France education

Dealing with French expectations from your child in school

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French school and French education are definitely in a cultural league of their own, as one parent writes -- coloring books define a child's future, competence, and overall fate.

If you adhere to the 'All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten' approach to life, then you'll cut me some slack on the argument I'm about to make, which is going to reduce much of a great nation's behaviour to the child's relationship to the colouring book. 
But hear me out, the primordial of education to French society is important -- nobody disagrees with this one. And education starts with nursery school, yes? And a constant feature of every nursery school classroom is the colouring book, isn't it? So, who's to say the colouring book is not a legitimate topic?
I had this flash of inspiration while recently talking to a veteran expat mother, and family friend, who raised her two sons in France before returning to the US some 20 years ago.
I went to her for advice on schooling because her children were the same age on arrival in France as my children on our arrival, and one of her sons still to this day agrees vociferously when my son lets loose with his favourite gross cultural generalization: "French teachers are mean." 
What's more, these two Franco-American sons share this idea for the same reason, the thing that has become the bête noire of my son's life, the activity that prompted my son the other day to declare himself "doomed": handwriting.
(I tried to explain to him that, in terms of academics, no seven-year-old who can use the word "doomed" correctly in a sentence, in two languages, can possibly be doomed. But he seemed unconvinced.)
My mom-friend first realized something was off at her son's sixth birthday party when the other [French] kids made a point of commenting on his inability to colour inside the lines. She wondered to herself: Why ever would a six-year-old care about another six-year-old's fine motor skills? 
Yet, in that mysterious ability of children to identify and horn in all subtle signs of someone else 'not fitting in', somehow they knew: this boy is not like us. (And, sure enough, he lives in America today.)
She explained that French colouring books of that era included two images on facing pages: the pre-coloured modèle and a second, outline version for the child to colour. For French children, the goal of colouring is not to develop their artistic expression, or even just to keep the little monsters quiet, but to teach them to replicate the model as closely as possible.
Since then, globalisation has hit and French colouring books now feature Dora the Explorer and Scooby-Doo and other royalty-producing trademarks that are printed in China.
But, in terms of child-rearing and educational methodology, two important axioms from this era still apply today and are consistently—in many cases, constantly—repeated to French children: suivez le modèle and don't, just don't, colour outside the lines. American parents may say something about colouring inside the lines, but they don't really mean it like French parents do.
Here is the logic: Colouring outside the lines indicates a lack of precise control of the crayon that will later lead to poor handwriting which equates to poor linguistic expression which leads to poor grades which leads to failure to obtain the correct bac which leads to chômage and, probably, chronic delinquency, which leads to high unemployment and crime rates which leads to the failure of the French social model which makes France look bad to the rest of the world. So, for the sake of the République, make your children colour inside the lines! 
It was apparent from the outset that my own son is not a colour-inside-the-lines kind of kid. And now, sure enough, writing is a terrible chore for him and this is having a bit of a snowball effect on his grades.
The consensus vote amongst my French relatives seems to be that this is my fault for having failed to scold him when he coloured outside the lines when he was younger.
And, to use a French construction, they are not totally wrong: in the context of French schooling, this is the expectation and it's a parent's job to help their children adapt to the context in which the parent has dumped them, however uptight and archaic and crazy-making the rules seem to the parent. 
(Or, conversely, my job may be to pay for outrageously expensive international schools, which is the question I needed advice on in the first place.)
When we arrived three years ago, my father-in-law noticed right away that my son wasn't colouring inside the lines and he nagged me then that this boded ill for future academic success. I shrugged it off: "Ha, ha, silly, old father-in-law." But I understand now what he was talking about.
Or, as my mom-friend explained it to me: French schooling is not about helping the little blossoms bloom. It's about getting them in line so they can become model French citizens. And model French citizens do not colour Dora's hair purple when it's really brown, they don't make the oranges red and the apples orange, and they stay inside the lines.
And what about the fact that model French citizens are sometimes given to dramatic public venting of frustration and resistance, sometimes for reasons not apparent to other nationalities who tend to write it all off as histrionics? Well, that's just the flip side of the coin: it's what happens when you don't let children scribble.
My point here is not to debate the merits of each educational system; French teaching methods seem rigid to me, but I can also see how soft and unfocused American educational philosophies might look to a French person. French children do get out of high school knowing more than their American counterparts.
My question is if indeed I am really capable of helping my children absorb and adapt to French cultural standards?
Because, while I may begin to understand them intellectually, I probably will never really digest all of them: I just don't care if my kids colour outside the lines. As for handwriting, well, typing is much more important. And even spelling is, in my book, a minor virtue in the world of the spell-checker. 
It's like being able to make your own mayonnaise. On the one hand, that's a cool thing to know how to do. But, mostly, who cares? It does not compare to being able to change the oil in your car, for example.
But then my son bursts into tears when I inadvertently sign his school papers with a red pen after the teacher had specified a black or blue pen. What I am supposed to say at this point? 
"Well, son, my deepest apologies for my ignorance of the desired pen colour, and I promise to always have a black or blue pen on hand for future occurrences so that the you and the teacher will know that I respect his authority." 
Or, will my son still turn out a functioning, happy member of French society if I do what I actually do: roll my eyes, sigh heavily, and loudly grumble, "For God's sake, who cares what colour the pen is? I signed it, didn't I?!"
Now, there are uptight teachers everywhere, of course, and lots of expat kids do just fine in the French school system. But ask any expat parent or, for that matter, any former French education minister: French teachers really do have a very specific idea of what is a "good student" or the "right way of doing things".
I also know for a fact that a lot of expat parents stumble over these same questions: partly just because it's your kid and this is the emotional region where all the guilt and anxiety and sense of powerlessness and inadequacy live.
And partly because the French really do have a deeply engrained and differing idea about the colouring book. 
A la prochaine, 

