Sunday 26 May 2019

The very different way that Germans raise confident kids

Imagine a place where children walk to school by themselves, ride the subway alone, and even cut food with sharp knives. Author Sara Zaske raised her children in Berlin for six years and was impressed by their very different parenting approach

Hanging tough: German children, according to writer Sara Zaske, are instructed well and then trusted to manage risk themselves
Hanging tough: German children, according to writer Sara Zaske, are instructed well and then trusted to manage risk themselves
Author Sara Zaske

Julia Molony

It says something about how self-doubting we have become about parenting across the English-speaking world, that there is a flourishing publishing trend for books that count the ways in which other cultures do it better.

There's the French Way, according to Pamela Druckerman, who wrote French Children Don't Throw Food, where kids are decorous, obedient and sleep well. The Chinese Way, as described by Amy Chua in Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother, produces children who will power ahead in a competitive world. Then there's the wholesome Danish Way, found in What the Happiest People in the World Know about Raising Confident, Capable Kids.

And now, from the erstwhile Berlin-dwelling American writer Sara Zaske, we have ­- The German Way - which results in kids who can fend for themselves, as outlined in Zaske's new book, Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

Zaske's daughter was just a toddler when the family first relocated from America to Berlin, where her husband Zac took up an academic post. Back then, she prided herself on being - by the standards of her peers in the U - a pretty laid-back parent. So she was surprised to discover that in Germany she was the "uptight, protective one" when she compared her approach to the freedoms other parents allowed their children. While American parents flap about how to keep children safe at all costs, in Germany a central tenet of the goal of raising children is to instil selbstandigkeit; self-reliance or autonomy. And that means giving them the liberty to manage situations on their own.

Author Sara Zaske
Author Sara Zaske

The argument that children's freedom of movement and play are unhealthily restricted in modern life is one that has been steadily gaining traction for several years now. But it remains niche. In America, the idea of 'Free Range Parenting' popularised by writer Lenore Skenazy called for a return to the standards that were typical for children growing up in the 70s 80s and before - children playing unsupervised outdoors from dawn till dusk, walking to school alone and taking on tasks and responsibilities that today's children kids are rarely trusted with, due to, Zaske argues, an overblown sense of the dangers they face.

But while Slenazy's ideas went so much against the grain when they were published in 2009 that they were declared radical, in Germany, Zaske discovered, they represent mainstream thinking. This became most starkly apparent for Zaske when her daughter, aged eight, started asking to be allowed to walk alone to primary school through inner city Berlin. As it happened, Sophia was the last of her peers being brought to school by her parents.

Indeed, Sophia's little friend Maya "at the age of eight, rode her bike through crowded sidewalks and crossed busy intersections all by herself. She wasn't the only one. Every morning, hordes of children filled our neighbourhood walking and biking to school without any attending adults. In the afternoons, they were there again walking home. They filled the playgrounds. They went in and out of the bakeries and stores with only other children for company," Zaske writes.

"It takes a while to change your mind," Zaske tells me. But as she began, tentatively to allow her daughter to join her friends exploring alone, she quickly "saw the difference it made for her. For instance when we sent her down to buy rolls at the bakery. And she comes back with the change, and the smile on her face, she was so proud of what she can do, and she feels capable. And that was when I realised 'yes, this was a big part of my job as a parent. It's not to protect and tell her what to do all the time, but to teach her how to do things for herself, and to let go. Which is really hard."

Zaske was shocked when, after six and a half years in Germany, she moved back to America, to a leafy suburb of San Francisco and found, "when school started - a school less than a mile away, all of my neighbours get in their cars with their kids, drive the kid a mile, get out, and walk them onto the campus of the school. I was just like, wow. There's no bad weather, there's no traffic, it's a pretty safe neighbourhood. What is this? This is strange. I was letting my daughter bike to school, she was nine at the time, by herself. And I got questions. Nobody said, 'you shouldn't do that.' But they definitely said, 'Is your daughter really by herself?'"

"The biggest challenge," she says, "was that if I wanted my kids to play outside or at the park - we had a beautiful park down the street, it wasn't very interesting for them because there were no kids there."

Since moving back to the US she has done her best to maintain the experiences her children were allowed in Berlin. "You have to go a little against the grain here," she says, but adds that there are a lot of parents and teachers who would like to return to a model of childhood they enjoyed themselves. "Because for us, it used to be this way. Sometimes they need a little permission to do it from other people. If you do it, you find a little more support than perhaps you might think. I still get some of those funny looks and comments that I'm not really being approved of. But for the most part I think people are supportive," she says.

German children, she observed, are instructed well and then trusted to manage risk themselves. Preparation is key. In schools, for example, there is "a specific curriculum for "traffic and mobility education." From Kindergarden, children are entrusted with cooking projects from the age of three, cutting up fruit themselves with knives. Five-year-olds are taught (under close supervision) to use matches and understand how to handle fire safely.

Meanwhile, in inner-city outdoor play spaces, the emphasis is on adventure. "These spaces are designed specifically to encourage children to experience the risk of wild, free play, even in the middle of a big city," Zaske writes, and most "feature opportunities for kids to build forts and tree houses, cook food on open fires and try out a variety of tools."

Nature plays a crucial part in every German childhood too, and the importance of time outdoors is enshrined as a central principle of education, from the earliest years.

A more German, hands-off model of childrearing helps support greater well being and mental health in adulthood, argues Zaske. She cites Peter Gray, a research psychologist from Boston College who "argues that there is a strong correlation between the decline of children's free play and the rise in mental disorders among young people in America." She interviewed Gray for her book, and he told her that "the evolutionary purpose of play . . . is to allow children to practice controlling their own behaviour, solving their own problems, planning and carrying out a plan. When adults are around, they're not in charge of their own activities. There's an adult there telling them what to do, solving their problems, or advising them."

It's not that parents in Germany don't worry, she observed, but rather that a conscious, and disciplined effort is made to extract the hysteria and fearmongering from the business of bringing up children.

For Zaske, our habit of helicopter parenting is the natural continuum of attachment parenting ideals, popularised by Dr William Sears, which have dominated cultural conversation about how best to interact with children for several decades. Attachment parenting, she argues, is all about intensive one-on-one responsiveness to the child. "The problem is that at no point in that literature do they say, 'ok here is when you need to step back. I read the Dr Sears books religiously when I had my kids, and they are lovely books and they have lots of good points. But almost every piece of advice is, MORE. Be more attentive, be more there, be more present. It's also important to do less. Let a kid have some space."

The difference, she found, was clearly borne out in the young adults that she met during their time there. Thanks to her husband's job, she met a lot of graduate students. "I talked with them about their childhoods and how they were raised. And what impressed me the most was that they seemed very calm, and very confident. I didn't meet any who were unhappy with where they were in life. They seemed like they were pretty sure on their path. In the US we have a lot of young adults who are lost. They are in their 20s or even in their 30s and haven't really found themselves, they're still living at home with mom and dad, still jumping around from career to career. And I think I see that difference. German young people when they get through their education, feel much more secure in their decisions and the way they run their lives."

● Achtung Baby, Piatkus. €20.99

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