The only things I really knew about Germany and its people had to do with their remarkable efficiency, delicious beer, and high-end cars. What I don’t know about Germany could fill a very large beer stein, possibly even a castle, and this includes the Germans’ very kick-ass philosophy on child-rearing.
In her book, called Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, author Sara Zaske pulls back the curtain on a way of parenting that emphasizes “selbstandigkeit” (self-reliance) and the development of “free and independent” kids.
Contrasting a nation’s parenting philosophies with the North American way is not new. Before Achtung Baby there was Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, a book that had us all talking about the traditional Chinese way of raising children. Then came Bringing Up Bebe about parenting in the land of Champagne and frites, followed by The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less.
Despite the fact it’s my job to comment on parenting trends, I always hesitate to tackle big-picture concepts like parenting styles and philosophies. Doing so feels a little bit like playing “What Time is it Mr. Wolf?” because no matter how cautious you are, you’re probably going to get eaten.
But what I read in Achtung Baby is pretty darn interesting and worthy of a closer look.
German Parenting 101:
In Berlin, almost all children walk to school. Alone. They use sharp knives to cut their own food and most of them fall asleep in their own beds, by themselves. Most German children are allowed to play outside unsupervised and they ride their bikes from point A to point B, even when it’s a distance of several miles.
At her daughter’s preschool, Zaske is informed that no bathing suit will be required for swim class because all the children go naked in the water. These same children, all age four, are also invited to a parent-free sleepover at the school.
These anecdotes are compelling, of course, because it’s such a departure from the way things are done in (pre-pandemic) North America, where children’s play is structured, supervised, and parsed into “dates”; where extra-curricular activities are mercilessly competitive and children are ferried to and fro in cars because transportation via automobile is safer and faster than walking.
Germany is the birthplace of efficiency yet it’s North Americans who cornered the market on how to cram meals, school, work, activities, “play”, homework, housework, and sleep into a 24-hour day.
It would be easy to think of German parenting as being way too hands-off, even dangerously so. But the critical point that must be made is that German parents care deeply about their children. What we might consider “bad parenting” is actually a relentless desire to raise capable, self-reliant and self-directed adults.
Most of us can come around to the idea of risking a cut hand in order to teach children how to use knives. And most of us can see the benefit of letting our children learn to problem-solve on their own, even when their sadness feels like it’s tearing us apart. But in the era of “me too” and the seemingly never-ending stories of horrific crimes committed against children, it’s easy to feel like the only way to keep our kids safe from the worst kind of harm is to control their every movement and interaction; to accompany them everywhere and never let our guards down.
Our 24-hour news cycle, coupled with information availability, has created a sense of panic among modern parents and a belief that these terrifying incidents are much more common than they really are. As a result, we are hyper-vigilant about where our children are, what they’re doing, and who they’re with. Like most parents, I don’t care how statistically rare child abductions are, they’re still my greatest fear and the reason I am profoundly uncomfortable letting my daughters out of my sight for even a minute.
But at what cost? Saying we’re trading freedom for safety is an over-simplification but it’s not entirely inaccurate. By walking or driving my ten-year old to her friends’ house seven blocks away I am denying her the opportunity to demonstrate independence and responsibility. I am denying her the opportunity to practice what she’s learned about strangers and crossing the street safely. But this often seems preferable to the alternative, risking what could happen.
Germany isn’t immune from crimes against children and its parents aren’t immune from fearing the worst. But en masse, German parents choose to reject fear and act in ways that put a child’s growth and development above all else. Germans respect their children as individuals and give them the freedom to have experiences and make mistakes, believing this will result in happier children and more productive adults.
Zaske is also careful to point out that Germany’s exceptional social infrastructure has helped pave the way for a village-type approach to child-rearing. On this side of the Atlantic, things like a lack of affordable child-care and our live to work philosophy often mean hyper-scheduled lives. What might look like helicopter parenting by comparison is often just a by-product of the way we live here in North America. As one book reviewer noted, we might want to parent like Germans, but we can’t.
It is probably for all of these reasons, then, that Zaske’s book title refers to parenting as an “art”, admitting that there is some subjectivity to parenting in Germany, and indeed the world; that far from being an exact science, child-rearing requires finesse, creativity, and instinct.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Sometimes our decisions are personal, sometimes they’re societal, but they always come from a place of wanting what’s best for our kids. It’s when we try to determine what “best” means that things get complicated.