Clair Whitmer / Expatica

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12 Comments To This Article

  • Faye lowley posted:

    on 20th September 2012, 08:44:33 - Reply

    [Edited by moderator] other countries have superb creative talent(who writes the best songs?-Americans and Brits)This surely stems from the fact that the education system allows freedom of choice at an early age and is not regimented from an early age. Regarding school uniform I lived in a country without school uniiform and my kids were harassed for not wearing designer labels. When my kids returned to the UK, they were thrilled to wear uniform. School is a place of learning and uniform actually disciplines cildren in its own way and leaves no room for class distinction. [Edited]
  • Adrian March posted:

    on 19th September 2012, 12:03:51 - Reply

    As a Cambridge graduate in France, I already teach English to adults, and perhaps this explains, somewhat indirectly, why I have recently been asked to give advice on teaching English to French six-year-olds.
  • To be fair though... posted:

    on 22nd May 2012, 23:17:52 - Reply

    As a French national in a mixed nationality couple, I beg to differ. The article would lead you to believe that colouring within the lines is the only "Art" kids do in French Nursery School. That is just not true. French kids also get to do freehand drawing with any colour, paint or format they want and they do bring those home, free of any marking/assessment from the teacher.
    What is true however is that colouring in within the lines is used in schools to teach fine motor skills, so as to learn how to hold a pen and later write their names then the whole alphabet. That does not mean colouring is only valued if done within the lines. It's just a way of using something they like doing so as to teach them handwriting.

    It's funny how we don't get shocked about the same things. When we used to live in England I used to find school ties and blazers very depressing and uniforms in general far more symbolic than pre-formated coloring books! All kids dressed the same like robots... who's driving conformism home there! What if my French kid wants to wear blue jeans, stripy top or espadrilles at school?

    I don't completely disagree with the whole article though, I do find that in French schools, kids have to adapt to the institution excessively, while in British schools, the institution adapts itself to kids to much. I am just not sure which is better, as I have often found the latter inevitably leads to a certain "dumbing down". I remember being told, as a teacher, that some teenage kids ought to be praised for taking their coats off at the start of lessons!

    There must be a compromise somewhere!

  • Gail M posted:

    on 20th October 2011, 12:49:12 - Reply

    I sent Clair Whitmer's excellent article to my daughter-in-law in the U.S. who has two small children. She found the article very interesting and it reminded her of a song by Harry Chapin, whose lyrics follow. I wonder if anyone knows where he got the idea?

    The little boy went first day of school
    He got some crayons and started to draw
    He put colors all over the paper
    For colors was what he saw
    And the teacher said.. What you doin' young man
    I'm paintin' flowers he said
    She said... It's not the time for art young man
    And anyway flowers are green and red
    There's a time for everything young man
    And a way it should be done
    You've got to show concern for everyone else
    For you're not the only one

    And she said...
    Flowers are red young man
    Green leaves are green
    There's no need to see flowers any other way
    Than the way they always have been seen

    But the little boy said...
    There are so many colors in the rainbow
    So many colors in the morning sun
    So many colors in the flower and I see every one

    Well the teacher said.. You're sassy
    There's ways that things should be
    And you'll paint flowers the way they are
    So repeat after me.....

    And she said...
    Flowers are red young man
    Green leaves are green
    There's no need to see flowers any other way
    Than the way they always have been seen

    But the little boy said...
    There are so many colors in the rainbow
    So many colors in the morning sun
    So many colors in the flower and I see every one

    The teacher put him in a corner
    She said.. It's for your own good..
    And you won't come out 'til you get it right
    And all responding like you should
    Well finally he got lonely
    Frightened thoughts filled his head
    And he went up to the teacher
    And this is what he said.. and he said

    Flowers are red, green leaves are green
    There's no need to see flowers any other way
    Than the way they always have been seen

    Time went by like it always does
    And they moved to another town
    And the little boy went to another school
    And this is what he found
    The teacher there was smilin'
    She said...Painting should be fun
    And there are so many colors in a flower
    So let's use every one

