Parenting the German way: Let your kids take risks

German parents have different views on what’s age-appropriate. 

Parenting the German way: Let your kids take risks

During college, I spent a summer studying abroad in Germany, where I lived with a family in a small suburb outside Munich. As a 19-year-old, I did more hanging around local biergartens than hanging around with kids. Still, I couldn’t help but be struck by the independence that children in the town seemed to have.

From my removed perspective, it seemed like something of a utopian environment: Kids walked or rode their bikes (or unicycles—no joke) to school in cheerful groups and spent the afternoons playing in the park without parents hovering over them.

As an American child of the 1990s, I could only imagine this was what it was like in generations past—when children were given space to be responsible for themselves and parents could feel secure in knowing they were likely safe.


Now, in her book Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, former ex-pat Sara Zaske says that was her experience, too. And she thinks the rest of us could stand to learn from the way Germans parent their kids.

“If we put a higher value in helping (our children) achieve their independence, it would be a healthier way for them to grow up,” Zaske tells the Chicago Tribune. “And actually, it might be a healthier way to have a long-term family relationship.”

She explains that doesn’t mean the method of parenting is always easy; it’s a universal instinct to protect our children. Just, in Germany, the parents try to look at the big picture.

“When I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, how can you let your kid do that?’ they’d say, ‘I hate it too. I really don’t want to do it. But I have to because they have to learn how to ride the subway, or navigate the neighborhood. They have to learn how to do these things,’” Zaske says.

Of course, the age-appropriateness of everything is kept in mind. Only what the Germans view as “age-appropriate” may shock some American parents.

Take, for example, how it’s common for 5-year-olds to use matches—with firefighters and insurance companies even endorsing camps where kindergartners learn the art of building “happy fires” that are non-destructive and relatively safe.

“It was a little shocking,” Zaske says of when her young daughter explained her homework assignment was to use matches. “But you know, when I saw her do it, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. It’s not that hard for a kid to learn.’”

Here are a few more ways German parents encourage independence and confidence in their kids:

1. They encourage kids to bike to school

Even in large cities like Berlin, Zaske says it was commonplace for elementary-aged kids to bike to class. Not only does this help out with the morning logistics, but Zaske says it became apparent to her it’s an invaluable lesson for kids.

“If you don’t let your kid bike to school or whatever, you lose something. You rob them of something: You rob them of that opportunity to have a lot of pride. I see it in my kids, whenever they do something new or conquer a new task, they feel so great. I mean, talk about self-esteem: The best thing you can do for your kid is teach them to do something and let them do it.”

2. They let kids take risks

Zaske says she was scared when her 3-year-old daughter started to climb a 20-foot-tall play structure, but followed the lead of other parents and soon saw her daughter was capable.

“I think most kids will have their own fear brake,” she says. “They won’t do things that they’re afraid to do.”

3. They leave babies to sleep outside restaurants

While American parents would probably worry about getting child services called on them, Zaske says it’s common for German parents to allow their infants to sleep in strollers outside a restaurant while the parents sit inside at the window directly next to the baby. (In fact, this practice is common in Europe and has some apparent health benefits for babies.)

4. They start the discussion about where babies come from earlier

In my experience, Germans aren’t ones to beat around the bush. So, when it comes to the question about where babies come from, they are direct in their answers with young children—although still aware of what’s age-appropriate.

“I thought it was great, actually,” Zaske says about when her 7-year-old learned about human reproduction in school. “I’m glad that it was not too much information. It wasn’t overwhelming information; it was just like, ‘This is what sex is.’ It was enough, and it opened up the subject for my kids to ask questions.”

5. They don’t childproof everything

As with matches, Zaske says it’s common for preschoolers to use real knives to cut fruit and vegetables. She explains, “Inviting your kids to cook with you and use the real implements is a great way to introduce them to learning to cook.”

Like Zaske, I really do often look back on my experience in Germany to help guide my philosophy on raising my American children. While there are some cultural differences that make it hard to implement all of these German-parenting practices, the underlying messages are still worth paying attention to...

I think I’ll just draw the line at having my young son use the sharp knives.

After 4 kids, this is still the best baby gear item I’ve ever purchased

I wouldn't be swooning over the BABYBJÖRN bouncer after eight years and four kids if it didn't work.

I have four kids 8 and under, so you might expect that my house is teeming with baby gear and kid toys.

But it turns out that for me, the more kids I have, the more I simplify our stuff. At this point, I'm down to the absolute essentials, the gear that I can't live without and the toys my kids actually play with. And so when a mama-to-be asks me what things are worth registering for, there are only a few must-haves on my list.

The BABYBJÖRN bouncer seat is on the top of my list—totally worth it and an absolute must-have for any new mama.

