“Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children,” by Sara Zaske, represents the latest in a series of books about other countries getting right what American parents get wrong.
“Bringing Up Bebe” suggested we ignore our kids while smoking and having affairs (in not so many words). “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” said to burn our kids’ stuffed animals if they don’t practice enough piano (in not so many words). And the slightly more obscure book “The Danish Way of Parenting” told us to read our kids sad tales with dark endings (like every Scandinavian movie ever made). Remember, in the Hans Christian Andersen version, the Little Mermaid does not get the prince and is so heartbroken that she turns into sea foam.
Try singing that, Sebastian.
But as sad as Scandinavia’s stories are, here’s what we’re really supposed to cry about, according to a recent piece on Slate by Rebecca Schuman: the fact that we’re not raising our kids in Germany.
After reading in Zaske’s book that German parents encourage their 4-year-olds to become independent by letting them splash in the preschool water-play area naked and go on sleepovers with the whole class and walk around the town as young tykes and climb around on adventure playgrounds, Schuman lamented that our culture can’t give them anything as laid-back as that.
“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,” Schuman wrote. But America’s “political and social institutions are so firmly entrenched that no amount of wise Germanic advice can help us.”
It’s a lament I second, but I’m not quite so sea foam as Schuman about this. After all, both houses of the Utah Legislature just passed the so-called “free-range kids” bill, which would basically allow parents to let their kids walk or play outside without the threat of arrest. (I realize that’s a low bar for “freedom,” but it’s a start.) All it awaits is the governor’s signature.
And many are the voices clamoring for more free play in kids’ lives. Michael Hynes, superintendent of Long Island’s Patchogue-Medford School District, is partnering with my new nonprofit, Let Grow, to pilot before-school free play at his seven elementary schools. Teachers are not allowed to intervene unless a child is in danger. “This may have been one of the most amazing experiences in my 28 years in education,” Lori Koerner, principal of Tremont Elementary School, told the local Patch. “To watch children across all ages and grade levels come together to play was fascinating to observe! ... Children were communicating, collaborating, cooperating and learning together.”
And then there’s the fact that in Silicon Valley, it’s trendy to send your kids to a low- or no-tech school, where kids learn such things as knitting instead of coding. If the richest, smartest parents in the country are voting with their kids for more freedom, the rest of us can’t help but notice.
So, true, our kids don’t get to frolic naked at preschool. But pretty soon, playing outside, walking to school and having more free time at school could be the new normal.