Volk Heroes

This fun new book about how Germans raise their kids will break American parents’ hearts.

Typical German parents.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

In a memorable scene of Sara Zaske’s guide to German-style parenting, Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, Zaske sends her 4-year-old daughter Sophia to her Berlin preschool with a bathing suit in her bag. It turns out, however, that the suit is unnecessary: All the tykes at Sophia’s Kita frolic in the water-play area naked. Later that year, Sophia and the rest of her Kita class take part in a gleefully parent-free sleepover. A sleepover! At school! For a 4-year-old! These two snapshots of life as a modern German child—uninhibited nudity; jaw-dropping independence—neatly encapsulate precisely why Zaske’s book is in equal turns exhilarating and devastating to an American parent.

Zaske argues that thanks in large part to the anti-authoritarian attitudes of the postwar generation (the so-called “68ers”), contemporary German parents give their children a great deal of freedom—to do dangerous stuff; to go places alone; to make their own mistakes, most of which involve nudity, fire, or both. This freedom makes those kids better, happier, and ultimately less prone to turn into miserable sociopaths. “The biggest lesson I learned in Germany,” she writes, “is that my children are not really mine. They belong first and foremost to themselves. I already knew this intellectually, but when I saw parents in Germany put this value into practice, I saw how differently I was acting.” Yes, Zaske notes, we here in the ostensible land of the free could learn a thing or zwei from our friends in Merkel-world. It’s breathtaking to rethink so many American parenting assumptions in light of another culture’s way of doing things. But it’s devastating to consider just how unlikely it is that we’ll ever adopt any of these delightful German habits on a societal level.

This is not just because Americans pride ourselves on eschewing the advice of outsiders, though that certainly doesn’t help. Our political and social institutions are so firmly entrenched that no amount of wise Germanic advice can help us. “We’ve created a culture of control,” Zaske laments. “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.” It’s not just parents who are responsible for this, says Zaske, “it’s culture-wide,” from the “hours of homework” to the “intense” focus on competitive sports and extracurriculars; it’s also the “exaggerated media that makes it seem like a child can be abducted by a stranger at any time,” though stranger kidnappings in the United States are actually exceedingly rare. I mean, this is America, where the simple act of feeding an infant in public is enough to set off mommy warfare—allowing the entire nude body of a child in the out-of-doors is enough to warrant calling Child Protective Services or the cops.

Sara Zaske
Sara Zaske Smeeta Mahanti

Achtung Baby is organized in roughly chronological order, beginning with Zaske’s arrival, toddler in tow, in the midst of a frigid German January for the start of her husband’s job in a small town outside of Berlin. The family eventually settles in the dynamic, child-adoring German capital, and although Zaske isn’t working full time, new friends encourage her to enroll Sophia in Kita; when she does, her crash course in German parenting begins in earnest, moving to the advanced level with the German-style midwife birth of her second child, Ozzie.

The chapters progress through Sophia’s Einschulung (AYN-shool-oong, or start of school) and the family’s eventual repatriation to the States, each brimming with examples—both anecdotal and research-based—of why the German approach, focused on childhood independence, is more humane and respectful than the prevailing American bourgeois ethos of sequestered play dates and recess-bereft schooldays.

Zaske’s vignettes—and especially the research that backs them up—also exemplify everything that is maddening about this particular era in the American parenting milieu. As with Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, much of this consternation stems from the dramatic disparities in government support for parents. I mean, we can’t even secure emergency insurance for terminally ill children, much less subsidies for preschool—which in Germany are, of course, standard and generous.

Although Zaske does end every chapter with well-meaning suggestions for how American parents and governments (ha) might deutsch-ify their approaches, the book’s many eye-popping (but fun-sounding) stories—solo foot commutes for second-graders; intentionally dangerous “adventure playgrounds”; school-sanctioned fire play; and my personal favorite, a children’s park that consists solely of an unattended marble slab and chisel—just remind me of all the reasons my American compatriots will double down on their own car-clown garbage lifestyles. I found myself frustrated into tears while reading Achtung Baby, because the adoption of any German customs stateside would require nothing less than a full armed revolution.

For example, when Sophia starts first grade, school administrators remind parents that under no circumstances should they drop children off in an automobile. Could you imagine? I can’t. In the contemporary United States, even in larger cities (with New York being the only notable exception), school is so synonymous with the interminable “drop-off line” that its vicissitudes are the subject of bestselling mom-book rants.

In open defiance of this custom, I ride my daughter the 4½ miles to preschool on a bike—she gets pulled along the mean streets of St. Louis in a Burley trailer—only to get yelled at by moms in idling SUVs outside the school. A few weeks ago, all of us parents even got a sternly worded email from the director, chastising the few who do pick up their children on foot for blocking the valet-style “carpool line” with “pedestrian traffic.” This is unsurprising; most children in the U.S. do not walk to school, even if they live close enough to do so—to the detriment of their physical fitness, independence and joy, and of course also the environment. (Zaske experiences this culture shock in reverse when her family moves back to the U.S. and she makes the unheard-of suggestion of a solitary “walk to school day” at Sophia’s new San Francisco elementary.)

This is America. We arrest mothers who let their kids go to the park alone; we restrict play to expensive registered classes and parent-present “dates”; our playgrounds, meanwhile, are lawsuit-proof and correspondingly stultifying—though who cares, when we have to drive our kids miles to the nearest park anyway? This is America, where we would sooner die than allow our 5-year-old to go naked in our front yard. This is America, where many parents of a certain demographic will surely enjoy Achtung Baby but probably ignore most of its best advice.

While well-intentioned liberal parents (aka this book’s audience) will find numerous aspects of the German style superior—and many of our own trends duly worrying—most of the substantial change Achtung Baby suggests requires a large-scale shift in both prevailing attitude and state funding, neither of which will be forthcoming in this country for the foreseeable future. There’s only so much one American parent can do—I and my sad little bike commute can certainly attest to that. And what’s more, there’s only so much one American parent, slammed with work and barely hanging on, will want to do. Achtung Baby is a great read, but it may leave the American reader feeling helpless rather than inspired—a sentiment all too common in, if you’ll pardon the expression, the current Zeitgeist.

Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children by Sara Zaske. Picador.

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