If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may know that my family and I spent 2010-2012 in Hannover, Germany. Sara Zaske is an American friend I met during that time, through the local SCBWI chapter (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Sara lived in Berlin, a couple of hours away, but we managed to meet up once and to keep in touch over the years.
Sara is living back in the States now and has written a book called Achtung, Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children. She was kind enough to share a little about her journey with me.
Me: What years did you live in Germany, and what kinds of schools did your children attend?
Sara: We moved to Germany in January of 2009. My daughter, Sophia, was two and a half. We left in June 2015, almost six and half years to the day. When we left, Sophia was nine and my son, Ozzie, who was born in Germany, was five.
From the start, we tried to send my daughter to a bilingual kita (day care center), but she was really the only one fluent in English. After my son turned one, we were lucky to find an international kita with spots for both of them. This kita was truly bilingual. Still, both my kids still learned German without any formal instruction mainly because it was the language of play. Now that I think about it, the way they learned the language is further evidence that young kids learn best through play. My daughter also attended three years of public Grundschule (elementary school) which was all in German, all the time.
Me: Was there a moment when you first arrived that stands out to you in terms of noticing parenting differences? For instance, on our very first day we went to a biergarten with friends. I remember being shocked that they let their kids wander off out of sight to a nearby playground. Mine were 2 and 5, and I reluctantly let them go with the other kids, but I felt nervous the whole time.
Sara: That’s funny! We had a similar experience during our first days in Germany. I saw two three-year-olds and a five-year-old run off to a playground behind a wall – and no one thought it was important to go watch them! The other story I often tell is this one:
I was at the playground with my daughter – we were new to Berlin and she was still very young, and I saw a kid — maybe age 8 or 9 years old — dangling from a high play structure on the outside, where you aren’t supposed to go. He still had a good 10 to 12 feet below him. I got up and yelled “Achtung!” (my limited German included this phrase learned from the U2 album) and I looked around for his parents. All the other adults were sitting at the edges of the park drinking coffee. No one seemed concerned. By the time I turned back, the kid had dropped down into the sand. He looked at me like I was the crazy person and ran off.
Me: Have you found it challenging at all to retain some of the parental wisdom you gained in Germany? Are some things harder to implement? Do you get pushback? For example, for us, walking around in Charlotte can be dangerous. It’s not uncommon for cars to pass a stopped school bus or to sail through a crosswalk with a traffic guard holding a stop sign in the center of it.
Sara: I find it very challenging, especially around giving my kids the chance to walk around their own neighborhood by themselves. It’s now a little easier since they are older (my son is 8 now, my daughter 11), but when we first moved back to the US, Sophia was nine and was the only girl her age biking to school by herself. My son started regularly walking to school at age seven. I think it took extra courage for him to do it because none of his peers were walking to school (Most would have been doing that in Germany at that age). He also knew other American parents didn’t approve. Still, he had a strong desire to be independent, and he’s done great.
Me: What’s the best thing you gained as a parent from your time in Germany?
Sara: Living in Germany really shifted my perspective on what it meant to be a parent. I thought it was my job to keep my kids completely safe and try to ensure their future success. I took some time, but I eventually realized that those two things are not only impossible, they are not my responsibility. My job as a parent is to help my kids learn how to do things themselves, including how to manage risk and chart their own course for success – and then to let them go.
Me: What was the most surprising thing you observed about German kids and their parents?
Sara: Letting kids light off massive fireworks. Heck, letting adults light off massive fireworks! New Year’s Eve, what the Germans call Sylvester, is celebrated in Germany by every man, woman and child bringing out the biggest firework rockets they can find, sticking them in empty champagne bottles and lighting them off — in the streets of major cities! I still think it is too dangerous, and yes, there are German kids out there doing it too right there alongside their parents.
Me: What do your kids remember about your time in Germany? What was the transition to living back in the U.S. like for you and for your kids?
Sara: We’ve been back about two and half years. My kids remember many things, partly because some of their formative years were spent in Germany – and partly because we talk about it a lot!
Some of the transition back was nice: seeing family and friends and for me, finding it so much more comfortable to be in the culture I grew up in. I had missed the casual American friendliness, though at times I find it odd that I’m making small talk with strangers!
We had some difficulties coming back, of course. Most notably, we found so many barriers for kids to simply playing with other kids in the US! Children aren’t outside here anymore, the playgrounds are boring, and the schools provide very little recess and opportunities to play and socialize compared to German schools. However, on the whole, my kids have adapted– and we work hard to give them time to play and opportunities to be independent. I like to think their experiences in Germany made them stronger, more confident – and more adventurous.
Me: Thanks so much, Sara! Can’t wait to read your book. You can find out more about Sara, including links to articles and video appearances, at her website, www.sarazaske.com.