Online preschool: another bad education idea that is so American


My daughter on a kita field trip with friends–a preschool experience not found online .

We want our kids to be competitive in America, and to do that we keep turning to technology. It was one of the biggest differences I noticed between American and German education systems. Despite persistent budget problems and the constant pressure to fundraise to make ends meet, American schools have a ton of technology: Chromebooks, interactive boards, and many video games with dubious educational value. (My son’s “technology” class in elementary school seems to be a course entirely in Minecraft.)

Now, there is a state senator in North Carolina who just won’t give up on the idea of creating online preschool to help address his state’s early education problems. His intentions are good. He’s worried about kids developing pre-literacy and math skills.  Yet, this misses the main benefit of the preschool experience: playing with other kids.

Online preschool is another example of the American obsession with early “cognitive skills.” We’re obsessed with what can be tested. Can the kids learn something and spit it back? The problem with this approach is that there’s little evidence it works. As Paul Tough describes in his book How Children Succeed, research shows that kids do better when they develop qualities such persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, and self-confidence. These are hard to put on a test, and you definitely can’t learn them by sitting in front of a computer.

Children can learn these skills through play. The importance of play for young kids is backed by research, and I’ve seen it in action at my kids German “Kita” – as I describe in Achtung Baby. “Kita” is short for a word that translates into day care, but Kita is essentially preschool and kindergarten all rolled together. In Kita, the kids pretty much play all day. At Kita the learning emphasis is on social and emotional skills—these are important for school readiness, according to my kids’ Kita teacher, Annika.

“It’s not really learning ABC’s or numbers or things like that,” she said. “It’s knowing how to communicate, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, knowing how to get help, how to solve problems and conflicts. These are the basics they’ll need for when they start school.”

If you doubt it works, check how the US compares against Germany on the PISA test. Finland kids rank even higher and their preschools are all play too.

So why do we keep pushing screens on kids at very young ages? We know too much time in front of a screen can have negative effects, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends very limited screen time for kids in the under 4 crowd.

I could be cynical and say that we push computers in schools because it feeds our consumer culture: we are prepping future screen addicts and high-tech worker-bees (does your 6-year-old code?)

I suspect the real reason we turn to screens for kids’ education because it sounds good: it’s modern, forward thinking! It’s also easier and cheaper than investing in real preschools with buildings, teachers and playgrounds. In the end though, online preschool is neither cheap nor easy because it doesn’t give children the experiences they need.

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Do Parents Matter? Recommended reading for raising free kids

DoParentsMatterFair warning: this book may shake any strong convictions you have about the right way to parent.

The LeVines have studied parenting practices in cultures all over the world. One of my favorite examples is the Nso people of Cameroon — there mothers don’t believe in face-to-face interaction with babies is valuable, which is incomprehensible to Western parents – but these same mothers were horrified to learn that German parents don’t often sleep in the same room as their children.

The LeVines show that many of the things we assume are universal truths about raising kids are actually cultural. What a relief! Right now, many Americans are still caught in the idea that the most intensive, extreme style of parenting is the best – even as young adult’s problems with anxiety and depressions rise — and even to the point where parents are committing crimes to buy their kids way into elite colleges.

It’s good to know that America’s hyper-parenting style doesn’t travel well—parents do not practice it everywhere, nor do they even aspire to it. The idea that helicopter parenting is best is driven more by our culture than anything else.

While this book doesn’t definitively answer the question of its title, it does give compelling evidence that American parents don’t matter as much as we think we do. Our children will survive if we don’t engage in all the intensive parenting activities our culture seems to demand—in fact, they may even do better without it.

I am recommending some of the many books and authors that influenced my own book Achtung Baby See previous recommendations for Mommy Laid an Egg! by Babette ColeFree Range Kids by Lenore SkenazyFree to Learn by Peter Gray and The Wave by Todd Strasser.

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Mommy Laid an Egg! recommended reading for raising free kids

Mommy_Laid_An_Egg_imageMommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole is a silly book that tells kids the basic facts of life, and yes, it includes some ridiculous illustrations.

When my daughter was in first grade, her teacher read this book to her entire class. I only found out because my daughter pulled the book off the shelf at the library and started showing it to her little brother. This may sound shocking, but we were in Berlin.

Sex ed is considered a right in Germany. Germans believe children have a right to know how their own bodies work, especially as they grow. Parents can’t opt their kids out of sex ed and information is given at different age levels throughout a child’s education. So that means Mommy Laid an Egg for first graders!

In the U.S., parents have to provide access to information about sex. It’s a rare school that would even pick up this political hot potato. If you feel hesitant, please consider why you are holding back–and the dangers of ignorance. They will get information from elsewhere –from ads, the TV, the Internet, music videos, even the kid down the street — all these sources are less than ideal, and what they tell your kid will likely give them a distorted view of sex.

Why shouldn’t kids know about how babies are made? As my seven-year-old once said to me – “somebody has to tell us some time!”

I am recommending some of the many books that influenced my own book Achtung BabySee my previous recommendations for Free Range Kids by Lenore SkenazyFree to Learn by Peter Gray and The Wave by Todd Strasser   More to come, so check back here.

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Want to change our overparenting culture? Read Free Range Kids and Join Let Grow

freerangekids_coverThis book is serious fun.  Serious because no other book – and arguably no other personality – has done more to help loosen the lock-hold helicopter parenting has on our kids than Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy.

Fun because this book is hilarious. You might not expect that given the heated debates about parenting in this country, but this book is battling fear, and there’s no better way to do that than with laughter. It’s like the riddikulus charm against boggarts in Harry Potter.

