Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

BACKGROUND

Sarah Zaske is an American writer who moves to Berlin with her husband and young toddler. Achtung Baby chronicles her 6 years time living abroad in Germany with kids. She describes the sometimes-frustrating early days as she sets up a new life in a foreign country. She then reflects on the differences between German and American parenting. At the end, we learn of the adjustment as her family ultimately relocates back to the US.

As a German-American raising German-speaking children, I was really looking forward to this book. Plus, I’m fascinated by the role that culture, ethnicity and nationality play in child-rearing and parenting, so books like Bringing up Bebé, French Kids Eat Everything, and Little Soldier: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve are a favorite genre for me.

But back to the book at hand. Zaske’s central theme in Achtung Baby is that German children have more independence and autonomy from a young age compared to American children of the same age. German kids are encouraged, even expected, to take risks and enjoy greater freedom. As a result, German children are incredibly self-sufficient and resilient, which she suggests we can all learn from.

So what kind of differences does Sara Zaske notice between American and German child-rearing? You’ll need to read the book for the full scoop, but here are the points I found most striking.

10 EXAMPLES OF GERMAN PARENTING STARKLY DIFFERENT THAN AMERICAN PARENTING 

1. Parents don’t belong on the playground.

At the park, German parents typically stand off to the side chatting or reading a book. Rarely will you see them settling a toy dispute or following a toddler up the slide. The idea is that standing back (physically and emotionally) fosters independence and confidence in children. It also forces kids to problem-solve for themselves.

2. Most babies and toddlers attend some form of daycare.

State-subsidized neighborhood childcare centers (called kitas) are common in Germany. “Across Germany, more than 92 percent of three-year-olds are in some form of early childhood education, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.” Compare this with 42 percent of 3-year-olds in the United States. (National Center for Education Statistics). German parents believe the interaction with other children is important for the child’s development, so even if there is a stay-at-home parent, children still attend a kita.

3. Homeschooling is illegal in Germany.

When the law was challenged as recently as 2006, an appeals court upheld the ban on homeschooling. It noted that “Schools represented society, and it was in the children’s best interest to become part of that society. The parents’ right to provide education did not go so far as to deprive their children of that experience.”

4. Corporal punishment, spanking or hitting children is against the law.

Whether by teachers or parents, hitting children in Germany is illegal. Zaske also points out that rarely do German parents raise their voices with their kids or teachers reprimand a child. Instead, they speak gently to help the child correct his behavior. Zaske shares advice she received to ignore temper tantrums and comfort the child only after he is calm. Distraction and re-directing tactics are also commonly used with younger kids.

5. Beginning school is a BIG deal.

When a child starts school in Germany, usually at age 6 or 7, her parents typically throw a party in her honor. Then, on the first morning of school, she receives a Schultüte, a big cone filled with treats like fun school supplies, candy and small toys. By comparison, as Zaske points out, in the US we are more apt to celebrate finishing school than beginning it.

6. Early education is strictly play-based.

Before the first grade, most German schools emphasize social-emotional development, like sharing and communication. They skip skip structured academics like drilling numbers and letters entirely. Compare this to the US where phonics instruction starts at 3 or 4 years old and Common Core standards expect that a kindergartner can write most upper and lowercase letters. This ties to the longstanding debate about whether Americans are pushing children too hard, too early and how it impacts their development. 

7. Playing outdoors, getting fresh air and keeping the windows open are very important to Germans.

Rain, shine or slushy snow,  German kids are outdoors for a big part of the day. There is even a well-known adage that says, “There’s no bad weather, just unsuitable clothing”. Being outdoors expends kids boundless energy. It also encourages imaginative play as they leave the the toys and TV inside.

8. German kids often move on their own at a young age.

Whether walking to school alone or riding their bikes outside, German kids regularly go without an adult. It’s not unusual to see children as young as 8 or 9 riding the subway or a public city bus alone. German crime rates are more or less comparable to those in the US, so it’s not an issue of Germany being safer. Rather, German parents feel strongly in giving their children increasing independence.

9. German parents are required by law to pay for their child’s university fees until age 27.

While tuition is state-sponsored, if they have the means, parents are liable for room and board costs, even if they don’t want to pay. At the same time, Germany enjoys a very low unemployment rate among young adults, and also reports lower levels of anxiety, depression and suicide than the US. I’m not suggesting at all that this is a causal relationship. However, I believe there are benefits to German children having a wider support net beyond the age of 18.

10. Adult children regularly live with their parents, not as dependents, but more as roommates.

As Zaske describes, “they do their own shopping and laundry, come and go as they please, and help pay the rent”. Adult children living at home is much less common in the US. But when it does happen, we often imagine the lazy child who is “finding” himself, complete with free food and laundry service compliments of mom and dad.

CONCLUSIONS

I found myself nodding at many of Zaske’s spot-on observations, recognizing them from trips to Germany with our young children. I had three main take-aways as I read, and later re-read, Achtung Baby.

First, it was a good reminder that I need to make more opportunities for my kids to take risks. For example, letting my son walk a low retaining wall without holding his hand. Or allowing my daughter to ride her scooter without me trailing her by 5 feet. They may get the occasional bump or bruise, but they’ll also learn about their own limits.

Second, is that while structure and routine are important for kids, so too are getting messy, dirty, being loud and spending tons of time outdoors. These activities go against my personal nature, but I make the effort because I know its what my kids need.

Finally, Achtung Baby reinforces the idea that as parents, we’re not just raising kids – we’re raising adults. A few pages in, I was reminded of one of my all-time-favorite parenting books, How to Raise and Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. I was excited to see Sara Zaske cite the book too. You can read a summary of it here.

In the book, author Julie Lythcott-Haims advises to think not about raising a toddler or a teenager, but instead raising an adult. What skills do our children need to cope successfully on their own? When we think about raising adults, we shift our expectations and treatment of our kids to help them build those competencies. German parenting, as Zaske suggests, does this intuitively and successfully.

Questions or comments on Achtung Baby, or the differences between German and American parenting approaches? Would love to hear below.

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