On the afternoon of my first New Year’s Eve in Berlin I was horrified to see a young boy, no more than six or seven years old, roaming the streets near me with a backpack full of giant firework rockets much taller than he was.
Ellen Weaver laughs when I tell her. The British mother, who lives in Freiburg with Rosa, her 15-year-old daughter, admits that when she first moved to Germany nearly ten years ago she couldn’t believe how unconcerned German parents appeared to be about their children and the kinds of dangers that would terrify British parents.
“The difference is that in Germany the children are taught about it,” she says. “For instance in kindergarten — Kita — when they are four or five, the kids are taught how to use a penknife and they are given a little certificate to show that they are safe to use a knife. That means that it’s not really exciting for a kid to get hold of a knife and do something stupid. Likewise with fireworks: if you are shown how to use them safely then you don’t go off and do crazy, illegal things with them.”
As British educationalists have become concerned that ubiquitous “helicopter parenting” is stunting the psychological and academic growth of children, some are looking to Germany for a better model. Sara Zaske, an American who has lived in Berlin for the past seven years, has written a book, Achtung Baby, which will be published in April, about the benefits of the independence and self-reliance with which German children are instilled from a very young age.
Of course we’ve been here before. A string of books have told us that other cultures do parenting better, from French Children Don’t Throw Food, which explains how French babies sleep through the night, to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua’s account of trying to raise Ivy League, piano-playing prodigies. It’s easy to be sceptical about this latest “they do it better than you” tome. Yet it’s certainly true that German adolescents best their British counterparts in almost every academic criterion.
The more open style of German parenting and early education has in part emerged from the Kinderladen — Children’s Shop — movement of the late 1960s, which flourished in antithesis to the traditional, authoritarian Prussian educational model that many believed helped to pave the way for Nazism.
In nursery, toddlers are taught how to use a penknife
Weaver, who teaches law at the University of Freiburg, recalls that when she and Rosa, who was then six, moved to Germany, “within days it was normal for her to take the bus to school on her own and within no time she was cycling to friends’ houses. For me it took a bit of getting used to but two generations ago that kind of freedom was normal in the UK.”
Indeed, from my apartment in central Berlin, every day I see children as young as five or six walking or cycling to and from school on their own or even taking the U-Bahn underground. “If you saw that in Britain you’d think the child was lost,” says Weaver, “but here it’s completely normal for very young children to be walking to and from school or to sports clubs or friends’ houses or wherever they want to go.”
Jenny Witt has also noticed enormous differences between parenting in the UK and Germany. A radio journalist, she is German but lived in the UK for 25 years before moving back to Hamburg last summer. She has two children, Nina, nine, and Colm-Luca, six. “Within three months of moving here Nina was riding the underground to school,” says Witt. “And she was delighted. Since we’ve been here I’ve noticed her looking outwards much more; she’s really had to come out of her little childhood bubble, to take part in the world around her and she now wants to do a lot more on her own.
“I think German parents trust their kids to be more competent, to make their own decisions and to express what they want,” says Witt. “There’s a strong consensus culture in Germany and for many parents decision-making with their children is very democratic. Of course the parents have the last word but everything is discussed. I think German parents see their kids more as little citizens, as fully formed, small members of society.”
The kinds of physical dangers that many British parents and educational authorities fret about seem to be actively encouraged in Germany. “In my daughter’s school,” says Witt, “they have an adventure playground which is like a little construction site, where they build huts and make fires and use hammers and drills and nails and other dangerous stuff. You are totally dissuaded as a parent from going in there.
“In the UK, every new playground seems to be rubberised so the kids can’t get hurt or dirty. Here they have playgrounds covered in sand which have water-pumping systems so the kids can build dams and channel the water and they come home from school caked in mud, which would never happen in Britain.”
Weaver says she’s still trying to figure out why things have changed so much in the UK in the past couple of generations, “so that so many parents have fears that aren’t statistically or objectively rational, about kidnapping and other things. Why are so many British parents scared of ‘stranger danger’ when it’s so much more dangerous just to put your child in the car, and we do that all the time?
“For some reason, maybe it’s to do with the tabloids, but in Britain we now seem to have a culture in which it is not acceptable for a six or seven-year-old, or even a ten year-old, to walk down the street on their own, so it’s very hard for parents to feel safe.
“There are a lot of indices about teenage wellbeing where the UK doesn’t do well,” Weaver adds. “I don’t know if there’s a causal connection but if a child feels they have more independence and a sense of control over their own lives does that mean they have a deeper sense of confidence and wellbeing? I would think so.”
Achtung Baby: How to Parent Like a German by Sara Zaske will be published by Picador in January 2018
How other nations do it
The free-play Danish
The nation’s most famous export, Lego, derives its name from the phrase leg godt (play well), which could be a slogan for Danish education. Children don’t start school until they’re six; until the age of ten they finish the day at 2pm, with the afternoon dedicated to free play. Danish parents insist on technology-free time for children to play and use their imaginations, say the authors of The Danish Way of Parenting, Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl. And the product of that imagination? Two words: The Killing.
The American-Chinese tiger
Want to raise a prodigy? Ban play dates and TV, start the violin or piano lessons early and don’t let them choose their extracurricular activities. When in 2011 Amy Chua, an American-Chinese lawyer, published her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it kicked off a worldwide conversation about soppy western parenting. In tiger-mom world, “childhood is a training period, a time to build character and invest in the future”. If you find yourself filming your four-year-old doing press-ups in the snow, you know you’ve gone too far.
The faultless French
How do French mothers look so effortlessly stylish, we often wonder. Well, government support for intimate post-partum physio apparently helps, as does the swiftness with which they unlatch their babies from their breasts before weaning them on to Cordon Bleu cookery. As a result, French children are gourmet eaters who don’t throw food, according to Pamela Druckerman, the author of French Children Don’t Throw Food. They probably also read Jean-Paul Sartre novels and smoke cigarettes while their parents sip coffee and contemplate their next cinq à sept.
The outdoorsy Dutch
Dutch primary school children aren’t expected to do homework or swot for exams, and don’t start lessons in reading, writing and maths until six, write Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison, the authors of The Happiest Kids in the World. They ride bikes to school, play on the streets and visit friends all unaccompanied, and “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”. The image of a child rosy-cheeked from outdoor fun is suffused in Dutch culture. No wonder a 2013 report from Unicef rated Dutch children the happiest in the world.