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The German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children
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The latest book on parenting according to the rules of another culture has hit American book shelves. It's called "Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children" and was just published this month by Picador.
Author Sara Zaske and her husband left Oregon for Berlin, Germany, with a toddler in tow. Eventually they had another baby, which gave them an intimate view of how German parents handle every stage of parenting, from sleep training babies to subsidized daycare from an early age to grade school.
While I have been eagerly awaiting this book and have yet to get my hands on a hard copy, there was an excerpt published by Salon this week. In it, Zaske describes the fascinating 'street training' that young kids receive in Germany. In other words, they are given the tools to navigate sidewalks, routes, and busy intersections, which reduces dependency on cars and greatly increases their own independence. Three things that jumped out at me:
1) Schools offer 'traffic and mobility' education. It's part of the regular curriculum and includes learning the rules of the road and what traffic signs mean. Zaske writes:
"Her teacher also took the entire class out for a walking tour of the neighborhood, showing them firsthand how the traffic moved, what the signs meant, and how to use crosswalks, or zebrastreifen ('zebra stripes'), as they’re called in Germany."
2) Parents are told not to drive their kids to school. Instead, they're encouraged to go on foot, so a child can learn the route and eventually be able to get themselves to school, free from parental oversight.
3) It's understood that kids will be fine on their own. Even when they're small, kids are allowed to race ahead of their parents on foot or bicycles. Instead of running after them and screaming for them to stop, German kids come to a neat halt at the street corner -- because that's what they've been taught to do.
"Achtung Baby" follows in the literary footsteps of the popular "Bringing up Bébé" by Pamela Druckerman, on raising kids in Paris, and the highly controversial "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua, in which an American mother follows traditional Chinese values. A similar book is "Outside the Box" by Jeannie Marshall, which compares the eating habits of Italian kids to American ones.
This foreign parenting trend, I believe, stems from growing frustration with American-style, child-centric parenting, the results of which we're beginning to see do not leave children particularly well-equipped to face the world, nor make life easy for parents, who are exhausted and drained from incessant 'helicoptering.' Many parents are thinking that, surely, there's a better way to do things, and books like "Achtung Baby" provide that inspiring blueprint.
Does child rearing have to be a competitive sport?
We know we’ve come to a crossroads when German childhood is being held up as an idealized model for Americans. It was, after all, Teutonic styles of child rearing that were once viewed with disgust—as in “The Sound of Music,” for a long time the most popular of all American movies, with all those over-regimented Trapp kids rescued by wearing the bedroom drapes and singing scales. But Sara Zaske’s “Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children” (Picador) is perhaps an inevitable follow-up to “Bringing Up Bébé,” that bestselling book about parenting the way the French supposedly do it—basically, as though the kids were little grownups, presumably ready for adultery and erotic appetites. So why not move eastward through Europe, until we get the book on parenting the Moldavian way?
What’s wrong with such books is not that we can’t learn a lot from other people’s “parenting principles” but that, invariably, you get the problems along with the principles. French kids are often sensitive and unspoiled in ways that American kids aren’t; they are also often driven so crazy by the enervating 8:30 A.M.-to-4:30 P.M. school system and by a tradition of remote parenting that they rebel as bitterly as American adolescents do, only putting off the rebellion until they’re forty, when the sex and drugs really start to kick in. And you can wonder whether the German molding system leaves German kids molded quite so thoroughly as Zaske, an American long resident in Berlin, insists.
In her depiction, the new German style of child rearing remains, well, extremely German: here are the most highly organized forms of not being highly organized that have ever existed. Nowhere else, it seems, will you find such tightly controlled varieties of freedom, such militarized ordering of open-ended play, such centralized rules for creative anarchy. Kids aren’t merely encouraged not to be dependent on toys; there is a “toy-free” month when no one at the day-care center is allowed to play with them. Adolescents are not only indulged in their freewheeling impulses; whole parks are specifically set aside for their explorations. “In addition to park areas designed for them, adolescents can go into almost all places in Berlin, including dance clubs and bars,” Zaske writes. “There are some rules, including a curfew: teens under sixteen must be out of the clubs and restaurants by ten P.M., those under eighteen must leave by midnight.” (Could these fine-print rules be effectively enforced anywhere except in Germany?) German parents don’t merely not hover; they refuse to hover, on considered principle, and send the kids off to school and back, after having digested the odds of a child’s being snatched along the way and, sensibly enough, decided that it’s a safe bet they won’t be.
And here we arrive at the real ghost that haunts these books, the one that sends us to Paris or Berlin for help: the sense that American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance. The helicopter metaphor is an odd one, since helicopters can often only hover, helplessly, as in the Vietnamera newsreels, as the action goes on below. The style of middle-class child rearing that the Germans and the French and the rest might help us escape from is really more handcuff than helicopter, with the parent and the child both, like the man and woman agents in a sixties spy movie, shackled to the same valise—in this case, the one that carries not the secret plans for a bomb but the college-admission papers. Until we get to that final destination, we’ll never be apart.
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