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Litlove’s Parenting Meme

We have just handed over our three children to some wonderful friends for a Saturday night sleepover, and I am soon to don my Berlin party dress and head to another friend’s birthday party, from which we do not have to return till dawn should we so choose. Thusly childfree, it seems like the perfect moment to attempt Litlove’s Parenting Meme.

(And, since there has been a little, just a very very little, bit of daytime drinking, I cannot be held responsible for some of the things I may or may not say below.)

Litlove’s Parenting Meme:

How do you view your role as a parent? What are you there to do?

To love and protect. To guide and assist. To equip and prepare. To model behaviours and be consistent.

In your social circle, are mothers expected to work or are they encouraged to stay home with the child?

I know very, very few women who do not work in some way or another, but I also know very, very few women who have returned to work full-time. The short school day in Germany and the lack of adequate after-school care means that most women only do part-time or freelance work. The few I do know who work a full 40-hour week have live-in help, who collect the children from school, provide meals if necessary and play the role of parent until Mama or Papa comes home. However, the older children are, and the more independent they are able to be, the longer hours most mothers work.

How do you feel about your children’s education? What’s good about it, and what would you like to see done differently?

I am thrilled with the German kindergarten system with its emphasis on childhood, play and learning by doing. I feel it is a privilege in this highly pressurised world that my children have been allowed this gentle, fun and completely non-academic start. We are two years into the primary school system and I am satisfied thus far, though still horrified that our state requires my child to start high school in Grade Five. The school appears to cater to the lowest common denominator, which is probably the case in all state education systems and I can accept it. However, I am unhappy with the idea of my kids staying in German-only education for the rest of their schooling, so we are starting to scout around for bilingual schooling options. They exist, but at a price.

How do you share the childcare with your partner (if it is shared)? Do you tend towards different activities or different approaches to parenting?

I have been opinionated about how I want my children raised, and have been lucky in that my husband shares my views. He accepted potentially divisive things like sleep-sharing, attachment parenting, long-term breast-feeding without a murmur, and says today that our offspring are better off for it. He is a totally hands-on parent and has been from the start. While he could have chosen career paths that meant he would only see his kids at the weekend, he has always avoided what he calls “the rat-race”, and made choices that give him time with them. This is the reason we do not live in London, Johannesburg or New York. While I am still the primary care-giver, we are aiming in the long run towards a model where I work more and he cares more.

What are the most important virtues to instill in a child?

It sounds cliched, but I do think nothing beats a healthy dose of self-esteem.

What’s the relationship like between mothers at the park and the school gate? Would someone you didn’t know help you out in a stressful moment?

While I am not a fan of baby groups and forced mother-child group activities (in fact, I run screaming), the mothers whom I have met via kindergarten and school have been my life-savers. I am not everyone’s best mate, and I think some find me slightly odd, but I have some very dear friends who have kept me sane, make me laugh and love my kids. If I’m at a playground with my children, I have no trouble chatting with other Mamas if I’m in the mood, but sometimes I just want to zone out and look at the clouds.

What do you fear most for your children?

I try hard not to live in fear, but I suppose I fear something terrible happening to them. I also fear that we are making an inhospitable planet for them to live on.

How do you discipline your child and what are the errors you would put most effort into correcting?

I am one of those boring Mamas who cares about manners, and I probably overdo the repetition on that score. I don’t like violence and that is punished with time-outs on the stairs (a bad, bad thing that makes people cry). I am intolerant of whining and one of my oft-repeated phrases is “Say that to me in your pleasant voice.” Like Litlove, I find that aptly-used praise is more beneficial than lots of negative talk.

Do you think the life of a child has changed much since you were young?

Oddly enough, we are managing to replicate our South African childhood, where we spent a lot of time outdoors, walked to and from places independently of our parents and were expected to be social beings who could converse with adults and children alike here in Germany. Having said that, childhood has become more technological and we are constantly monitoring and assessing how well we are handling that. (For anyone who’s interested, Lia of the Yum Yum Cafe has been writing a fabulous series of posts on children and technology.) My kids also have a greater awareness of the world, and have travelled far more, than I ever had or did as a child.

What is the best compliment your children could pay you for your parenting skills?

My kids are good at frequent, fulsome compliments, so clearly I model praising really well. If they said I helped them to be happy and be their authentic selves, I would rest on my laurels.

Feel free to play too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a party dress to don …


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A Response to Susie

The lovely Susie tagged me to respond to her post Is Preschool killing children?, where she discusses the fact that in the USA preschool (which is what we in Germany call kindergarten and in the UK is nursery school) is becoming ever more academic. In her words,

I avoid this topic like the plague. Kids need to play, explore, and build their imaginations, and preschools that put an emphasis on reading, math and handwriting steal those opportunities from kids. My statement usually incites anger and probably fear, in parents who’ve already justified the decision that their child needs to build elementary skills while in preschool, and have already spent a few happy months in a preschool that is doing just that. Plus, they are already financially and emotionally invested in the school and its teachers, and even though the child is only three, the family thinks its too late to turn back now. And besides, they believe, I am wrong.

We are extremely lucky in Germany that childhood is protected by late school-entry. Our second daughter will start school this year at six and ten months. By the time she is seven, she will be able to do only the most basic of reading. But I can safely predict that by the time she is eight, she will be a sophisticated reader in two languages, completely on a par with any US or UK eight-year-old. I’ve seen it happen. I strongly believe that early learning does not create academic advantage. By the time these six- and seven-year-olds reach school they are dying to learn, practically hyperventilating with the excitement of it all, and they catch up fast.

Having said that, kindergartens in Germany are under pressure from parents to be more than places where little Franka and Finn go to do finger-painting, jump around to music and hang out with their pals. I have been at PTA meetings where their teachers are harangued because the children are not being “challenged enough”. Our kindergarten has introduced optional English, after the exercise of parental pressure. I would not be surprised if, in the next few years, kindergartens will start to be compelled to introduce basic writing and numeracy skills. If that happened, I would be sad.

I have loved having the privilege of raising my kids in a society where childhood is still protected and nurtured. My kids are comparatively innocent: they have never been to MacDonalds, they don’t know that Bratz exist, they haven’t watched High School Musical and, while they like clothes, they don’t wear any horrible scary approximations of adult attire. It’s such a relief to live in society that facilitates these parenting decisions, and helps me to keep them innocent for as long as possible. My kids like to ride bikes, swim, play complicated games of their own making, to craft and to dance. I love the richness of their play, and I would hate academic pressure and the social pressure that comes with that to intrude.

Why is it happening, though, even in Germany? Why are parents putting pressure on kindergarten to challenge their kids? I think it’s the increasingly middle-class-ization of society (speaking as a paid-up member): kids need academic skills to survive junior school, so that they can get into Gymnasium (the academic stream), hence into university and from there into good jobs. And every middle-class parent has the unspoken anxiety that if their child doesn’t start learning to read and write at four, then there’s no chance of her getting a good job at 24. Which is of course, rubbish.

So to respond to Susie, I can’t say that kindergarten is killing childhood, but I see the potential for it happening here. I remain remain intensely grateful it has not happened yet and that German society is still wise enough to protect and cherish childhood.

For more on the US perspective, see the also-lovely Yogamum’s response to Susie’s question.