I will admit that I probably “over-parent” my kids more than I should. I still walk my 11-year old home from school even though it’s only a few blocks away and the school rules allow him to walk home alone. And I may or may not still be wiping my kindergartener’s butt just because I can’t stand his protests, or how badly he does the job himself.
I try to allow my kids as much freedom as possible and I try to give them as many responsibilities as I can, but we live in a culture of parents watching their kids’ every move, and having their hand in every decision their kids’ make, so it can be hard to release yourself from that mindset.
I still ache for the days of my own childhood, where my mother would let me (when I was six years old, mind you) ride around on my bike with the neighborhood kids for hours, then holler at me through the screen door to come in for dinner. But can you imagine doing that kind of thing nowadays? Someone would call CPS on me if I let my almost-six year old wander around the neighborhood without me.
In a way, I feel like our generation of kids is a great experiment. Hey, maybe it’s possible that all this helicoptering will make our kids feel safer, and all the hand-holding will help them succeed. But maybe not.
Well, according to one American mom who transplanted her family to Germany, we Americans likely do have it all wrong.
When Sara Zaske moved her young family from Oregon to Berlin, Germany, she was in for a rude awakening. As she chronicles in her book, Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, a memoir about the years she lived in Germany, life there is basically the complete opposite of life here.
Germany is the epitome of free-range parenting. Kids walk to school alone, and even take public transportation on their own. They cut and prepare their own food—including with sharp knives—and some kids are allowed to play with fire. Parents don’t hover. They allow their kids to speak for themselves, and they don’t intervene in every dispute, even when their kids are young.
Oh, and their kids are not overscheduled like so many of our kids are. They’re allowed and encouraged to be bored at times, because this allows them to use their imaginations, and become self-sufficient.
It was all a bit of a culture-shock at first, according to Zaske, but she soon found that the German way was actually totally awesome. Germans believe that their free-range parenting style is one that fosters independence in their kids. And they even have a name for it: Selbständigkeit, which is translated to mean “self-reliance.”
Selbständigkeit is supposed to result not just in more self-reliant kids, but also more resilient, independent adults, which is basically the goal of all this, right?
“We cannot make the world completely safe for our children, and we cannot determine their future success for them,” says Zaske in an interview with The Parent Voice. “At some point, every child has to learn how to deal with risk and manage their own lives by themselves. We do our children a huge disservice if we give them no practice in self-reliance until they are 18 and then expect them to learn it all at once.”
So what kind of steps can we parents take to instill a little Selbständigkeit in our kids? Simple steps work, like letting your child order their own food at a restaurant, or sitting on a bench at the playground rather than hovering over your toddler. And in doing these things, you won’t just be benefitting your own child, but setting a good example for your fellow parents.
“The simple act of letting your child do something like walk to school by themselves or go to the store to buy something, empowers other parents to do the same,” Zaske tells The Parent Voice.
Look, we may not all want to free-range the heck out of our kids. We all have our own comfort levels with this kind of thing. But I think we can all agree that adding a bit more Selbständigkeit can only be a good thing—for our kids, and for ourselves.