Ever since journalist Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé hit the best-seller list by telling American moms and dads to stop hiring sitters and just take their toddlers along to fancy restaurants like Parisians do, a rush of cultural anthropology has taken over the parenting-advice industry. It seems like everyone all over the world has ideas on how to be a better parent and the general consensus is “parenting: Americans do it wrong.”
The latest in this series comes out of Germany, my adopted homeland of 13 years, and where fellow American Sara Zaske, a writer who normally covers tech and business topics, spent a few years raising two children beginning in 2008. In Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-reliant Children, Zaske documents her experiences as a mom in a trendy corner of Berlin, a place with the highest birth rate and largest concentration of young children in the country at the time.
At its heart, the book is a memoir of parenting abroad, but it’s not without a message: American parents should just lighten up already. This might seem unexpected or hypocritical, considering the deeply entrenched stereotypes that both countries hold of each other. Just as we’d expect Germans to be strict authoritarians, Germans would expect American parents to be relaxed, easy-going.
Quite the opposite. An anti-authoritarian movement in Germany in the late 1960s has led to a new generation of parents who, themselves never told nein, are allergic to discipline. In contrast, Americans are seen here as terribly uptight in their parenting, too focused on academics and constantly hovering over their kids, even well into adulthood. What could we possibly learn from each other?
If Zaske’s book is any indication, a lot. Writing about her life as an expat in Berlin’s most gentrified enclave, she highlights the ways that Germans there introduce their kids to the world. From the very simple idea of putting your kids into day care (93 percent of kids 3 to 5 are enrolled) to the regular outings kindergarten kids take into nature, German ideas of raising children are very child-centric, focused on accommodating their emotional and intellectual growth in a way that fosters a great degree of independence.
Zaske writes about the positive aspects of child-rearing in Germany in a relatable, self-reflective way, noting how she became aware that many of her parenting fears were culturally driven. Chief among them, issues centered on letting go. In short chapters, Zaske focuses on her “achievements,” like letting her young son ride a like-a-bike through the streets of Berlin or her school-aged daughter walk to school alone. These are activities American children don’t typically undertake — at least not at the same age or with as much regularity as urban German children do.
From the contrast that Zaske sets up, raising children in Germany sounds very idealistic. When I got pregnant three years after moving to Germany, I felt this rosiness, too. But while I’d thought deeply about my decision to raise a child in Germany, it had less to do with the local parenting style and everything to do with societal structures and supports that enabled me to focus more on my child. Back home, it seemed like every parent I knew made choices purely to avoid financial catastrophe.
Here, I have health insurance that covered 100 percent of my pregnancy and delivery costs. Public insurance will cover my daughter until she turns 18. I was paid two-thirds of my salary to stay home with her the first 12 months of her life. Insurance even paid for us to do a class together, a baby group combined with an exercise class for new moms. Day-care costs, determined on a sliding-scale basis, max out at 500 Euro monthly for 45 hours of care per week in a public facility. (This is the case for my western hometown of Cologne, which is triple what Zaske says she paid in Berlin, but costs are set by cities, not the state.)
Reading about Zaske’s experiences, I can see why people would be eager to parent in Germany. Though you need to have paid taxes for three years to qualify for a year of parental leave, she enjoyed the same insurance and day-care benefits I did. She was also able to work just part-time, since the cost of living in Germany has remained low enough in some places to allow families to survive, if not thrive, on a single income. Clearly the social system is set up to better accommodate new parents. In the modern day, “it takes a village” can work — as long as that village is filled with taxpayers willing to contribute to the next generation in the form of state-supported health care and child care.
But as much as Achtung Baby gets right — and it nails both the immigrant experience and the German culture — the book only briefly touches on the long-term effects of this anti-authoritarian child-focused strategy on both children and their parents (especially mothers). For Americans like me who were raised with working parents, the frequency with which women stay at home here is jaw-dropping. Just 10 percent of couples between 25 and 40 with at least one child both work full-time, and it is rare for the dad to be the one to cut back on his workload. The vast majority of moms who do work after having children do so only part-time, not re-entering the full-time workforce until their children are teenagers. Although many of the moms I know personally are not happy about this, with most viewing it as a step backwards into old-fashioned gender roles, only one in five Germans say women with young children should work full-time.
And while the play-based approach to learning might be ideal for young minds, it can feel incompatible with the structure and discipline kids are expected to achieve on their own once they enter elementary school. “Seeing how things are for kids in the 4th and 5th grade compared to the sheltered world they live in from birth to the age of 5 … I find the contrast quite stark and depressing,” said Kim in Cologne, an American mom who is currently navigating the secondary schooling system.
After spending the first six years of her life in a German day care with no emphasis on academic skills, Kim’s daughter struggled to keep up with the rigors of elementary school and was recently told she would not get a recommendation to advance to a gymnasium, the high school she’d need to study at before going on to university. The recommendation, which comes after fourth grade, has proven controversial over the last decade. These recommendations are a result of a tracking system that sorts students into college-prep schools or vocational-training education, splitting the population into a two-class system of college-educated “academics” and well-trained “workers” preparing for jobs as auto mechanics, hairstylists, or florists. The pressure on elementary school kids to perform like their future lives depend on it may not start at as young as it does in some places in the U.S. but makes for a significant adjustment for kids who have previously spent their days living in their imaginations.
Embracing a child’s self-discovery has another unintended consequence, according to some: a generation of youngsters lacking common courtesy. As the mother of an 8-year-old boy, Alexandra says she’s noticed that some children are not raised with even the most basic manners. “It’s like the parents are so concerned with looking cool and letting the kids decide for themselves that they brush it off when a kid doesn’t show politeness to adults — or even say hello. They just say, ‘Ach, kids will be kids.’”
Of course, everyone realizes that all parenting strategies have their downsides; there is no ideal way to raise a child. Yet one thing that Zaske makes clear in her book is just how heavily influenced children are in their development by not only their parents but the culture in which they are raised. In that way, she says, the German culture — based very much on meeting fears head-on — has much to draw on. Instead of fearing fire, and banning children from using matches or lighters, Germans introduce children to controlled fires at day-care centers. Instead of adults phoning the police when children are left alone to play in the park, as has happened in the U.S. in recent years, Zaske advocates for a more community-oriented approach that allows kids to explore the outside world without adult supervision, trusting that neighbors will help a child in need.
While Zaske’s advocacy for a more autonomous approach to parenting is contagious — and her fears for her children and honesty about her own neuroses are relatable — her book’s most effective in making American parents think harder about what might actually be shaping their own approach to parenting. For example: As an American without a religious affiliation, I find the religion education requirement in German public schools to be totally against the notion of separating church and state and very invasive. Yet an interview in Zaske’s book shows that most Germans, including atheists, disagree with me. My disbelief over first-graders learning about religion in a public-school classroom mirrors that of German parents when they consider that some American children don’t have access to health care.
These examples, even when they might seem like individual parenting choices — do I send my child to religion class, what do I do with a sick kid — are really more society’s choices, determined by societal standards about how we want to raise our children. Americans, especially, are limited by the constraints of living without institutionalized support. The kind of support that Germans get allow them to take a more hands-off approach to parenting. After all, that emergency room visit to fix the broken arm junior gets after falling out of the tree won’t cost them a penny.