France’s simple solution to curbing helicopter parents makes life better for women

Trust your schools, save your marriage.
Trust your schools, save your marriage.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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Helicopter parenting may be ruining the American marriage, but the same cannot be said for France. The French state simply does not allow hovering mamans and papas hooked on the US-driven religion of parenting—and America would do well to follow suit.

In the French schoolroom, moms and dads are sensibly kept at an arm’s length, dropping their little treasures at the door as early as 8:20am and only returning at 4:30pm or later to pick them up. Open-door policies do not exist and teachers work without the incessant parental input common in the US. Hours spent chatting every afternoon with overbearing moms is not part of the job description.

If you send your small child to public school in France—as the vast majority do—you entrust them to the state.

Being a helicopter parent has become an onerous and insidious duty in the US. Cosseted kids and guilt-ridden, over-stressed mothers are none the happier for it. Meanwhile, the school system and society exploits the unpaid labor of (mostly) moms.

Having recently moved from Paris to Washington DC, I have been gobsmacked by the constant demands placed on parents to regularly invade their children’s educational establishment. If your offspring attends a good public elementary school, you will pay dearly for it with your time and money, if not your professional aspirations (like many qualified women I have met here).

There are well-intentioned but constant invitations to take over the teacher’s role by giving classes on music and geography or hosting book-reading sessions. Add to that weekly events held after the morning bell: musical performances, fundraising drives, bake-offs, gardening bees, parent-teacher meetings held during working hours, weekly assemblies, class fundraising cocktails, schoolroom parties and frequent excursions.

Of course, if you work full-time you cannot attend—but how does your kid feel when 80% of the other moms and a tiny smattering of dads turn up? The system is evidently grossly unfair to single moms and poorer families.

And did anyone mention email overload?

Many parents receive more online, written, and recorded phone communications from schools than they do from their employers! School vacations are less frequent than in France, but still there is an early dismissal or day off every other week. And of course, you need to prepare a daily packed school lunch because the school fare is hardly appetizing or healthful.

In structural terms, moms are being conscripted out of work and an existence beyond their maternal dimension. They are then forcibly channeled into a school system starved of funds, teachers, general staff, gardens, play equipment, books and basic supplies. For this we can thank the society-wide and Republican-specific skepticism or downright hatred of quality public education for all.

Yet why don’t more US citizens consider paying higher taxes to fund better education and childcare instead of taking advantage of moms?

The pressure I have felt to give up work as a mother of two young children has been oppressive. Childcare is scarce, very expensive, and often far away. There are few or no tax breaks for it, and school hours are work-unfriendly for mothers. These factors combine to create the desperate housewife/soccer/helicopter mom—and middle and upper-middle class marriages that are too often built along the lines of having a traditional male breadwinner.

The US came embarrasingly low on a 2011 list of  OECD countries, ranked in terms of work-life balance and has since slipped further to almost the bottom of the ladder—after all, someone has to do the “wife’s work.”

But in France, which has been cited as exemplary by Barack Obama among others for its maternity leave provisions—and which came in at number 10 (I would suggest that for women, at least, the score should be higher)—childcare centers are carefully vetted and aided by the state. Nannies are plentiful, qualified, and attract generous tax credits.

School starts with universal, free preschool or école maternelle open to children from age three (and often slightly younger).

The French preschool system has high pedagogical standards, doubles as childcare and offers tasty, nutritious subsidized three-course lunches.

School hours are work-friendly too, 4:30pm is the usual knock-off time but twice a week the Paris school day ends just after 3pm so that children can enjoy an hour of free after-school activities like classical dance, gardening, drama, chess, language classes and more. After-school care is on-site and universally available at sliding fee scales that are a fraction of the US cost. The same deal applies during school vacations.

Divorce rates are still high in France, but a tendency toward helicopter parenting can’t be blamed. Importantly, becoming a mother does not change a woman’s life so drastically—and is not supposed to—the way it does here in the US.

In France, you are expected to retain your femininity as well as your personal and professional life, and not feel guilty about it. Kids are not king—as Pamela Druckerman so eloquently showed in her book Bringing up Bebe—and moms have at least equal billing. Ferrying your children around to endless after-school classes and sporting events is not esteemed nor widely practiced.

So how can American moms have what French women have?

First, parents should campaign to lengthen the school day. The staffing costs associated with an extra hour to 90 minutes including regular cultural ateliers and sport, would require a small budget increase for public education at the state and national level. But the developmental benefit for kids and the economic and wellbeing payoff for parents  is likely to be much greater. Why not bring in an extended school day and school year, an approach advocated by the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Republicans such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie? Despite budgetary constraints Chicago managed to increase the school day to seven hours by allowing teachers to arrive at the same time as students.

Richard Barth, CEO of the Kipp Foundation, running more than 100 charter schools nationally, says Kipp has been offering extended days and school years since it began two decades ago. ‘‘Our extended calendar isn’t just about academics. We also provide a variety of activities, like sports, performing and visual arts. These are the kinds of activities that affluent families are able to make available for their children outside of school; we believe students from low-income families should have access to the same high-quality enrichment opportunities.’’ More school time needs to go hand in hand with quality employer-subsidized childcare and generous public investment in creches. Maybe this is a pipe dream now—but only this will deliver genuine equality and choice to American women and children over the longterm.

American helicopter mothers need to take advice from their French sisters. Get out of kids’ classrooms and into pursuing professional and personal interests—or perhaps devote your organizational and campaigning skills to improving childcare and education for all. It will be better for you and your children. After all, public school is not supposed to be half home-schooling. Kids need to learn autonomy and resilience without mommy always hanging around.

Best of all, mothers will force American society and the government to assume its responsibilities when it comes to education, and take away at least one glaring source of unhappy or broken marriages.