Germans divided: Is it OK for kids to pee on trees?

A war of words has broken out on social media in Germany over kids peeing outdoors, leaving experts worried about the widening divide between parents and people who don’t have children.

Germans divided: Is it OK for kids to pee on trees?
What happens if this child needs to pee? Photo: DPA

Sarah Kuttner, a 37-year-old author, kick-started the latest debate with a Facebook post that took aim at inner-city bark-wetters. 

“Mothers who hold their kids up against trees to pee in the middle of a neighbourhood full of cafés and, by extension, toilets: no!” 

Like-minded non-parents wasted no time in venting spleen at “shameless mothers” and their “brats” in an avalanche of comments that at times bordered on the hateful. 

Psychologists worry that parent-bashing has become almost a national sport in Germany. Keyboard warriors revel in mocking parents for giving their kids apparently pretentious names, like Karl-Emil or Iphigenie, while books on anti-authoritarian and over-protective parents fly off the shelves.  

A Berlin café owner who erected a concrete bollard to keep out strollers in the gentrified Prenzlauer Berg district was greeted with praise: “Finally,” said one online fan, capturing the mood among sippers who like their coffee with a dash of silence.  

Andreas Engel, a psychologist who specializes in parenting, likened the criticisms levelled by non-parents to football fans shouting tactical advice at their television sets.

“Everybody, absolutely everybody, has an opinion on child-rearing,” he told the DPA news agency. 

But parents and non-parents have grown further and further apart in recent years, he added, a development he attributed to Germans having smaller families, women waiting longer to have children, and the growing number of couples who decide not to have kids at all. 

“This of course results in a loss of knowledge about what it’s like to live with children, and of the ability to empathize,” said Engel. 

“Anyone who has lived with children knows that you can throw the notions you once had about child-rearing in the dustbin.” 

Part of his job now involves helping parents deal with unsolicited advice from outsiders, he said. 

Official statistics confirm Germany’s changing family structures. The average age for first-time mothers in Germany is currently 29.5 — four years later than in the early 1980s, and seven years later that the average at the time in the former East Germany. 

Also, a fifth of German women aged 40-44 do not have any children.

But are parents also to blame for a hardening of attitudes? Anja Maier, a journalist and author, has followed closely the growing domestic culture clash. A couple of years ago she wrote a book bemoaning the “macchiato parents” taking over Germany’s inner cities. 

And while she finds the spiteful tone in the current debate shocking, she does still think parents need to get a grip. 

“Every family these days is a little debate group,” said Maier. “Does everything really need to be debated? Does it all need to take place in public?”

And don’t get her started on children in fancy restaurants: not a huge fan. 

She also reckons modern parents are chronically dissatisfied.

“Parents are always moaning,” Maier said, despite Germany becoming increasing child-friendly

“There are a hundred times more playgrounds than when I was growing up, there are children’s museums, parent-children cafés, more and more play streets, and adventure forests.” 

Yet still parents get upset if their kiddy-winks aren’t welcome in a café, said the former MTV presenter. 

“There’s no keeping them happy.”

Her strident opinions have seen Maier take heavy abuse in the pee-on-a-tree debate. 

But at least she has Moritz Freiherr Knigge on her side: Germany’s go-to arbiter of etiquette advice views children peeing in public as an impertinence.

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Seven quirky things German parents do while raising their kids

It's common to romanticize the parenting techniques of other countries, but some tendencies of German Eltern can leave foreigners utterly confused.

Seven quirky things German parents do while raising their kids
File photo: DPA.

For full disclosure, I spent my first year in Germany as an au pair for a lovely German family in Berlin, so I often acted as a fly on the wall observing various German parents.

And while I could recognize many of their methods from my own American upbringing, there were certain rituals that gave me a bit of culture shock.

1. The vast amount of strange contraptions to transport little ones

Photo: DPA

Germans certainly can get creative when it comes to keeping their youngsters in tow. The precarious-looking buggies they have strapped to the front or back of their bikes still give me anxiety as I watch parents speed along busy city streets.

READ ALSO: An American parent in Germany, or how I learned to love the power tools

These surely must be safety risks? But alas I doubt police keep records of Fahrradanhänger-related injuries, so I cannot provide an answer.

