Vacances scolaires

Theo, my four-year-old son, heaved a huge sigh and fell back into his pillows. “It’s good it’s vacation time, mama, because I have to say. I am ex-hausted.”

There have been a few occasions when I have realized, really realized, that my little boy is French. Once his father tried to pass of an almond croissant as a pain au chocolate, which almost caused a full-body meltdown: Mais c’est pas normal papa! Regarde c’est pas chocolat à l’intérieur!  Then there was the time he saw his friend cross the street (with his father mind you) without a green walk signal. Theo fumed: Does he not know the rule? And of course the Sunday before Christmas I told him we could go to the flower shop because it had an ouverture exceptionnelle. Why are they open on a Sunday? he wondered. It’s family time.

But something about school vacations brings his Gallic nature into even sharper relief. He is deeply cognizant of his vacations in a way I don’t think American kids are. As soon as one holiday is over he asks when the next will arrive. He is always looking over the hump of her brutal pre-k course load (the popsicle stick house he made last week nearly killed him), to the respite of time off. Once the vacation arrives he becomes entirely indolent: impossible to get out of pajamas, begging for the TV, even resistant to going to the park. I look at him and wonder if he isn’t headed toward mid-level management at a Peugeot plant, clocking in his 35-hour work week then fleeing to a cottage in Normandy for his nine weeks of annual vacation.

          Has that snowman been drinking?

Part of the problem is that French kids get vacation after every six weeks of school. They have two weeks off in early November, two weeks at Christmas, two weeks in early March and two weeks in early May. Granted the school year runs to late June, but the year is still deeply fragmented. So is the week. Here children get Wednesdays off—originally to receive religious instruction, now to be carted around my an exhausted parent. These kids are always gearing up or winding down. There is no momentum to work life.

In addition to teaching children that work is fleeting but inescapable, this system also creates an enormous burden for the working mother’s of France. They are constantly grappling with what to do with their children on Wednesdays, on vacations and even for lunch when some children still come home to eat. Although some 80 percent of French women work, many of them remain part-time even beyond the first few years of their childrens’ lives because they are always scrambling for care. I think that’s why there are so few female executives in France.

Recently France has fallen in the OECD world education rankings and that along with the economic crisis and lack of entrepreneurial spirit on the country has caused much soul searching. French children aren’t getting proper educations anymore, experts bellowed on television, something must be done!

So in late February the Education Minister, Vincent Peillon, announced that he would…wait for it….shorten the summer break to six weeks from eight, possibly reinstate classes on Saturday mornings and shorten the school day by 45 minutes. With that announcement you could feel the collective what-the-fuck gene of an entire nation activate. If one of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recommendations in her famous Atlantic Monthly article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All is that the school day more closely mirrors the work day, then the French government decided to run in the opposite direction. Working women be damned.

It is true that French children aren’t getting the educations they should. They spend more time in school than many of their European counterparts but they don’t emerge with the spark and creativity to create new companies or concepts. School in France is stressful, highly competitive and run on a winner-takes-all attitude. Teachers belittle students in shocking ways. What’s worse there are almost no sports or arts, even in elite schools, so children really are broken at the end of their long, monotonous days of memorizing things.

But cutting the school day and denying kids a real summer break is not the solution and, I suspect, not even cost effective for the cash-strapped French government. In the end, all the breaks during the year and the measly summer vacation will make life for French children even more fragmented, disorienting and coma-inducing than it already is. Work will never be integrated into life and children will never learn that work, which Freud believed to be a pillar of happiness on par with love, can be one of the great joys of life.

                               Mama, when is vacation?


What to do with your children during the vacations. (If you live in Paris)

Let them eat cake! Make cakes during the year and on the vacation. For adults too. Cake l’atelier, cours cusine enfants. 11-13 rue George Bernard Shaw, 75015 Paris.

Kid Jam, 26 Rue Vavin, 75006. For babies and bigger kids. Dance to music.

The Koenig Music School has bilingual “music camps” in the morning during vacations.33, rue Fondary 75015.

A place to become a great French artist during the vacations. Atelier4Kids. Rue Grenelle 75007

L’atelier pour enfants, Musée d’Orsay: The museum runs workshops for kids from 5-18 year old. Quai d’Orsay, 75007.

American Theatre of Paris. 15 ave. de Montaigne, 75008. Theo does this program from time to time and he loves Erin Colson who runs the workshops.

Little Tykes Theatre runs a theatre program during the November, Winter, Spring and Summer breaks. 35 Rue saint Roch, 75001.

Martial Arts. Dojo de Grenelle, 21-23 rue de l’Amiral Roussin, 15eme

Take a skateboarding class! Paris Skate Culture. 29 rue au Maire 75003.

