We’re English with children who behave French-ish…

Watching your children grow up with another national culture is a curiosity to many parents. Gillian Harvey and Emily Commander speak to families about the differences they have noticed

I've warned my son if he wags his finger during an argument in the UK, he may get punched

The Cooper children settled into their new life in France quickly, and were fluent within a year
The Cooper children settled into their new life in France quickly, and were fluent within a year

Alex and Catherine Cooper, Ariège

TV DIRECTOR Alex, 51, and freelance writer Catherine, 44, moved to France in 2009 with their two young children, Toby, now 13, and Livi, now 11, in the hope of enjoying a better quality of life, as well as the chance to ski more regularly.

Six years on, and the family are happy and settled; but what has the experience been like for the children?

“Both of the children settled in quite quickly once we arrived. Livi’s first report noted that she listened, but didn’t speak, but within a year both children were pretty much fluent,” said Catherine.

As well as the gift of a second language, living in France has also meant the children have different behaviour and interests than they would have had in England. “Livi is really into circus skills,” said Catherine. “She does a week’s course during the holidays each year, and she watches tutorial videos on YouTube as well.

“Because her friends are into it, she decided to try it out. I don’t think she would be doing that if we still lived in England.

“They’re also very good skiers as they ski every week during winter – something which obviously wouldn’t have been possible in the UK.”

“Livi also has hot chocolate at breakfast, in a bowl rather than a cup, which is obviously more of a French thing.”

Toby, whom Catherine feels is more of an independent spirit has also displayed a few mannerisms picked up this side of the Channel.

“He does the French ‘finger-wag’ at me sometimes,” explained Catherine, “which I absolutely hate. I’ve had to tell him, too, that if he goes back to the UK and does it during an argument when he’s bigger, he may well get punched.”

However, despite their immersion in French culture, the pair have been raised in a very British household.

“Alex and I do speak French, but we’re far from fluent,” added Catherine. “Sometimes I get the kids to ask something on my behalf, because their pronunciation is so much better.

We also have British TV as well as French, lots of English books and tend to go back to the UK as a family around once a year, during which time I’ll try to take them to the theatre, so the kids are really immersed in British culture too.

“I feel that both countries have so much to offer, so I wouldn’t like them to miss out on their English culture. I’d like them to spend time in the UK in the future, and keep in touch with their heritage.

“It would sadden me if they lost their Britishness entirely.”

They don't see the point in birthday cards

The Wallace family, Lyon

BEN and Sandrine Wallace are struck by the French manners of their sons Alexi, eight, and Hugo, five, who have been in France since March 2011.

When they greet adults, both boys now lean in automatically to be kissed before skittering off again. Ben has found this difficult to get used to: he would prefer them to look the adult in the eye and to shake their hand, but knows that this would come across particularly stiffly to the French eye.

Mealtimes have revealed some differences in manners, too. Baffled as to why his sons had begun to eat meals with their elbows resting on the table, a taboo in polite English households, Ben discovered that, whereas in England children would be taught to keep their hands below the table, in France precisely the opposite would be expected. This difference is said to date from an era where people regularly carried guns.

In France, keeping your hands above the table proved that you were not wielding a firearm. In England, asking someone you were dining with to show their hands would have been a mark of mistrust, and therefore rude.

Sandrine and Ben have also noticed the influence of French culture on their sons’ emotions. “In England, we teach our children to speak as levelly as possible,” explained Ben, “and we try to encourage them to keep their emotions in check.

“French children, however, are accustomed to hearing their parents incorporating a high degree of passion into their speech. If they are angry or upset you can hear it immediately in their tone.”

The Wallaces have noticed that when the boys speak French, they can quickly sound upset, and arguments will become fiery more quickly than in English.

Social niceties also vary between the two countries. If the Wallaces eat at friends’ houses they tend to write a thank you card afterwards. French people, on the other hand, find this approach indirect and prefer to thank their host in person. When Alexi and Hugo are asked to write a card for someone’s birthday, they struggle to see the point, particularly since the card itself would be greeted with bafflement by its French recipient.

From the opposite perspective, Romain and Rachael Dupont, who are raising their French family in London, find their children’s enthusiasm for sending cards perplexing: “the birthday cards are endless,” Romain says.

Son's confidence in travelling is due to growing up in two countries

Nick and Helen Stothard, Charente

Helen Stothard
Helen Stothard

THE Stothards moved to France in 2001 when their eldest son Jamie, now 23, was nine.

“Jamie was a year off starting Secondary School, so we felt we either came then, or waited until they’d all finished their education,” said Estate Agent Helen, 49.

“As Nick runs a business in China and commutes to the country, we weren’t tied to the UK.”

Fourteen years down the line, and he and the other children – Lexie, 22, Charlie, 18 and Jasper, 15 – have all adapted well to growing up in France and benefited from the richness of two different cultures.

“Jamie loves travelling – he’s been to China, and spent three months in Australia last year,” said Nick, 50. “He’s now moved to the UK because he feels it might be a better place to start a business. I think his confidence in travelling is in part due to his growing up in two different countries.”

Nick Stothard
Nick Stothard

“Lexie is also in the UK at present attending university,” said Helen. “She’s studying French and Event Management; it’s much more common for French people to speak good English than for English people to speak good French, so her prospects are better in England.”

“Interestingly, it’s our youngest, Jasper, who is the most ‘British’ of them all,” said Helen.