In fact, since I first splurged on my first BABYBJÖRN bouncer eight years ago (it definitely felt like a splurge at the time, but the five star reviews were really compelling), the bouncer seat has become the most-used product in our house for baby's first year.

We've actually invested in a second one so that we didn't have to keep moving ours from the bedroom to the living room when we change locations.

BABYBJÖRN bouncer bliss

baby bjorn bouncer

The utility of the seat might seem counterintuitive—it has no mechanical parts, so your baby is instead gently bounced by her own movements. In a world where many baby products are touted for their ability to mechanically rock baby to sleep, I get that many moms might not find the "no-motion" bouncer that compelling. But it turns out that the seat is quite reactive to baby's little kicks, and it has helped my kids to learn how to self-soothe.


Lightweight + compact:

The BABYBJÖRN bouncer is super lightweight, and it also folds flat in a second. Because of those features, we've frequently stored it under the couch, in a suitcase or in the back of the car. It folds completely flat, which I love.

Entertainment zone:

Is the toy bar worth it? The toy bar is totally worth it. Not only is the toy bar adorable, but it's one of the first toys that my babies actually play with once they discover the world beyond my boobs. The toys spin and are close to eye level so they have frequently kept my baby entertained while I cook or take a quick shower.

Great style:

This is not a small detail to me–the BABYBJÖRN bouncer is seriously stylish. I am done with baby gear and toys that make my house look like a theme park. The elegant European design honestly just looks good in my living room and I appreciate that parents can enjoy it as much as baby.

It's adjustable:

With three height settings that let you prop baby up to be entertained, or lay back to rest, we get years of use. And the bouncer can actually be adjusted for bigger kids and used from newborn to toddler age. It's that good.

It just works:

I wouldn't be swooning over the BABYBJÖRN bouncer after eight years and four kids if it didn't work. But I have used the seat as a safe space to put baby while I've worked (I once rocked my baby in it with my foot while I reported on a breaking news story for the Washington Post), and as a cozy spot for my second child to lay while his big brother played nearby. It's held up for almost a decade with almost-constant use.

So for me, looking back on what I thought was a splurge eight years ago, was actually one of the best investments in baby gear I ever made.

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.


There is rightfully a lot of emphasis on preparing for the arrival of a new baby. The clothes! The nursery furniture! The gear! But, the thing about a baby registry is, well, your kids will keep on growing. Before you know it, they'll have new needs—and you'll probably have to foot the bill for the products yourself.

Thankfully, you don't have to break the bank when shopping for toddler products. Here are our favorite high-quality, budget-friendly finds to help with everything from meal time to bath time for the toddler set.

Comforts Fruit Crisps Variety Pack

Comforts fruit snacks

If there is one thing to know about toddlers, it is this: They love snacks. Keeping a variety on hand is easy when the pack already comes that way! Plus, we sure do appreciate that freeze-dried fruit is a healthier alternative to fruit snacks.

Comforts Electrolyte Drink

Comforts electrolyte drink

Between running (or toddling!) around all day and potentially developing a pickier palate, many toddlers can use a bit of extra help with replenishing their electrolytes—especially after they've experienced a tummy bug. We suggest keeping an electrolyte drink on hand.

Comforts Training Pants

Comforts training pants

When the time comes to start potty training, it sure helps to have some training pants on hand. If they didn't make it to the potty in time, these can help them learn their body's cues.

Comforts Nite Pants

comforts nite pants

Even when your toddler gets the hang of using the toilet during the day, nighttime training typically takes several months longer than day-time training. In the meantime, nite pants will still help them feel like the growing, big kid they are.

Comforts Baby Lotion

comforts baby lotion

Running, jumping, playing in sand, splashing in water—the daily life of a toddler can definitely irritate their skin! Help put a protective barrier between their delicate skin and the things they come into contact with every day with nourishing lotion.

Another great tip? Shopping the Comforts line on to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices—and follow along on social media to see product releases and news at @comfortsforbaby.

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

It's science: Why your baby stops crying when you stand up

A fascinating study explains why.

When your baby is crying, it feels nearly instinctual to stand up to rock, sway and soothe them. That's because standing up to calm babies is instinctual—driven by centuries of positive feedback from calmed babies, researchers have found.

"Infants under 6 months of age carried by a walking mother immediately stopped voluntary movement and crying and exhibited a rapid heart rate decrease, compared with holding by a sitting mother," say authors of a 2013 study published in Current Biology.

Even more striking: This coordinated set of actions—the mother standing and the baby calming—is observed in other mammal species, too. Using pharmacologic and genetic interventions with mice, the authors say, "We identified strikingly similar responses in mouse pups as defined by immobility and diminished ultrasonic vocalizations and heart rate."

Keep reading Show less