French Moms: We're Not as 'Superior' at Parenting as You Americans Think

A new book by an American raising her kids in Paris is being met with skepticism, and some charges of stereotyping, by the actual French mothers it so highly praises.

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A Parisian mother watches her children at play / AP

Pamela Druckerman, in her new book Bringing Up Bébé and her lengthy and much-circulated Wall Street Journal article titled "Why French Parents Are Superior," isn't just the latest woman to tell American mothers that a different culture does it better. It's also the latest in a long line of books to tell American women, more broadly, that whatever the problem is, French women do it better. They don't get fat, they don't sleep alone, and apparently now, according to the British title of ex-pat journalist Druckerman's new book, their kids don't throw food.


"More and more the myth of the French style of life is irritating."
Americans are eagerly picking over every last scrap of Druckerman's argument, which is, essentially, that the French say "no" to their kids and combine parenthood with balanced adult lives. But what do actual French women think of this stuff? Once they look past the flattery, not much.

Sure, the French reaction online to Druckerman's argument includes a fair amount of gloating -- a natural reaction to being told you're good at everything. But mixed in among the sense of superiority, some French women are wondering what on earth she's talking about.

Chief among the gloating responses is the interview that magazine France-Amérique conducts with French essayist Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry, author of a book about American-French interaction from the French perspective. Asked if the French woman is a female model "for the Anglo-Saxons," she responded simply "Yes. She is naturally feminine. The American woman is 'female.'" And she largely approved of Druckerman's outline of the childrearing division. "In the United States, houses are so 'child-proofed,'" said Monsaint-Baudry, "that one has the impression that it's the parents living with their kids, [not the other way around]." The interviewer then inquired whether Druckerman is right that the French meal, wherein even tiny children behave, is perceived as sacrosanct by Americans. "Yes, they admire it," declared Monsaint-Baudry. "Our 'three course meal' is incredibly sophisticated.'" She added that French "humanism" distances French women from "the Chinese mother and the polemics of last year."

Triumphant responses and matter-of-fact reporting aside, quite a few French folks seem to think Druckerman's overstated her case, and that, more broadly, Americans need to chill out with the French stereotypes.

Antoine Oury at book site ActuaLitté notes The New York Times' complaints about "generalizations" in Druckerman's book. "It's hard to call that wrong," Oury admits. The company Druckerman keeps, "as an American journalist exiled in France and currently speaking six languages -- like Hebrew -- surely isn't representative of the methods and educative resources of the majority of the French population." Oury does take a moment to defend Druckerman, calling it "funny (or disturbing)" to see American critics using Druckerman's earlier Lust in Translation, about arranging a threesome, "to discredit her." (To be fair, Rachael Larimore at Slate's XX Factor wasn't trying to call Druckerman a bad mother: she correctly guessed that the disappearance of an article about the threesome was a publicity stunt, and also suggested Druckerman's manic campaign to produce said threesome at her husband's request betrayed an approach that, whether in marriage or parenthood, might have slanted her view of American women and balance.)

But even Oury ends by saying that "what one deplores the most remains the general tenor of Druckerman's observations."

France TV Info takes it further, saying "more and more the myth of the French style of life is irritating." The author, Julie Rasplus, runs through the recent American gushing about French seduction, cuisine, and now parenting, and points out the counter-arguments.

"Viewed from the United States, French women are close to perfect creatures," agrees an article at L'Atlantico.fr. But "the French bourgeoisie Pamela Druckerman was living in don't necessarily reflect global reality," it points out. "Americans, reassure yourselves: little terrors exist in France, too."

There seems to be some agreement from French commenters across the web on that point. A post from Elisabeth Guédel-Treussard at French Morning, though largely approving of Druckerman's book, sums it up. "Pamela Druckerman has never encountered me in a Parisian Monoprix or a New York Whole Foods. If [she] had, she would have seen my kids tearing around on foot to grab candy and wouldn't have written that 'French children don't make scenes in the supermarket.'"

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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