the parents, especially the mother, do all or most of the cooking and cleaning, letting the children play or do schoolwork.

This is an interesting contrast to studies, books, and articles that talk about how French women are encouraged and expected to stay glamorous when they have kids, and aren’t expected to completely devote themselves to motherhood.

There is a lot of truth to this, but it doesn’t meant that French women are off the hook when it comes to homemaking. In fact, if any women on this earth are told they’re supposed to “have it all”, it would be French women.

Not all of them buy into it, but many do. They will keep their weight and appearance flawless, go to work, take care of all their children’s needs, and cook and clean. But they have very little time for themselves to completely relax, and if they feel stressed or overwhelmed, therapy is still considered somewhat taboo in French culture. It’s no wonder so many French women smoke – how else are they supposed to relieve stress or get a quick break?  

To me, the lack of encouragement for children to take part in helping out, and the expectation that the mother will do most or all of the household tasks, no matter how busy she might otherwise be, is the darker side of French parenting.

To be clear, not all French families are like this, and even if parents don’t ask their children to help out, many of them still will.

But I’ve seen grown adults – especially men – who don’t think to help with basic things like clearing the table or washing dishes when their mothers cook them a meal. And even those who can afford it also rarely think of giving a parent a break when they visit by suggesting going to a restaurant or ordering in or preparing at least one meal themself.

Again, not all families are alike, and these things might also be an issue for families in the US and UK. But I do notice them more often with French families than with the Anglo-Saxon families I know.

4. There’s not as much yelling

Every family is different. Some are louder than others. For me, growing up in an Italian-American family in northern New Jersey, I was used to hearing a lot of noise, always. We’d call out to each other if we were in different rooms, my parents weren’t afraid to yell at us even if we were out somewhere, we laughed loudly, talked on the phone loudly – we were just loud all the time, like most of the people we knew.

I didn’t realize this until I came to France.

There are some exceptions, but in general, the French are more discreet. In fact, whatever background or region we come from, Americans have a reputation in France for being very loud when out in public. The French, on the other hand, usually speak in lower tones and keep emotions relatively private.

The most impressive thing to me about this cultural difference is when it comes to disciplining kids. If my son is misbehaving at the park, I yell over at him to stop or come and see me. But I rarely hear a French person yell or see a French parent really lose it with their kid, even a toddler who’s having a meltdown. The French parenting strategy seems to be to use a low, firm voice to say something like Ça suffit ! (That’s enough!) and then get the kid out of there.

And usually, that works for them. It’s one of the things I most admire -even envy – about French parents. Still, I’m sure they lose it behind closed doors. Who can stay dignified when a three-year-old is throwing an endless, epic tantrum?

French children themselves also seem to be quieter as a whole, especially as they get older. You might be politely greeted by a friend’s 10-year-old, who will then disappear into their room. Maybe they’re on the phone with their friends or playing a video game or listening to music – regardless, you’ll never hear a peep.

Of course, there are exceptions – some French families might be just as loud and overtly emotional as my Italian-American one. But on the whole it’s pretty rare.

5. Handwriting is really important

close-up of a child's hand, holding a pencil and writing in a notebook

Everyone appreciates beautiful penmanship.  But for the French, good  handwriting isn’t just to be admired: it’s expected.

When my son was learning to write, we were thrilled to see him spelling out words. But his teacher had a word with us. While totally legible, his letters didn’t look enough like standard French cursive writing.

It was strange to see someone so focused on this – after all, isn’t it better to concentrate on how well a child spells and expresses himself in writing, rather than on the beauty of the letters themselves? But handwriting that looks like something out of a copybook is expected in France, so much so that a special kind of therapist, a psychomotricien(ne) exists for kids who need to improve their fine motor skills so that they can write like everyone else.

The importance of standard, beautiful handwriting in France is a sign of something else….

6. Education is about equality, not creativity

Equality (l’égalité) is one of the principles of the French Republic, and when it comes to human rights and access to things like education, that ideal is a laudable one.  But it’s also present in the French idea of how to teach children.

Once they leave la maternelle (preschool), where they’ve already learned basic reading and math skills, French children are expected to take a disciplined approach to education and to learn many things by rote. Whereas children in Anglo-Saxon schools might be asked to write a poem or text, children in French schools are required to memorize poems – all of them the same ones as their classmates.

Logic is valued far more than individual expression. To me, the English and French lyrics to the melody we know as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” say it all. While the English version talks about wondering what a star is, the French version is about a child who laments that papa veut que je raisonne comme une grande personne (Papa wants me to reason like a grown-up) .

YouTube video

It’s not to say French kids don’t have fun, but school is taken much more seriously and is much less tolerant or nurturing towards children as creative individuals than schools in the US and UK.

7. French kids are more independent

Maybe the biggest difference between parenting in the US or UK and parenting in France is how hands-off parenting can be in France.

In the US and UK, parents are taught to be devoted to their children. Some of us can even develop into “helicopter parents”, hovering over their kids. In France, on the other hand, parents are encouraged to have some time for themselves.

