It is easy to acquire the illusion that how you think and do things is how others think and do things. Things that are done in one country as a matter of course sometimes appear strange or undoable from the perspective of people in other countries.
So when I saw a book called Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, I was curious. After all there is a renewed interest in the importance of early childhood education in relationship to later school success. What does it look like in France?
The author, Pamela Druckerman, by profession a reporter and a New Yorker, moved to Paris as a consequence of marrying Simon, a Briton and also a reporter (speciality: Dutch football). So far in their French life, they have had three children, a girl, “Bean” and twins, Joel and Leo, all born and so far brought up in France.
Pamela is a reporter of the investigative type. When she sees a mystery, she must investigate. “What is going on here?” is her reflex response.
What is the puzzle? When she and Simon went on a holiday to the shore why were the French children in sharp contrast to their child “sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish, and even vegetables. There’s no shrieking or whining. Everyone is having one course at a time. And there’s no debris around the table.” (Druckerman, p. 2)
Her book is does not offer a new theory of child rearing; instead, it is her attempt to resolve a question about children and education.
”I haven’t got a theory. What I do have, spread out in front of me, is a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents. I’m starting with that outcome and working backward to figure out how the French got there.” (Druckerman, pp. 7-8)
I will leave you to read the book if you choose to see what you think about her conclusions.
The section of the book I was most interested in was how the French approach 4K type programs.
When Simon and Pamela’s daughter turned 3 she entered the local école maternelle, a four day, thirty-six week school for children aged 3 to 6. Participation in l’école maternelle is optional but most parents send their children.
The école maternelle is usually housed in a building purpose-built to be an infant school instead of being located in a handed down elementary school or a church basement since the institution of the école maternelle has been functioning in France since 1881.
There are two interesting comparisons between the French approach to the 4K education and ours.
First, the programs in South Carolina have a variety of providers: school districts, private contractors, and faith based groups and also a variety of supervisors. The SC Department of Education oversees the programs conducted by the school districts while FirstSteps oversees the contractors and faith-based programs. There are also a variety of curriculums: High/Scope, Montessori, Creative Curriculum, and an option for another program.
The design of the program in the école maternelle is much more specific. ”The objective of the école maternelle is to help each child become autonomous and to gain for itself knowledge and competence.” The focus of the knowledge and competence is the acquisition of “oral language, rich, organized, and understandable by others.”
The implementation of the program is up to the individual school, the director and the école’s teachers. And the teachers show the other comparison. Candidates for a teaching position an école maternelle must have the French equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in a specific subject. The candidate then must compete for a seat in university based Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres, leading to the equivalent of a master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education. The teachers have the same wages and benefits as teachers in French elementary and secondary schools, in stark contrast to their Americans cousins who work in early childhood programs where qualifications and pay are low.
In Part 2 we will look at what goes on inside the école maternelle.
Druckerman, Pamela (2012). Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (New York: Penguin)
Shanny Peer, and Burbank, John (2004). Early Education: Lessons from French Écoles Maternelles. Seattle, Washington.
French Ministry of Education (2014). Guide practique pour parents: Mon Enfant à l’école maternelle.
French Ministry of Education (2014). La présentation des programmes à l’école maternelle
Immediately after her birth, a beanie was put on her head; hence the nickname. Her name is Leyla.
 Sort of a spoiler alert: What she found was that you don’t need a different theory of parenting. “You need a very different view of what a child actually is.”