Michael Jones, 13, has lived in France for the past three years. Ask him whether he considers himself English, French or no nationality in particular, his answer is immediate. ‘I am English,’ he says, whipping open his white shirt to show you the Three Lions football jersey he is wearing underneath. ‘I am English and I should be in England. I don’t want to become French.’
His sister Amanda, 11, however, reacts quite differently to the same question: ‘I like France,’ she says simply. ‘I wouldn’t mind being French.’
Then there’s Mathilda (Tilli) Andrew, 15, who has also lived in France for three years. ‘I am English by birth but I want to take French Nationality when I am older as I see myself as French,’ she says.
When asking the question, ‘what is it like for children moving to France?’ there is no single answer. Reactions range from deep unhappiness and feelings of dis-empowerment to loving their new life and language. Which camp a child falls into depends on a number of factors – and not just the obvious issue that they are struggling to make friends or do well in school. Michael, for instance, is top of his class in French, plays football and has a number of friends.
Get children involved right from the beginning
According to psychologist Elaine Douglas, who herself lived in France for a few years, a successful transition to France begins when the child is still in their of country of origin. ‘The moves that are most successful are the ones where the children are involved in the decision-making process right from the beginning,’ she says.
Michael and Amanda had no input into their parents’ decision to move to the Charente, France. ‘We thought they were just buying a holiday home – then they told us we were going to live there,’ says Amanda.
And how did they feel when they heard the news? Michael immediately burst into tears. ‘I knew I didn’t want to go,’ he says. ‘It meant leaving behind my friends and what I knew for a place I didn’t know at all.’
‘When I saw Michael crying, I started crying too,’ says Amanda.
It was a completely different experience for Tilli and her brothers, Auguste , then 6, and Theo, then 3. The Andrew family wanted to live in France because they believed the education system was better and that they would have a better lifestyle. ‘We sat them all down and told them that we were thinking of moving to France to live and what did they think?’ says the children’s mother, Sarah, who sells hand painted tiles and ceramic figures. ‘We told them that if they didn’t want to do it, we wouldn’t go.’
While the boys were happy to go (not surprising, given their ages), Tilli initially refused. Six months later, however, she changed her mind. Why? ‘Because I decided it would be an adventure – living in a new culture and learning French,’ she says. ‘I knew I would regret it if I didn’t do it.’
The importance of talking it through
Elaine Douglas believes that a child saying ‘no’ does not mean shelving the idea of moving to France. ‘But you have to work round and talk through the resistance,’ she says. ‘Talk about the pros and the cons – don’t pretend life in France will be something it won’t. Give it lots of time – not just six months or so. Involve children in their new life – get out the map and together choose your possible locations. Go on holiday together and discover things as a family.’
A child’s personality will also determine how happy they feel in France. ‘Some children are risk-takers while others dread the thought of moving to a foreign country,’ says Elaine Douglas. For many children, even those with a sense of adventure, moving to a new country is daunting because they don’t know what to expect.
‘Encourage children to ask questions, however trivial as sometimes it is the smallest things that can worry them,’ says Elaine Douglas. ‘In psychology there is a term called ‘safe bases’ – when there is a great change in life it is good to have some things that don’t change so that there is a part that is comfortable, reliable and routine.’
For a child this may mean something as simple as painting their new bedroom the same colour as the old. ‘Organising regular visits back to family where everything is familiar and making sure they are able to keep in touch with their friends is also important,’ says Elaine Douglas. ‘You need to do the groundwork so the move can feel comfortable and not scary.’
For Michael moving to France meant the loss of his friend Harry, who lived across the road and whom he had played with for many years. Even Tilli who loves France feels a pang when she reads the blogs of her UK friends. ‘I see how much they’ve grown and feel sad that I’ve not grown-up with them,’ she says.
