When Sara Zaske’s seven-year-old daughter came home from school asking for matches, her response was just what you would expect from an American parent: “Why?”
But Zaske wasn’t living in the Unites States at the time. She was living in Germany, where children are taught from a young age that fire must be handled responsibly.
Little Sophia had already learned the proper way to light a match in school, and now she was bringing home a note from her teacher, saying please let your child light candles and do a small fire experiment.
In her new book, Achtung Baby: An American Mom On The German Art Of Raising Self-Reliant Children,” Zaske writes about a wide range of German parenting practices that would strike many Americans as risky or even dangerous. During her six years in Germany, Zaske came to appreciate this approach and to believe that American parents have a lot to learn from it.
German parents are preparing their kids to face risks and dangers, she said, while American parents are prohibiting and protecting until some point in adolescence – often college – when restrictions are suddenly lifted.
“I think we’re starting to see that a lot of college-aged kids aren’t prepared for that kind of freedom,” said Zaske, who now lives in Moscow, Idaho, with her husband and two children, ages 11 and eight.
Giving kids freedom at an earlier age isn’t easy for German parents, she said.
“When I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, how can you let your kid do that?’ they’d say, ‘I hate it too. I really don’t want to do it. But I have to because they have to learn how to ride the subway, or navigate the neighbourhood. They have to learn how to do these things.’”
Part of the picture is the German value of self-reliance, she said: German parents believe independence is good for kids and that learning to handle risk is vital. She’d like to see American parents embrace self-reliance, as well.
“If we put a higher value in helping (our children) achieve their independence, it would be a healthier way for them to grow up,” Zaske said. “And actually, it might be a healthier way to have a long-term family relationship.”
The Chicago Tribune asked Zaske about 10 of the seemingly risky German parenting practices that she describes in her book.
Letting young children learn to light matches in school
When Zaske’s daughter Sophia was seven, she allowed her to light candles, as requested by her school, and she was pleased to note that Sophia did a good job.
“It was a little shocking,” Zaske said. “But you know, when I saw her do it, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. It’s not that hard for a kid to learn.’ “ She also notes that a kid who doesn’t know how to light a match and does so anyway may burn her fingers and drop the match on the carpet.
Teaching five-year-olds to build fires
In the Berlin area, popular workshops teach kids as young as five how to build a “happy fire”: one that doesn’t hurt anyone or destroy anything. Kids practise lighting matches – as many as 50 – until they get a little bored with the process. They progress to making little bonfires outside on metal dishes or aluminum foil, and work together to cook sausages. The idea is that children should be taught to light matches properly (so they don’t experiment with fire in secret). In Berlin, the workshops are backed by both firefighters and insurance companies.
Biking to school at age nine in a major city
While Zaske was still struggling with the idea of letting Sophia walk to school by herself in Berlin, one of Sophia’s friends was already biking solo. Back in the US, Sophia was allowed to bike to school alone at age nine, a practice that raised some eyebrows in their neighbourhood.
The main fear among parents was stranger abduction, which Zaske has researched, and says is actually very rare: “Statistically kids get in car accidents, and are injured and die, at a much higher rate than stranger abduction.”
She points out that prohibiting age-appropriate activities carries risk too: “If you don’t let your kid bike to school or whatever, you lose something. You rob them of that opportunity to have a lot of pride. I see it in my kids, whenever they do something new or conquer a new task, they feel so great. I mean, talk about self-esteem: The best thing you can do for your kid is teach them to do something and let them do it.”
Taking candy from a stranger
Early on in her German odyssey, Zaske was on the subway with a very chatty Sophia, then two, when an elderly woman offered Sophia some candy. Zaske examined the candy as subtly as she could, and Sophia ate it without incident.
Zaske said German parents, like Americans, make sure their kids know not to go anywhere with a stranger. But they’re less concerned about candy, for good reason: “I don’t know that there’s been any documented case that anyone in America has been poisoned by candy. I looked it up. There was one guy who poisoned his own kid, but there were no cases of anybody being poisoned by Halloween candy.”
Letting little kids climb a tall play structure
In a neighbourhood playground in Berlin, preschoolers had access to a 6m high dragon play structure with slides. Sophia started playing on the structure when she was about three, and Zaske said it was a great experience, even though she was scared when she first saw an older kid hanging from the dragon’s jaw.
“I think most kids will have their own fear brake: They won’t do things that they’re afraid to do,” she said. “If you have a kid who’s a super daredevil, then perhaps you’ll be more cautious, but my daughter took forever to climb on that dragon. It was like a year that she went up and down it, but she wouldn’t go down the slide, she wouldn’t sit in its mouth. And eventually she did it, but she did it when she was ready.”
Allowing an overnight preschool camping trip
Zaske was initially uncertain when Sophia’s preschool class went on an overnight camping trip, but Sophia wanted to go, and she had a great time.
Letting kids play out of sight in a big-city park at age three
Zaske was surprised when friends let their kids, ages three and five, play out of their sight in a Berlin park. The kids were nearby in an enclosed playground, but behind a wall. Zaske let Sophia, then three, join in the fun, but she followed along. “I’m a little more comfortable with five or six out of my sight, and it depends on the playground too, I suppose,” she said.
Leaving a sleeping baby in a stroller outside a restaurant
Zaske saw this in Berlin; the adults sat next to the window, so they could watch the baby. Zaske didn’t follow the German example in this case. But she thinks that the main fear – that someone is going to steal the baby – is overblown. She writes in her book that the US averages fewer than 10 infant abductions a year; the odds of a baby being hit by lightning are actually greater than the odds of abduction.
Learning where babies come from in school at age seven
Zaske has no problem with giving kids factual information about human reproduction: “I thought it was great, actually. I’m glad that it was not too much information. It wasn’t overwhelming information; it was just like, ‘This is what sex is.’ It was enough, and it opened up the subject for my kids to ask questions.”
Letting kids cut fruit with knives at age four
The knives in preschool weren’t very sharp, but the knives in grade school were, Zaske said. She approved: “Inviting your kids to cook with you and use the real implements is a great way to introduce them to learning to cook.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service