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SCHOOLS

The best and the worst things about having kids in France

There are some real benefits about having kids in France, but there are also some clear downsides. The Local asks a couple of expat parents who have raised children here to point them out.

The best and the worst things about having kids in France
Photo: AFP

Kids are in full time education age three

This is a major plus point about having children in France. OK it might feel a bit weird to send off your baby to a school aged just three, but for a start it’ll save you lots of money and it does the kid well too.

“Think about what your friends back home in the US or UK are paying for daycare,” say the mums at the Mama Loves Paris advice website for Parents. “From the ages of 3 to 6 in France, the emphasis is on socialising the kids and getting them used to school life. This full time care means parents are free to work or spend time with their younger kids.”

A recent OECD education report on France praised the fact that the vast majority of kids are in full time education at the age of 3. 

(AFP)

Cost of creche and childcare is fairly cheap

Talk to anyone with kids in London or indeed anywhere in the UK about how much they pay in childcare and you’ll be glad you are in France. The price of a place in a municipal creche or a “Halte Garderie” is based on wages but the top price is normally around €600 a month for full time. In the UK, that might get you a couple days a week each month. Although the only problem is trying to find a place in creche, which can be difficult in certain parts of Paris and surrounding suburbs.

Your kids will be polite

“Kids in France are comfortable around adults,” said Normandy-based mother of two, Miranda Ingram, a writer and the creator of the Kids in France website. “So even the scariest-looking teenager your children brings home will always shake your hand, look you in the eye and say: “Madame” rather than grunting at their trainers.”

Your kids won't get fat

“Instead of being fobbed off with rubbish food, such as Turkey Twizzlers or “kids menus” in restaurants, French kids eat proper meals at school and they learn how to use a knife and fork,” says Ingram.

Quality of the canteen

“Yes your child will get a four-course meal at school in the canteen,” say the folks at Mama Loves Paris.

“In Paris there is a city-wide committee dedicated to planning the menus for the year and when you take a look, you will see your child has the chance to try all kinds of foods and due to the social atmosphere, they might actually things they would never accept from you at home. French cuisine broadens their horizons and taste buds from an early age.”

(AFP)

Have three and it gets cheaper

“It’s well worth having three children if you live in France,” says Ingram. “Official policy encourages this so there is lots of extra money (increased child benefits) and perks, such as cheaper train and cinema tickets and cheaper holidays after the magic third child is born.”

Out of school activities

These are often heavily subsidised by the state and as a result are fairly cheap. Just check out the activities on offer through UCPA a non-profit organisation that makes outdoor sports holidays available for anyone aged seven and upwards.

(AFP)

'We are family…'

“Family time is valued here,” says Paris-based mother of one Jenifer Hamerman, a contributor to Mama Loves Paris.

“Broadly speaking, the weekend is the weekend and a vacation really is a vacation. France has not succumbed to some of the macho posturing around who works the longest hours that we see in the UK and US. It is normal and acceptable to have preserved family time here.”

Health cover

You might feel like you are permanently in front of a doctor when you have a kid in France, but they do take health seriously here, especially when it comes to kids. 

France not kids obsessed

“When you become a parent here, it is not automatically assumed you have lost the rest of your identity. Kids don't rule the roost and they shouldn't rule your life…” from Mama Loves Paris, as are the next two plus points.

Superhuman parenting is not cool here

No one wants martyr parents here who brag about all their self-sacrifice whilst manically home-making everything. There is a lot less pressure to be an amazing parent. Competence is enough.

Your kids are exposed to a lot less materialism.

The French tend to fix and take care of things rather than replace them. It's vulgar here to talk about money or to spend to excess. These values filter into parenting and that is a positive point about family life here. In general kids are not spoiled with every last plastic toy on the market and that too relieves pressure on families to keep up.

They learn two languages...

Living in France is the best way for your kids to become bilingual French/English or French and any other language.

AND THE DOWNSIDES…

Lack of baby changing facilities

Good luck trying to find baby-changing table at a restaurant or café in France (not including McDonald’s). Paris is particularly pathetic. Given France has the highest birth rate in Europe you would have thought restaurant owners might have cottoned on to the idea that all those baby-making parents still want to enjoy a drink or meal out, with their newborns. Granted, most toilets in Paris cafés are too small to swing a full nappy but surely a fold up table could be added. Or just a ledge.