Country life versus the bright lights
Some children love the country and while others hate it – life in rural France, where many expats choose to live, is very different to that in a country such as Britain. ‘There are fewer clubs, places to go and things to do and many children can find this very claustrophobic,’ says Elaine Douglas. ‘Their parents may love the rural, simpler life but for their children it can be awful.’
Rural life is one of the biggest issues for Michael. ‘It takes an hour to go anywhere,’ he says. Even Amanda says: ‘Now going to McDonalds is a special occasion. In England it was the worst thing we could do.’
Michael’s parents, who moved to France to escape the rat race and have an adventure, confirm that he is child who feels most at home in the city. ‘He would love to be the only child of professional parents living in a large city,’ laughs Vicky, his mother. ‘And we know we have to do something to cater for his love of the bright lights – go out more to larger towns so that he doesn’t feel that he is isolated. However, Amanda is totally different – she loves the outside life and is very happy where we live. But we have no regrets about moving to France – it has been good for both of them, even Michael. It has given them an extra two years of childhood.’
Are girls treated differently to boys in France?
In some parts of rural France, sexism can be an issue. Jenny Haigh, 14, who lives in the Dordogne wrote a story for FrenchEntrée about her new life in France. ‘In England, teenage girls spend their spare time with their friends – in town shopping, at each others’ houses, having sleepovers – and so I expected it to be the same here, but they don’t have that concept,’ writes Jenny, in her story The Secret Life of a Dordogne Teenager. ‘Sleepovers are unheard of and it is very rare for a girl to be allowed to spend a whole day with her friends at the weekend, especially out of the house.
‘Girls are given a lot less freedom than boys too. I know a French 15-year-old girl who has a 13-year-old brother, but the boy is given more freedom than his sister. She has to stay for lunch at school, whereas he is allowed out with his friends! This was very odd for me and I still find it weird how girls are kept inside the house at weekends.’
On the other hand Tilli, who lives in Brittany, has found no such stereotyping. ‘My friends are mixed – boys and girls – and we go around in a big group although my closest friends are both girls,’ she says. ‘We do go out, but not until the weekend but that’s because we’ve got an amazing amount of school work to do – about two hours each night.’
‘You need to think carefully when choosing where you are going to live,’ says Elaine Douglas. ‘Before you make a decision consider what the area is like, from the quality of the schools to the social norms and what is there to do. In the area I lived in there was no give in the system for foreign children. And generally in the French education system there is not the same level of input to helping children in trouble, whether that be academic or emotional. In the latter situation, they tend to follow a medical model, rather than using tools such as talking or therapy.’
It can be tougher for teenagers
For older teenagers, especially those approaching big exams, moving to France can be impossibly tough. Sarah Andrew who trained as a teacher in the UK, says: ‘Consider how they will do in school. You need the Brevet to do anything after collége so if you bring a teenager who doesn’t speak French or doesn’t want to be here how on earth are they going to settle down and get on? They will not be able to make friends or get a job or even go on to lycée [at age 15/16 normally] without a reasonable level of spoken and written French. Be realistic and give them the option of staying in the UK or put off your move until they are old enough to look after themselves.’
Psychologist Elaine Douglas agrees that leaving a teenager behind may sometimes be the best option. ”The older a child is, the harder the transition,’ she says. ‘A child in primary school will find it much easier than one in secondary. A teenager is starting to challenge their parents’ ideas and to develop their own identity. To do this they gravitate towards people of similar ages and interests, and this peer group becomes very important to them. To take them away from this can be restrictive and very upsetting.’
She continues: ‘In this situation it doesn’t always have to be all or nothing. Perhaps a teenager can stay with a relative and visit you in France during the holidays. Over time you may find that they come to like France and want to make the move themselves. It is better to be ‘pulled to’, rather than ‘pushed from’.
‘Est-ce que tu parle Français?’
