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French Preschools are En Vogue as Parisian Parenting Takes Spotlight

By Amy Zimmer | February 8, 2012 6:56am | Updated on February 8, 2012 8:47am
A children's workshop at the French Institute Alliance Française, which is opening a preschool in September 2012.
A children's workshop at the French Institute Alliance Française, which is opening a preschool in September 2012.
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Arianys Wilson

UPPER EAST SIDE — Excuse moi, Tiger Mom.  

The book about ultra-competitive Chinese parenting is so passè. The new rule book for bringing up tots is the French "Bringing Up Bébé." 

The Upper East Side's French bilingual preschools are already en vogue, and the book may make parents even more passionate about their fight to get their children enrolled.

Joining the ranks of the Lycée Française de New York, where school officials have already been seeing an increase in applications for preschool (and other grades) over the last 10 years, and Le Petit Paradis, where Madonna sends her kids, the French Institute Alliance Française is opening a new preschool with classes for 3- and 4-year-olds in September.

FIAF has already gotten an "overwhelming" response for its roughly 28 preschool seats, Guitty Roustai, director of childrens' programs at the French Institute, said.  Parents are even signing their children up for the 2013 school year.

The program will use French and American teaching methods — though, when it comes to food, the approach will be very French. 

"Bébé" writer Pamela Druckerman writes that French parents produce well-adjusted kids by not catering to their every whim, never negotiating with their kids and making sure their little ones learn to sit through meals quietly, patiently and without throwing their food.

"We teach children to sit quietly and wait for their friends before starting to eat," said Roustai, whose organization also runs a French language program for 280 kids ages 1 to 5. "We wish each other 'Bon appétit!' and we learn how not to get up during meals."

Tots also learn table manners at the Lycée Français de New York, where its 73 seats for 4-year-olds have traditionally been popular among expats from France or other French-speaking countries. It's now increasingly attracting families with no French connections.

"Food is a very important part of French life, and in this regard, our preschool and elementary school take a French approach to meals and mealtime," Elisabeth King, communications director of the Lycée, said.

"From their first days at school, our preschool students are taught to stay seated during meals and to use utensils."

Christina Houri, whose preschool Le Petit Paradis, founded in 2008, starts for children who are 2 years 8 months, also emphasized French eating habits.

"We sit at the table and learn to wait until others are finished and to speak quietly," she said.

"We have a reputation in the neighborhood for being the best in terms of discipline. [We're] known as the most well-behaved in the neighborhood. That's very French."

And, Houri said, "We're used to saying 'no' to children."

Céline Mazières, the membership director at the French Institute and a mother of three children, ranging in age from 4 to 11 years old, agreed.

"In France, when parents say 'no,' it means 'no,'" she said. "They don’t negotiate. We say, 'We are the parents and you are the children,' and you don't have to explain anything."

Mazières echoed how seriously French people take food.

"The kids don't snack," she said, explaining how they eat breakfast, lunch, le goûter (a bite at 4 p.m.) and dinner.

Mazières, who is from France, said she has learned from American parents, especially in the way they instill confidence in their children.  But French parents, like herself, tend to be more relaxed, especially when it comes to their kids' activities, she said.

"I think it's important for them to dream, to relax and enjoy, even doing nothing in their room," Mazières said. "I don't overbook them."

Mazières noted that the book's take on French mothers being more relaxed might also have to do with quieter surroundings in France, and also that schooling for young ones is easier to obtain over the Atlantic.

In France, for instance, there's subsidized daycare. Public school starts for all children at age 3.

In New York, on the other hand, preschool can be pricey and seats are limited, especially for 3-year-olds. The Lycée costs $26,100 a year, Le Petit Paradis costs $24,975 year and the French Institute is charging $17,000 a year.