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After Sara Zaske moved from Oregon to Berlin with her husband and toddler, it didn’t take long for her to see the German cultural value of selbständigkeit – self-reliance – in action.
It was obvious at the playground, where the children ran unsupervised and swung from structures made of rope and metal, free from the watchful eyes of parents.
“In America we might call this ‘free-range’ parenting, but in Germany it’s normal parenting,” Zaske writes in the new book, Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children.
Part-memoir, part-parenting guide, the book details what Zaske learned about raising independent children during the nearly 7 years her family spent in Germany.
In Berlin, kids walk to school by themselves, navigate public transportation, cut food with sharp knives, even play with fire, prompting Zaske to wonder if Germany was an example of how we could do things differently in the U.S.
“I had always considered myself a relaxed parent, but living in Berlin showed me how much I had absorbed of modern American parenting style,” she writes.
Some of the biggest lessons she learns include:
• At daycare and on the playground, allow children to make the rules and discipline themselves.
“Our kita’s (kindergarten’s) philosophy was that the kids themselves were the best ones to enforce their own rules and solve their own conflicts – that they learn best from each other what is socially acceptable behavior,” Zaske writes.
• Spend time outdoors.
A German saying, “Es gibt kein schlechtes Wetter, es gibt nur falsche Kleidung,” roughly translates to “There’s no bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
“We were outside almost every day, spending time in a different park every weekend, in all weather conditions,” Zaske says. “It was a shock, and kind of disappointing, to return to America and hardly see any kids outside on a sunny day.”
• Give children physical independence.
Zaske details several examples including how German children use pedal-less laufrad (walking bikes – often called balance bikes in the U.S.) to learn the rules of the road, gain confidence, and move independently of their parents.
“It seems like a small thing, but it helps kids feel capable,” Zaske says. “They know that you trust them.”
As another mother tells Zaske, “I want (my children) to be independent and proud of what they can do. If I’m always with them, they won’t be.”
• Teach children to engage with dangerous things, such as fire, in safe ways.
Zaske interviews a fire safety expert who says our natural human fascination with fire is strong, so prohibiting children from using fire means they will do it in secret. And if kids have no experience with matches, they don’t know how to hold them or put them out, so they burn their fingers, drop the match, or light something on fire.
Likewise, children in Germany are also taught to manage other dangerous objects, like tools and knives, so they understand how to wield them safely.
“It was baffling to me at first, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense,” she says.
• Offer children spiritual and intellectual freedom too.
“As parents, we can exercise an enormous amount of power over our children if we want to … if we misuse that power to try to force them to think the way we do, or do exactly what we want, our children may not forgive us when they’re older,” Zaske writes.
Back home in the U.S.
The author now lives in Idaho with her husband and children – Sophia, age 11, and 8-year-old Ozzie, who was born in Berlin – and finding a way to make Germany’s anti-authoritarian philosophies work in the land of helicopter parenting.
“I caught myself being American here when terrorist attacks started to happen,” she says. “My daughter came to talk to me about some things she heard at school, and I realized I need to be really open with her about difficult topics, otherwise they hear all kinds of crazy information.
“We try to shelter kids too much.”
It’s possible for American parents to foster emotional and intellectual independence in our children, she says, though it’s more of a challenge.
“You have to admit that many of the things they do in Germany involve an entire society and support system,” Zaske says. “Healthcare. Subsidized childcare. A substantial maternity leave. Those aren’t systems we have in place here.”
That said, there are still things well within our control as parents.
“At the very least we can lose some of our guilt,” Zaske says. “There’s often a stigma attached to daycare, but if you find a good daycare system for your child, that’s such a positive experience. They are starting to establish themselves in the world without you, and that’s a good thing.
“You can also spend more time outdoors, and allow your child to play freely. Let them achieve things without you.”
Read more about Sara Zaske and her work here. Pick up Achtung Baby or read an excerpt here.
How are you raising a self-reliant child?
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.