(David/FLickr)

There’s only one high-chair in Paris

Or at least that what it feels like. Yes French kids learn to eat properly from a young age but it the lack of high chairs in restaurants means it’s often hard to show off their skills. Space might be an issue too in many cramped cafes, but babies are good for business.

Your kids may end up smoking

“Beware, if your child grows up in France they will probably end up smoking,” says Miranda Ingram. “Just drive past a lycée (high school) at break and see the numbers of kids having a quick cigarette outside the school gates.”

(AFP)

How many holidays…

The sheer number of school holidays might sound great for the kids (although these days are actually beneficial according to a recent OECD report) but they can really be a nightmare for working parents, who have to find some kind of help to cover the regular breaks.

French parents will have send the kids off to the grandparents for a week, but expat parents rarely have this luxury.

Art, Music and Sport take a back seat at school

If your child is not the most academic and prefers subjects like music or sport, then they might find French school a little boring as they tend to concentrate on the main academic subjects like maths, French and science. Achievement in other areas is perhaps not as recognised as it would be in other countries.

Paris Metro is not parent friendly

“Let’s face it, the Paris Metro was designed long before anyone cared about people with disabilities or babies trying to use it,” say the folks at Mama Love Paris site.

“There are so many steps, it’s hellish with a stroller. Very few stations have escalators or lifts. You just have to rely on the kindness of strangers or just lug it up yourself.”

Why are they so strict?

French parents tend to more into discipline and rules than Anglo parents. Some expat parents report being given the evil-eye after letting their child do something that was clearly “irresponsible” in the eyes of Gallic Maman watching on. Some have even been told off.

“It gets sort of wearing to hear the constant “doucement” (gently) instructions in the playground and what sometimes seems a barrage of reprimands directed at kids,” say the mums at Mama Loves Paris. “At first you feel pressure to be the same way with your own kids but then you get the confidence to just follow your own path.”

Stay at home parenting not easy

“France is not an easy place to be a stay-at-home parent,” says a contributor to Mama Loves Paris. “In general both French parents work and mums return to work quickly. It's not always the three month stereotype but it's not far off. Some of us are used to a real spectrum back home from stay-at-home mums and even dads, to part-time workers, to full-time workers.

“Many of my friends have been made to feel as though they are odd for not working. There is also a practical problem in that the system is geared up to help working parents with crèches and there are less destinations to simply hang out with your toddlers during working hours.”

Miranda Ingram who is behind the Kids in France website and several contributors to the Mama Loves Paris blog for English speaking parents in Paris, including Jennifer Hamerman, contributed to this article.

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LIVING IN FRANCE

Family-centred society: What it’s really like being a parent in France

From schools to food, behaviour to sports, being a parent in France has its own unique quirks - we asked dad-of-three James Harrington to explain what raising children here is really like (apparently French kids do throw food).

Family-centred society: What it's really like being a parent in France

We moved to southwest France from England in 2009, with our daughter, who was three at the time. We have since added two boys, as well as two cats and two dogs.

This is our experience of being parents and parents-to-be here.

French attitudes to children

France is a family-centric nation. It starts with an official letter, sent to all parents-to-be that contains a contract of sorts between parents and the state. 

It places on parents the responsibility of raising their children to the best of their ability, and in turn it promises to provide good schools and healthcare, access to leisure activities and parks for growing children to play in. 

Your opinion as to how successful France is at holding up its side of the bargain depends on where you live, but we have no complaints where we are and plenty of reasons to be grateful. Parenting is some job, and this letter is an early reminder that support is out there.

That support extends to generous child benefits, additional tax breaks, a useful ‘bonus’ to pay for things like a pram, cot, clothes and so on, access to completely free healthcare for the mother during and after pregnancy, free early healthcare for the newborn – and so on.

Parenting styles

The stereotypical notion of children in France is that they’re treated as tiny adults, expected to behave in an appropriate manner at family get-togethers or at restaurants, while eating smaller versions of what their parents eat and not hollering for the ketchup. 

This is not entirely accurate. French children can be as wild and unruly as any child anywhere: just watch them at birthday parties, when they’re jacked up on sweets and E-number drinks. 

What you soon see is that French parents, on the whole, don’t hold with helicopter parenting. They will happily sit and unconcernedly chat with friends while their kids wreak gentle havoc in the immediate vicinity. As long as nothing and no one gets broken, French parents generally let children just get on with entertaining themselves.

Don’t make the mistake of believing this means they don’t care. They do. They very much do. 

