Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

by Sara Zaske


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An Entertaining, Enlightening Look at the Art of Raising Self-Reliant, Independent Children Based on One American Mom’s Experiences in Germany

An NPR "Staff Pick" and One of the NPR Book Concierge's"Best Books of the Year"

When Sara Zaske moved from Oregon to Berlin with her husband and toddler, she knew the transition would be challenging, especially when she became pregnant with her second child. She was surprised to discover that German parents give their children a great deal of freedom—much more than Americans. In Berlin, kids walk to school by themselves, ride the subway alone, cut food with sharp knives, and even play with fire. German parents did not share her fears, and their children were thriving. Was she doing the opposite of what she intended, which was to raise capable children? Why was parenting culture so different in the States?

Through her own family’s often funny experiences as well as interviews with other parents, teachers, and experts, Zaske shares the many unexpected parenting lessons she learned from living in Germany. Achtung Baby reveals that today's Germans know something that American parents don't (or have perhaps forgotten) about raising kids with “selbstandigkeit” (self-reliance), and provides practical examples American parents can use to give their own children the freedom they need to grow into responsible, independent adults.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250160171
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 01/02/2018
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

SARA ZASKE is an American writer who lived in Berlin for six and a half years. Her articles on her family's experiences in Germany have appeared on, in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Bild am Sontag, Germany's largest Sunday paper. She lives in Idaho with her husband and two children.

Read an Excerpt


Leaving America

I never planned on raising my children in a foreign country, and surely not in Germany, a place my ancestors fled many years ago. I always assumed they left for a good reason, and returning to the proverbial fatherland simply was not on my list of things that would help my kids get a good start in life. Looking back, I now see that moving to Germany was one of the best things my husband and I ever did for our kids, even if it was by accident.

Almost every American has an immigration story. Some are even true. My mostly true immigration story stars a German merchant marine from Prussia named Gustav Zaske. Gustav reportedly walked off his ship in Nova Scotia, Canada, at the end of the nineteenth century. No one knows exactly why he jumped ship, but legend has it that Gustav planned to walk from Nova Scotia all the way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where one of his relatives lived.

Something happened on the way: he took a wrong turn and ended up near Zilwaukee, Michigan. There he met a five-foot-tall, red-haired beauty named Anna Schulz, also a German immigrant. He fell in love and married her, and they had a son, who became my great-grandfather. Gustav never did make it to Milwaukee.

The moral of this story, I had always assumed, is that you don't always end up where you planned to go. But another good lesson might be that love will take one look at your plans and laugh and laugh.

My Milwaukee was San Francisco. I had wanted to run away to California ever since I was a ten-year-old girl growing up in the deep snows near Buffalo, New York. After attending college at the University of Michigan (also super cold), I finally took off for California, driving across the entire country.

I found a job in a bookstore in Oakland because I imagined that working with books would somehow inspire me. I also figured it would be an easy job, leaving me plenty of time and energy to write. Working a real retail job killed that dreamy notion quick.

I started to avoid the constantly ringing phone and the customers who had less of a clue about how to find what they wanted than a German immigrant walking across Canada. I spent more and more time in the warehouse, talking with a handsome Hispanic stock boy named Zac, who made me laugh. Zac wasn't working in a bookstore for inspiration. He was trying to figure out how to make a living in the expensive Bay Area with only a high school degree. He'd taken a few community college classes, which he had paid for himself, and I remember telling him one fateful day, "You know you should just do it: take out loans and go to school full-time. Get your degree."

And he listened to me! Which, I must say, was an extremely attractive thing to do, and I eventually married him for this and his many other attractive qualities. However, some ten years later, Zac had not one degree but two and was about to get his third, a PhD. He had also scored an interview for his first job as a full scientist — in Germany. The position was at a research institute in the northeast of the country, ironically also in the area once known as Prussia that my ancestor Gustav had fled so many years before.

When Zac landed in Germany for his interview, he sent me an email. "Everyone here looks like your dad!" he wrote.

It was funny and true, but this wasn't part of my plan! Even if northern Germans resembled my relatives, I didn't have any special attachment to the country. Like many German Americans, our family had been disconnected from their homeland for a long time.

