Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Thoughts on Parenting and Achtung, Baby

Today is the girls' official last day of school. Which means tomorrow they are home with me all day. I feel like the month of May has been busier this year than ever before. Usually, I have a few days at home by myself before the girls get out of school when I can make some plans, gather a few supplies, and map out what I think summer will look like.

But, of course, every summer looks different. In many ways, I think this will be our easiest and most fun yet. The girls are increasingly independent. We have a pool pass for a nearby pool. I hope to balance some scheduling and structure (a library day, a botanical gardens day, a playdate day) with long, open afternoons. And as little screen time as possible. We'll practice bike riding! We'll make a few road trips! We'll visit museums! We joined our closest library's online summer reading program (Confession: I'm totally nerding out over the fact they have an adult summer reading program and thanks to a long weekend in West Virginia with no cell phone service or WiFi, I've already logged 640 pages! #nerdalert).

One of the books I read in West Virginia was Achtung, Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self Reliant Children by Sara Zaske. I read this at the recommendation of a FB/IG/babyloss friend. I know that helicoptering and hovering is really a symptom of affluent American parenthood, but I also know that those of us who have lost babies feel acutely the risk of loving a tiny, impulsive person who is not really equipped to take care of herself without lots of help. I will continue to be overly vigilant about some things (car seats, cutting up grapes, sunscreen), but I make it a point not to be a helicopter parent on the playground, and the emphasis on independence at the school the girls attend has been really helpful. Still, this book really helped me see that allowing children to be independent and do things that my generation of parents really doesn't let kids do (basically, venture out into the world alone) is an important parenting decision, and one that is in the best interest of our kids (even when it feels really scary).

One thing I loved about the book is how German culture emphasizes children as autonomous people with rights of their own. As natural as that might sound, it turns out that American culture privileges the rights of the parent over that of the child. For example, homeschooling in Germany is illegal. An appeals court in German ruled "Schools represented society, and it was in the children's interests to become part of that society. The parents' right to provide education did not go so far as to deprive children of that experience."

Isn't that a fascinating idea? It's like saying to parents that your kids have a right to learn more than just your interpretation of the world... I think American parents want to control SO MUCH of what our children learn and are exposed to, and that's based on this assumption that we have at least most of the right answers. I found this idea really interesting--that kids have a right to a bigger world than the perceptions of their parents.

In my mind, the purpose of public schools is not just to teach academics, but also to expose children to people unlike themselves and their families, to create connections and relationships within neighborhoods. It's one of the heartbreaking results of segregation (particularly in St. Louis) that diversity in public schools is often limited. I understand why parents choose private schools and charter schools, and why they pour their energy into those unique opportunities for their child to grow and thrive. But more and more I keep thinking that if we all put our hearts into our public schools, we could do so much more for every child.

I catch myself all the time with this impulse to do what is best for my child--that's a natural parenting impulse, right? But what if the best thing for my kid puts another kid at a disadvantage? Glennon Doyle says "There's no such thing as other people's children." She's usually talking about Syrian refugees or children of undocumented immigrants who have been separated by their parents at the border of the United States, but I repeat that statement when I think about opportunities, the myth of scarcity, and what I want for my kids. This idea of not hoarding what I want for my own kids is totally counter intuitive because white middle class culture is very individualistic and competitive, but I want it to be part of the way I live my life and the way I function as a parent in my daughter's school.

Anyway, another thing that surprised me and actually made me feel really good in this book is the emphasis on the benefits of child care centers. Now, to be fair, Germany allows a FAR more generous maternal and paternal leave policy (it is appalling to me how far the United States is behind every other industrialized nation in this regard), and its child care providers are better paid and required to be better educated than ours are in the United States. As a result, sending your kid to full time daycare is not laden with all of the complicated guilt that we feel in this country (those of us with enough privilege for paid childcare to be a "choice").

Zaske writes, "American moms spoke of putting our babies and young children in child care with regret: it was a necessary evil, somethin we ad to do because we had to work." In contrast, many German parents see daycare as a really great experience for their children--to play with and be around other kids, and to be exposed to children who aren't their siblings.

Zaske concludes, "If you can find a quality childcare center with a caring, educated staff, your child will have more advantages than a child raised solely at ome does, including new experiences and relationships. You will have partners in raising her, and more time and space to become a better parent yourself. Your child will also be taking a big step toward developing more independence." I felt plenty of guilt sending my kiddos to daycare and full day preschool, but I still maintain that they have had far better experiences at their school than they would have home all day with me.

Other things Zaske mentions are consistent with Montessori approaches to education--child directed, lots of outside time, play time without adult interference, and emphasizing how competent and capable children are.

She talks about the freedoms that German parents give their children, and it's not because German parents aren't scared of what might happen. It's because they believe that their child's right to independence is more important than their fears. One mother talked about not liking her children to take the subway by themselves to their grandmother's house, but she allowed them to do it anyway: "I want them to be independent and proud of what they can do. If I'm always with them, they won't be." The focus is not on protecting children so much as on preparing them, and I really like that approach.

I had this book in mind as my children roamed out of my eyesight (but usually within earshot) around the lodge where we stayed in West Virginia. One day we rented a large pontoon boat that had two water slides coming down off the roof. Zuzu went down the slide in a flash, while Coco required a little more time to ready herself (and a bit of coaxing), but she was so proud of herself when she did it!

My brother jumped in to the lake off the rooftop where the slides were, and had I seen Zuzu preparing to do the same, I probably would have stopped her! But I was watching the slide, assuming that's where she would come down, so the blur of pink life jacket and the splash off the side of the boat that was my five-year-old came as a shock! Part of me wanted to stop her from doing it, but I stifled my concerns because she was so proud of herself jumping off the roof just like her uncle and his friend (and she did it many more times).

