Parenting the German Way: Let the Children Fight

The Wall Street Journal

An American mother living in Germany learns the benefits of letting children solve their own arguments

Parenting the German Way: Let the Children Fight

The chaos of German kindergartens is sometimes hard for Americans to understand.

When I lived in Berlin for nearly seven years, I was surprised at first to find that kindergartens and child-care centers (called “kitas”) were all about play, all the time. No reading, no math work sheets. There was simple lawlessness. Children ran around yelling, playing whatever they wanted with whomever they wanted. Some rules applied, but they were pretty basic, such as no hitting and no climbing on furniture. The teachers rarely organized the children’s play.

“It’s ‘Lord of the Flies’!” We expat parents whispered to each other. “And that one kid?” We all knew the one. “They really should watch him more.”

The image goes against the stereotype of the “strict German.” The country’s anti-authoritarian movement in 1968 challenged the old ways of doing things, including how children were raised. Some educators even set up kindergartens with no rules at all. That extreme has waned, but today, many Germans still largely reject harsh discipline of children.

Of course, it’s natural for children to fight. But the way German teachers at our kita approached these conflicts was very different than in the U.S. They didn’t rush to interfere, unless a child was about to be hurt. They didn’t punish, hand out warnings, write names of naughty kids on the board or clip them down on the rainbow-colored behavior chart of doom.

Instead, German teachers spent time observing the situation. Sometimes they took children aside to talk to them individually; sometimes they spoke to the whole group about fairness and kindness directly, or indirectly, by reading stories that touched on the issue. Sometimes they did nothing at all.

“Children really do wonderfully to work things out by themselves,” a kita teacher assured me.

That approach is echoed in a handbook by Margarete Blank-Mathieu for German instructors working with young children. “Children have to argue even if it is difficult for the instructor or the group suffers,” she writes. Arguments are critical for children’s social and self-development, she continues. Kids fight for a variety of reasons: to set their boundaries, to draw attention to themselves, to test their strength (both physical and social), and simply because they are poor losers.

Children must learn how to handle all of these things as they grow up—and the German ethos is that children learn this best through interacting with each other, not by having an adult step in and punish the apparent offender.

I had some doubts as to whether this method worked, but I saw the effect it had on my own children.

Six years ago, when she was 5, my daughter, Sophia, had two close friends at kita. They were both wonderful, strong-willed girls—and they argued a lot, often demanding that Sophia pick a side. This ended in many hurt feelings. She was de-friended and uninvited to distant future birthday parties dozens of times. She often cried over it.

These fights became so prevalent that the instructors took notice and gently pulled the girls aside to talk. They would ask questions like “How do you think that makes her feel?” or “What would you do if you were her?” This method of “mirroring” helped the children look at the consequences of their actions and practice empathizing with others.

It didn’t always have the best result. “If they said, ‘I don’t want to play with her,’ we needed to accept this,” the head teacher told me. “Maybe it will change 10 minutes later.” Teachers never handed out punishments or imposed solutions on these disputes.

While my daughter’s struggles lasted longer than I liked, in the end, this experience taught her some powerful lessons. By the time she made it to elementary school, she was known as a peacemaker. To this day, she rarely has an issue with a “mean girl,” either as a victim or being one herself.

Nor does she label them as such—and neither should we. Because truly none of the children are mean girls or boys. They are just kids, learning how to get along with each other and making some mistakes along the way.

How to Parent Like a German

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By Sara Zaske

February 24, 2015

The first time I went to a playground in Berlin, I freaked. All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?

Achtung! Nein!” I cried in my bad German. Both kids and parents ignored me.

Contrary to stereotypes, most German parents I’ve met are the opposite of strict. They place a high value on independence and responsibility. Those parents at the park weren’t ignoring their children; they were trusting them. Berlin doesn’t need a “free range parenting” movement because free range is the norm.

Here are a few surprising things Berlin parents do:

Don’t push reading. Berlin’s kindergartens or “kitas” don’t emphasize academics. In fact, teachers and other parents discouraged me from teaching my children to read. I was told it was something special the kids learn together when they start grade school. Kindergarten was a time for play and social learning. But even in first grade, academics aren’t pushed very hard. Our grade school provides a half-day of instruction interrupted by two (two!) outdoor recesses. But don’t think this relaxed approach means a poor education: According to a 2012 assessment by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, German 15-year-olds perform well above the international average when it comes to reading, math and science while their more pressured American counterparts lag behind.

Encourage kids to play with fire. A note came home from school along with my excited second grader. They were doing a project on fire. Would I let her light candles and perform experiments with matches? Together we lit candles and burned things, safely. It was brilliant. Still, she was the only kid whose parent didn’t allow her to shoot off heavy duty fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

Let children go almost everywhere alone. Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone. German parents are concerned about safety, of course, but they usually focus on traffic, not abductions.

The facts seem to be on the Germans’ side. Stranger abductions are extremely rare; there were only 115 a year in all of America, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice study. And walking around without parental supervision, or “independent mobility” as the researchers call it, is good for kids.

Party when school startsOne of my Berlin friends once told me that the three biggest life events are Einschulung (starting first grade), Jugendweihe (becoming a young adult) and getting married.

In Berlin, Einschulung is a huge celebration at the school—on a Saturday!—that includes getting a Zuckertute—a giant child-sized cone filled with everything from pencils to watches to candy. Then there’s another party afterwards with your family and friends. Einschulung is something children look forward to for years. It signals a major life change, and hopefully, an enthusiasm for learning.

Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a similar ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood.

Take the kids outside everyday. According to a German saying “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” The value of outside time is promoted in the schools, hence the “garten” in Kindergarten. It’s also obvious on Berlin’s numerous playgrounds. No matter how cold and grey it gets, and in Berlin it gets pretty cold, parents still bundle their kids up and take them to the park, or send them out on their own.

Which brings me back to that dragon—since moving here, I’ve tried to adopt some of the Berlin attitude, and my 8-year-old has climbed all over the dragon. But I still hesitate to let her walk alone in our very urban neighborhood.

I’ve taken one small step. I let her go to the bakery by herself. It’s just down the stairs and one door over. The first time she did this, she came back beaming, proudly handing me the rolls she bought herself.

I figured there was no need to tell her that her American mother was out on the balcony, watching her the whole time.