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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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For members


Surviving winter: 8 tips for enjoying the cold like a true German

Germany's first snow is set to fall on Friday, which means it's time to buckle up for the dark, cold German winter. Here are some tips for getting through the season with a smile on your face.

Surviving winter: 8 tips for enjoying the cold like a true German

When asked what the toughest thing is about adapting to life in Germany, most expats will mention the long, icy winters. As December approaches, temperatures can suddenly drop dramatically into the minus degrees, replacing the golden autumn sunshine with damp, gloomy skies.

According to the German Weather Service (DWD), the average winter temperature in 2021/22 was a chilly 3C, though it’s not unusual for the mercury to drop below zero – especially in the mountainous south. To make matters worse, during the shortest winter days people have to make do with just seven hours of daylight and an interminable 17 hours of darkness.

All of these factors combined can make the German winter feel like something of an endurance test. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is estimated to affect around a third of northern Europeans, and Germans are certainly no stranger to a case of the winter blues.

But if you’re already dreading the next three months of misery, it’s important to realise there are things you can do to make winter much more bearable. From embracing the festive season to concocting comforting beverages, these tips should help make the coldest months a little bit less dark.

1. Dress for the season

To master the art of winter, it’s important to first master the art of practical clothing. 

The ability to dress for all weather conditions is a source of national pride for Germans: in fact, they go about picking their seasonal-wear with such specificity that it’s not unusual to hear categories of clothing like Übergangsjacke, a special “bridging” coat to tide you over from autumn to winter or winter to spring. 

Though all of this can feel a bit intimidating, dressing for cold weather is really not that tricky – and once you’ve found a warm coat and a sturdy pair of winter boots, you’ll never go back. 

One of the best tips for dressing for winter is to follow the onion principle and wear as many layers as you can. Thermal leggings and tops are an ideal base layer, followed by warm trousers, long-sleeved tops, knitwear and a decent coat that’s long enough to cover your legs. 

Of course, a decent pair of gloves, a scarf and a hat are also essential when the temperature drops, as are thick socks and a hardy pair of boots. 

2. Learn to cook German comfort food 

Many of Germany’s traditional dishes are perfectly suited to cold winter days, when stodgy comfort food is a must. 

If you’re stuck indoors on a frosty evening, it could be the perfect time to try your hand at a few German dishes, whether it’s a hearty lentil casserole, Käsespätzel or roast pork with dumplings and red cabbage. 

German Christmas dinner

A traditional German Christmas dinner with goose and red cabbage. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Deutsches Tiefkühlinstitut e.V. | Deutsches Tiefkühlinstitut e.V.

A good place to start is to think of a German meal you’ve enjoyed in the past and see if you can find a recipe for it online. Once you perfect some of your favourite side dishes like Bratkartoffel (roast potatoes) and Sauerkraut, you can even start getting creative and inventing dishes from scratch.

Alternatively, check out some of our recent articles on the best German seasonal food for inspiration. 

READ ALSO: The 10 heartiest German dishes to get you through winter

3. Enjoy some festive activities 

Though it can be hard to find the motivation to get out and about, there’s absolutely no need to go into hibernation over winter. As the days get shorter and darker, numerous festivals and cultural events start springing up all over Germany – not to mention the Christmas markets.

At the start of December, Dresden holds its annual Stollenfest in homage to one of Germany’s most famous Christmas treats. Not only can you see masterful bakers at work, but you can also sample some of the delicious marzipan-filled cake washed down with a warming glass of Glühwein.

In Hamburg, an array of folk festivals – including the Winter Fair and the Dom Fair – kick off in winter time, drawing millions of visitors to the northern city-state. With food stalls, fairground rides, music and fireworks, the fairs have something for the whole family and are an ideal excuse to experience the romance of Hamburg harbour in wintertime. 

Tollwood winter festival 2021

The art installation “Phoenix” on display at Munich’s Winter Tollwood Festival in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

If you’re nowhere near the north, don’t despair: Munich’s Tollwood Winter Festival runs for a full month during November and December. Here, you can catch music, circus and theatre performances or simply soak up the atmosphere and enjoy some delicious German street food. 

