“I am going to bring bikini tops,” said my boyfriend nervously, “because I know you and your sister won’t have packed any.” Of course we hadn’t: neither of us had really worn a proper bikini in years, particularly if we weren’t on a public beach. As children, if we were on holiday with English friends, all hell would break loose at the idea of being forced into a swimsuit. This was pretty normal to us, as was smoking with our parents when we were teenagers, having a glass of wine if we wanted one and generally doing what we liked. My German father worked abroad for much of my childhood, but when he was around he treated my sister and me like adults: he’d tell us all about his job as we went out for dinner together or took long walks in the park, first in my pram and then hand in hand. Cigar smoke is still one of my favourite smells as I remember those walks when he would puff and chat away.
If this sounds unusual to you, welcome to the German way. I never thought my upbringing was particularly unique and, having lived in London all my life, I have always considered myself predominantly English. But after reading Achtung Baby: The German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, I’ve come to realise that my childhood was far more German than I originally thought. The author, Sara Zaske, an American writer who lived in Berlin for seven years, found parents there were far from the strict, overbearing rulemakers she had expected. China is famous for its tiger mothers, and Norway for its institutionalised approach (children go to nursery from the age of one), but German childhoods are like mine: mostly free, open and unstructured. “Ironically, the land once known for authoritarianism provides a compelling example of how we might do things differently,” Zaske says.
She found that the friends she made in Berlin pretty much left their children to it. “German parents believe that independence is good for children,” she writes. “They treat them as capable beings worthy of trust.” Germans place huge cultural value on the quality of selbständigkeit, or self-reliance, believing it produces more successful individuals. A German family friend of mine was horrified by the British idea of sending her daughter to school at four. “In a grey uniform? It would feel like I was sending her to prison or something,” she said. When I was young, I flatly refused to learn to read, despite my school’s instruction. My mother maintained that I would learn when I was ready and that forcing me would be a losing battle. (I learnt about a month later.)
Scientists believe this freewheeling parenting style fosters more than just academic confidence. “Many people think having the closest, tightest possible physical relationship to parents builds psychological wellbeing,” Remo Largo, a Swiss paediatrician once called the “god of parenting” by the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, says, “but self-confidence is born not only of security, but of independence as well”. It’s true: my sister, who is two years older than me, and I were left to play for hours on end, often without much stimulus. I remember, at the age of about 10, turning the bathroom into a makeshift “tent” for a whole day. We locked ourselves in and played at having picnics and snuggling in sleeping bags. Our parents didn’t bother us, nor did they try to get involved — that would have ruined the game for two imaginative young girls. We also both bear the literal scars of our many disagreements: our relationship wasn’t without its share of fisticuffs. Today, we couldn’t be closer. We have a shared history of working things out together.
German parents stand back. At 11, I was allowed to choose my own secondary school (I liked the uniform and the teachers seemed friendly). Consequently, I loved it and spent a very happy seven years there, unlike many of my friends, who struggled after being pushed into the “best” schools by their parents. The year before, I had my first piano lesson. I didn’t like it much, mostly because my teacher came round every week just when Blue Peter was on. I told my mother I’d rather watch Blue Peter than play piano. So she let me give it up — she felt there was no point cajoling me into hobbies I wasn’t interested in.
This abundance of freedom doesn’t appear to be leading children astray: in Germany, the age of consent is 14 and the legal age to buy your own alcohol is 16, yet the binge-drinking and teenage- pregnancy statistics are more modest than those in the US and the UK. Friends at school were always jealous of my parents’ live-and-let-live attitude to drinking, smoking and other misbehaviour — their policy was that as long as I was safe, I’d grow out of any bad habits, and banning them would cause rebellion. As such, I never had much to rebel against. Now 24, I can’t recall a time when I drastically disobeyed my parents, bar a few ill-advised ear piercings. I’m grateful to them for raising me in what I now understand to be the “German way” — despite my friends’ reluctance to go on bikini-free holidays with me.