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Monday, August 17, 2020

Review: Achtung Baby

Ever since Pam Druckerman wrote Bringing up Bebe, there's been an increasing number of books discussing how parenting happens in other cultures, and how everyone other than the Americans are doing it right. Achtung Baby is about Sara Zaske's 6 year stay in Germany and how it influenced her approach to child rearing.

I've lived in Munich for 9 months, but that didn't make an expert in German parenting. Though seeing how well organized and regimented the society is (wow, they practice lane discipline on escalators... the pedestrians actually stay out of the bike path!), you could imagine a very strict upbringing, similar to Japan's. (See Queen's Classroom for a stinging critique of the Japanese education system)

Zaske does a good job disabusing me of it, at least, for early childhood education, where her kid attended a Montessori, child-direct, play-oriented elementary school, with lots of recess, relatively good food, and a lot of outdoor-driven activities and play.

Now obviously there are a lot of things Germany does better than the US (6 weeks of vacation a year, a non-broken healthcare system, free childcare for all, free college, etc), and it's not hard to feel as though Zaske was over-reacting when she gushes about it. Um.. we've known about this for years. What's amazing is that American voters have consistently voted against those benefits, to the detriment of their society.

The big one is that all German kids are essentially free-range kids. Now I expected to hear stories about how the author had to get over her American-inculcated fear of trusting their kids to walk themselves to school, but what was cool about the book was when she interviewed a German mother who confessed that she hated her kids taking the subway 4 stops to visit their grandparents, but that she did it anyway, because it was important for the kids to learn independence and help themselves. This is what cultural support grants you --- the ability to look ahead and realize that you're hurting your kids by over-protecting them!
once Sophia entered first grade I was expected to teach her how to walk or bike there all by herself, even without me trailing a block behind. Before the first day, we received a pamphlet in the mail with a host of information about starting school. It also included a request that parents not drive their children to school. They should start learning the way on foot so that eventually they could go by themselves. (Kindle Loc 1909)
 Berlin primary schools have a specific curriculum for “traffic and mobility education.” Near the end of her first year, Sophia spent time learning traffic signs and rules of the road. Her teacher also took the entire class out for a walking tour of the neighborhood, showing them firsthand how the traffic moved, what the signs meant, and how to use crosswalks, or zebrastreifen (“zebra stripes”), as they’re called in Germany. The parents back this up by walking and biking the route to school with their children for several months to an entire year before letting their kids try it on their own. (Kindle Loc 1965)
 Are German parents more ready to let kids be free range because the country was safer? Zaske points out that total crime in Europe is actually higher than in the US:
Total crime in Europe, and in Germany, is actually still higher than it is in the United States—in all categories except murder. That’s one scary category. Buonanno and his colleagues say one likely explanation is the prevalence of guns in American society and “the fact that many types of crime in the United States tend to be committed with the use of guns and that’s very different from many European countries. (Kindle Loc 1982)
 It’s not like Germany has no guns. In fact, it has the fourth-highest rate of gun ownership in the world, but prospective gun owners have to pass many steps before they can purchase a weapon, including a criminal background check and a test of their knowledge of the weapon. If they are younger than twenty-five, they have to take a psychological exam. These measures seem to make a big difference. In the United States, there were 10.14 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people in 2014, according to In Germany, the rate was 1.01. If we truly want to make our country safer for children, we don’t need to lock kids indoors; we should enact gun-safety measures similar to those in Germany. (Kindle Loc. 1986)
Of course, the US has been a total failure in terms of firearms safety.  Zaske confirms my opinion that European playgrounds are generally far better than American ones. I'd guessed that it was because of lawsuits, but the exact story is provided by Zaske:
Overprotection has definitely sucked the life out of most American playgrounds. In recent decades, the equipment has become extremely tame in the name of safety—and a fear of lawsuits, which journalist Hanna Rosin detailed well in a 2014 article for The Atlantic called “The Overprotected Kid.” Rosin describes the lawsuit mania that started in the late 1970s with a prime example: In 1978, a toddler named Frank Nelson fell through a gap between a tornado slide and the railing, and landed on his head on the hard asphalt below—because that was what covered the ground of most playgrounds in those days. Tragically, the fall caused permanent brain damage. His parents sued the Chicago Park District and two companies involved in manufacturing and installing the slide—and won. This and similar suits caused a sweeping change in playgrounds across the country. (Kindle Loc 2280)
 Even with all these safety measures, the number of playground accidents in the United States is still high. In 1980, the rate of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, both public ones and home equipment, was one visit per 1,452 Americans, according to what Rosin calculates using statistics from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. In 2012, even after all that plastic and soft padding, the injury rate stood at one per 1,156 Americans. (Kindle Loc 2291)
the rate of injury in the European Union is a bit lower, even though many countries tend to have riskier playground equipment and parents don’t monitor their children as closely. An estimated 119,000 children per year in the entire EU required emergency medical treatment due to injuries related to playground equipment, according to a study by EuroSafe. That’s about one for every 4,235 EU residents (based on the EU population in 2012, the last year of the EuroSafe study). (Kindle Loc 2294)
Yup. Despite deliberately making our playgrounds more idiot-proof, the "dangerous" European playgrounds are actually safer!

 I found myself highlighting section after section of the book. Does the American school system do anything better? I was surprised to discover late in the book, after she moved back to California, that Zaske's 4th grader had to catch up on Math compared to her classmates. (Zaske was sanguine about it --- she reported that after a hellish year of doing nothing but homework and school, her daughter was completely caught up) It turned out that her daughter in the German public Montessori school had self-directed herself out of most of her own math education! I've met many excellent German engineers and I can assure you that their math education is not deficient, so I assume that Zaske's kid's experience was unusual, but it does indicate that it's not as much of a fire and forget system as say, most Asian school systems. (Though most Asian school systems also assume that the parents engage in a massive program of after-school tutoring!)

Another downside she mentioned is that the German school system streams kids into vocational vs academic tracks as early as 5th grade. That's much too early in my opinion, but again, the American system of catering to the lowest common denominator (which Zaske defends strongly!) doesn't seem like the optimal choice either.

The book closes with a plea for parents to push harder to change American society:
If we want to make things better for our children, we need to start making things better for ourselves, for parents. We need to push for better policies: universal preschool, subsidized child care, school policies that allow more play in school and don’t allow school work to creep into family time. Even more than that, we need to push our politicians and employers for benefits that Germans, and frankly the rest of the developed world, take as rights: paid parental leave, work hours that don’t extend into evenings and weekends, and a guaranteed amount of sick and vacation days. We simply need more time to be families. (Kndle Loc 3381)
In the backdrop of an election year in which I'm just hoping the American voter can look up long enough to realize that there's a world of difference between presidential candidates, that make this books hugely optimistic.

Nevertheless, I learned a lot from this book. Recommended.


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