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.


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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.