Free-Range Kids

Achtung Baby: When It Comes to Parenting 4-Year-Olds, Germany Is More Laid Back Than America

But it doesn't have to be this way.


Romrodinka / Dreamstime

Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children by Sara Zaske represents the latest in a series of books about other countries getting it right while America gets it very, very wrong—it being parenting.

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting suggested we ignore our kids while we smoke and have affairs (in not so many words). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother said to burn our kids' stuffed animals if they don't practice enough piano (in not so many words). And the slightly more obscure Danish Way of Parenting told us to read our kids sad tales with dark endings; in the Hans Christian Andersen version, the Little Mermaid does not get the prince, and is so heartbroken that she turns into sea foam.

But as sad as Scandinavia's stories are, here's what we're really supposed to cry about, according to a recent piece in Slate: Germany's laid back parents let their 4-year-olds splash in the preschool water-play area naked, go on sleepovers with the whole class, and walk around the town being independent, even at a very young age. American culture, on the other hand, doesn't permit anything of the sort.

The German approach, highlighted in Zaske's Achtung Baby, "is more human and respectful than the prevailing American bourgeois ethos of sequestered playdates and recess-bereft school days," Slate author Rebecca Schuman writes. But America's "political and social institutions are so firmly entrenched that no amount of wise Germanic advice help us."

It's a lament I second, but I'm not quite as sea foam as Schuman about this. After all, both houses of the Utah state legislature just passed the so-called "Free-Range Kids Bill," basically allowing parents to let their kids walk or play outside without the threat of arrest. (I realize that's a low bar for freedom, but it's a start.) All it awaits is the governor's signature.

The voices clamoring for more free play in kids' lives are many. Michael Hynes, superintendent of Long Island's Patchogue-Medford school district is partnering with my new non-profit, Let Grow, to pilot before-school free play at his seven elementary schools. Teachers are not allowed to intervene unless a child is in danger. "This may have been one of the most amazing experiences in my 28 years in education," Lori Koerner, principal of Tremont Elementary, told Patch. "To watch children across all ages and grade levels come together to play was fascinating to observe! … Children were communicating, collaborating, cooperating and learning together."

It's true our kids don't get to frolic naked at preschool. But pretty soon playing outside, walking to school, and having more free time at school could be the new normal in the U.S. Maybe then American kids won't have to go to Germany to taste sweet freedom.

NEXT: 'Gun Politics Is Where the Easy Caricature of America's Radicalized Youth Marching Toward Socialism Ends'

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  1. You know who else was a maverick?

    1. Dirk Nowitski?

      1. James Garner?

        1. The socialist national greatness war hero?

    2. Tom Cruise?

    3. Palin’s Buttplug?

      1. WTF?

    4. Mel Gibson?

  2. Children were communicating, collaborating, cooperating and learning together.

    They were plotting to supplant us, you fools.

    1. “Our children are our future, unless we stop them NOW!”?Homer Simpson.

  3. Except for the Nanny and Police State they have going on there.

  4. I remember a local story where a mother visiting from either Germany… or maybe Norway– one of the Scandinavian countries– left her baby on the street in a stroller while she went into a cafe. It turned into a major local story full of busybody hotheads and soccer moms screaming about responsible parenting.

    Now, in defense of the screaming, spittle-spewing soccer moms with their Northface jackets and no-nonsense hairdos, I suspect where the woman came from didn’t have a retarded city council that had turned their entire city into a safe injection site.

    But I recall that in the midst of the screaming, it turned out to be quite a common thing in the country where she was from– leaving your baby on the sidewalk outside.

    1. I recall that, I think she was from Norway.

      In Norway, they do NOT believe that parents should be wedded at the hip, to their children, till age 12 or 15, or whatever it is these days in the USA…

  5. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

    They’re in the EU. Germany will change. And then all well be ok!

