The first time I went to a playground in Berlin, I freaked. All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?
“Achtung! Nein!” I cried in my bad German. Both kids and parents ignored me.
Contrary to stereotypes, most German parents I've met are the opposite of strict. They place a high value on independence and responsibility. Those parents at the park weren't ignoring their children; they were trusting them. Berlin doesn't need a “free range parenting” movement because free range is the norm.
Here are a few surprising things Berlin parents do:
Don't push reading. Berlin's kindergartens or “kitas” don't emphasize academics. In fact, teachers and other parents discouraged me from teaching my children to read. I was told it was something special the kids learn together when they start grade school. Kindergarten was a time for play and social learning. But even in first grade, academics aren't pushed very hard. Our grade school provides a half-day of instruction interrupted by two (two!) outdoor recesses. But don't think this relaxed approach means a poor education: According to a 2012 assessment by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, German 15-year-olds perform well above the international average when it comes to reading, math and science while their more pressured American counterparts lag behind.
Encourage kids to play with fire. A note came home from school along with my excited second grader. They were doing a project on fire. Would I let her light candles and perform experiments with matches? Together we lit candles and burned things, safely. It was brilliant. Still, she was the only kid whose parent didn't allow her to shoot off heavy duty fireworks on New Year's Eve.
Let children go almost everywhere alone. Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone. German parents are concerned about safety, of course, but they usually focus on traffic, not abductions.
The facts seem to be on the Germans' side. Stranger abductions are extremely rare; there were only 115 a year in all of America, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice study. And walking around without parental supervision, or “independent mobility” as the researchers call it, is good for kids.
Party when school starts. One of my Berlin friends once told me that the three biggest life events are Einschulung (starting first grade), Jugendweihe (becoming a young adult) and getting married.
In Berlin, Einschulung is a huge celebration at the school—on a Saturday!—that includes getting a Zuckertute—a giant child-sized cone filled with everything from pencils to watches to candy. Then there's another party afterwards with your family and friends. Einschulung is something children look forward to for years. It signals a major life change, and hopefully, an enthusiasm for learning.
Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a similar ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there's something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood.
Take the kids outside everyday. According to a German saying “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” The value of outside time is promoted in the schools, hence the “garten” in Kindergarten. It's also obvious on Berlin's numerous playgrounds. No matter how cold and grey it gets, and in Berlin it gets pretty cold, parents still bundle their kids up and take them to the park, or send them out on their own.
Which brings me back to that dragon—since moving here, I've tried to adopt some of the Berlin attitude, and my 8-year-old has climbed all over the dragon. But I still hesitate to let her walk alone in our very urban neighborhood.
I’ve taken one small step. I let her go to the bakery by herself. It's just down the stairs and one door over. The first time she did this, she came back beaming, proudly handing me the rolls she bought herself.
I figured there was no need to tell her that her American mother was out on the balcony, watching her the whole time.