“His French is fluent as he came here as a baby but his demeanour is very British. I think it’s to do with sociability rather than time spent here. For example, Jasper wouldn’t automatically go and shake someone’s hand, whereas Charlie would do that automatically.”

“Charlie will also always watch films in French, whereas Jasper prefers watching in English.”

Interestingly, the children have also introduced their friends to some English tastes. “A lot of Lexie’s friends are now quite ‘English’,” said Helen. “They love our tea – strong and with milk.”

Overall, the family’s experience of France has been positive. “I feel that there’s a 20-30 year difference in culture from the UK.

“The kids can go and play out with no issues, climb trees, make dens – things they wouldn’t have done in the UK.

“Activities don’t cost much; and they’ve grown up surrounded by animals, which they’d not have done in the UK.”

She's reluctant to do the bises, she prefers a south London 'alright?'

Will Brown and Louisa Zanoun, Paris

Will and Louisa’s daughter Ruby, seven, has changed her relationship with food since moving with her parents to Paris. It is not just that she would happily tuck into a plate of snails, but also that she expects every mealtime to have three courses, even at school.

“Obviously, this is a far healthier approach,” observes Will: “children are expected to eat a proper balanced diet here, although I still find it hard to accept that Ruby does not consider a meal to have been completed until she has eaten a dessert. Back in England, a meal could very well have consisted of a single course”.

Ruby embodies a strange paradox in the way French children eat. On the one hand, they may expect to finish an entire plate of grated carrot as a starter, and eyebrows would be raised if the main course came out of the freezer, but on the other hand none of the parents seem to mind that refined sugar takes up a considerable portion of their daily calorific intake.

Louisa said that Ruby would now be quite upset if she was not presented with her goûter at the end of the school day, but that this extra meal, usually brioche or biscuits, seemed to consist of nothing but sugar, something that many English parents would be keen to avoid.

In some ways, though, Ruby has retained her English identity. She is, for example, reluctant to “do the bises”, preferring a more South London “alright?” as a greeting.

She also remains very natural when speaking English, even in front of her French friends. When asked whether Ruby identified more as a French or an English child, her parents said that she might give different answers on different days, adapting her identity to any given situation.

It would be interesting, they said, to see how Oscar, her baby brother, felt, when he reached Ruby’s age given that, unlike his sister, he had been born in France.

We could end up with French grandchildren

Davinia and Steph Davies, Limousin

The Davies family
Davinia and Steph Davies and family

IT WAS during the recession in 2010 that Davinia, 37, and Steph, 42, decided to make the move to France with daughters Olivia, now 16, Chloe, now six and Hannah, now four.

“We’d been going through a rough patch – Steph had lost his job as a bank manager,” said Davinia. “We already owned a holiday home here, so we decided to take the plunge.”

As eldest daughter, Olivia, was 11 when they moved, the couple decided to ask for advice as to what was best for her educationally.

“We went to the local school when we arrived to ask what was best for her,” said Steph.

“They advised us to keep her in the junior school rather than start at the college; which gave her a chance to work on her language. Because ‘redoubling’ is common here, she wasn’t the only one in her class.”

The girls, now fluent in French and fully immersed in the local culture, have picked up a few French customs along the way. “They’re all regimental about goûter,” said Davinia.

“It gets to 3.30pm, and if they’re at home, they’re demanding it.

“Olivia has also picked up the Gallic shrug – very French.”

The family also feel that the education system in France is a positive one.

“Education seems to be taken more seriously here by pupils; and of course there’s always the threat of redoubling in the back of their minds,” added Steph.

With Olivia now in her teens and in a relationship, the couple have also considered the prospect of eventually welcoming a French son-in-law into their family, as well as having grandchildren who will be – to all intents and purposes – culturally different from themselves.

“We’ve thought about the fact we might end up with French grandchildren one day,” said Davinia.

“But we’re not a family that surrounds ourselves with other English families: we want to be part of the community and do our best to integrate.

“So we’d be more than happy – although not just yet!”

The main way we keep in touch with England is The Railway Children

Amanda Le Magoariec, Lyon

AMANDA met her French husband, Nico, when she was already living in France and, consequently, in many ways their two children, Thomas, nine, and Emma, six, have grown up more French than English.

They speak in French to one another and will usually respond to their parents in French even if addressed in English.

Their food tastes are indistinguishable from those of their French friends, too, with Thomas in particular being a big fan of what Amanda calls “stinky” cheese.

Since her children hardly have any contact with England or English children, Amanda’s primary means of keeping them in touch with her English roots are books.

She reads to them, and they themselves read, all her childhood favourites, and so they are growing up on a diet of My Naughty Little Sister, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Worst Witch and The Railway Children.

“It’s funny,” said Amanda, “but this probably means that their idea of England is stuck in the 1950s, or even earlier. It must seem like a terribly old-fashioned place! They love those stories, though.”

Since moving from Nantes to Lyon, Thomas and Emma have attended an international school, where they have alternate weeks taught in French and English and, bizarrely for their English mother, they participate in exchanges to the UK.

“They definitely prefer the English week,” said Amanda.

“There’s a greater range of subjects taught and the classroom setting is much less formal. English is also their language of fun.

“Thomas, for example, usually prefers French, but if he makes up a joke, it’s in English”.

This ability to adapt identities and languages to different situations shows a maturity and a flexibility that should stand them well in later life, she said.

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