German Americans are the "silent minority," as The Economist once called us. We are also the largest. (This is true if you don't lump all Americans descended from Spanish-speaking immigrants into one Hispanic category.) Still, at 45.5 million, according to 2015 census estimates, Americans who claim German ancestry outnumber all other groups, even the sizable number of Americans who have English or Irish heritage.

While Germans were here from the founding of colonial America, the real boom came later. My ancestors were part of the more than 5.6 million Germans who arrived between 1820 and 1924, according to U.S. immigration figures. These German immigrants have been credited for introducing America to everything from beer to the Christmas tree to kindergarten.

But the American public turned against German Americans at the start of World War I. Hundreds were tried and convicted on trumped-up charges, others were tarred and feathered, and some were killed outright by mobs — and this was before the Second World War, an event which only increased suspicion toward German Americans.

Given this climate, it is not surprising that many people stopped identifying as German. They abandoned outward signs of their culture and stopped speaking the language — I know Gustav's son, my great-grandfather, did. By the time I was growing up, the only signs left that my family was German were small things — a dish of red cabbage at big family meals and the older folks who said gesundheit when someone sneezed. So the fact that the grandparents of my grandparents came from Germany would not help me at all if I went back to my ancestral homeland some 160 years later.

* * *

The German institute offered Zac the job and included some funds to help us move. We waited to discuss this big decision until he came back to the States. I definitely wasn't all set to pack up our life and go.

At that time, we were living in a college town in Oregon, where we had moved primarily for Zac's studies but also so we could afford to start a family. In California, I had finally found work writing, as a journalist. I even made it to a big daily paper in San Francisco, but it was a job more impressive in name than in salary. In Oregon, I found a solid job writing for a nonprofit. With my salary, Zac's graduate stipend, and the lower cost of living, we had managed to buy a small house. We also now had a little girl, Sophia.

After Sophia was born, we started juggling family and work like so many American parents. I stayed home with the baby for the three months of maternity leave I was allowed, and Zac took off as much time from his studies as he could. Still, at four months, we had to put Sophia into part-time child care. I'd then use my lunch hour to pick her up, bring her home, nurse her, and get some form of lunch into my own mouth before rushing back to work. Either Zac or my mother, who had moved nearby, took care of Sophia in the afternoons.

For Zac, it wasn't much easier. On the afternoons that he had Sophia, he would wake up before five a.m. so he could get in some hours at the lab before rushing home to meet us at noon. More than once, he had to bring Sophia to a meeting. In the evenings, he would be up late studying and writing at home. It was a tough routine, but we made it work.

I couldn't see how we were going to make it work in another country though. We discussed the move at length in conversations that went something like this:

"This is our last chance to go somewhere before we finally settle down and become boring," Zac said.

"Who's boring? I'm not bored," I said.

"You're too busy to be bored."

"I'm too tired to be bored," I said. "But I don't want to live in Germany for such a long time."

"It's a three-year contract," Zac said.

"Three years is a long time," I said. "I'll be old when we get back. Germany will steal the last of my youth."

"New experiences will keep us young," he said. "We'll be learning a new culture, a new language!"

"Gesundheit," I said. Zac looked at me oddly. "That's all I know how to say in German."

"How about Sprechen Sie Englisch?" Zac said.

"I think I'll be saying that a lot."

"But think of Sophia. She'll be bilingual!" Zac said.

"Don't tell that to my mom," I said. My mother was a retired French teacher, who had her grandchildren all call her Grandmère. She would be firmly against Sophia learning German instead of French — and, most of all, against us taking her granddaughter so far away.

"How about the city? Is it nice?" I asked Zac.

"Well, the institute is in a small town."

"How small?"

"Six thousand people, but I could commute. We could live in Berlin," he said.

"Berlin?" I didn't know much about the capital of Germany other than a smattering of information from my high school history classes. I knew it was where JFK had declared himself a Berliner, and that the Wall had existed there and had been torn down. I was somewhat intrigued.

"You'll be able to take some time off," Zac said. "We could have another baby. You could stay home, have time to write like you always wanted."

