Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Book Review: Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children by Sara Zaske

I am not a parent so you wouldn't think I am the audience for this book but it was utterly fascinating. Sara and her husband moved to Germany for his work, along with their baby. It takes them a while to get settled in. but once they do, everyone starts asking Sara when they're going to enroll their toddler in preschool/daycare. Sara is confused as she's not working so she had assumed that she was taking care of their daughter, especially since a mother is the best and most important person in her world and in the best position to provide her with everything she needs, right? Right? Well, that's certainly not the assumption in Berlin. Instead, it is assumed that the child will learn from her peers and learn how to navigate social settings, along with a lot of other benefits, and it's kind of crazy not to send your child to school. So, Sara realizes she can pursue her long-delayed dream of being a writer and send her daughter to daycare, only to discover she's pregnant again.

So now she gets to navigate the German system from scratch, learning about how your register at the hospital ahead of time, even for a home birth, so if things go awry and you end up at the hospital, you aren't trying to fill out mounds of paperwork while in active labor. She meets her midwives, and the one for after the birth is especially helpful in showing Sara how, by not saying no to her son at all to anything during the day, she was in part creating the situation where he screamed all night. It's not Ferberizing, but it also isn't attachment parenting at all. Which makes sense, in a country where people park their strollers with kids in them outside a restaurant or coffee shop before they go inside to eat and see friends.

And that's not the only baffling thing Sara experiences in the five years of raising her kids there. in kindergarten children do these long, complicated projects where they have to not only learn about a topic they pick out, but figure out what they're going to learn, and where they're going to get the information from. She's confused that one of the topics to be mastered in grade school is "traffic and mobility" until she discovers that, by third grade, her daughter is the only one in her class whose parent is still walking her to school. All the rest walk or bike themselves to school, crossing busy streets, some of them going further than a mile. Then she gets a permission slip asking if it's okay for her daughter to use matches at school in  a section about fire. That's after the section they've already done on knives.

Obviously, Germans value autonomy and independence above all else in school. And while Grammar and math might take a back seat in the first few years (they don't really care if a child hasn't mastered reading by the end of first grade, figuring he/she will learn eventually when they're ready), scores on international testing, the same tests where Americans score abysmally so we add more testing, and our scores get worse, they do pretty well. A big part of this mentality comes from the understandable very strong anti-totalitarianism mentality in Germany. And there are still some residual differences in the former East Germany, where, for example, the rates of day care use are highest, as under communism all women worked.

While the book is pitched as a parenting guide for parenting the German way, I instead read it as a memoir of moving to Germany with a young family, with a side of sociology about the educational field. And as someone childless by choice, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read it in just over one day. Couldn't put it down. And couldn't stop talking about it for weeks afterwards, thoroughly annoying all my friends and family.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

No comments: