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General Articles

The Adventures of Parenthood on the Riviera: Bringing Children Into The World

Bringing up Nursery and Primary school children on the Riviera:

The Good News:

These are the halcyon days of child rearing. I know it doesn’t feel that way everyday but believe me after the terrible toddler days and testing teenage years yet to come, this period in between is the time you can really enjoy your children and on the Côte d’Azur there are so many ways to do it! So before we get into the technical side of choosing schools and school systems, let’s take a look at what you can do when you all have some free time together.


Apart from the obvious choices of the beaches, mountains and outdoor dining, the French system is well set-up to cater for children, offering a variety of activities from all forms of land and water sports to music, dancing, drama, martial arts etc. In fact you name it and they do it. However it’s not always easy knowing where it all takes place and you have to proactively seek these activities out, especially for children under 6 years of age. My two were swimming, horse riding and doing martial arts from age 3 but I went on a mission to find out what was available locally, asking other mothers, dropping in on clubs to see what age and when they would take the children, investing in private swimming lessons with the coach at the local pool until they were old enough to join the regular group sessions. What you will have to be prepared to do is to become a ‘taxi service’ or find other parents who can share the burden as the sports activities (unless you are Monaco based) are rarely close by or side by side and you may have to ferry your son to football on one side of town while your daughter is doing dance on another. Nevertheless it’s worth making the effort as these activities are relatively low in cost and make up for the sparse sports/extra curricula activity programme in the state school system. The other good news is that during school holiday periods all the local towns organise activity clubs for children, with sailing, skiing and day centres for working parents again at a very low cost. Many of the private sports clubs also have mini clubs for members’ children too. So there is really no excuse for getting out and doing things either with or for the children – down here we are really spoilt for choice. There are websites such as Anglo info with a host of information but remember your best source is dropping into the clubs themselves or asking other parents.

Choosing a school:

To go French or not to go French (State or private) that is the question! One of the other pluses of living in this area of the world for many parents is knowing that their children will grow up speaking and writing fluent French and they can’t wait to get them into the ‘excellent’ local system. However it is worth standing back and considering the option from all sides. If your child is likely to be spending the rest of his/her school life on the Riviera and attending university here too then the French speaking system whether in France or Monaco makes sense. However if you are likely to be moving on in a couple of years or want to offer your child wider further education options you may want to consider the international schools or at the very least the international option/stream in the Monaco system. Many parents find that the French primary school system is ideal for their children but that the secondary system is restrictive and sclerotic and does not prepare their children for the wider global environment. Therefore if you anticipate changing systems along the way, moving or sending your children to boarding school at some point, you would be well advised to get them into an international school/option or at the very least have them tutored to keep up their English to allow a seamless transition into an English medium system later on. Once in the ‘French’ system it is not easy to prise them out and re-educate them for a more Anglo/American approach. Whereas you may from your own childhood be used to a very broad based, all encompassing, educational system, the French system is very restrictively academic with a high emphasis placed on daily good marks/grades and no remedial facilities for those who slip behind. You should be aware that from an early age there is great pressure to keep ‘performing’ and when French parents pick up their children from school the conversation centres on what grades they obtained for the previous day’s homework – the parents are more competitive than the children! Homework comes in the bucket load and children rarely get to bed before 10.30 p.m. before it’s finished. So be prepared!

French parents traditionally spend a fortune on having their offspring tutored out of school hours to keep their grades up and to keep on top of the homework which is a headache for most working parents not to mention when the latter can’t understand French themselves well enough to help their children. The pressure is on right from primary level where children are shamed if their grades slip below a certain threshold and many are already suffering from stress related aliments before they are eight years old, not to mention the parents! Having said that, if you are seeking a highly disciplined, very academic system and want your child to become ‘French’ then this is the system for you. Personally with my own children I experienced both systems and would have to say that if you can afford it and want to offer your children a greater educational/professional choice later in life then it’s a no-brainer; one of the international schools or the international option (demanding but excellent and operates within the Monaco state system targeting bilinguals) is the one to choose.

Which language should I use with my children?:

This is an easy one. Whatever your native language is – use it! I know parents who have insisted on speaking French to their children imagining it will help them integrate into school more effectively. Not only do children find this confusing and intensely irritating once they realise you are making simple linguistic mistakes but they will also not thank you for it later when they realise they missed out on learning your native language for free at home. They will see that they can’t communicate as well as other bi/trilinguals from mixed backgrounds who were immersed in their parents’ native languages, not to mention missing out on chatting with members of their wider family. Give your children the gift of a language. They will learn French all by themselves without your help or interference and if they need help, then bring in a qualified tutor who will fill in the gaps. My own children started life speaking English and Spanish at home and easily entered the French preschool system as they had already been introduced to French via sports activities. Today’s top jobs are dominated by those who have a had a broad, varied and international education and English remains the number one first language required irrespective of how fluent you are in any others. This is worth bearing in mind, especially when I tell you that much of my work in French companies today involves bringing people’s English up to a level where they can compete in the international arena. This might seem a long way off for your 5 year-old, but before you know it they will be sitting their school leaving exams.

Keeping up your cultural heritage:

This is a tough one. My own children like many others have parents from two different cultures (Britain and South America) have also absorbed French/Monegasque culture. It is actually a game of tug and war for mixed cultural heritage children, as peer pressure means that they want to become part of the local culture and family pressure boomerangs them back into a world that is more yours than theirs. However, it is to my mind worth making the effort to keep up the cultural traditions of your origins and to celebrate national festivals with them as this also helps them to become wiser and more tolerant global ‘travellers’ gliding relatively seamlessly from one culture to another and taking most things in their stride. By cooking your native dishes they grow up to be unfussy eaters and family visits are so much easier when they do things the ‘right’ way. A quote that really illustrates this from one of my favourite books is: "What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, their principles, but the way they hold their knife and fork." Madame de Montmort (from Suite Française – Irène Némonirovsky). And this my daughter found out on one of her family visits back to the UK! « Why are you holding your fork in your right hand like a shovel » « But that’s the way we hold it in France » « Well not in England my dear, so put it back in your left hand and hold it the proper way round ».

Local schools and parents will also appreciate it if you can spare the time to introduce them to your customs either by going in and talking to the children at school and bringing in things to show them or inviting your children’s friends to celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving, Festival of Light or whatever festivals your family celebrates. Children from mixed cultural backgrounds tend to grow up without a cultural anchor, not knowing where they are really from. The more you can make them feel part of your culture and ‘at home’ with it the better. Of course you can go overboard. My son must have been given roast lamb and ‘mint sauce’ so many times that he even ended up eating mince sauce with chicken, ham, beef, in fact any meat that was placed in front of him much to everyone’s bemusement.

To conclude, enjoy what the local outdoor facilities have to offer especially in the glorious sunshine and by keeping your young children linguistically and culturally savvy you will already be giving them a head start that will pay dividends once they start secondary school.

Judy can be contacted by email on or via her website

Monday, 1 June 2015    Section: General Articles    Author: Judy Churchill
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