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What Makes German Parents So Great?

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A 2012 assessment by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that German 15-year olds were some of the highest performing in the world. You may assume that this is due to German’s particular culture: serious, hardworking and steadfast, but as Sara Zaske revealed in her Time column last week, it may be quite the opposite.

German kids are actually given more freedom than children in other countries, are discouraged from learning to read before school starts, and instead, are pushed out into the world to independently explore their environment without constant guidance or warnings. What’s more, German parents revere time spent in nature as much as American parents worship educational products.

I hadn’t thought about my own German childhood in years until I read Zaske’s piece, and was immediately flooded with memories of roaming through the fields surrounding our village after school, exploring the world, collecting curious objects and building things from scratch. From my free-range childhood I learned how to communicate and the natural laws of cause and effect. Sure, sometimes I got pinched or bruised, but I always remembered the experience.

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American moms give themselves a tremendous amount of pressure to do right by their children, constantly hovering around them to teach them the words for things and to make sure that they don’t hurt themselves. The effect, as many have argued, is that children are getting hurt less, but that it has also bred a generation of kids who are fearful, unimaginative and dependent on instruction and feedback.

I'm on the way to training a child who will be aware, thoughtful and equipped with the tools to make the right decisions in life.

The preschool emphasis for German families is cultivating character and curiosity, and reading takes a back seat. Rather than pushing kids to learn their ABC’s before starting school, they mark the initiation into first grade with a big celebration, complete with a big bags filled with toys, candy and knickknacks. I received a glorious pink Schultüte (school bag) filled with beautiful pencils, stickers and snacks, and while I was nervous, the overall experience was one of joy and excitement.

Now I know that many American parents—including myself—don’t have the luxury of raising their kids the way I was raised back in Germany, but there are a number of things I’m doing to cultivate the same love of learning and community in my son.

For one, we try to get out as much as possible. Rather than staying in and playing with toys, we go break sticks, look under bushes, and much to my husband’s disdain, eat everything edible en route.

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When my boy wants to try something I let him, unless it’s too dangerous. Despite the fact that he’s barely talking he’s learned to ask: “What’s wrong with this?” and “How does it work?” and when he does, I show him how to properly use whatever he is trying to figure out.

There's one more thing I let my son do that American parents might disagree with: I let him pick on the other kids. Not because I want him to feel strong, but because I want him to see firsthand that stealing someone’s ball or running into them has consequences. Natural cause and effect. The first few times he made other kids cry he looked at me with great confusion and concern, tears welling up in his eyes. I explained to him that he’d made them sad or hurt them, and how he could make it right.

Now, rather than looking to me for permission or approval, I can see the little wheels in his 2-year old head spinning as he thinks through the scenarios, meaning I can finally relax. I'm on the way to training a child who will be aware, thoughtful and equipped with the tools to make the right decisions in life.

It’s not easy and it’s not always very clean, but as he grows into a more mature human being, I can’t imagine it any other way.

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