2. Letting them play outside in freezing, awful weather

Perhaps this is just the impression of someone who grew up in warmer climates, but seeing German kids clambering around on playgrounds amid subzero temperatures and howling winds was quite a shock to me.

But parents here abide by the German saying: Es gibt kein schlechtes Wetter, es gibt nur falsche Kleidung. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

3. Impractical snow suits

Photo: DPA.

But despite what the Germans say about bad clothing, they apparently haven’t yet realized how awful and impractical those adorable one-piece snowsuits are. The target demographic for this garment – toddlers – are the worst choice for handling its fundamental restraints because they simply haven’t yet mastered bladder control. And still, come winter, this outfit is ubiquitous around schools and parks.

As soon as you hear that little desperate plea of ich muss pullern – I have to pee – you know it’s already a race to find the loo, and then you also have to unzip the snowsuit and take out the child’s arms before they can finally relieve themselves. Spoiler alert: that snowsuit often loses in the end and has to make a trip into the washer.

4. School ‘bags’ for their first day

Kids carrying their “school bags” in Dresden. Photo: DPA.

Honestly, I’m a bit more jealous of this ritual than baffled by it. Going off to that first day of Grundschule (primary school) is a much bigger deal in Germany than I remember it being for me in the US, and it’s tradition to give kids a Schultüte – school bag – to celebrate.

But the confusing thing about this “bag” is that it’s not actually any sort of bag or backpack as the name suggests, but rather a colourful cone filled with sweets and goodies.

SEE ALSO: Super cute things German kids do at primary school

5. Reading them very violent stories

Stories from the classic book Struwwelpeter. Photo: Peter/Flickr Creative Commons.

The first time I read the original German Brothers’ Grimm stories to the children I was babysitting, I found myself trying to censor the content. Especially when the kids asked me to translate the stories into English, I wondered whether that also should mean translating them through my American sensibilities.

From Hansel and Gretel being outright abandoned by their parents – rather than simply lost in the woods – to Snow White’s wicked queen being forced to dance herself to death, I struggled with reading these disturbing tales to such impressionable young minds.

And another German classic, Der Struwwelpeter, is no better. In it, one girl accidentally lights herself on fire and burns to death, a boy has his thumbs cut off with scissors, and another boy starves himself to death.

I’ll take the happy Disney endings instead, thank you.

SEE ALSO: Eight times Disney sugar-coated Germany’s cruel kids’ tales

6. Eating lunch exactly at noon

I suppose this one is just about Germans taking their term for lunch literally – Mittagessen literally means “noon meal”. At least it gives children some sense of a structured routine during the day.

Of course, getting kids to actually sit down right at noon is another story.

But the habit even seems to stick for adults, as you may notice with your German co-workers.

7. Not teaching them to read until age six

At least in the schools I attended in the US, it seemed there was a big push to get kids reading before age five and kindergarten.

But in Germany reading seems to be saved for when they first enter Grundschule at age six, with Kitas and Kindergartens careful not to focus too much on academics before then.

Still, getting a later start doesn’t seem to be having a negative impact: The latest PISA school performance report defined Germany as having a high share of “top performers” in reading.

8. Letting kids play near or with fireworks

Okay so this little one is still too young for even Germans to entrust with these fireworks, but the fact that this photo exists says something. Photo: DPA.

One of my closest German friend’s favourite childhood memories is setting off fireworks on New Year’s Eve. And now that she lives in the US where purchasing these explosive devices is more restrictive in certain regions, she’s especially excited to return to Germany to watch things explode.

I was taken aback here how casually these pyrotechnics are sold in abundance at supermarkets. And Germany even has a special classification of lower-risk fireworks for kids that can be purchased over the age of 12.

But perhaps the fact that Germans are comfortable with this – and not enough fingers go missing around the holidays for them to want to change things – reveals more about American parenting habits: we’re a bit too cautious.

So maybe it’s better to stand back a bit, let them launch explosives into the freezing air while wearing their snowsuits, and trust that kids have a little more instinctive common sense than we give them credit for.

A version of this article originally ran on March 20th, 2017.