Tennis classes for kids older than four years old, most are next to Avenue Foche and Porte Dauphine in the tony 16th arrondissement:

My list is skewed to the 7th and 15th arrondissements which is my neighborhood. For citywide stuff check out activities organised by the Mairie de Paris:

The Mayor’s office organizes sports and cultural activities for children.

Also, this book offers great commentary on French education: On Achève Bien Les Ecoliers They Shoot Schoolkids, Don’t They? by Peter Gumbel


  • Jay

    This is a fascinating read. Being a former teacher & having spent 2 years living in Gabon amongst many French families gave me a little insight into the French system of which I, of course, formed opinions but I never really looked into it much further. I was offered a job teaching English at a French school in the city we lived in and I spent a morning observing and checking out the school. I was absolutely shocked at the way children were treated by their teachers. It was so cut-throat which seemed absurd to me in a grade 3 classroom. I was always confused by the short school days (done by lunch,) the amount of homework for young kids, and the sheer amount of holidays. It’s quite interesting to look at the effects different school systems have on our society.

    • Nina

      Hi Jay, It’s funny how cutthroat school is in French society considering how bureaucratic and “functionnaire” working life is. The thing is I don’t think all this pressure on the children achieves its purpose. If it did wouldn’t the French economy be more vibrant? Wouldn’t there be a French Facebook or Google or Apple? Where are the tough, smart French companies? People need to be able to breath to create and sometimes it feels like the education system discourages breathing…so to speak.

  • Woah. If ever there was a reason for us to consider much more seriously returning to the US, well, there it is. Our kids are not yet school age – the oldest starts Pre-K this autumn – but I now understand much better my wife’s inclination to home school.

    Could you expound upon this statement: “Teachers belittle students in shocking ways.” My mother and father were both teachers (in the US), and my wife was a teacher for about 6 months (in the French system) so I am surprised that I hadn’t heard this before.

    • Nina

      Hi Phil,
      Well my son Theo is in a bilingual school that is very gentle on the children so when I say the teachers belittle students in shocking ways I am not speaking from personal experience. But I have heard from friends and especially my French relatives that the teachers start being very hard on kids at about 7 or 8 years old. This includes the famous “n’importe quoi” or “tu es nul” for work that isn’t seen as up to snuff to outright mocking students who get the wrong answer. The result is that children are terrified of being wrong, terrified of speaking in class.
      I’m so glad your wife didn’t experience this when she was a teacher. Sounds like a nice school. Was she in Paris?

      • I would agree with what you say, Nina. I am a Canadian study abroad student in France (so I’m in university), and even here, I can’t stand the education system. Everyone is afraid to speak in class and I am the only one who ever does. The students never want to make “small talk” or chat before class starts- they have a work, work, work mindset. And while me and my friends back home are certainly always excited about upcoming vacations… it’s nothing compared with the anticipation French students have. If I had children, to be honest, I would never ever put them in the French education system. I just do not see the benefits.

  • Wonderfully written piece, and funny too. I think you’re totally right about the school system affecting the French work force. As an expat in France I’m constantly surprised at the blasé attitude and inefficiency of employees (especially in anything remotely customer service-related).

    You put it perfectly when you said that everyone’s either gearing up or winding down, and I feel like that even happens during the course of a day; you get the feeling they see their job as a string of coffee and cigarette breaks with a little bit of work sprinkled in between. Often my American brain can’t quite comprehend.

    Not that the idea of beaucoup vacations is a bad one–God knows the US worker deserves more of them–but the French have perfected the art of “good enough to eek by” when they’re in between vacations, and it’s hard to see how the their economy will get kicks-tarted with such a mentality. Eesh, I’m spewing out some uncharacteristic negativity this morning…I need to go grab a nice flaky croissant to remind myself of all the good parts of France. :)

  • I really agree with your connection between harshness on children, the lack of arts education and the resulting lack of entrepreneurship in the community. Our experiences of Ghanaian schools have been remarkably similar (thankfully not at our current international school). However, previously we have seen public shaming of students, physical punishment and a ridiculous amount of pressure on very young students to perform, and it’s not teaching a child to think for themselves , but simply whoever can memorize the most is rewarded. Questioning or admitting you don’t understand is treated as a threat to the teachers authority. when educations is not fun or stimulating, how can we expect lateral thinking to be encouraged. I do also really empathize with the Wednesday situation.

  • Suzie

    I’m a product of the Lycée in France and became,after emigrating with my parents ,a public school teacher in the US!!! I’ve seen both school systems from Very close up!!!!Thank God for the U.S.!!!!! School in France was a torture and I remember end of the year ” board watching” to see if we passed all our exams!!! A frightening experience!!!

    • Nina

      I agree. We are back in the States now and school is so much more pleasant. My children are so happy. They really miss those long vacations though…

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