I’ve spent a lot of time this year sorting through my thoughts about parenting, my own and others. Of my own parenting, I’ve been both proud and embarrassed, depending on the crisis I’ve navigated or the public temper-tantrum I’ve endured. But mostly I’ve simply been humbled. Humbled by the endless dozens of questions I cannot answer for my children, and by their ability to generally accept this ambiguity and figure things out for themselves.
The first part of our year here, when I guided my children through injury, integration into new schools, learning German, and a horrible kindergarten experience and its aftermath, I nearly burst from the emotional strength all of this required. As I translated the world, reassured my children of their own strength and value, and encouraged them to take the necessary risks to make friends and learn a new language, I had to constantly reassure myself that I could do all this too.
With my broken German, I spoke to doctors, teachers, vendors and other parents with as much confidence as I could muster. Explain to me why my daughter might need surgery or why my son is having trouble at school, and then listen to me as I try to outline my concerns. Because my children were so often worried, I was determined to show no fear.
But all the while, an interesting shift was taking place, one that I was not completely aware of. My kids were becoming more confident about their place here, perhaps more than I – first Greta, then Anya, and now finally even little Walter. In large part this has to do with the incredible pace at which the girls have learned German. But it has also been the product of the independence and confidence that living in a small German city has brought.
This gradual, but definitive shift in linguistic and cultural authority has been humbling, but also gratifying. That they understand another language and culture better than I do, including the slang, gestures and cultural norms they learn every day in school, helps them to fit in here and also gives them an opportunity to teach me about life in Germany.
While I participate in every parent meeting and conference, I don’t know how many things work. In Vermont, I was an involved parent at nearly every level, including as an elected school board member who had the principals on speed dial, but here often my girls have to figure things out for themselves. They have to ask the details of a field trip or special project, and they often have to translate details for me, so there is a shift in educational, or at least in logistical authority, as well.
In writing about parenting, I have no interest in entering into the all-too-common debate about which kinds of parents are the best kinds of parents. This discussion almost always devolves into a hurtful, counter-productive indictment of mothers, one in which some mothers feel holier-than-thou and others feel like crap. I will say though, that living in another country leads one to compare everything to how it is “back home,” which is certainly why books like Bringing Up Bébé and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which apparently preach the superiority French or Chinese mothering, were written.
I haven’t read either book, although I’ve read excerpts, reviews, commentary, and Facebook updates about the books, and mostly what I’ve read has convinced me that these books have served to force tons of mothers to wonder why they aren’t good enough. What I already knew, and what has been endlessly confirmed for me this year is that parenting, and perhaps especially mothering, is situational, and so influenced by culture, educational systems, and society that it’s difficult to make the easy comparisons many people seem eager to roll out. It is impossible to have it all because parenting is also about making choices, and every choice means that taking one option is giving up another.
Like I said, I haven’t read these books, or others like them; I don’t need more reason to feel insecure about my mothering. Perhaps the books do talk about the complexities of culture, finances, schooling and how these factors and others make it impossible to say one kind of mothering is better than another. Perhaps only the media has clung to the simple, clichéd summary of the books. Given all the support French mothers get – highly subsidized childcare, health care, modest work weeks, more vacation, longer lunches, not to mention the cultural imperative to drink wine – it’s probably easier to be an average mother in France than an average mother in the United States.
But, all of this isn’t to say that I don’t think we can’t learn a lot from watching how other cultures parent, which is what I have tried to do this year. One example of the type of observation I mean is this NYT Motherlode blog post that outlines what American parents could learn from French parents about bestowing a loving and healthy attitude regarding food upon their children. Food is deeply embedded in French culture in a way that is not true for most American families.
The post doesn’t claim that French parents are superior in every way, but it does outline how French parents are good at a specific aspect of parenting, while also critiquing them on their ability to bestow other important traits upon their children. Not every French parent is good at this task, or good at it all the time; I saw more than one French kid have a food-related meltdown during a week in Paris this spring.
