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In Achtung Baby, author Sara Zaske says we should stop worrying and parent the German way

  • Title: Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children
  • Author: Sara Zaske
  • Genre: Parenting
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Pages: 256

Children at a playground in Berlin in 2016.

Sean Gallup/getty

One afternoon when my younger son was three years old, he returned home from his public preschool in Berlin and rushed to tell me some exciting news. He and his friends were going to have an Uebernachtung. My German was shaky, but I was pretty sure that meant sleepover. In the classroom? With no parents?

This would never be possible in North America, I thought. What preschool teachers would agree to chaperone their young charges not just during the day, but overnight? And which parents would consent to leave their three year olds by themselves to sleep at preschool? Yet, in Berlin, such behaviour was perfectly normal.

The appointed day came and we dropped off my son at preschool with a pillow, a blanket and a change of clothes. In the afternoon, his class took a trip to the zoo then ate spaghetti for dinner with ice cream for dessert. Later, they all bedded down on mats in their classroom, which is where we found him the following morning, tired but elated.

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The sleepover, part of a deliberate effort to encourage independence even at a young age, was one of many memorable encounters we had with German parenting culture. Now, Sara Zaske, an American writer who lived in Berlin for six and a half years, has provided a refreshing primer on doing things the German way in her book Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children.

Zaske’s book is the latest entry in what has become its own genre – the “you’re doing it all wrong” parenting book. Parents can now choose from volumes on French parenting, Dutch parenting, Danish parenting and Swedish parenting (and don’t forget Chinese parenting, as portrayed by Amy Chua in her best-selling memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother). The existence of these books taps into a gnawing anxiety that there must be a better way to bring up children and that whatever (North) American parents are doing, it is either not enough or too much.

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Zaske comes ready to deliver some frank talk. She opens her book with the assertion that the United States has got it wrong – and badly so. While Americans claim to venerate freedom, she writes, they allow precious little of it to their children. Instead, she argues, they operate out of fear, prioritizing supervision and control in a race toward academic achievement whose starting point keeps getting earlier.

Living in Germany provides Zaske – who admits she once believed the United States was the best and freest place to raise children – with a startling counter-example. Her daughter’s preschool organizes sleepovers and overnight trips. She encounters kids as young as 6 walking to school alone; by the age of 8, her friends’ children are taking public transportation by themselves. Early education focuses on social skills, play and self-directed learning while eschewing anything academic such as reading and arithmetic.

Meanwhile, the German attitude toward risk and supervision is a revelation. The playgrounds in Berlin, as Zaske reports and I can confirm, are exhilarating and borderline terrifying. We discovered twisting slides that were three storeys high, slides you can only enter from a nest of ropes, tire swings that could knock a kid unconscious and zip lines that might do the same. My kids enjoy the playgrounds in the United States and Canada, but they still yearn for the ones in Berlin.

German parents also don’t feel the need to maintain a constant watch on their young children, something we gradually learned to emulate. Inside the Berlin zoo, for instance, there is an outdoor patio next to the biggest playground I have ever seen. Parents would enjoy a little sausage and beer while their children disappeared into the giant play structure – nearby, but out of sight. When friends from New York came to visit us with their young girls, we persuaded them to sit on the patio and let all four of our children play, moderately unsupervised. “Can we really do this?” they asked nervously. Yes, we can.

Zaske delivers an entertaining account of how, with time, she, too, learns to stop worrying and be a little more German. While in elementary school, Zaske’s elder daughter Sophia begins pestering her mother to let her walk or bike to school by herself like all her friends. By the third grade, Sophia is not just going to school alone, but organizing her own mornings – getting dressed, gathering her bag and snack and saying goodbye to her parents at the apartment door.

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Zaske also provides an illuminating overview of how Germans handle sensitive topics in their educational system. Sex education is compulsory in elementary school, for example, and Sophia’s class does a lesson on death in the second grade. Zaske argues that Americans should emphasize the teaching of their country’s own historical crimes, much as German schools do with the Holocaust.

The most poignant part of Zaske’s book comes when her family returns to the United States. Her husband takes up a research position in San Francisco and, in their suburban home, Zaske confronts a more atomized, less communal existence. “In reality, Berlin, even with its long, dark winter nights and grimy streets, was a much friendlier place for families than that shining city by the bay,” she writes.

There are children in the neighbourhood, but they tend to play in their own yards, not the slightly sad and – especially compared with Berlin – boring local playground. “Apparently, access to the other kids requires a special invitation, a playdate, which of course is arranged by parents,” Zaske acidly notes.

Ultimately, though, Zaske’s book is an empowering one. She writes to the parents association at her daughter’s school in California, suggesting they sponsor a “walk to school” day. She petitions the school district to better subsidize after-school programs. And she allows her daughter to bike to school by herself when none of her peers are doing so. The next fall, Zaske happily notes that Sophia is part of a pack of children riding bikes to school. It is a reminder that in ways large and small, we can all experiment with being a little bit more like Berliners.

Joanna Slater is a Globe correspondent based in New York and Massachusetts.

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