Editor's note: This story is part of a series about one family's experience moving abroad to Germany. Stay tuned to read more of their adventures, and read the first post here.
Less than a week after starting school, my 7-year-old offhandedly mentioned that “Germans must trust kids a lot more than Americans do.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked?
“They let kids do things alone,” she said before running off to swing.
I was taken aback. I was surprised partly because she had already picked up on the difference, but mostly because she had interpreted that to mean that German parents and teachers trust kids more. I wondered: Is her assessment correct? Do we Americans supervise, hover and schedule because we don't trust our children?
During our time in Germany, I’ve found myself in a constant tug-of-war between freedom and supervision as I attempt to embrace my new culture’s expectation of what Americans might call “free-range parenting.” I’ll relax for a month only to have a kid get hurt, punched or stuck in a tree. Immediately, I revert to my American mode of hovering. It's a constant back and forth between mini-catastrophes.
Do we Americans supervise, hover and schedule because we don't trust our children?
Granted, I have made some progress. I now let my 8-year-old walk home from school by herself, and just today I sent my 6-year-old to the neighborhood bakery for doughnuts. He was nervous but came home jubilant, with a fist full of change and a crumpled bag of pastries.
So, I'm trying. But, I recently realized just how far I have to go before I fully embrace what I’m calling "German-style free-range parenting."
Here's what happened:
We visited our neighborhood adventure park and I learned adults aren't only discouraged from hovering, they're not even allowed in except between 5 and 6 p.m. and on special family days. The park is staffed by a few workers but the kids, ages 6 to 14, pretty much run free.
When my family visited during one of the “adults allowed” times, I saw a few kids taking turns jumping over an open fire. Concerned, I stopped to watch, waiting for a staff member to intervene. Right on cue, a worker appeared but rather than stop the game, he just threw more paper on the fire and walked away. Cue some deep breathing on my part.
The park — mostly unkept — was filled with bramble patches, hidden trails and climbing treas. Kid-made hammocks hung precariously between trees and there was a whole city of wooden forts built by kids. Each fort had to be less than three meters tall and checked off as structurally sound by an adult (at least there were some rules). Even so, a couple were so wobbly my kids didn't dare climb on them. A few had old stoves and I noticed older kids building fires and roasting bread with no adults in sight — amazing and slightly unbelievable to my American eyes.
My son Buddy, of course, wanted to begin building immediately. He ran to the tool shed and checked out a saw, hammer and nails. Can you imagine? I could send my 6-year old alone to this park and they would give him free range with a saw. In theory, I love this idea. In practice, it terrified me. Yes, Buddy was proud and exuberant using the tool. But he also cut himself — and that was with my supervision.
After four hours, my kids were still going strong. They were in heaven climbing trees, playing soccer and roasting bread. I knew this is what childhood should look like but I couldn’t imagine letting them come back alone. I worried about them getting hurt. I worried about them being bullied. I worried about them succumbing to peer pressure, which they seem more susceptible to now that they can't express themselves as well in their second language.
To my relief, when we talked about it after our visit, the kids said they didn’t feel ready to visit on their own. We made a plan to come back during adult hours until we all feel more comfortable. I felt obligated to warn them, though, that they would probably feel ready before I did.
“Oh, Mom,” my daughter said. “Stop being such an American.”