Even the perfect French parent doesn’t have childcare figured out

French president Emmanuel Macron, flanked by his wife Brigitte Macron, holds a baby as he visits a paediatric hospital in Paris
French president Emmanuel Macron, flanked by his wife Brigitte Macron, holds a baby as he visits a paediatric hospital in Paris

From Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything to Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, much has been made of the French mother’s ability to raise perfect kids—and to look effortlessly chic while doing so.

But French mothers’ success may have less to do with cracking the parenting code and more with their country’s supportive policies towards new parents. French women are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave (link in French) for each of their first two children, and 26 weeks for the third or any others. Their right to breastfeed at work is protected by law, and they get an allowance from the government to help offset the cost of having and raising kids.

Perhaps one of the greatest perks of being a new parent in France is a network of quality, state-supported childcare options. These include crèches, home-based care with nannies or trained “maternal assistants,” and kindergartens for kids older than two. (Parents pay fees for these services on a sliding scale based on income.) And yet a recent report by Le Monde newspaper (French) shows that this system doesn’t reach all the people that need it.

Almost a quarter of French parents don’t have access to their preferred kind of care. In 2016, only about 57% of children under three had a spot in a crèche or kindergarten, or with a maternal assistant in home-based care. The government has said that 230,000 additional childcare places are needed in the next five years to meet the demand. In France, as in many parts of the world, the shortage of affordable affects poor families the most. They can’t always afford (French) even the comparatively modest contributions for childcare.

Studies have shown that when caregivers—who are overwhelmingly women—have a safe and affordable place to leave their kids, they can take on more or better-paying work. When children are younger than three, millions of new connections are formed in their brains every second as a result of their environment. If they are in safe, and welcoming spaces, with emotionally responsive caregivers who are trained to interact with them in stimulating ways, children will have much better outcomes later in life. When that doesn’t happen, says advocacy group Zero to Three, “it diminishes their potential and leads to poorer cognitive, social, and emotional-developmental outcomes.”

The UK-based Overseas Development Institute (pdf, p.9) says that “some 35.5 million children under five” are left alone “for at least an hour in a given week” in 53 of the world’s poorer countries. When childcare isn’t available, children’s development may suffer and so could their caregivers’ ability to earn a living. But this isn’t just a problem in poor countries: As the Le Monde report makes clear, even a rich and family-friendly country like France hasn’t got it figured out.

Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.


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