Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. France is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your French language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, the French value family, cherishing the close relationship with children often living at home well into adulthood.
French views on the family are rooted in a sense of family identity and society. This is in stark contrast to the Anglo-Saxon emphasis on individuality. The effect of this attitude is seen throughout France.
In Anglo-Saxon communities, it is common to see families that encourage expression of individual talents and personality. This sense of individualism does not reject belief in the family, as a unit. It recognizes that each person can be unique. They are encouraged to emphasize being their own person.
French families place a greater emphasis on the family and the importance of each family member to be a model citizen. Individuals that conform to societal norms that the family accepts are considered contributors to a strong family in a strong French society.
The relationships between members of French families remain close, even after the children become adults. Adult sons and daughters generally stay close to the family home. It is common for them to dine with their parents weekly and call them daily.
Encouraging social identity for French families can be more important than self-expression. This does not mean that French parents are less loving of each member of their family. They love them and dote on them as much as any parent, but with different desired outcomes. They place a greater emphasis on adhering to attitudes and values that conform to society norms instead of individuality. Doing this helps to lessen the concerns they have that a potential breakdown in society might threaten those standards.
French families are traditionally well-integrated. Some children still stay with their parents until marriage: it’s not uncommon to see three or four generations living in the same household. Otherwise, family members tend to live reasonably close and meet regularly for Sunday lunch or during festivals.
The French family is also very private. Only the most intimate friends are brought into family gatherings, and to be invited is a great honor.
On the national level, France likes to think of herself as a national family, bound together under the French flag by French experience and, above all, by the French language.
At the same time (remember the ability to live with inconsistency), the French feel that the security of the family is no bar to sexual license. Marital fidelity isn’t expected, and the French are mildly amused at the American and British media uproar that ensues when politicians are caught cheating.
France is no longer a ‘Catholic country’; illegitimacy carries no stigma (except among strict Catholics), and “living in sin” (unmarried couples living together) is not a problem at all.
What concerns them most is discretion, so that the dignity and integrity of the family are preserved.
Raising a family in France is different from in America. French parents, particularly in the middle class, are stricter than American parents. The amount of freedom of movement that American children enjoy is not common in France.
French parents do not indulge children. They enforce order by teaching their kids when to speak and listen. If a French child acts poorly, it reflects on the family. Parents teach their children that certain behaviors are unacceptable.
Children are taught the difference between being well brought up and being badly brought up. Author Polly Platt wrote in French or Foe? that French mothers will not hesitate to point out stupidity, poor manners, inappropriate reactions, or problems with the appearance of children.
This approach to raising a family in France has stood the test of time even though there have been changes in society. These changes include an increase in single parent homes, children born out of wedlock, and more women participating in the workforce. Even with all of these changes, the underlying view on how to raise children remains the same.
One issue that has become a concern is the idea that there are two societies in France. They are the “haves” and the “have nots.” Youth in France have become disaffected by a society that does not offer them the economic opportunities that their parents had. The 1995 film La Haine highlighted this problem and served as a warning to French society that there are problems that need to be addressed. Regular bursts of violence in the “banlieues” (suburbs) show that those problems are still acute.
Many Americans hold onto stereotypes about French personal relationships and the hierarchy of who is dominant between a husband and wife. They think that in French families, the husband is at the top of the pecking order and that the mother is always second to him, her role being to maintain an interest in happiness of her children and the well-being of her grandchildren.
As times change and parity becomes more of an accepted part of society, there is greater balance between husbands and wives. Changes in society and progress on issues of equality between men and women have not extended to the children. Parents still maintain tight control over their children. Most French children understand the importance of not doing anything to disrespect or disobey their parents.
French families tend to stay more closely connected to their relatives than they do in the United States or in England. While this is not always the case, American families tend to be scattered throughout the country. Not a lot of thought is given to keeping everyone physically close. French families live in the same area, developing large numbers of contacts and people who can rely on each other for support.
This structured environment and this sense of order and rigidity is not universal. There are individuals and families who do not live close to relatives and who do not adhere to the generally accepted views on parenting in France. But, these people are exceptions to the common traits found in most French families.