Why Dangerous Things Are Good For Our Kids

January 24, 2018 by

kid in woods

Careful readers might notice that my blog-author profile was updated to reflect that we are back in New York State. Back for Christmas, back for our oldest daughter’s wedding, and back on the Voices blog again, after having pulled a “too-busy, just-returned mother-of-the-bride” excuse when my regular contribution came due in December.

One of the joys of being back is the public library system and access to new titles. (I’ll finally work on my Goodreads to-read shelf.) Achtung Baby, by Sara Zaske, however, is a book I might not have opened except for her subtitle: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-reliant Children. I hadn’t read a parenting book in a while, but Zaske writes about what I did many years ago: I moved to Germany with my husband and a toddler, and had two more children there.

When Zaske and her family moved to Germany, she found a very different attitude toward raising children than that to which she was accustomed, even subconsciously hard-wired. Achtung Baby examines the inherent cultural differences between the American and German parenting/educational mindset. Both entertaining and well-researched, this book is one that we need to be reading, in our schools and homes.

Apart from being mildly annoyed by her treatment of German nouns (inconsistently italicized but not capitalized, and several missing umlauts), I found myself agreeing with her premise that Germans have something we here in the US are missing out on. The idea of Selbständigkeit touted by German parents and supported by German educators might just be a key ingredient missing in our own parental and teacher psyches. Selbständigkeit translates into self-constancy, or self-reliance, or just plain old ability to deal with what comes your way.

The idea of self reliance touted by German parents and educators might just be a key ingredient missing in our own parental and teacher psyches.

Using anecdotes from her children’s kindergartens and schools, she examines typical childhood milestones and issues and compares her own protective instincts to the deliberately backed-off approach of her German counterparts. Rather than generalize all that was strange and new to her as “the German way,” she takes a good hard look at our society and what drives the anxious protection we want to provide for children (never to be confused with sensible vigilance and care).

Her chapters include titles such as “No Bad Weather,” “Starting School,” “Tough Subjects,” and “Facing the Past.” I read these with real delight and a sense of agreement, but the one I really liked was chapter nine, titled “Dangerous Things.” In it she describes the diffusion of the old saw: Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht, sind für kleine Kinder nicht. (Knives, forks, scissors, and flames are not for little children.) Recognizing this to be a mindset of the past, educators are making an admirable effort to teach safety around potentially dangerous tools and situations. The fire-safety workshop held in her daughter’s kindergarten was conducted by a fire performance artist (!) who taught the children how to safely strike and extinguish matches, not to mention other activities involving live flames. These same kiddos also got to cut up apples with knives, and make their own apple sauce! Sharp things and boiling pots!

In this chapter Zaske discusses the cultural difference between German and American safety standards. While we here in the US have attempted to design every potential hazard out of our playgrounds, German playgrounds and parks are still full of climbing equipment and structures that can pose dangers. This follows the idea that children’s behavior will naturally compensate for perceived risk: taking greater risks if a situation is perceived as safe and being instinctively more careful if there is a real and present danger.

I get it. When our children were small we lived in the Catskill Mountains, with lakes, streams, gorges, and waterfalls out our back door. My husband insisted on taking the kids out into the mountains and teaching them to appreciate risk and danger, while never exposing them to undue peril. “Who’s afraid?” he’d ask, standing back from the ledge above a high waterfall. Those who bragged that they weren’t had to step back and wait. Those who admitted fear were taught to belly-down a safe distance from the edge and enjoy the view, or to always keep a tree between them and a cliff-edge.

I’m not a child-behaviorist nor a certified educator, but there is good to be learned in this book, and as a mother who raised five adventuresome children, I like it. We’re probably not going to change things in our country too much, and I’ll concede that there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to what needs to change. But a bit of Selbständigkeit could go a long way for our future!


About the author

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey and her husband Stephen live at the Mount Community in New York State.

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  • Interesting comments about Zazke's book. As an educator, I think it's true that American education and child rearing is too protective. Part of an overly litigious society as well. Will read the book. Thanks.