  6. Piano lessons.

    First bout: second grade at a Catholic school where the nun spanked my hands if she knew I had not practiced the assignment (and let’s face it-she would know if you hadn’t practiced). My parents made me and my sister take the lessons from the nun. My mother would turn the oven-timer on for 30 minutes for each of us. My sister and I would turn the timer up for each other because we hated it and wanted to saddle the other with more practice time. The lessons with the nun lasted one year.

    Second bout: From 4th grade through 7th grade with a grand old show business dame. She had been in the theatre, sang, danced, and, most of all, could dazzle on the 88s. She would give us milk and cookies along with doses of history and culture. She was kind, but, oddly enough, more demanding of me than my sister because I showed more interest and talent. I liked her. In retrospect, I loved her.

    Third bout: sophomore year in high school. After football season, I didn’t even make the JVs in basketball, so my mother arranges for me to take lessons from a couple of smelly, hippies. I couldn’t stand them and quit after 3-4 lessons. My mother wouldn’t speak to me for weeks.

    Fourth and on-going love affair: One day in the summer of 1981, while waiting for some friends to pick me up, I wandered into the living room and started to play. Since then, I’ve never looked back. It is one of the most important, consistent passions of my life.

    1. Second bout: From 4th grade through 7th grade with a grand old show business dame. She had been in the theatre, sang, danced, and, most of all, could dazzle on the 88s. She would give us milk and cookies along with doses of history and culture. She was kind, but, oddly enough, more demanding of me than my sister because I showed more interest and talent. I liked her. In retrospect, I loved her.

      This sounds like an opener to a Penthouse Forum story. Go on…

      1. My grandmother was justifiably envious of her, as Gertrude (my piano teacher’s name) was articulate, convivial, expressive, well regarded, and still with a hint of risqu? adventurousness about her. Although she was not a raving beauty and certainly not as attractive as my grandmother, Gertrude, nevertheless had magnetism that no doubt attracted many a fellow. To be sure, she had a certain bawdiness, perhaps borne of her days as an entertainer and vaudeville performer.

        When I was at my grandmother’s house playing her piano, she would disparage Gertrude while disparaging me. She would tell me, “you could be doing so much better if you had a real teacher.” “Your mother is wasting money on her.”

        My grandmother would chide my mother, in front of me and my sister, telling her “for god’s sake, Helen, can’t you find a better piano teacher?” She would add, “the kids only like her because she gives them milk and cookies.”

  7. You know who else wrote a German book on parenting and free range lebensraum?

    1. Liszt? Oh, wait, that was Liebestraume.

      1. Franz was an awesome improviser. He was one of Gertrude’s (my piano teacher from 4th through seventh grade) favorites.

        1. He also had really long fingers.

    2. Martha Stewart? Lebensraum = Living Room, right? Didn’t Martha Stewart write a book about how to decorate your lebensraum and raise your kids tastefully, using nothing but old doilies and scotch tape?

  8. I thought the French way of parenting was to put them in a creche…while we smoke Gauloises & have affairs.

    It seems to me a lot of the Americana mentioned aren’t firmly entrenched at all, but are recent & therefore have momentum, not inertia. For instance, 50 yrs. ago naked 4 YOs at the pool would’ve been OK in at least most of the USA, & there was no such thing as play dates, just play.

    I think a lot of the problem has been the birth dearth. Not such a problem in Europe because they’re used to it by now, but in the USA that represented a crash in reprod’n. So people got weird about the remaining youngsters.

    1. there was no such thing as play dates

      When I first heard of these things, I was like huh? Just go outside and play with the other moron kids in the neighborhood. If you don’t like them and they don’t like you, tough shit, welcome to life, kid.

    2. In the 1980’s it was normal for elementary school kids to walk half a mile to school unsupervised and half a mile back home twice a day. We went home for lunch. In the 1990’s, Baby Boomers took over the country and decided that they cannot trust anyone under 20.

  9. There is a 100% chance that all of those children are going to die.

    1. There is a 100% chance that all the commenters on this thread will die. Every living thing on the face of the Earth will die. Not because of some cat’s ass trophy, but simply because death is a natural part of life.

