A new book extolls the "German art of raising self-reliant children."
There’s a new European parenting population to emulate: Germany, where moms and dads have perfected “the art of raising self-reliant children,” according to Sara Zaske, the author of Achtung Baby.
Zaske is an American who found herself in Europe—Berlin, specifically—and was blown away by the big differences between how kids are raised in the United States and Germany. Her main takeaway: Here in the land of freedom, we’re actually limiting our kids’ independence to an alarming and damaging degree.
Here are the ways Zaske says German parents raise self-reliant kids (and make it way easier on themselves to boot!):
1. German parents aren’t attached to Attachment Parenting.
Overwhelmed and exhausted when her 12-month-old son refused to sleep reliably, Zaske’s pediatrician wrote a prescription for a sleep consultant to come by her house weekly. The consultant, Cathrin, encouraged Zaske to give her son more time to self-soothe before stepping in, and to take steps to get him to sleep by himself. Cathrin also encouraged her to give him more time to entertain himself and set firm limits (no breastfeeding her 12-month-old at night, for example). The Germans, she observed, take a practical and measured approach to parenting that encourages independence even from infancy.
2. Kids start preschool early.
German moms don’t agonize or feel guilty about sending their kids to daycare—59-percent of 2-year-olds and a whopping 92 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in some form of early childhood education. That’s in part because every child in Germany is guaranteed a spot at a childcare center, and the high-quality centers, or kitas, are often government-subsidized.
3. Children work out problems themselves.
In Zaske’s experience, preschool teachers in Germany “never forced children to play with each other or ‘get along’ if they didn’t.” Kids are seen as “the best ones to enforce their own rules and solve their own conflicts.” Teachers in Germany believe kids will learn valuable social skills simply through experience itself—if you’re mean, no one will play with you.
4. Kids learn through play.
This philosophy is consistent across many European countries but almost nonexistent in the U.S., where kindergartners are expected to tackle more and more complicated coursework every year. In Germany, preschool and early grades emphasize unstructured play, often outdoors—and even in inclement weather. Like the Swedes, they believe “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.” And like in the Netherlands, German parents don’t stress out if their children aren’t reading or hitting educational milestones right away. At Zaske’s kids’ school, the parents voted to ensure there was enough time to finish homework at school, so there wouldn’t be any at home.
5. Kids walk or bike to school.
When her daughter entered the first grade, Zaske realized her child was expected to walk or bike to school. By the age of 8, in fact, her daughter’s friend was biking down crowded sidewalks and through busy intersections. Parents in Germany still worry about their kids, but their desire to teach independence and self-reliance outweighs their concerns. Contrast this with a 2015 Pew Research survey where 66 percent of American parents said children shouldn’t be allowed to be alone at a park until they were 13 or older. Which leads us to the next observation ...
6. Kids play in parks unsupervised.
That includes “adventure playgrounds,” designed for kids 7 and up, where they can build forts and treehouses, cook food on open fires and try out a variety of tools. Here in America, that gets you arrested—despite the fact that crime rates are actually lower in America than Germany (in all categories except murder, which is largely due to gun violence).
7. German parents aren’t afraid to tackle tough subjects.
Maybe it’s because the country has had to wrestle with its complicated history in the wake of WWII, but German parents don’t shy away from talking about subjects like death and sex. In Zaske’s daughter’s class, children were asked during a “death week” to draw pictures of someone they knew who had died. And in Berlin, sex education usually begins in first and second grades, with teachers going over basic biology, body differences, and sex abuse prevention. German parents sometimes even let their teenagers’ partners sleep over, with the idea that it’s less dangerous than making sexually active teens sneak around.
It’s all part of a philosophy, she sums up, that leaves German kids equipped to handle the realities of adulthood. And though we don’t have any studies to back it up, we’d wager this hands-off approach leads to happier parents too.
Written by Audrey Goodson Kingo for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.