Pregnancy and post-pregnancy care

Our oldest son was born less than a year after we arrived, so we had a lot to learn about the French healthcare system, fast. We’d completed the three-month minimum requirement to allow us access the French state health system via the carte vitale, but were still going through the process when my then-pregnant wife needed urgent hospital care. 

We weren’t properly on the healthcare system and didn’t have top-up health insurance at the time. Staff at the hospital were kind enough to help sort the latter quickly enough to cover the cost of my wife’s hospital stay and our cards came through soon after.

READ ALSO Pregnancy and maternity care: Having a baby in France

With our second boy, things could not have been more different. It was three years later, we had a handle on the healthcare system, our cartes vitales were in order.

For various reasons, my wife didn’t think she was pregnant until she felt our baby move. By that time, she was five months gone. The early stages of pregnancy care were moot. In fact, the most difficult part was setting the ball rolling so late. 

But, each time, the care my wife and our children received was a world away from that which we got in the UK.

For the first three days or so, mother and baby remain in hospital under the care of the perma-calm nurses – who know everything about the health of both mum and newborn. Those shift-swap briefings must be intense. Doctors check in daily to make sure everything is going as it should.

READ ALSO Having a baby in France: 10 lessons learned

Then there’s what’s known as hospitalisation at home. New mums and babies who are doing well enough to go home are allowed to do so after three days, under strict instruction to do nothing but look after their child and themselves. Don’t think this isn’t enforced. It is. It is checked and confirmed daily by a visiting midwife who has mastered the stern stare. 

Other halves – you have work to do. Your job is to look after your partner’s every – every – need; care for older offspring, make sure the house is clean and tidy, and everyone’s fed and watered. And, yes, your efforts are noted. This is why you’re off work.  

Midwife visits continue for some weeks. Then there are regular trips to your GP for further checks and vaccines – these days there are 11 mandatory vaccinations for children in France (this does not include the Covid vaccine). It’s up to you to keep track – but schools may refuse children who are not up to date with their vaccinations.

Maternity and paternity leave

Pregnant employees are entitled to a total 16 weeks paid maternity leave, which is split into two parts – six weeks pre-natal and 10 weeks post-natal. Women pregnant with twins or triplets are entitled to longer maternity leave.

Paternity leave is slightly more complicated. The allowance is 25 days, rising to 32 in case of multiple births. 

It is important to note fathers are also entitled to three days’ mandatory birth leave. This is separate to their paternity allowance. 

The first four days of a father’s paternity leave must be taken immediately after their mandatory birth leave. Confusingly, the latter is calculated in working days, the former in calendar days. But, basically, the father of a child born on a Saturday calculates their birth leave from the following Monday, and adds their four-day immediate paternity leave after that.

The remaining 21 days must be taken within the first six months of a new arrival. It can be split into two periods, but the minimum duration is five calendar days.

Things are slightly different, too, for self-employed parents. Best advice is to check on the Ameli website to confirm what you’re entitled to. 

Creche / school

The question of going back to work is tough for any new parent. But, many parents do need to go back to work. In England, where our childcare costs were more than our mortgage, this was tough. In France, where what you pay is calculated against your income, it was financially much simpler.

Our oldest son went to a childminder – a nounou – not far from where we lived. We paid about half of her monthly bill, the rest was covered by the government. For that, he was fed and looked after from just before 8am until close to 6pm.

From the age of three, he went, as our daughter had done a few years’ earlier and as is now mandatory, to the youngest class in the maternelle section at a local school.

Our second son went to a crèche run by the local authority. Because our income at the time was intermittent and quite low, fees were very low, but the care he received was top notch. The building – next to a school – had been knocked about a bit but the rooms were clean and tidy, the toys were old and worn but safe. And the staff were universally lovely.

As for schools, the cost of education is covered by the state out of taxes. It’s not perfect. You could, for example, easily argue there’s too much emphasis on testing and too much box ticking. State schools have their problems, like many other countries. 

Private education is affordable, certainly in comparison to other countries. About €1,500 will cover a school’s annual fees for day pupils. It’s widely assumed that children who go to fee-paying schools do better – probably because their parents are more financially invested. 

READ ALSO International v French schools – how to decide

Our experience of education in France is of fee-paying schools because that’s the path we were guided down early on. That we haven’t deviated from that path is the best indication that we’re happy with the education they’re getting and the sparky, energetic – and, yes, argumentative – young people they’re turning into.

