Parenting in France and Germany vs the USA

One of the first things we noticed during our recent trip to France and Germany was that parents there don’t yell at their children. Neither do they turn them over to be entertained and occupied by handheld devices when out in public, nor scold them for wandering off – which little kids in France and Germany seem wont to do. Admittedly, little ones are often with nannies in Paris Monday through Friday, but the nannies don’t yell either — and that’s another post.

When kids are with their parents, the “It Takes a Village” idea seems to be the rule of thumb – at least to a casual observer – and the level of patience shown toward children is truly remarkable. I never once heard the French or German equivalent of “Hurry up!” during our 16 days abroad. And since it is documented fact that babies and small children are my kryptonite, you can trust me when I say I was paying lots of attention to small ones and those caring for them.

True, I was in the center of Paris, not the poverty-stricken suburbs, so I was among more educated and affluent Parisians; maybe there would have been more yelling in the projects. And granted, you can’t walk more than a few blocks in Paris without coming to some sort of park (ditto in Germany) and parks, in general are happy places.

One of Paris' very cool parks and one really cute boy and dog.

Perhaps parents in U.S. parks are all relaxed and playful with their kids as well and I just don’t see it as much because our cities and towns (at least west of Texas) are not designed as building, building, building, park, building, building, building, park, building …. They even had a sandbox in the garden of the Rodin Museum, for goodness sake.

The sandbox in the Rodin Gardens in the Rodin Museum in Paris

Yet, when we went to southern France and Germany and were in a more varied economic strata, we saw much the same relaxed and patient attitude toward small children. Ditto when we went into the French equivalent of a Walmart – always the place to find parents yelling at children in this town – there was no parental outrage and few crying children. And the children who were crying got comfort, not scolding.

So maybe it is simply a cultural difference: in France and Germany, the parents look at their children as small fry to be treated and taught kindly and in the U.S., all too often, parents seem to look at their children as just another bother. How else can we explain the practice – parodied in this weeks Doonesbury – of parents spending more time with their electronics than talking with their children? Why the ever-present sight of mothers out strolling with their small ones while chatting on their cells instead of chatting with their children? Or what about families out to dinner with Baby propped in front of a portable telly, Junior plugged into his hand-held video game and Mom and Dad glued to their smart phones? (I’m not making that up. I saw that exact scene at a Chili’s three months ago.)

Here’s what I saw overseas: The common mode of carrying children in France and Germany appeared to be on dad’s shoulders.

Family outing in Germany, taking a stroll somewhere.

This position is so revered in southern Germany that there was even a statute erected to the practice.

Statue on the shores of Lake Constance in Uberlingen, Germany. Mid-day swims in the lake are common, as locals need to cool off and there isn't air conditioning - thus, the clothing hung on the statue.

When not on dad’s shoulders, kids were in prams or walking alongside mom holding hands

Mom and daughter at the street market in the neighborhood where we stayed in Paris.

or just skipping ahead into a crowd at the market or motoring along on a child-sized vehicle.

A little dino-dressed munchkin riding down the middle of a street in Constance, Germany.

At a music festival in Germany, we even saw a little boy wander out of the audience, up to the stage where a group was performing and start to explore the openings in the stage, nary an adult to tell him no or wonder if it was a good idea or not.

Cute German boy stealing the thunder from the band onstage.

Either everyone at the festival was related, Germany has no fear of child molesters, or Mom/Dad had a watchful eye from somewhere and, in between beers, had decided their little one was in no danger. Contrast that with the ever-present “Stay with me!” American attitude of kids in public spaces. I was a big “Go play outside” mom, but was paranoid in crowds. In fact, one of my most terrifying memories is when our youngest son, now 24 but then only 3, wandered off at a Texas festival, when I’d let go of his hand for a second to lift his elder brother up to a drinking fountain. We found him less than 30 seconds after I started screaming, toddling happily after a colorfully dressed clown. I aged 10 years in those 30 seconds.

Maybe it is that the creepos in America get more press and thus, cause more fear among parents, or maybe it is that there truly are fewer creeps in France and Germany. The presence of parks and, especially in Germany, the lack of automobile traffic, probably contributes to the more casual “let them roam free” attitude we saw. Whatever it was, it was nice and I think we could learn something from, because the first sign of us being home in America late Thursday night was this: A mother dragging her very sleepy, barely walking, crying 2-year-old through the airport parking lot, sternly saying, “You keep up with me!” Too depressing for words.

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6 thoughts on “Parenting in France and Germany vs the USA

  1. Thank you Renee for this brilliant essay of your observations of parenting culture in Europe. (Based on some things I’ve heard and some of my experiences, I think it varies a little depending on the region of Europe.) I am incredibly thankful that during our daughter’s first year, I started discovering “alternative” ways to go out and about with a baby/toddler (slings and cloth carriers). Wish I’d known when she was born, but at least we found out at all. I’m really into the burgeoning culture of attachment parenting, which sounds much like what you observed out there.  I know we often have a stick-close-to-mommy/daddy mentality… I think, for us, much of that has to do with fear of her being hit by a car. It’s always good though to pause and reflect on how we’re going about things.

  2. Most Europeans live within their means and seldom move. That says volumes about stress levels and its relationship to parenting.  We USA folk are often in the, “whats next mode,” and seldom live in the present precious moment with our kids. ” Ergo, children are an interruption.

    1. True about the living in the same place. They have more socialist societies, overall, less capitalist, consumerist driven. Of course, paris and Munich have very wealthy shopping in very exclusive stores paying tons of money for a purse. Still, the average person seems more relaxed, even though they have ridiculously high taxes – in Germany, it is almost 50 percent – to pay for all that education, health care, parks, etc. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, that’s for sure.

  3. And yet, many, if not most Americans, reject the possibility of learning something from other cultures, subscribing to the idea of American exceptionalism. 

    1. True, to a great extent, Leftfield … yet, I must say, we do music best, hands down, and we’re better at educating the masses (the stress I heard about from young French/German kids about exit tests that set them on the track for college or laborer for life, no second chances, was crazy), way better with toilet facilities and way better at freedom of thought. And, thankfully, most of us think the Holocaust happened – in Germany, I met a man who said those he work with think it happened “but it wasn’t that bad.” i.e. not 6 billion Jews, “just” 1 billion. I think we can all learn from each other…

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