  10. German parent: I see that you are crying. Please continue. Crying is good for the soul.

  11. You know which other German* should have had more parental supervision?

    *ethnic German

    1. He was Austrian.

      1. That’s why I said “ethnic German.”

        1. Keep one step ahead of the nitpickers, I say.

          1. Too sophisticated for him.

      2. Hey, whars that other place? I can’t connect

      3. Bruno Gehard?

  12. Germany is paradise for free-range kinds, just read Hansel and Gretel.

    (this works on the literal level and as a pun)

    1. Okay, I’ll bite. 🙂

    2. If I remember correctly, they turned out just fine.

      1. Didn’t they eat candy and gain weight? Heaven forbid the kids ignore Michelle Obama’s warnings about becoming chubby.

        1. Michelle Obama never enjoyed a real man, like Sherman Klump.

    3. They vandalized a stranger’s house, stole her gingerbread and icing, and finally burned her to death. They clearly should be in prison with Goldilocks.
      And with many other fairy-tale characters. The Three Little Pigs littered the neighborhood with broken straw and sticks, and killed an endangered species. Cinderella was an identity thief, possibly with a mysterious accomplice. Prince Charming had a habit of raping unconscious women – but Snow White partied with nine vertically-challenged men until she passed out, then blamed it on her stepmother.

  13. allowing parents to let their kids walk or play outside without the threat of arrest

    “Of course, we’ll still be able to arrest the *parents*.”

    1. It’s not like they need a reason anyways.

  14. The new normal is the old normal.

  15. I just hope Zaske’s Achtung Baby is better than U2’s Achtung Baby.

    1. It’s even better than the real thing.

  16. Aren’t these ice dancing routines kind of rapey?

  17. German parent: You want to lock me up for poor parenting? Okay, lock me up. Lock me up good and hard.

  18. And yet in Germany, home schooling is banned.

    America is not totally lost when it comes to this.
    When summer comes, kids in my town go outside and play. Alone, and unsupervised, even in the streets.

    A neighbor, before even meeting the new family (us) sent a three year old and five year old to deliver cookies.

  19. Still, don’t kiss them on the lips. Not cool.

    1. I mean, your dad kissed you on the lips, and you turned out ok.

    2. “Still, don’t kiss them on the lips. Not cool.”

      Your claim. Not cool.

  20. Yeah, up-hill both ways, 7′ snow drifts, get off my lawn…
    I use Bing instead of Google, but a check shows the walk home from Kindergarten was over 1/2 mile, along a major street, and I somehow got home.
    I guess it was luck.

  21. It’s really sad that I’ve *never* seen kids younger than 8 or so walking to school or the park alone here, and 8-10 only once in a while. It’s such a safe neighborhood, where everyone walks so there’s always at least several people on any given block.
    Although there is one thing that gives me a little hope… a couple of the local schools, including a fancy private one (i.e. all children of rich white people), use one of our public parks for recess for first grade and up. So they’re running around and there’s *gasp* adult strangers sitting on some benches. I’ve even seen kids talk to some of these strangers without any teacher running and screaming ‘get away’. Sometimes they’re not even parents since it’s a full park and not just a playground, so no ‘must have kid’ rule. The horror! There’s even sometimes *double gasp* homeless people around (although if there’s any in the gazebo I’m pretty sure the kids can’t go in it).

  22. Suburban home values depend significantly on academic performance in the public schools and public leaders grandstanding about taking care of the children. Kids develop best when they have more freedom. It’s time for the adults to improve their own home values by taking care of their properties and stop harassing the neighbor’s kids to be model students. The pressure we put on kids to be perfect students or face a lifetime of diminished opportunities probably contributes to those school shootings we get every so often.

  23. German kids also get out of school at 11am. At least, that was the case when I was there in the late 90’s (except for the last 2 years of secondary school ? they sometimes had afternoon classes, but not every day).

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