Feb 20th, 2023, 12:00 PM

What I've Learned as a Nanny in Paris

By Madeline Eslinger
Image credit: Unsplash/Kirsten Drew
Have you ever wondered what it's like to be raised in Paris? As an American nannying in Paris, here are some differences I've observed.

You know those really intimidating French teenagers who travel in groups and almost trample you on your way home after your 3:20pm classes? Or even worse, the little kids walking hand in hand with their parents sporting a better wardrobe than you have ever dreamed of having? They exist in that moment not to be the receiving end of our American envy, but because primary and secondary school in France ends between 4pm and 5pm every day.

As an American, I couldn't imagine suffering through school all day just to get out and already be facing the evening, but therein lies a difference between raising children in France and America. As a nanny of a French couple and their twin toddler girls, I picked up on some parenting tactics that have shocked me, and others that have changed my mindset on what good parenting should look like. Being able to watch how the French grow up and are taught to live has given me insight and grown my understanding of everyday aspects of French life.

The day I started my nanny job, right off the bat I felt out of place as a person who's provided childcare before, not because I was unknowledgeable, but because the expectations the parents had for what my role would be was wildly different than what I had experienced in the past.

In Europe in general, it's regular practice to hire a live-in caregiver, known as an au pair. For those who can't fit another full time adult into their lives, they hire a nanny. But the expectation for nannies in French culture is to be an active participant in not just the children's lives, but the family's life. So my very first day actually caring for the girls, I wasn't alone, but sharing the responsibility of the children for the night with the parents. We played as a group, ate dinner as a group and changed and prepared the girls for bed as a group. It was an odd experience, like I was an extension of the family instead of someone simply there to do the dirty work or watch over the kids while the parents were busy. 

This side-by-side method actually proved to be necessary for me, because the methods of caring for the girls are unfamiliar to much of what I've seen back in the States. I quickly learned that for French families, food is not divided between "adult food" and "kid's food". The kids eat the same dinners as their parents and their palates are expanded often beyond even what I choose to eat as an full grown college student. The girls first receive a main dish, usually some sort of carbohydrate like rice or pasta, with a sauce comprised of assortments of vegetables and meats, seasoned with flavorful spices that my parents never would have dreamed of putting in my food as a child. Then they are given a side, which was usually some sort of fruit, bread or their personal favorite: cheese.

I found myself in particular awe as the parents brought out assortments of brie, gouda and parmesan cheese for the girls as they screamed "Fromage! Fromage!" at the top of their lungs. They inhaled their servings as their mother offered me kinds of cheeses that I had never heard of. Finally, they brought out dessert, usually some sort of cake or pudding, which oddly did not excite the girls nearly as much as the cheese. The point being, for children at age two, they ate nutritious and flavorful multi-course meals instead of bland and soft foods, which impresses me beyond compare. 

I also find it interesting when they eat versus what they eat. As most Americans quickly learned when we arrive in France, the French typically don't eat dinner until later in the night, between 8pm and 11pm. What interests me from the childcare perspective is that this pattern doesn't really alter when children are put into the mix. Kids are expected to fit into their parents' schedules and not the other way around. So if they're going to school, it needs to be later in the day so that the parents can pick up their kids without disrupting their work schedules. This explains the 5 o'clock rush hour, but also the fact that the kids we see on the way home are sporting pastry or fruit as a late-afternoon snack. French children are typically given three meals a day plus a snack, which has to last them until their late dinners around 8. It was just mind-boggling to me to watch these toddlers eat dinner at an hour that my family back home would consider a very late supper. 

What can make me mildly uncomfortable in the home are the sanitation standards that the parents use throughout the day. I've experienced situations such as the parents teaching the girls to cough and sneeze into their hands rather than their elbows, something my mom would've chewed me out for as a kid. While at first this grossed me out, it gives me a easy way to pick out who's French and who's foreigner when observing people cough on the metro. It's never anything alarming, just different and it opens my eyes to different mindsets of what is best for each family's children. 

The most interesting thing I picked up from nannying was the way in which the French raise their kids to be independent by letting them learn at their own pace and by the hard way. Most of the time, the children are taught the Montessori way, from learning the ABC's, to walking, to potty training. Kids aren't expected to follow a strict timeline, and learn by doing, which enables them to be much more independent both in the house and in school. They aren't necessarily unsupervised, but they lead the train while the adults provide support. Knowing this is a typical upbringing, it helps me understand why it's normal for French elementary students to take themselves to school or secondary students leaving school often with a more vast and enriched education. 

I can say with absolute honesty that while having a nanny job in a foreign country is one of the hardest things I've ever done, I've also gained so many insights to French culture that I never would have had without an insider perspective. If you're looking for that enrichment opportunity, don't shy away from it, because it's all the more powerful to experience cultural differences than to simply see them.