Homework, too, happens. Even when it’s not supposed to. Younger children aren’t, officially, supposed to do homework – but don’t be surprised that they get some. Regularly. You can rage against the machine if you like.

We didn’t. We decided to sit with our children and help. We’ve learned a huge amount about France, its history and the French language that way – as well as a whole new way to do division. Maths, it turns out, isn’t maths. Or I’m old. To be honest, it’s probably the latter.

Schools can be good for parents, too. A number of friendships developed from school-gate acquaintances because our children knew their children. 

Food

It’s almost illegal not to mention food in articles like this about France. 

Children in France, on the whole, eat very well. School meals tend to be three, even four, courses. There’s occasional tat on the menu – even chicken nuggets do a job every now and then, and our youngest still likes them – but on the whole the food is nutritious and healthy. And affordable. 

Meals need to be good. School days are long – in part to fit in the two-hour lunchbreak which allows children to eat their meals without gulping them down, and to decompress after a busy morning conjugating verbs and learning about Charlemagne. 

READ ALSO Do French kids get the best school lunches in the world?

There’s also a lesson here about food.

Children learn about nutrition at a young age. They’re expected to understand what a healthy diet involves, and what they eat at school shows the way. It really is quite the thing.

Holidays

School holidays – particularly the grands vacances, which last eight weeks every summer – can strike fear into the hearts of many a working parent, wondering how to entertain their bundles of joy, and stop them turning completely feral, while holding down a job.

But, France has got parents’ backs. Every town and city has ‘maisons des jeunes et de la culture’ – MJCs –  community centres that take in local children and entertain every drop of energy out of them from around 7am to 7pm, five days a week, every school holiday. 

For a few euros a day, the MJCs’ vetted staff look after youngsters aged from three to 15, sometimes older, bombarding them with activities from sport to cooking, art to dancing, often with an over-arching theme for the duration of the holidays. Morning and afternoon snacks, and a typical French three or four-course lunch included. 

Everything is means-tested, too, based on a ‘quotient familiale’ (QF), a figure calculated based on the previous year’s income tax declaration. The higher the QF, the less you pay, which means kids from households less well off than ours can have something to look forward to a few days a week – it’s available full or part-time – and their parents get a break. 

Trips are offered regularly. Our oldest has been skiing with both her school and the MJC. It cost us €60 all-in. Our boys have both been on summer week-long camping trips, with activities morning, afternoon, and evening, for about the same price. 

They’ve been on day-trips to theme parks and zoos, hiked in mountains and canoed down rivers, been introduced to fencing, horse-riding, and archery, had a go at golf and done a whole host of activities we couldn’t hope to afford or have the time to organise while we worked for a fraction of the real-world cost. 

MJCs are everywhere. There are five MJCs in our 40,000-plus population town, each welcoming around 150 children each, holiday in, holiday out. 

Sports / activities

Contrary to what some may say, there is sport in school. As well as lessons, children from 11 onwards can use some of their lunch period trying out sports as part of the national UNSS scheme.

But, it is equally true to say that most children get their sport through clubs in their town. Early September, there may be a large-scale event nearby in which the – hopefully many – sports institutions in your town tout for members for the next year. 

Our daughter has done fencing – she qualified for a national event three years running before deciding she wanted to stop – and boxing. Our oldest son does rugby and judo. Our youngest hasn’t yet gone for anything. Swimming may be an option, who knows?

As part of the registration process, your child may need a medical certificate from your GP confirming that there’s no reason for them not to take part in their chosen sport, and they may also need insurance. Membership covers registration with the national body overseeing the sport, and – for less well-off households – part of the costs may be covered by an annual check, while many organisations allow for monthly payments if necessary.

Even so, with the cost of living rising, finding the couple of hundred extra euros a year needed for membership, plus any kit, and travel costs – honestly, you can go all over to tournaments – soon adds up. 

Outdoor stuff

Part of the ‘contract’ sent to parents-to-be states that outdoor spaces for them to enjoy with their children will be provided. They are. And France, naturally, has plenty of outdoor space for everyone to enjoy, from parks to beaches and lakes to mountains and rivers, and wide open fields. 

It’s stupidly easy to spend time outside in France. The weather and the views almost demand it. Summer festivals and events drag you to squares and parks. And kids love to charge around, make one-time friends at the park, and run around playing games of their own devising. It would be rude not to let them.

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