    But that little boy painted flowers
    In neat rows of green and red
    And when the teacher asked him why
    This is what he said.. and he said

    Flowers are red, green leaves are green
    There's no need to see flowers any other way
    Than the way they always have been seen.
  • Ruby posted:

    on 11th October 2011, 04:57:06 - Reply

    Whilst living in France I was amazed to see a friend's child come home from day care (he was 3) with signs "Arete l'ecole", "On dis NON". They were 'play' striking! The teachers had them marching in circles!!! At the same time she would get notes about clean yet stained t-shirts.
    Very, very different value system, it is important to not rage against the confines our culture presents to us.
    Now home in Australia, last weekend I put orange juice and ice cubes in my white wine. Oh the scandal! Non, non, non, that doesn't compare to a Kir!
  • ronny posted:

    on 6th October 2011, 17:13:05 - Reply

    Excellent article . As a previous employer of many European staff and graduates , I found the French candidates to be excellent at cartesian problem solving (and handwriting ! , but lacking in expression, lateral thinking and team work, compared to their European counterparts. When my kids started school in France I started to understand why.
  • Gail Meyers posted:

    on 6th October 2011, 15:13:25 - Reply

    My husband and I retired to Alsace 10 yrs. ago (can't believe it). Last year we tried to find a coloring book for our 3 year old granddaughter in the U.S. All we could find everywhere here in France were coloring books with one scene to color on one page and a colored in version of the same scene opposite. We asked ourselves - why would anyone do this? Why would they not want kids to be creative and choose colors for themselves. We never dreamed any school system would get excited if a 6 year old colored outside the lines. We would think they were on a natural learning curve. Also, not all children are interested in coloring at all; which is fine but how do the French take this in consideration? I can't imagine why any education system would put so much stress starting at so young an age. There's enough stress later in school.
  • rastrad posted:

    on 5th October 2011, 16:58:50 - Reply

    Thanks for the article - if only I could have read it a year ago, it would have helped me no end!
    You put your finger on something I've come to realise but which I've not been able to articulate until now. Last year I looked after my 20-month-old for a couple of months (his Mum, my daughter was out of action following brain surgery). The commune allpwed me to put his name down for the Halte Garderie (yes, this is what the pre-maternelle creche is called) for an hour each morning on 3 days a week. He was already very sociable having been to various nurseries or creches from the age of 9 months and it would have been rather sad for a toddler, alone with me and my husband (we had only recently moved here and didn't know anyone we could reasonably interact with).
    So from early September to mid-October I took Nicolas to the Halte Garderie and, in the event, I stayed at there for an hour or even two. With 22 toddlers between 8 weeks and 3 years old and 3-4 employees they seemed to be glad of an extra pair of hands and eyes, It was also enriching for me as I had no idea how something like this was run. Anyway, my (admittedly narrow) experience during the 12 times we went there led me to the conclusion that the goal of the thing seemed to be to regiment the little people (perhaps that's why the place is called HG – I asked lots of people but nobody could tell me why!). The entire establishment was intent on trimming their charges (that's what they called them) into being like everyone else. There was very little "free" activity. I was fairly amazed at what toddlers of this age can be brought to if one really insists. For instance, EVERYONE had to sit down for a quarter of an hour after the 11 o'clock snack and they weren't allowed to move from the place where they were sitting. The older ones accepted this as a fact of life. The snack would be worth a paragraph of description but I don't want to bore anyone who's read this far.
    It left me feeling v. sad on the walk home.
  • Anonymously Yours posted:

    on 5th October 2011, 15:13:40 - Reply

    "French children do get out of high school knowing more than their American counterparts."
  • Walter posted:

    on 5th October 2011, 12:44:07 - Reply

    Excellent article. Thanks.
    I find the French school system good, but indeed too rigid.
    I also wish the kids would not get so much homework: my 7 year old son has to do work at home every day. Could they not shorten the summer holidays a bit? Instead of those long days, could they not let the children go to school on Wednesday morning?
    Anyway, thanks for a great article!
  • LB posted:

    on 5th October 2011, 11:59:14 - Reply

    My son entered French school at age 8 (CM2), speaking no French whatsoever. During the first week the teacher finally mustered up enough English to tell him "You write like a pig."
  • Katie H posted:

    on 3rd October 2011, 14:42:24 - Reply

    This is a great article, thank you!

    I (or rather my son!) is just embarking on the maternelle path and he is definitely not the colour within the lines type of kid either. I have been wondering also whether a lack of pals in the classroom maybe due in part to the lack of expressive, playfulness (unruliness or badly behaved to French eyes?) seen in his UK pals or whether it is just early days and I am expecting too much. I thought a little French discipline might be good for him but I am having doubts now. However, I think this particular school is maybe less intent on bashing the creative out of kids than some...
    I'll certainly be wary of using the red pen!