Anyone who sees Germany as a dourly efficient nation blighted by a history of authoritarianism is in for a surprise.
A book to be published on January 2 reveals that, far from raising their children in a spirit of rigid Teutonic discipline, German parents are among the most relaxed in Europe.
In Achtung Baby, the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, the author Sara Zaske chronicles her surprise at the Germans’ approach during the six years she spent in Berlin after moving from Oregon with her husband and toddler. She had a second child while in Germany.
When The Sunday Times reported in February that the book was on its way, one reader remarked that it wasn’t long since “an article explaining how French parenting is so much better than ours . . . apparently we must be rubbish at it”.
It certainly seems that way if you look at the bookshelves, where works extolling the virtue of the French, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and Chinese ways of parenting vie for supremacy.
Zaske’s book will take its place in this crowded market of advice — everything from helicopter parents who hover anxiously over their offspring, monitoring every element of their lives, to the fearsome tiger mothers of the Far East, who demand academic achievement and ruthless discipline.
Their methods were championed by the American writer and academic Amy Chua in her — for many, infamous — book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were “never allowed” to go on a sleepover, or even a playdate, with friends; be in a school play; watch TV; or get any grade less than an A.
Zaske found parents in Berlin took a far more relaxed approach. She said “Berlin doesn’t need a ‘free range parenting’ movement because free range is the norm.”
Children are allowed to play outside alone and travel to school on public transport from a young age, and take risks such as studying “fire” with candles and matches.
The German view is that “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”, Zaske says.
It is not that the parents do not worry about their children but they believe that independence is an essential part of growing up. One mother confessed that she worried when her children, aged 8 and 10, travelled on their own for four stops on the underground. “I want them to be independent and proud of what they can do,” she told Zaske. “If I am always with them, they won’t be.”
Zaske says that parents in Germany are different from those she encountered while living in America. “Contrary to stereotypes, most German parents I’ve met are the opposite of strict,” she writes. “They place a high value on independence and responsibility.”
They also, it appears, have a high regard for a bit of nudity. When she sent her child to nursery with a swimsuit, she was the only child wearing one. “On hot summer days, I would often come to pick up my kids at kita [kindergarten] to find 18 naked kids splashing in the outside water play area.”
German kindergartens do not press children into academic subjects. Zaske was discouraged by teachers and other parents from trying to teach her children to read. “I was told it was something special the kids learn together when they start grade school [at 6]. Kindergarten was a time for play and social learning.”
When it comes to discipline, the Germans also fail to live up to the stereotype.
“Germans have rejected authoritarian ways of handling children,” Zaske writes. “Corporal punishment, spanking or hitting children whether by teachers or parents is against the law.”
Zaske admits that when she tells friends about the freedom experienced by German children they react with “surprise and disbelief”.“I usually end up reminding them how long it has been since the end of the Second World War.”
A WORLD OF PARENTAL ADVICE
The Danish Way of Parenting by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl
Shows how the “happiest people in the world” foster an “inner compass” in children and “reframe” (whatever those mean).
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
Your fondest childhood memories would never have happened under a tiger mum, who relentlessly takes all the fun out of being a child — but you will learn how to play the piano.
French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman
Explains why French babies sleep through the night, children play quietly and their mums wear skinny jeans, never tracksuit bottoms.