American moves abroad and raises children has become a genre unto itself nowadays. This is unfortunate because it means that by the time I get around to moving abroad, the market will already be saturated. I read Bringing Up Bebe when it came out in 2011 (it was instrumental in encouraging me to give up attachment parenting) and now I read Achtung, Baby, about an American woman who spent about 5 years living in Berlin.
As soon as I heard about the book, I bought it. I’ve observed a lot o German parenting and wanted to see others’ observations. What I didn’t expect was for the book to leave me feeling pretty depressed.
The fact that Americans are a bit….intense (other words: dedicated, single-minded, hovering, helicoptering, etc) when it comes to their parenting isn’t new. Lenore Skenazy has been writing about it since I became a parent. But few are the authors who spell it out quite as clearly as Sara Zaske: Americans are very controlling of their children. Even when trying to be permissive parents, we manage to do so in an authoritarian way. Our children are supervised pretty much all day long. They move from highly supervised classrooms with little time for free play to highly structured and supervised after-school activities and then head home to be supervised by their parents. In a country where people think kids shouldn’t play in their own front yard until they’re 13, don’t expect to see a lot of kids playing in their neighborhoods or with neighbor kids.
I’ve known this, but I’ve never heard it spelled out as being controlling and authoritarian. And it has me wondering how on earth we can expect children who have never been allowed to be free to grow up and respect the concept of freedom and participate in maintaining a liberal democracy.
Part of my goal with homeschooling was to give my children more freedom than they would have at school. More free time, more time to explore their own interests, more time to play outside and less supervision. But I can only do this sort of thing at home. Outside the house, they are subject to the prevalent cultural norms. No, they can’t go to the park by themselves because I don’t want the cops called on me or CPS. No, they can’t run into the shop and grab some milk or me run into the shop while they wait outside. And I have had the cops called on me for leaving my kids in the car when I ran into pick up a fast food order I’d already placed, so it’s not like this is an exaggeration. I came out with the food to see an angry man standing outside my car yelling into his phone. I spoke in German to my kids to make sure they were okay and he yelled at me to “Go home.” I did just that (though he was probably not referring to my house) and the cops came by to do a welfare check on the kids (I suppose to make sure I didn’t have them locked in the car still?).
Reading her book and seeing it jive with what I’ve witnessed in Germany made me feel a deep sadness. Granted, German norms have changed over the years. When my host sister was little, she used to walk to school in first grade. Now they do it in second. But these feel like minor quibbles when you consider that American kids can’t even be trusted to walk to their houses from a school bus stop. Instead, the school bus stops five times in the space of a half-mile to deposits each dickes Quarkbällchen in front of their very own house. Even if they’re in high school.
Zaske also dedicates a portion of the book about Einschülung to the fact that homeschooling is illegal. Being a homeschooler, this is a major sticking point with me. While I can understand the arguments behind forbidding homeschooling and the fact that even children have the right to be away from their parents, I think it overlooks the fact that some children simply do not do well in a school environment. While Berliner parents may protest against things they dislike against their schools and advocate for change, they lack the most significant form of protest: the ability to vote with their feet. American parents have this ability and it’s one I’ve opted to take. I dislike the prevailing culture in American schools and I don’t want my kids to experience its negative aspects and lose their initiative and joy of learning. German parents who find themselves unable to affect change in their schools have very few options, aside from providing emotional support for their miserable children and assurance that it will end eventually. But that’s a sucky way to spend 12 years of your life.
Notably in this book, Zaske includes a chapter detailing their family’s adjustment after returning to the US from Germany. This helps give them perspective about the things they like in the US compared to Germany, but there really doesn’t seem to be a whole lot. Zaske seems determined to effect some sort of change in her California neighborhood, but quite frankly I’m not holding my breath. Compared to Bringing Up Bebe, she dedicates part of each chapter to suggestions on how Americans could change how things are done in the US to improve it or make it more like the Germans do. I can see this rubbing a lot of Americans the wrong way, especially if they’re convinced that the way Americans do things is just fine and they’re sick of being told they need to do things the way foreigners do. A certain segment of the American population shows a disturbing lack of curiosity about the outside world.
The book could have used a bit more editing. Zaske definitely suffered from a lack of German knowledge. She states her the bakers called her daughter “Prinzesschen” when she went to the bakery by herself for the first time and that means “little princess.” It doesn’t. As far as I can tell, it’s not even a word. But the word for princess is “Prinzessin,” so I”m guessing that’s what they said. It would be easy to mix up the two. I also hope to god she stopped yelling “Achtung!” at some point in time. No one says “Achtung.” If someone needs to watch out, you say “Pass auf!” Achtung is like “Attention!” in the military sense. Or in the “Achtung! Achtung! Hier spricht die Polizei!” (Attention! Attention! This is the police!). I feel acutely embarrassed thinking she ran around yelling Achtung for five years in Germany. It reminds me of how I thought the correct response to “Schön Tag noch” at shops was “Jedenfalls” (Cashier: Have a nice day. Me: In any case!) I misheard “ebenfalls” (you too). Cringe.
She gets bonus points from me for including a whole section on how much attachment parenting sucks. Granted, she doesn’t say it like that, but it does suck. It makes parents miserable and turns their children into clingy little parasites who will suck the life out of you if given the opportunity. I’m actually surprised to learn Dr. Sears’ Baby Book has been translated into German considering the fact it advocates mothers quitting their jobs and staying home with their children (NOT the fathers!), even to the point of going into debt and financial ruin. Because, as we all know, only mothers are able to bond with their children. Fathers can’t. Grandparents can’t. And trained Kita Erzieher certainly can’t. According to Sears’ beliefs, all of former East Germany should be a complete basket case full of sociopaths thanks to generations of damn near all kids being in daycare there. Wait! I may have found the origins of Pegida!
At any rate, this has me more determined to move to Finland and Germany in order to give my kids a real taste of freedom. I want them to be able to explore without being warned to be careful, or other parents giving me major side eye because I am not living up to cultural norms.