He had my attention now. "Could we afford that?"

"More than if I took a postdoc in the United States," he said. "Berlin is an exciting place. It will be an adventure. Really, when are we going to have another opportunity like this?"

I had to admit he had a point. I could see that Germany offered some real opportunities for our family and our careers, and wasn't it me who had told Zac all those many years ago to chase his dreams? If we stayed, I knew we'd both be settling, not even giving our dreams a chance. So this time I listened to Zac. We were moving to Germany.

A Cold Arrival

We landed in Berlin in January, not exactly the best month of the year to be in northern Germany. The holidays were just past, and because of the high latitude, the sun only appeared for six or seven hours each day. Still it had snowed and everything, including the tall city buildings, looked enchanted, coated in glistening white. We stayed in a hotel near Mitte — the center of Berlin — that bordered a huge park. The first chance we got, we bundled Sophia up and took our two-year-old for a fun walk through the snowy woods. It felt almost like a fairy tale. Here we were in this huge metropolis, and yet somehow we found ourselves in a forested winter wonderland.

The next day, we left to stay in a guesthouse near Zac's work, in a small town about forty-five minutes east of Berlin. Here, it was a snowy wonderland too but minus the city buildings. A few days later, Zac started work, and I was a stay-at-home mom for the first time in my life. Outside of those first three months of maternity leave, I'd never had so much time with my young daughter all by myself. Sophia and I had a whole stretch of eight hours together every day — in a foreign country, in a small town with no car, and a bus that ran only once an hour. While the snow fell, it was easy. We built snowmen and forts. We had snowball fights and took sled rides (me pulling while she sat, sang songs, and ate snow). I made her hot cocoa and elaborate lunches.

When the snow melted, so did the fairy tale. Everything turned muddy, and entertaining a two-year-old mostly inside for long stretches of the day was a challenge. It started to feel less and less like we were playing together, and more like work — often boring work. We were also isolated. I had no friends to call on or mom groups to join. Most of the other people in the guesthouse were single without children and away at work during the day. As much as I loved my little daughter, she literally had the conversational skills of a toddler. I began to look forward to the time Zac came home, so I could finally have another adult to talk to.

Nadine, the woman who ran the guesthouse, must have noticed my daily struggles with my daughter. After we had been there about a month, she suggested we try to see if we could find a spot for Sophia at the local child-care center.

"But I'm not working," I said, confused.

"She will have other children to play with! And they have a playground and more toys," she said. "I think it will be more fun for her, no?"

This was the first time I encountered the positive attitude many Germans in the East have toward child care, and she made some good points on how it might be better for both me and Sophia. Still, I waved the suggestion off. Child care, in my American mind, was to benefit working parents, not the children themselves. Besides, this situation was temporary, I told myself. We'd soon be moving to Berlin, where there would be more things for Sophia to do.

We started taking trips to the capital city every weekend to search for an apartment. We finally settled on Friedrichshain (pronounced "freed-ricks-hine"), a relatively affordable, formerly working-class neighborhood with pockets of trendy stores, clubs, and restaurants. The only trouble: we couldn't find a landlord to rent to us. We would show up to apartment viewings and run into a dozen other applicants who had filled out their applications beforehand and spoke fluent German. The landlords appeared friendly to us, and some didn't even mind speaking English.

Still, we were never the first choice as renters, not necessarily because we were American, but because they didn't think we would stay. It was the opposite of what we had experienced in California, where landlords seemed to prefer tenants who would leave after a year, so they could hike up the rent with the next lease. German landlords, on the other hand, valued the security of steady renters, and many Berliners looked at apartments not as short-term residences, but as homes where they would live for ten, even twenty years.

Then we found our dream apartment. It was in an old historic building from around 1910, a rare survivor of the bombs from two world wars. It had high ceilings, wide windows, and wood floors that stretched through spacious rooms. The whole building had been renovated and included an elevator, also a rare find in Berlin.

We wanted this place, badly, so we asked Nadine for help. She agreed to go with us to meet the landlord. She not only made communications easier but also knew how to clinch the deal. She pulled out Zac's work contract, which said, among other things, that he was guaranteed a salary for three years. At the time, most of the Western world was in a recession, and unemployment in Berlin was particularly high. "Look, he's got a good job," Nadine told the landlord, slapping the paper down in front of him. We got the apartment.

Everything in Order

Getting our apartment was one of the first lessons I learned about how things were done in Germany. It was important to have the right piece of paper. Our adventure was going to require a lot of paperwork.

Another key document was the permission for me to work in Germany. I always knew I wasn't cut out to be a stay-at-home mom, and the months in the country had confirmed that. Plus, any extra income I brought in definitely wouldn't hurt. So, early one morning, Sophia and I bravely set off for the ausländerbehörde, the immigration office located on the opposite side of Berlin.

Even from the outside, the ausländerbehörde seemed to confirm the negative stereotype of Germany's socialist bureaucracy. The building itself was a massive, intimidating block of gray stone with long lines of people waiting in front of it.

When I finally made it to the front of the line and handed over my documents, I quickly realized I had another big hurdle to face.

"Frau Tsah-skuh?"

It took me a moment to realize the woman behind the desk was speaking to me. Her eyes were still on the papers I had handed her. Our family always said our name as "Zask-ee" with a buzzing z, a flat a, and a Polish-sounding "ski" at the end. I hadn't heard it pronounced correctly in German before.

"Ja?" I said, smiling. She didn't smile back. She launched into a rapid string of German.

"Um ... Sprechen Sie Englisch?" I asked.

She looked at me over her glasses. "Nein." Then, slowly: "Sie sind in Deutschland. Wir sprechen Deutsch hier."

I knew enough to understand that I was in trouble. My toddler daughter yanked at my hand impatiently. A long line of people stood behind us. I could feel the weight of their eyes. Like me, they were foreigners from all over the world. Surely, these bureaucrats didn't expect all of them to speak German? But, yes, they did. Even though most Germans know some English, I would soon learn that official business is always conducted auf Deutsch at all government offices, even at the agency in charge of immigrants.

I had traveled about an hour by train and foot across Berlin with my twoand-a-half-year-old in tow and waited another half hour in line before I had made it to this point. I didn't know much German yet, but I had to try.

"Wiederholen Sie bitte?" I asked, using a phrase I'd learned from a language CD that was supposed to mean "Please say that again?" (I would later learn that Berliners usually say Wie bitte? or "How's that please?")


Excerpted from "Achtung Baby"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Sara Zaske.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Modern Germany
(Beyond the Stereotype; A Short Historical Update; The Culture of Control; and Why German Parenting Matters)

1 Leaving America
(A Cold Arrival; Everything in Order)

2 Berlin Babies
(Where Midwives Rule; The American Disadvantage; A Berlin Birth)

3 Attachment Problems
(German Parents and Attachment Theory; Independent Infants; Mother Knows Best?)

4 Small Children, Small Worries (Kleine Kinder, Kleine Sorgen)
(The Kindergarten East-West; Legacy; Early Kita Skills; Quality of Care; Child-Care Benefits)

5 The Democratic
(Kindergarten; Faster or Better Learning; Children in Charge; Discipline; Kita Trips; Teaching Kita Skills in the United States)

6 Starting School
(Play School; Educational Priorities; Homework, Food, and Protest)

7 No Bad Weather
(America Inside; Germans and Free Nature; Taking Away the Toys)

8 The Freedom to Move
(Why German Children Walk Alone; Freedom to Play)

9 Dangerous Things
(The Art of Fire; Tools; Adventure Play; Necessary Dangers; A Celebration of Fear)

10 Tough Subjects
(Death; Religion)

11 Facing the Past
(The History of Memory; Historic Crimes and Responsibility)

12 Big Kids, Big Worries (Grosse Kinder, Grosse Sorgen)
(The Space to Be Young; An Extra-Long Adolescence; The Academic Question; Achieving Adulthood)

13 Coming Back to America
(Starting American School; Fourth-Grade Blues; Freedom for Kids in the Land of the Free)

Epilogue: German Lessons
(The Rights of Children; Freedom of Ideas)


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