Alongside the big events, getting out to your local Christmas market or to see a concert with friends can be a great way to beat the winter blues. We’ll keep you updated on all the best things going on each month around Germany.

READ ALSO: 10 unmissable events in Germany this November

4. Get out in the daytime 

This may sound simple, but when the daylight hours are limited, it’s important to make the most of them. In the shortest days of December, it tends to get light around 7 or 8am, while the sun sets around 4:30pm, which means you’ll need to be strategic about when you get out and about.

One simple way to get some natural light and exercise is to bike to work each morning. It may seem unappealing on a chilly day, but you’ll warm up quickly once you get going and may enjoy it more than being crammed onto a bus with the other commuters.

Another option is to try and get out for a jog or a long walk on your lunchbreak, so you don’t find yourself accidentally missing the daylight hours while stuck at your desk. Or be sure to get out into the countryside each weekend for a rejuvenating hike followed by a hearty lunch.  

5. Find your favourite winter sport 

There’s a reason that winter sports are so popular in Germany. From the Harz mountains in the north to the Bavarian alps in the south, there are countless places to enjoy skiing and snowboarding when the temperature drops. 

What’s more, enjoying a winter hobby can totally shift your perspective about winter. Instead of looking ahead with a sense of dread, you may find yourself getting excited about the start of the new ski season and counting the days until you can hit the slopes once more.

Winter hiking in Germany

Winter hikers ascend a snow-capped mountain in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Martin Erd

Not all winter sports need to be money or labour-intensive, either. In recent years, ice dipping has become a major trend, with adventurous types heading out to local lakes to lower themselves into the freezing water for a minute or two.

Though this may sound about as pleasant as a kick in the teeth, many ice-dippers say the natural high you get more than makes up for a few seconds of discomfort. Aside from energising you for the day ahead, a minute or so in cold water also delivers numerous health benefits, from boosting your immune system to protecting against Alzheimer’s. 

READ ALSO: How learning to ski helped me shake off my German winter blues

6. Embrace Gemütlichkeit 

Forget the Danish Hygge: in Germany, it’s all about Gemütlichkeit. This charming word encapsulates that feeling of being warm and cosy – especially on a cold day. 

To get through this winter season, we recommend setting yourself up for maximum Gemütlichkeit. That might mean digging out some cosy blankets or knitwear from the cellar, making a soothing winter playlist or simply snuggling up on the sofa with a good book each evening.

It may also mean decorating your home with things like fairy lights and evergreen branches for the festive season, or brewing up some hot beverages like Glühwein, spiced apple cider or a cinnamon latte. 

Not everyone’s definitely of peak Gemütlichkeit will be the same, so you may want to experiment to see what it means for you.

READ ALSO: 5 things you need to know about German Glühwein

7. Head to the sauna 

Germans love their saunas, and for good reason: there’s nothing quite like a blast of intense heat to help you unwind and soothe any winter aches and pains.

If the cold is getting you down, make like a German and pencil in some time at your local sauna and steam room. You’ll usually find these at gyms and swimming pools, but there are also stand-alone saunas like Gewölbe Sauna in Berlin – a traditional East German sauna room that even has its own little bar. 

A relaxing sauna room in Germany.

A relaxing sauna room in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Harvia | Kristian Tervo

To really treat yourself, a thermal spa is the way to go. These unique spas use extremes of heat and cold to stimulate the senses and leave you feeling refreshed and aglow. You can find these all over Germany, often housed in opulent classical surroundings, like the Roman-inspired Carolus Thermen in Aachen.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s sauna culture

8. Take care of your health 

As if the grey skies and drizzle weren’t enough, the winter months also mark the start of cold and flu season in Germany – and with Covid-19 still part of everyday life, there’s an even greater chance of falling ill.

For that reason, looking after your health and well-being in the winter months is super important. 

Many people in northern Europe suffer from vitamin D deficiencies over winter due to the lack of natural sunlight, which can have a huge impact on your mood. Taking supplements can help with this, as well as so-called light therapy boxes or SAD lamps, which replicate natural light in your home. 

Meanwhile, staying hydrated and taking vitamin C and zinc supplements can help boost your immune system, while getting out for walks in nature will do wonders for your mental health. 

READ ALSO: Five ways to make the most of Germany this winter