Maternal worries about France's 'maternelle' schools

With her daughter soon to start her education in France, the Monitor's Europe bureau chief grew concerned over a study that suggests the French's documented pessimism is learned in school.

Charles Platiau/Reuters
Children walk past a huge red ball which is installed outside a cafe near the Centre Pompidou modern art museum, also known as Beaubourg, in Paris last month. The ball is part of an art project by artist Kurt Perschke.

Yes, images of fresh baguettes and varieties of cheese I could never conceive of filled my head as I contemplated relocating to Paris. But I’ve been most thrilled about French school.

This is clearly not scientific. But I’ve envied “European education” since my first game of Trivial Pursuit with my husband, a Spaniard. I’ll spare myself from revealing too much and just say that he smoked me.

The French people I know continuously confirm the hunch that they just simply know more, or at least more about the world in which we live. One friend told me high school was the most demanding time period of her life, even though she has a master's degree and has lived in three foreign countries.

I have a daughter who will eventually be attending French school.  And I’ve imagined what that means for her education. I’ve also formed notions of the social aspects, mostly from the book “Bringing up Bebe” by Pamela Druckerman, an American journalist and mother in France. Granted, her book focuses on one upper-socio-economic bracket and it’s anecdotal, just like this blog. But she paints a picture of little tots who eat beets and blue cheese and – having continuously received tough love from their parents and caretakers – never throw food in restaurants. “Imagine that,” I said to my husband, almost giddy.

So it was with a certain sinking feeling that I stumbled upon a study by French economist Claudia Senik, who seeks to understand why the French are among the world’s gloomiest pessimists. One of her theories is that the French are taught to be unhappy in a school system that is overly rigorous and rigid. “I knew it was too good to be true,” I told my husband.

As early as this fall, my daughter will be starting the “maternelle,” the all-day public preschool for kids between the ages of 3 and 6 in France. They are raved about, not just for the support they give to working parents but for the social skills they instill, and for providing the building blocks of a French public school education.

And yet, I had wondered about the hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. That’s a long day. And how strict are they anyway?

I met Ms. Senik in her office. She certainly didn’t look gloomy. Wearing a cheerful, peach top, she smiled often. I asked her if she herself was a pessimist. She said no, but she happened to excel at the subjects that are prioritized in the French education system. Then, after the main interview was over, I asked if I’d be creating a pessimist by enrolling my child in school.

“How old is she?” she asked, and when I told her she’ll be turning 3 this year, she said, “no, you’ll be fine, she’ll be in the maternelle.” Apparently the gloom-inducing demands of school begin later – at elementary school.

It’s hard to believe on the face of things, since what I’ve loved most about Paris so far is how stimulating it is for kids. There are parks at every corner, it seems. There are open fields to play in and gardens with flowers to smell. There are play centers for when it rains. There are amazing public pools. And all of these places are full of happy kids. I feel like my daughter has experienced more in the past month than she has her entire life. And she seems to be loving it too.

I’ve signed her up for school, knowing that it will be a long day in a foreign language and that it will be far more structured – and thus demanding – than anything she’s yet experienced. But I remain thrilled about it, about the exposure to French, to peers who eat whatever their parents are eating as a norm, and about the prospect of an ace Trivial Pursuit partner later in life.

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