According to this book, "Risk researchers argue that normal children have a natural instinct for self-preservation and will usually only dare as much as they think they can manage." So instead of telling her not to do it again, I decided to be proud that she feels--and is--confident enough in the water to jump off the roof of a boat! And when my brother's friends complimented her by calling her "hardcore," both of us beamed a little bit.

Later, at the swim beach, my mom kept telling Zuzu not to go too far when I could tell that she was perfectly fine, and I reminded my mom that I never swam with a life jacket at a swim beach we frequented when I was little. "Don't you think that Zuzu swims as well as I did at her age?" My mom admitted I was right but said, "I didn't worry as much about my own kids as I do my grandchildren!"

My own worry-not attitude was challenged again that evening when my brother busted out a few little fireworks (Zuzu called them fire-tricks which was adorable and a great name) and some sparklers (which she called "glitter sticks"). Even though I played with fireworks as a kid, I just feel so aware of the possibility that something could go wrong. And if something could go wrong, isn't it my responsibility as a parent to minimize that risk? But then at what point does minimizing risk become limiting life experience? Some lines are obvious (no base jumping, for the love of God) but others are less clear--I mean, I loved fireworks and sparklers when I was little.

And yet, is there ANYTHING more worrisome than little kids and sharp burning sticks? Like, maybe my kids could just sit on the porch and watch? But Zaske's book actually addresses fire specifically. She writes about a German named Kain Karawahn who is a fire performance artist turned fire-safety educator. His workshops are based on the idea that instead of forbidding playing with fire, children should be taught to respect it and engage with fire in a safe way. Our human fascination with fire is natural and strong, so children who are prohibited from it may engage in secret (lighting matches in their room alone). His workshops have small children lighting lots and lots of matches as a way to quench that curiosity.

So I channeled this approach to fire safety as my brother lit explosives near my children (and his own baby). We talked to the kids and laid out the ground rules for the sparklers and fireworks. The kids took us seriously, and Zuzu was absolutely delighted with the fire-tricks and glitter sticks!

Coco watched the first firework fountain on my lap, then ran inside and watched the rest from the window. See? Each child dares only as much as they think they can manage! She also cautiously held one sparkler, but didn't really want to do another one after that. I love seeing how different she and her sister are, and as much as Coco wants to do what Zuzu does, she is not afraid to be her own person!

Anyway, I feel like I read this book at exactly the right time for starting an adventurous summer with my kids. I definitely recommend it as very readable and thought-provoking. My friend who recommended it actually homeschools her kids, so you don't have to agree with everything it says or want to move to Germany (although I do kind of want to move to Germany now) to get something out of it.


  1. Hi Brooke,
    I am German (Berlin, with the Eliza matches), living in Germany with an American husband. Also, I’m a pre-school teacher. I loved reading about your perception of this book. I’m going to buy it right now and read it. I have always worked at German-American child care centers/ pre-schools (we don’t separate the “caring” and “education” part, the belief is that it goes hand in hand and one only works with the other.) and have so many times seen and discussed the cultural differences in parenting and child rearing. Plus, I’m often dealing with it at home too.
    I find it endlessly interesting and so enriching. I could go on and on. Mama guilt about putting your cold into day care is also an issue here- or maybe better: still an issue. There’s also (still) a difference between former West and East Germany.
    Both (the American and the German) sides have their benefits and it’s really unique and cool when you can find a good mix of both.
    Ahhh, I’m going to buy this book now.

    1. I would LOVE to hear what you think of it as a German reading it an American's perspective of German parenting--ha! I should also add that the author acknowledges there are differences in East vs. West Germany and differences between urban and rural locations as well. Her experience is in Berlin, and it's also in more affluent communities. Still made me think a lot about cultural differences and what we can learn from other countries!

  2. What your mom said about not worrying about her own kids as much as she does about her grandkids......... YES! I feel much the same. And I've had discussions with my friends and my daughter about it. For me I believe it comes from the sense that we love those grandchildren SO MUCH, obviously! However the need to keep them safe also comes from trying to continue to keep our own children safe. I cannot fathom my daughter's grief if something happened to her 2 year old. And, unfortunately for all, your mother has experienced this devastation in your loss of Eliza. Seeing your child hurting is the worst!! So, yeah, I understand your mom's statement perfectly. It's not a sign that we didn't care when you guys were little - it's a sign that we still care (and always will).

  3. I homeschool too, and I'm most definitely needing this book, lol. We're struggling right now with whether to send our youngest, who is essentially an only child, to school. I feel like she needs so much more than I'm giving her. But. Except! Argh. We're very engaged with the local community and pop culture, my teens haven't struggled to integrate at all with other kids, but this littlest one is something else. And then I agonize over the public / private conversation, for all the reasons you mention.

    1. I think you're so wise to acknowledge that every kid is different and you can't necessarily parent them or educate them all the same way. The book is fascinating and thought-provoking.

  4. The book sounds interesting. Since moving, we’ve been giving Bode more freedom to roam the neighborhood than we ever thought we would, especially at such a young age. And as much as I fear for his safety, it’s been really great! He spends whole days playing with friends outside, checking in when they go from house to house to forest, and coming home for snacks. We’ve been working on making our yard into an awesome play destination so they spend time here too!

    1. I love that! Bode is just meant to be a little outdoorsman.

  5. Interesting....
    You know this speaks to me.
    Will be checking it out.
    Stay tuned.