'Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children' (Book Review)

CC BY 2.0. Gustavo DeVito -- A 'laufrad' (walking or balance bike) that many German toddlers use to learn the rules of the road before moving up to a faster pedal bike

Author Sara Zaske shows that it all comes down to respecting a child's right to independence.

To many Americans, Germany is a mysterious place -- a lesser known European nation than, say, Italy or France. It boasts an impressive work ethic that baffles much of the world, an admirable ability to rebound from a dark historical past, and a lone, fierce defender of liberal democracy in the world today. It is one of those places that I suspect many find a bit intimidating and would like to understand better, but don't quite know where to start.

This is why I was pleased to get my hands on a copy of "Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children" (Picador, 2017). Written by Sara Zaske, who recently spent six and half years in Berlin with her husband and two children, it provides thoughtful insight into how Germans approach child-rearing, which in turn says a lot about Germany as a culture and country.

Several weeks ago I wrote about the impressive 'street training' that Zaske's children received in Berlin, based on an article in Salon, but now that I've had a chance to read the entire book, I'm eager to delve into it one more time.

Zaske is a great writer. The book moves quickly, documenting her often humorous experiences navigating life in a foreign country -- from arriving with a toddler and quickly learning that the majority of German children are in government-subsidized childcare, to getting pregnant with her second child and discovering the wonders of midwifery care and state-funded baby sleep trainers. She offers interesting forays into German history and how the country's attitude toward parenting has fluctuated from authoritarian to anti-authoritarian in the post-World War II years.

Promo image. Achtung Baby (via My Little Bird)

Achtung Baby (via My Little Bird)/Promo image

As Zaske's children grow, they attend preschools and elementary schools that have a far more relaxed approach to academics than American schools do. They receive no homework, have plenty of outdoor playtime, go on frequent field trips to spend time in nature, eat nutritious meals provided by the schools, and are encouraged to lead their own learning by choosing group projects, which are tackled from the perspective of various academic subjects.

What struck me the most about Zaske's book, however, were the frequent references to 'children's rights.' This is not something I've seen in parenting books, nor is it discussed in Canada (where I live) or the United States, according to Zaske. In Germany, children's rights are highly regarded and take precedence over a parent's right to control them. For example, it is illegal to homeschool children in Germany because "children have the right to the company of other children and adults who are not their parents"; similarly, parents cannot opt their kids out of sex ed classes because the state considers a child's right to information to be more important than a parent's desire to withhold it. German children cannot be spanked, either.

This notion of children having rights that override those of the parent extends to the idea of physical freedom. German kids are allowed far more independence than American kids. They are encouraged to walk to school on their own, navigate public transit, play in parks and playgrounds that would be considered dangerous in the U.S., have sleepovers away from home, solve their own friend disputes, and guide their learning at school.

While this was hard for Zaske to swallow at times, she came to appreciate it, especially in the context of what's going on in the United States:

"We've created a culture of control. In the name of safety and academic achievement, we have stripped kids of fundamental rights and freedoms: the freedom to move, to be alone for even a few minutes, to take risks, to play, to think for themselves -- and it's not just parents who are doing this. It's culture-wide.
Our current parenting culture goes against everything we Americans supposedly believe in as the 'home of the free and the brave.' Instead we are instilling the opposite in our children: subjugation and fear. We are inhibiting their ability to grow up."

I was interested to learn that the U.S. is the only country in the world that has not ratified the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child. Zaske explains that the opposition to the CRC comes mostly from 'parents' rights' groups that feel that "giving children rights would deprive them of their own power as parents over their children."

At the end of the book, Zaske and her family return to the U.S. Their transition was challenging and left me wondering why they'd ever want to leave Germany. Of course she and her husband had their reasons, not least of which was a desire to be closer to family, but her description of life in suburban California was so very sad compared to Berlin that my heart ached for her children.

I finished the book with a mingled sense of despair and inspiration -- the former because we have so far to go here in North America if we ever hope to relax our collective attitude toward parenting, and the latter because the book shows it is possible. If Germany can do it, surely we can too. It will just take time and a new generation of parents who are determined to do what is truly best for their children, not for themselves.

As Zaske's German friend Annekatherin said about letting her two young children take the train alone to visit their grandparents, she hated seeing them go and naturally felt nervous, and yet "she let her kids do it anyway because she felt her children had the right to learn how to move about in their world."

We need more parents to be like this.

Achtung Baby is available on Amazon, $16.71