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.