What Americans Can Learn From The Parenting Style Of The Germans

Could the over-prioritization of safety in America be doing more harm than good? Take a note from German parents and give your child a little space.

June 22, 2018
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I read Sara Zaske’s 2018 book, Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, at just the right time. My youngest was creeping up on 18 months; I found myself with three talking, walking, and climbing kids under the age of 6.

I was completely exhausted.

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I spent much of my days feeling like there would never be enough time to do all of the things required of me as a mom of young kids. The biggest obstacle I was facing, perhaps, was keeping my kids entertained for hours each day while my husband was away at work. Was I a mom or a cruise ship entertainment director? Many days, it was hard to tell.

I read Zaske’s book with skepticism at first. Parenting books are abundant and can be overly prescriptive, in my opinion. I wasn’t really looking for another book providing a long list of things I should be doing. Instead, I found Achtung Baby to be very descriptive, almost like a memoir. Zaske, a Pacific Northwesterner, wrote the book after spending time as a transplant in Berlin.

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She found herself a new mom in a world that looked wildly different from her own, and she quickly learned that Germans parent much differently than Americans do. She explained how she had initially expected German parents to be controlling and authoritarian but was surprised to find that wasn’t the case. Instead, she found that Germans prioritize self-reliance, which influences many of the decisions they make about how they parent their children.

“They feel capable. They feel trusted. They’re learning responsibility.”

—Sara Zaske, author of Achtung Baby, on the benefits of the German parenting style

As I read her book, I learned a lot about how I might benefit from adopting the German way of parenting. 

What’s so different about German parenting?

In Germany, Zaske observed that the overarching theme guiding parents’ decisions was teaching their children self-reliance. Day in and day out, kids were given the opportunity to learn to figure the world out on their own. They were given space to play and learn without the over-involvement of their parents.

“The biggest difference is that parents do not ‘helicopter’ over their children.”

—Christina Robinson Bayse, mom of four, on German parenting

If you’ve ever been on a playground in America, you know this is contrary to how the average American parent approaches child rearing.

“The most immediate and obvious [difference between German and American parents] is how German parents interacted with their kids on playgrounds—or didn’t interact,” Zaske tells HealthyWay. “They not only stay away from the kids when the kids go off to play, a lot of the time they don’t feel like they need to be in the line of sight.”

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In her book, Zaske noted that German toddlers do typically stay in their parents’ eyesight. However, once they reach 3 or 4, they are given more freedom. By the time they are 8 or 9, they’re making the trip to the playground alone, even in a larger city like Berlin. She writes about leaving her 8-year-old with a friend’s family for a playdate. When the time came to pick her up, she found her daughter and her 8-year-old friend alone at the playground with no adults in sight.  

Mom of four Christina Robinson Bayse spent three years in Germany as a young mom and had a very similar experience to Zaske’s. She admits to helicopter parenting her children until she saw how Germans were parenting. They simply weren’t as hyper-involved in their kids’ lives.

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“The biggest difference is that parents do not ‘helicopter’ over their children,” she recalls. “Children ride public transportation alone at very young ages; they climb the highest trees, and spend hours upon hours exploring alone. If they get injured, no biggie. …They will remember not to do the exact same thing the next time.”

In Bayse’s observation, German parents often sent their kids out in the morning and expected them to stay outside playing all day.

Their prioritizing of self-reliance doesn’t end with play. Children are expected to learn the essential functions of day-to-day life. Zaske says this means many kids are riding the public transit, known as the U-Bahn, to school each day by the time they are 8 or 9.

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In schools, kids are given many opportunities to practice self-reliance.

“I was informed that the 3 to 4-year-olds would be using real silverware, porcelain cups, knives, and the kitchen stove to prepare and eat their own lunches,” shares Bayse. “I watched in awe at how competent these wee ones were and how easily they could handle glass, knives, appliances, et cetera.”

While the use of sharp objects and stoves is difficult to endorse—the United States Consumer Product Safety Commision has safety statutes for a reason—the general practice of teaching children to care for themselves is something American parents can implement.

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Perhaps the most notable trait of German parents is that they widely accept daycare and preschool as beneficial for children. This is such a part of the culture in Germany that childcare is subsidized throughout the country. Zaske shares that German parents, by and large, see it as a great opportunity for the kids, a chance for independence, making new friends, and exploration.

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“When I heard those kinds of arguments, which I never heard in America, I was like, ‘Wow! You’re right. They are getting new experiences and friends, and the kids get a space of their own.’”

A Win-Win Model for Parenting

When children are given opportunities to explore and learn about their world and test out their responsibilities from a young age, they benefit.

“They feel capable. They feel trusted. They’re learning responsibility,” says Zaske. “And it’s really amazing that [American parents have] gone so far that we are inhibiting children’s ability to grow up.”

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When children start early with learning the skills they need for the future, according to Zaske, they’re prepared for the future. When it comes to learning accountability with the freedom they’re given, they’re not starting from scratch in middle school or high school.

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Zaske’s experience aligns with research about how restrictive parenting affects how children behave. Increased restriction of children actually decreased their ability to self-regulate their behaviors and lowered their achievement in school, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Frontiers.

Kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from the German parenting style. Zaske notes how their acceptance of daycare is beneficial for parents, especially since there is financial assistance provided.

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“There is a lot less guilt,” says Zaske. “They accept it as normal, and I didn’t see the kind of anxiety that some of us expats had leaving our kids at kita, which is kind of like daycare or preschool.”

As children grow older, the benefits of this parenting philosophy change says Zaske. Things become much easier for the parent since most children are getting themselves to and from school, making themselves a snack, and hanging out at home or heading to activities while the parents wrap up their work day.

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Personally, I noticed that encouraging kids to learn self-care could ultimately lessen my load. Instead of feeling like I was constantly in charge of their entertainment, dressing them, and getting them fed, I could give them the space to figure things out on their own.

German Parenting for All

No matter where you live, it is possible to embrace parenting choices that encourage your kids to figure out the world on their own. Start small, giving your kids age-appropriate tasks and freedom in small increments. As they learn about being responsible for themselves, you can increase their level of independence gradually.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well you can’t do it here,’” says Zaske. “Because Germany has a whole system that we don’t have. There are some things, of course, that we don’t have, like subsidized childcare, maternity leave, and lovely things like that. However, there are a lot of things that American parents can do to parent their kids for more self-reliance.”

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Embracing German parenting can influence all parts of your family life. Zaske recommends small measures; try giving kids more responsibility at home with tasks such as requiring them to take care of keeping their laundry clean and put away. It’s also important to avoid loading up your kids’ schedules because an open schedule allows them to manage their free time on their own, and it gives them the chance to learn what kind of activities they enjoy.

Parents who are ready to make bigger steps toward the German model might consider giving their kids the opportunity to walk to places, like school or a nearby park.

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“I know there can be some cultural resistance to that, but if you find your child a friend to walk with or a sibling, even the rest of your neighbors will look at that as safer,” she says.

My family is a long way from letting our kids walk to school since our kids are so young, but we are adopting some of the parenting practices outlined in Zaske’s book. My kids are getting more space and time outdoors, usually with me inside or doing yard work instead of standing over them to make sure they don’t get hurt. My two oldest are learning to make their own snacks, clean up after themselves, and take care of their personal hygiene.

These changes take some needless tasks off of my to-do list, of course. More importantly, my children are feeling proud and capable as a result of their new independence.

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