I can still remember how shocked I was when the group of mothers from my son’s baby playgroup parked their strollers with their sleeping infants nestled inside, in front of a large cafe window, then walked another 60 meters or so to the entrance. We then walked the parallel distance on the inside of the café to a table looking out at the sleeping 6-month-olds. I held my son close to my chest – I thought it was outrageous to leave my sleeping baby outside on a sidewalk in the middle of winter, with over 100 metres between us.
The German mothers smiled politely as they told me that I might be somewhat paranoid. “We can see them,” one mother said motioning to the window. When I told them that a Danish mother, Anette Sorensen, was arrested for leaving her daughter in a stroller outside of a New York City restaurant while she dined, their jaws dropped in disbelief.
“People live in fear [in the US]. Children are not allowed to play in the playground alone,” Sorensen told The New York Post.
I still would not leave my baby outside of a restaurant. But to some degree, Sorensen is right. My American parent friends, particularly those in urban environments, do not leave their children under 12 out of their sight and tell me that they feel increasingly pressured to participate in (read take over) their kids’ success at school and extracurricular activities.
Independent: children in Germany are more likely to be seen on their own in public. Photo: DPA
It’s no wonder that currently two best-selling parenting books in the USA are called: How to Raise an Adult: Break free of the over-parenting trap and prepare your kid for success and The Gift of Failure. Both books encourage parents to let their kids do a bit of growing up on their own, by letting them have their own experiences. It does not sound unfamiliar to me, it is very much the way Germans and other Europeans raise their kids.
But, as an American, I have suffered growing pains raising children with a German. We had real candles on the Christmas tree when our children were only three and four. My German husband gave our children their first carving knives at the age of five, and taught them how to use power drills, barefoot, at the age of nine. When I protested, the children and their father sent me a series of photos posing with their arms hidden in their sleeves or their knees bent out of sight, to poke fun at my warnings about the dangers of using power tools without shoes. Ha ha, very funny.
So, do European children simply have guardian angels or are American parents fear-driven and paranoid?
I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I can recognize that my reluctance to let my children take the public bus to school alone (they were some of the last amongst their peers to be accompanied by mom), came from a place of “what if something happens?” And, to be honest, it is how I was raised. I was taught not to talk to strangers, yet I see small kids on their own talking to adults who are clearly not with them.
I see kids ride their bikes through the city even though the alarming rate of fatal bike accidents in Berlin has increased. “Of course accidents happen, but you can’t live your life in fear,” my kids’ father says.
My American parent friends on the other hand, romanticize about having the freedom to raise children with fewer rules and judgement from other parents.
My best friend in New York City allowed her 15-year-old daughter to go to music lessons on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by herself, and a police officer picked up her daughter, suspecting she might be running away from home. This could never have happened in Berlin, where children as young as eight are commuting to school and extracurricular activities on their own.
Legitimate fear of violence in America
When I hear how my friends with high school children have to go through security x-ray machines in case anyone comes to school with a gun, I thank my lucky stars that I am raising my children here.
The violence that is pervasive in America is also a part of the fear that comes with living and raising children there. It is not to say that violence to children doesn’t happen in Germany, but it is far less common and there is a society that accepts seeing children commuting or buying groceries on their own.
The emphasis here, I noticed, is on a community allowing children to grow as opposed to criticizing parents for not watching over their kids. I am sure this varies from city to countryside but for the most part, European children have a lot more autonomy.
I recall noticing this back when I was a teenager myself, when European exchange students came to my American high school. They had their own opinions, could think critically, and were quite independent despite their new surroundings. It’s no wonder that alternative parenting trends in the US tend to look towards Scandinavia, considered the most modern and innovative in parenting.
I think my kids have profited from having the long leash of their German father and the watchful eye of their American mother. It is, I suspect, a happy medium.