When you imagine German parents, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a strict, authoritarian figure that tells their kids what to do and how to think. Well, not so, writes Sara Zaske, author of "Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children."
In the new manual for parents, Zaske writes that Germans actually have a relaxed parenting style that's based on the cultural value of “selbständigkeit," or self-reliance. Basically, what Americans might call free-range parenting is normal parenting in Germany. As children age, parents put trust in them and supervise them less. They also believe that children are capable of making their own decisions from a very young age.
Throughout the book, Zaske wonders if perhaps American-style helicopter parenting isn’t raising the independent kids we hope for and if we should, instead, be learning from our more lax German counterparts.
Here are just some of the key takeaways from her time raising kids in Germany.
1. Let kids play on their own.
Zaske recounts the tale of joining a new parent couple in Berlin on a picnic. When the other couple’s children wanted to play, she allowed her daughter to go to the playground too—which was behind a wall. The other parents didn’t join and balked when she suggested going to look after the children. In Germany, it's absolutely normal and expected to let your kids go off and play on their own.
2. Encourage babies to be by themselves.
One of the ways German parents help their children to feel secure in their own bodies is to allow—and even encourage—babies from a young age to be on their own. In the book, Zaske encounters several parents who put their kids down for a nap or to go to bed, and let the child spend some time playing before falling asleep on their own. That's right: no rocking, singing or crawling out of a room.
3. Learn to say no.
When her son encounters some sleep issues in his first year, Zaske goes to a sleep expert. She quickly notices that the child doesn’t react well whenever he is told no. In order to combat this, the recommendation that Zaske gets isn’t to raise her voice or enforce stricter rules, but rather to say no in a calm way. If the child still throws a tantrum, the parent is to wait and observe, but only comfort after the child has calmed down.
4. Putting kids in childcare is good for them.
Although she admits that this is likely favored more in East Germany, putting your children in childcare is seen as actually being good for them. Instead of feeling guilty about going back to work or using childcare as a last resort, German parents are excited to let their children have time away from family in order to develop themselves and have a nice space to explore.
Ultimately, the biggest lesson in German-style parenting is that 'children belong first and foremost to themselves.'
5. Allow kids to solve their own conflicts.
One important thing that Zaske learned about parenting was in "kita," a kind of preschool where teachers set a few rules but largely allow kids to set their own. The thinking is that kids are the best ones to enforce their own rules and solve conflicts. “They learn best from each other what is socially acceptable behavior,” Zaske writes about the way teachers explain to kids the consequences of their actions and then lets them decide the next course of action.
6. Have no toy playtime.
The teachers at Zaske’s kita took all of the children’s toys away for three months. Although it seemed like torture or a punishment at first, it was actually a structured way to push kids to use their imagination. Doing this forces kids to get more inventive with playtime, like building forts and pretending to be animals. Yes, they get bored, but German teachers emphasize that boredom is good for children.
7. Give them rules but let them go off on their own.
The biggest shock the author experienced was allowing kids to play on their own and to generally go off on their own. She had trouble coping with this, but many parents in Germany allow their kids to ride their bikes or walk to school on their own starting at 6 years of age. Parents are expected to teach children dangers (such as about cars and how to cross the road properly) without terrifying them, and then allow them to do these things on their own.
8. Don’t be afraid of the tough topics.
No parent enjoys having the sex talk, but Zaske was particularly shocked when her 7-year-old daughter brought a book home from school that was meant to jump-start the conversation. The purpose was to normalize the conversation around sex, with no secrets or weird stories overheard from classmates. The same goes for the death talk. Parents are encouraged to ask “What do you think?” when kids ask about what happens after death, and allow the child to come to their own conclusions.
9. Help them stand up for themselves.
German parents are encouraged to teach their children to stand up for themselves. For instance, a child is encouraged to say no to touching if they're uncomfortable receiving physical affection—even from their own parents. This is a life lesson that young kids all over the world would benefit from.
Ultimately, the biggest lesson in German-style parenting is that “children belong first and foremost to themselves.” If you want to raise kids who will someday be self-reliant adults, then perhaps it's time to let go of the “culture of control” so prevalent in American parenting and embrace the German side of things.