In 2008, Skenazy let her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway by himself – and when she wrote about it, people went crazy. They called her extreme reckless, the world’s worst mom… And yet, when I lived in Germany every mom was like Skenazy. Children regularly take the Berlin “subways” –the U-bahn and S-Bahn– by themselves. They walk to school. They play by themselves. They buy things in stores. This is considered good parenting as it fosters self-reliance. Without Skenazy’s work, I would not have understood very well what I was experiencing in Germany. In fact,  when I first wrote about how Germans raise their kids, I compared it to ‘free range parenting.”

Skenazy continues to be a voice of reason, constantly speaking out to advocate for change and help diffuse the hype around helicoptering (including this recent post against the idea that “helicoptering works” that features a quote from yours truly).

She also helped found a nonprofit Let Grow to help like-minded people band together to create change. I highly recommend joining. To be able to experience independence, our kids need the support of their parents and an entire community – other parents, educators, neighbors and yes even politicians, so they can do simple things — like walk down the street, take a bus, or just experience a few moments of unsupervised play. Parents are still getting visits from the police or CPS for letting their kids do these things that German kids do every day.

That’s right, German kids are more free than American kids – I still think that fact should startle us into making some changes.

I am recommending some of the many books that influenced my own book Achtung Baby. See my previous recommendations for Free to Learn by Peter Gray and The Wave by Todd Strasser   More to come, so check back here.

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FREE TO LEARN: Recommended reading for raising free kids

1360162607Gray-Free_To_rev1An evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray argues that human children, like all mammals, learn best through play – and by play, Gray means without adult involvement. If adults are directing, coaching, even observing, it isn’t real play.

Gray shows how our current educational system interferes with that learning process by denying play and free time, dictating almost all activities, and separating kids by age and expecting them all to learn the same thing at the same time. Instead, Gray advocates for a learning process completely driven by the kids themselves and with plenty of play.

He uses the Sudbury Valley as model which gives kids plenty of learning resources but puts the power in their hands to choose what they want to do every day – and yet somehow they still end up learning to read, write and do math—and yes they do graduate and many go on to college.

It’s a fascinating exploration of what democratic learning really means. While it may be hard for everyone to replicate the Sudbury Valley experience, there are many ideas and practices in Free to Learn that parents and educators can adopt themselves.


Want more practical help giving your kids freedom? Both Peter Gray along with Free Range Mom Lenore Skenazy and others have started an organization Let Grow. It helps like-minded parents and educators connect with each other to build a community around raising self-reliant, independent kids. There is power in numbers.

I’ll be recommending some of the many books that influenced my own book Achtung Baby. See previous recommendation The Wave by Todd Strasser. More to come, so check back here.

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THE WAVE: recommended reading for raising free kids

Nearly all German teenagers read this book about how easy authoritarianism can take hold. Americans might want to read it too — because it happened here.

The book is based on an experiment at a high school in Palo Alto, California. Students in Ron Jones’ high school history class couldn’t understand how the German people could let the Holocaust happen. So Jones started an experiment, he created a group—in the book it’s called “The Wave” —and instituted some simple discipline routines. The group caught on quickly with hundreds of students participating, initiating new members and reporting on each other over infractions. Jones ended the experiment by telling the students they were students they were part of national movement and promised to reveal their leader at an assembly. With hundreds of students attending, he played footage of Hitler speaking to Nazi Youth.

Today, generations of German students read Strasser’s fictionalized account of this story in high school to bring home the point that authoritarianism isn’t just some relic of the past. Something that can happen again if we are not careful.

It would be interesting to see this book read and discussed on a wide level in American society. I highly recommend it for kids and adults, especially parents and educators to read and discuss. There’s also a German movie made in 2008 called Die Welle with subtitles and Netflix is planning a series.


Over the next few weeks, I’ll be recommending some of the many books that influenced Achtung Baby. Check back here for more.



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Happy New Year! The ACHTUNG BABY paperback is out today!



The first New Year’s Eve in Berlin, I thought the Germans were crazy. Everyone was shooting off fireworks. Not just tourists but shopkeepers and retirees, whole families with little kids setting off some pretty serious explosives for the pure joy of it. Our little American family huddled inside our fifth floor apartment where every bang and boom felt really close.


Now that we live in the supposedly “safe” United States, I am starting to think it’s we Americans who are really the crazy ones. In the name of safety, we do some strange things. Most parents don’t allow their kids much freedom: they don’t walk anywhere by themselves, climb trees or buy things in stores. We’re asked to monitor every nuance of their grades and expected to curate their extracurricular activities. American kids rarely get to take any risks at all. This intensive style of parenting is the gold standard, as the New York Times recently noted. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that anxiety rates among young people are rising.

There are other ways to raise kids. I found many good ideas in Germany to help kids become independent, self-reliant. Modern Germany isn’t perfect – no culture is. (For the record, I still think the explosive New Year’s Eve is a bit over the top.) However, most Germans have rejected authoritarianism and embraced freedom in ways that are reflected in their parenting. They have many good ideas we could apply here in America.

You can read about some of them in my book ACHTUNG BABY — it’s is out in paperback today 12/31/18!  I learned a lot from living nearly seven years in Berlin — and I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can raise adventurous, resilient children in this “home of the brave.”

While I don’t miss the firework frenzy of Berlin’s “Sylvester” celebration, I hope your New Year’s Eve has some thrill. As the Germans say “guten Rutsch ins Neue Jahr!” —  I wish you “a good slide into the New Year”!

* Berlin fireworks photo by Hyun Lee  (cropped for this format)

You can order your paperback of Achtung Baby from these booksellers:

Apple / Itunes

Barnes and Noble

Books a Million

Indie Bound

Powell’s Books

 In Canada: Indigo and Kobo



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