For instance, when my son was one-and-a-half, many of my French friends were surprised I hadn’t put him into daycare (which is state-run and thus affordable for everyone), at least for a few afternoons a week. It wasn’t easy for me to work at home and have my son with me all the time, but in US culture, it’s considered ideal to have your child with you and not in daycare.

When I finally gave in, I realized my native culture might not have gotten that right. Even if I didn’t have an article to write that afternoon, the daycare’s directrice told me I needed time for myself. And she was right. I got to have a little time to breathe, which is a blessing for any parent of a young kid – and my son, meanwhile, was learning social skills and adapting to being with other people.

This encouraged independence only becomes more pronounced as French kids get older. For instance, parents aren’t usually invited or even allowed to sit and watch kids at after school activities like dance or sports. And from an early age, it’s considered normal for French school children to go on overnight or even long school trips away from home. For instance, at my son’s school, the CE2 (third graders/year four) take a week-long trip to the Pyrenees. In America, school trips like that might only start in middle school (year 7), and even then not always.

This independence seems to make French kids more self-assured, so it’s probably a good thing. But as an American, it still unnerves me a bit.

Do French children get spanked?

When you read expat guides and forums, you’ll often come across the observation that spanking children is a common way to discipline children in France. There’s even a work for this specific type of physical act: la fessée, which comes from the word les fesses (buttocks).

Giving a child a quick slap on the backside when they’re misbehaving may seem shocking, especially for parents in the UK, where spanking is seen extremely negatively (in the US it’s not really considered a good thing, either, though it depends on a family’s background).

But this supposed French reliance on spanking surprises me. Of all the French parents I know, maybe on a very rare occasion I’ve seen a few give a small misbehaving child a quick tap to the backside, but far more commonly the parent will take them aside and scold them (quietly but firmly) or punish them by taking away a favorite toy or not allowing them to have a treat.

This may be because the French attitude towards spanking is evolving. According to a survey conducted in the 2010’s, 87% of French parents had spanked their child.  But in 2019, corporal punishment was officially made illegal in France.

As this article explains, there are no formal punishments or fines for giving your kid a smack. But I can say that la fessée tends to be looked down upon by the French parents of my generation and younger that I know.  

So with all this in mind, I personally wouldn’t consider spanking a part of typical modern French parenting. Today, discipline à la française is much more about using a calm but firm and perhaps vaguely threatening voice to tell a child that enough is enough.

What are the overall differences between French and Anglo-Saxon parenting?

Overall, you could say that French children are meant to be more mature and independent and to follow the rules, while Anglo-Saxon children tend to be seen as little people whose needs, emotions, and even food preferences are listened to and valued.

Both ideas have their pros and cons.

Are all French parents the same?

Throughout this article, I’ve tried to specify that these French parenting techniques aren’t uniform.  Many of those bestselling books about French parenting are written by (fairly) wealthy expats who observe a small slice of the population, usually middle- or upper -class, fairly traditional, native French, heterosexual Parisians.

But factors like personality, socioeconomic situation, and culture carry a lot of weight and can make parenting styles and circumstances vary widely. For instance, a wealthy family in a rich suburb of Lyon isn’t necessarily going to raise their children exactly the same way as a lower income family from the north of France.  

And then of course you also have to take into account that a significant portion of the French population is made up of people from different cultural backgrounds, which can also influence certain parenting practices.

Is French parenting the best parenting style?

In a field of wildflowers, a man holds two young children as a third, older boy runs off towards a tree in the distance.

Books and articles lauding French parenting abound. But while typical French parenting methods do have their good points, I can say from experience that they don’t make perfect children.

French kids may not typically be as loud as Anglo-Saxon children, but they still get into trouble, struggle with school, and have emotional challenges just like any other kid would. I think in many cases it just comes down to how they express them.

To me, the best way of parenting is what works for you and your family. If your child is well-adjusted, happy, healthy, and respectful, then félicitations, you are doing great!  You don’t need to follow an idealized guide to parenting in another culture.

That said, learning about parenting methods from other cultures can be interesting and maybe give you a few tips. For instance, I wish I’d learned about the French way of quietly but sternly talking to a child before my son got into the terrible two’s. I probably would have come out of certain situations with a lot more dignity!

Living in France and talking to all sorts of people, I’ve learned that no parent is perfect. I do know some of those “yummy mummy” types, who manage to always seem glamorous and put-together, despite juggling parenthood, a career, a beauty regimen, a relationship, and a social life. But even they are far from perfect. They get frazzled, overwhelmed, and mess up just like everyone else. Their glamour may just make that a little harder to notice.

Once, I was taking a train with my son, who was eating chips instead of carrot sticks (he doesn’t always do this, but chips are his special train treat) outside mealtime or the goûter. A handsome, put-together French father and his well-dressed little girl sat down in the seats behind us. A little while later, the little girl suddenly threw up. I turned around and handed the father some plastic bags and wet wipes and he gave me a grateful look. No matter our cultural differences  or how put-together we or our kids seem, we are all parents, and kids are all unpredictable.

What is parenting like in your culture? Do any of these observations about French parenting sound good (or bad) to you?

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.