But, if French parents are really good at imbuing a culturally beloved tradition of enjoying a healthy attitude toward outstanding food, German parents are really good at injecting their children with self-sufficiency and independence. Kids in Germany are often thrown into challenging situations and taught that they’d better swim because drowning is really not an option—and I mean both literally and figuratively, given the time I’ve spent at the local swimming pool.
A good example is how parents here teach their children to ride a bike. Almost as soon as kids can walk they are up on tiny two-wheeled cycles without pedals, moving themselves along with their feet. Once they’ve got this down, they get bikes with pedals, which they ride on the sidewalk while parents ride parallel to them on the streets. It’s extremely rare to see training wheels or parents running along beside (unless they are Americans living here for the year!).
Kids learn really early to look at corners and street crossings, to navigate traffic, to commute on their bicycles. I’ve watched dozens of families ride by on their bikes this year, observing how parents instruct their children through challenging spots, but leave the actual bike riding to the kids. The kids become confident, and therefore safer, young bike riders. While struggling to teach two children to ride bicycles here, I’ve been envious of how seamless the process appears for native parents and children.
I’ve mentioned before how parents here let their children play with minimal adult interference. Similarly, they let them go to and be in school with minimal interference. Most children generally walk, bike, bus, and even take the train to school on their own, starting often in first grade, and schools strongly encourage this. There are no frustrating, smog-producing, time-sucking car lines outside of schools here.
Furthermore, parents in the school buildings are quite rare, except for during scheduled parent meetings, open houses, conferences or fundraisers. In-class volunteers and chaperones are seemingly non-existent. Anya’s second grade class went on an overnight field trip during the first month of school; two teachers went with twenty kids. No parents joined them, and the teachers slept in their own rooms, separate from the kids. Greta’s fifth grade class went on a week-long class trip during the first month of school, with two teachers, 27 kids, and no parents – a stark contrast from the fifth grade week-long trip in Middlebury where tons of parents help chaperone.
All of this independence leads children here to know how to take care of themselves at a much younger age. By fifth grade children are generally managing their own schedules and responsibilities much more than fifth graders in the States. But this doesn’t mean that parents aren’t involved here, it doesn’t mean that parents don’t advocate for their children, and do all that they can to get the best for their children. It just means that there is a clear sense that children need to learn to take care of themselves and their lives, and that a parent’s job is to teach kids how to do this at a young age. Often teaching children how to do something means letting them figure it out on their own.
On the flipside, generally speaking and as compared to the parents and schools I know in the States, Germans could do a better job at teaching and employing empathy, support, and acceptance of difference, as the sink-or-swim ethos is often taken a bit too far. We’ve been the great beneficiaries of extremely supportive teachers for Greta and friends and parents-of-friends for Anya, both of which have helped the girls succeed here. Although some people have reached out to help, we’ve also been at the receiving end of some stereotypical Northern German coldness, especially but not solely, in the face of Walter’s crisis.
This seeming coldness may be a trade-off for the self-sufficiency and independence that German schools and parents are so good at enforcing. I can’t tell. My attempts at cultural analysis are now failing me, but where my own children and their experiences are concerned, I’m hoping that the combination of living in a culture that so values childhood self-sufficiency, as well as having parents who were simply not able to hold their hands tightly through often challenging experiences, has led them to an ingrained self-confidence that will take them through the often bumpy road of life.
Additionally, perhaps because they have now had the experience of so clearly needing support and empathy, and sometimes only partially receiving it, this will further ingrain a sense of empathy and acceptance into their outlook on the world and the people within it. At least in a partial sense, they all know what it’s like to be different, to be misunderstood, confused, scared, alone, and they have all gotten through it to the point where they are able to now truly shine here. But to get to this point, they’ve each had to gain self-sufficiency and confidence, seek support, and employ empathy, for themselves especially.
And for me, the humbling experience of having my children surpass some of my abilities is certainly one of the most important lessons any parent can learn. That I am not the sole authority (although I am still in charge), and am no longer the only one who speaks for the family, is surely a parental shift that will help ease me into parenting teenagers (if in fact “ease” and “teenagers” can be written in the same sentence). So, I’m humbled and gratified, and ready for the next parental shift. I think.