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7 cultural differences between raising kids in Germany and the US

The Local editor Rachel Stern, an American mom in Germany, details how she's seen children brought up in the Bundesrepublik - and the often stark contrast to parenting styles in the USA.

A 'Kitakind' at the playground in Aurich, Lower Saxony.
A 'Kitakind' at the playground in Aurich, Lower Saxony.

Early independence. According to stereotypes, the good ‘ol USA is the land of freedom-loving folks who value individuality whereas ze Germans must always abide by a strict set of rules. Yet when it comes to parenting, Germans tend to be the ones who are much more lax. It’s a common sight to see kids as young as five or six walking to school by themselves, or jovially jumping around at the playground while their parents are engrossed in their own conversations or even out of sight.

What might be described as “free-range parenting” in the US is simply the norm in Germany. Parents believe that early independence allows kids to build the confidence and common sense to thrive later in life when someone isn’t constantly glancing over their shoulders.

Safety first? While American playgrounds often consist of neatly packed padded equipment and foam floors, German Spielplätze frequently host a labyrinth of long metallic tubes, tall towers and wobbly wooden bridges. Don’t German parents also worry about their kids getting hurt? Of course, but their philosophy tends to be that if they fall, they will pick themselves up again and learn to do the task at hand better the next time around.

A six-year old at a playground's obstacle course in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte
A six-year old at a playground’s obstacle course in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

They also tend to trust preteen kids’ own basic judgment in walking to school on their own. In the US, where either bright yellow school buses or parents themselves carefully chauffeur their children to the classroom, this would usually be unthinkable in Germany. Some US states even have laws mandating a minimum age a child can be left alone, and there have been several instances of parents receiving a call from Child Protective Services for letting their preteens play in the neighbourhood park themselves, sans supervision.

Daycare vs Kita. In the US, the word daycare tends to be synonymous with a last-ditch alternative for parents who have to return to work (often shortly after giving birth). Yet in Germany, “Kitas” – childcare which stretches through the Kindergarten age – are coveted institutions in which many parents vie for a spot. Since 2013, all kids in Germany from age one are entitled to a “Kitaplatz” – and the search for one often notoriously begins during pregnancy.

By the age of three, 92 percent of all German children are in a Kita, according to the OECD. While many American parents pride themselves on keeping their kids out of daycare if they have the resources, Germans generally boast of the early socialisation and “Selbstständigkeit” (self-reliance) that Kitakinder pick up. It helps that they are free of charge in Berlin and Hamburg, and heavily subsidised in the rest of the country.

READ ALSO: What foreign parents in Germany need to know about ‘Sprach-Kitas’

Children at a kita in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Fellowes GmbH | Fellowes GmbH
Children at a kita in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Fellowes GmbH | Fellowes GmbH

Embracing germs. “It will build their immune system,” is a common adage for Germans to stay zen when their small child has shovelled sand in their mouth or eaten food that’s fallen under the table. American parenting publications, however, are abound with articles on how to steer children clear of germs, which one deemed “Public Enemy Number One.” German ones, on the other hand, often seek to reassure parents that exposure to Keime (the word for both germs and bacteria) is okay – and even beneficial in preventing the allergies that can arise from a too-sterile environment.

No bad weather. As with the even colder Nordic countries, there’s an expression in Germany that translates to: “There’s no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothes.” Just like how Germans are religious about opening their windows wide at least once a day in the heart of winter to let in fresh air, most are also firm believers in the benefits of bundling up babies and children and taking them outdoors daily.

This could explain why roughly two thirds of German children spend an average of 108 minutes outside per day. Compare that to the US, where children are estimated to devote four to seven minutes to unstructured outdoor play per day

Play that doesn’t fit in a plan. Most Americans know the stereotype of the soccer mom – a minivan driving, middle-class mother who shuttles her offspring to sports and a myriad of “extracurriculars”. It’s a true reflection of a culture in which children are often over-scheduled with various activities and classes by their well-meaning parents starting from an early age. 

Yet many German parents would rather that their kids “be bored”, or be left alone with their own interests in order to develop their creativity and problem solving skills. Starting at Kita, children are encouraged to partake in unstructured play, which teachers say brings much more value than being able to read by the age of five. 

READ ALSO: 7 surefire signs your kids are definitely German

Discipline, or lack thereof. A German school yard may look a little Lord of the Flies-esque, with kids playing (and often fighting) on their own. While teachers would of course intervene in a more serious situation, they often try to let kids work out their own conflicts, or engage in a dialogue with them about why they did (or did not) do something.

This attitude is common among German parents too, rather than embracing fear tactics as a consequence for misbehaving. Unlike in some parts of the US, spanking isn’t supported (and is in fact illegal) and “getting grounded” – a form of house arrest that US parents place on older kids who misbehave – is not common and frowned upon. That’s not surprising in a country where children learn to make their own decisions, independent of their parents, from an early age.

Member comments

  1. This article is spot on. I can’t really say whether one way is right or wrong, but it is often habits formed due to circumstances. In the U.S., leaving a five-year-old to walk to school alone would have been okay in the ’70s. Not today. Too many weirdos. I know that as an American, seeing little kids walking to school alone or running through supermarkets screaming and running alone just makes me shake my head. Just as I am sure German parents are probably shaking their heads at me when I hold my five-year-old hand when crossing the road. To each their own.

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New fathers in Germany to receive paid paternity leave ‘starting in 2024’

For the first time, fathers in Germany will receive two weeks guaranteed paid time off work following the birth of their child, said Family Minister Lisa Paus.

New fathers in Germany to receive paid paternity leave 'starting in 2024'

Starting in 2024, fathers in Germany will automatically receive paid Vaterschaftsurlaub (paternity leave) for two weeks following the birth of their child. Previously they had no guaranteed time off, except for the day of the birth itself.

Germany’s coalition government had already discussed writing paternity leave into law in 2023, but put the plans on hold, “due to the difficult situation for small and medium-sized businesses,” said Family Minister Lisa Paus from the Greens on Monday. 

The new rule will be part of the Mutterschutzgesetz (Maternity Protection Act), which guarantees new mothers six weeks of paid leave before the birth of a child, and two months afterwards.

Especially in the period following the birth, it is important “that parents have time for each other and the baby,” Paus said. 

She added that the paid time off is “another important building block for the compatibility of family and career.”

Fathers in Germany already have the option to take ‘Elternzeit’, or parental leave. When both parents apply for the benefit, they can take a total of 14 months of leave paid at 65 percent of their salary.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about parental leave in Germany

In 2020, 25 percent of new fathers in Germany applied for leave and took an average of 3.7 months off from work. On the other hand, all new mothers in Germany took an average of 14.5 months of Elternzeit, as the total time (including unpaid leave) is available for up to 36 months. 

In July, the European Union already passed a directive that all fathers be entitled to two weeks off following the birth of their child. Germany’s coalition government then began discussing when to implement the measure.