Learning a new language is more difficult for teenagers as well. There is not just the difficulty in mastering a new tongue, there is the issue of feeling self-conscious about making mistakes. Jenny Haigh has a 10-year old sister, Lucy. ‘Learning a new language [for me] isn’t as easy as it is for Lucy due to self-consciousness amongst other factors,’ writes Jenny. ‘My French has progressed a lot and after six months I understand 99% of what I hear, but I am in no way fluent and I have trouble with the accent, which Lucy doesn’t have.’
All children find learning a new language challenging and the first few months can be difficult. ‘My first day at school was nerve-wracking,’ says Tilli. ‘ I felt left out because although I could speak a bit of French, I didn’t know enough to join in.’ It didn’t help that the school teamed Tilli up with another English girl. ‘I was told to teach her French but she didn’t want to be in France at all, and that made it really difficult for me. I did think ‘will it ever get any better?’
Adds Sarah: ‘Unlike the boys she was one of several English teenagers at college, many of whom did not want to be in France, hated the language and the culture and were just waiting until they were old enough to return alone to the UK! The French kids picked up on this and as a result there was sometimes friction between the two groups with Tilli in the middle being asked to act as peace maker!’
In the end, Tilli went to another collége where the situation did get better. Now she is in the lycée and doing extremely well – both in French and her other studies. She spoke to FrenchEntrée in the midst of packing for a trip to Poland – a prize for winning an essay competition.
‘In France hard work is rewarded’
Sarah believes that while teaching methods might be different, in the French school system good work is rewarded. ‘In the UK I found it was the difficult children and the less able who were given the greatest encouragement, possibly because they needed it,’ says Sarah. ‘I remember Auguste in England saying that he thought the only way to get rewarded in school was to behave badly and then improve! Here good work is acknowledged and the children are all very proud that they have done well. Here it pays to work hard. The other children respect classmates who behave well and work hard and have a very dim view of children who don’t do either.’
Michael, already a high-achiever in the UK, was determined to do well as school, including learning French. ‘I thought that if, after three years I was still at the bottom of the class, the last three years would have been a waste,’ he says.
He was confident in the language within eight months but for Amanda, who is dyslexic, learning French took 18 months. ‘In the first term here, she didn’t understand any French and she didn’t get involved in class or any activities,’ says Vicky. ‘She would copy what she had to copy without knowing what it was she was doing.’
The breakthrough for Amanda came when she befriended two children who lived nearby. ‘It can be hard to get the whole friendship thing going here,’ says Vicky. ‘In France you don’t have friends round to play – children tend to play with their siblings. But we persevered – we kept on asking children to come and play and over time our children began to be asked back.’
When asked what advice they would give to children moving to France, all say that however tough it is in the beginning, it does get better. ‘Just think to yourself, I can do this,’ says Michael. ‘And play sport – everyone speaks that language!’
Advises Tilli: ‘Be strong. You will have problems but it will get better. Don’t give up – watch French TV and definitely make French friends.’
ADVICE ON MOVING TO FRANCE
From psychologist Elaine Douglas…
* Involve children in the move right from the beginning.
* Give them time – not less than six months – to get used to the idea of moving to lessen the shock.
* Make the unknown less frightening by doing your research into France together and answering your children’s questions, however trivial
* The older the child, the more difficult it is. For teenagers, this may mean finding a ‘Third Way’ somewhere between staying on and moving to France
* Try and keep some things the same so that in amongst great change, there is comforting familiarity
* Research where you going to before you make a final decision. Consider whether the schools, type of area and social amenities suit you and your children
From parents who have already done it…
* Don’t get UK TV right from the beginning (if at all!). Have French TV and listen to the radio – the more the children (and you) hear French spoken the more attuned your ear becomes
* Get involved with your child’s education – this means attending parents’ evenings even if your French isn’t fantastic.
* Encourage children to make French friends. * Persevere at asking French friends over to play, even if the invitation is not reciprocated
* It will get better. It’s an adventure – so smile and bear it!
Some names have been changed
•With thanks to Rachel Loos