I Tried Parenting like a German, and This Is What Happened

I’ll admit it — I’m prone to helicopter parenting. I have suffered from anxiety ever since my first kid was born, and though it certainly isn’t as intense as it used to be (especially during those days of postpartum anxiety), it lingers. I want to exert a level of control over my kids life in order to protect them, but instead, it often stifles them. There are no two ways around it; I parent like an American, not like a German.

This became even more clear as I read Sara Zaske’s book Achtung Baby: An American Mom On The German Art Of Raising Self-Reliant Children (“achtung” is German for “careful”). Zaske describes moving overseas with her young daughter, where she constantly yelled out “Achtung!” on the playground, but realized she was the only one doing so. It turns out this overbearing interference in the name of “protecting” our children is a very American habit. If I put a dollar in a jar for every time I yelled, “Careful!” at my kids, I’d have enough for a tropical vacation by the end of the month. Guaranteed.  

As I read Zaske’s account of transforming from all-American mom to a more laid-back German parent, I was hooked. While I couldn’t change the culture I was living in, I could change the way I lived in it, so I decided to take some of the German parenting philosophies for a test-drive to see how they worked. After a month of parenting like a German, this is what I learned:

Don’t interrupt a playing baby. One of the first rules of German parenting is to let kids play on their own, and for goodness sake, don’t interrupt them when they’re already in the middle of play. “Interacting with our babies is fun and good for our relationships, but we could relax a little,” Zaske writes. “Our babies also need time to explore on their own and get involved in their own play without our interference.”I am the play-interrupting queen. Whenever I see my kids playing together or alone, I have the strong urge to dip into their world and experience it with them. Yet I had to admit, this habit of injecting myself into their play often destroys some of the magic. As I watched my kids play throughout my German parenting month, I saw that they stayed more enveloped in their play if I left them alone. It also gave me some much needed space to breathe, even during the days when all three kids were at home with me.

There is no bad weather. “Even when it is cold, rarely does the temperature prevent German children from going outside,” Zaske says. She encountered babies outside in prams in the winter, and when in preschool, her kids spent the majority of the day outside, rain or shine. We all know outside time is good for our kids, but when the weather is less than lovely, the desire to stay indoors is strong (especially if we don’t want to be out there with them). Considering I was parenting like a German in December, I’ll admit I was a little wary.

However, considering that that the German parenting style isn’t quite as hyper-involved, I realized that I didn’t have to spend every moment outside with them, especially in the safety of our own backyard. My son was eager to go out in the snow the moment he woke up, and since I didn’t feel compelled to gear up and involve myself in every moment of his playtime, we both won.

Freedom to move. Zaske recalls seeing children out and about all over her neighborhood during her years in Germany, walking and biking to school on their own by first grade. The great American bogeyman of stranger-danger is clearly not as much of a threat there, and parents are not expected to have their eyes on their children 24 hours a day. Teaching self-reliance to children is a big priority in Germany, because self-reliant kids become self-reliant adults.

This one was hard for me, especially with my anxiety. I have a first-grader who is responsible and cautious, but the thought of him walking to school on his own made me vaguely nauseous. But I decided to give it a try if he wanted to. We live one street away from his elementary school, all of it on a walking path filled with other kids and parents we know. He crosses exactly one street, with a crossing guard. So I asked him if he wanted to make the walk solo. The way his eyes lit up told me his answer before the words left his mouth. Of course he wanted that independence! He didn’t walk solo every day, but on days when he asked to do the walk alone, I let him.

Over the course of the month, I also noticed something extraordinary; my anxiety lessened. I realized so much of the ambiguous fear I felt had no grounding in reality, and it wasn’t worth the price of my kid’s freedom.

Self-testing danger. There aren’t a whole lot of kids using safety scissors in Germany. In fact, Zaske found that most kids were introduced to fire, tools, and many other “dangerous” things very early on. It seems in Germany that letting kids explore such risky business is preferable to the coddling alternative of avoidance that most American parents subscribe to, because it gives children a more real world understanding of danger.The most obvious such play is on German playgrounds, which are far less “safe” than their American counterparts. Yet I’ve found even with the relatively safe equipment, I’m often hovering, especially around my toddler, to make sure I’m there to catch any falls or advise against climbing on anything too big or risky. I’ll admit, there were a few big falls, but nothing that broke them. Letting my kids self-test their limits allowed me to sit on the park bench and enjoy the sunshine, with only a few boo-boo kisses in between.

I doubt I’ll ever fully embrace German-style parenting, but my month of trying it showed me my helicopter ways were dragging me and my kids down. Giving them a little more freedom, and myself a little more space was better for everyone. It’s a lesson I’d do well to remember.