Mommy 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!”
This 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.”
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.
An 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.
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 Wellewith 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.
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:
Talk about loft-living. On our recent trip, we spent some time in Copenhagen and discovered this playground on the top of a building.
This playground is meant to get both adults and kids moving. To start, you can get to the playground by going up these stairs:
Once on the top of the building, overlooking the Baltic Sea, kids can hop around on in-ground trampolines, try several different swings, climb ropes, and dangle on monkey bars. Adults can do many of the same things, and there’s an exercise circuit with stops for chin-ups and climbing.
And of course if the playground is not high enough for you, you can go even higher on this amazing climbing pyramid…
Do you live in a big city? Do you have anything like this on top of your building or nearby? I’d love to see more examples…
We stumbled upon some interesting places to play on our recent trip to Berlin and Copenhagen. Play everywhere is a good value — these two cities don’t just limit play to little parks.
The German embassy in Copenhagen had these interesting bumps in front of it. At first, I didn’t know what they were — but the kids knew exactly what to do with them.
Next I give you the German “Hof” or yard. Almost all apartment buildings have them in Berlin. Something American cities could use: a little shared green space — of course with a bit of playground. Some friends of ours had a pretty great one, including what our family calls a “spider swing” because it looks like a web. Even older kids like this swing because they can stand up and really make it go!
Last but not least are the playful fountains I found in both countries. Not sure what the story is here — but it’s a hippo shooting water out its nose and if you look close there are some tourist mice on its back… not sure what the story is there.
For more, check back here or check out my “seen in Berlin” photos, I’ve been posting on Instagram and Facebook. More to come… and some from Copenhagen too.
I write a lot about children’s rights. My book, Achtung Baby, is an attempt to convince American parents that kids have a right to play, to walk places on their own and to follow their own interests.
Children’s right to be with their parents is such a fundamental right, I didn’t think we had to fight for it. But apparently, we do.
A minority, a powerful minority, of Americans support of the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant kids from their parents indefinitely–for the parent’s misdemeanor crime of crossing a border. Thankfully, the majority of Americans, 66% according to a Quinnipiac University poll, object to this practice. Many were so horrified they took action, calling legislators, protesting, and donating to legal aid groups–all of which led to a partial reversal by the administration.
What of the minority–the 27% who support separating kids from their parents? I worry about them. I suspect they think it’s OK to separate families because they are immigrants. They would feel very differently if it were their own kids. Recently “Fox and Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade confirmed my suspicion:
“Like it or not, these aren’t our kids,” he said. “Show them compassion, but it’s not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country and now people are saying that they’re more important than people in our country who are paying taxes and who have needs as well.”
Here’s the thing about basic human rights: they are supposed to be universal. They don’t apply just to one group of people and not another.
Some people believe human rights are handed down from a higher power, whether that’s your belief or not, rights are usually something we all agree upon. Children’s right to their parents is not usually contentious. In fact, it’s one all countries of the world, from Albania to Zimbabwe, have agreed upon it when they ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. All countries, that is, except one: the U.S.
I was in Berlin earlier this month. I am excited to share my photos of all the fun and positive things I saw. I will still do that, but first, I feel compelled to share a few photos taken in the midst of the Holocaust Memorial.
I do not compare our current situation to the Holocaust lightly. The whole point of the Holocaust Memorial is to remind us of what can happen when we decide that one group of people do not have the same rights we hold for ourselves.
It’s well worth remembering that the Holocaust started with separating families and sending them to camps too.
Another great video from German fire educator Kain Karawahn that might shock American parents: pre-school kids making bonfires.
What I love about this video is that the kids are not only lighting fires — they are cutting wood, preparing food, and cooking it on the fires they made and tend together. These kids are ages four to six. It really challenges our notions of what children can do:
Read more about this different approach to teaching fire in this Psychology Today post or this New York Times article. And of course, you can read more about how Germans raise self-reliant kids check out my book Achtung Baby!
Recently, a mother on a campus tour of Colorado State University called the police on two Native American teens because she found their behavior “odd” and their clothing disturbing. They were wearing heavy metal band t-shirts and didn’t answer her questions the way she liked.
The teens’ mother believes they were racially profiled. Would the caller have summoned the authorities if the kids were white? It’s a valid question. But I think there’s something else here at play as well: would she have called the cops if they had a parent with them?
One of the biggest problems with today’s “helicopter” parents is they work not only to control only their own children but everyone else’s as well. They are obsessed with supervising kids. For this kind of parent, seeing two young adults without parents must have seemed immediately like an abnormal, potentially dangerous situation.
Of course, the two young men are also of a different class than their privileged peers who were driven or flown to campus along with their relatively wealthy parents. The Native American teens had saved up their own money for the trip to CSU and drove seven hours in their family car to get there–all of which shows a good deal of motivation and self-reliance, exactly the characteristics you might want in prospective college students.
Many ambitious upper-middle-class American parents spend a huge amount of money and time making sure their kids are prepped for college. They push their children to go to the right schools, take the right classes, and join the right extracurricular activities. They pay for tutors, SAT-prep courses, special sport teams, music and language lessons. And they go with them to visit college campuses — sometimes several of them.
After all that investment, for these intense parents to then see two unaccompanied teens dressed in heavy metal t-shirts on the same campus tour as their carefully curated kid must have hit a nerve.
I don’t know for sure the caller is a helicopter parent, but some signs are there: the fact both she and her husband were on the tour with their son, her overblown fear, and her need to control behavior. The Native American teens did not look, dress, or act in a way she felt was acceptable. Therefore, they were suspicious, and her first instinct? Call the cops.
Earlier this year, novelist May Cobb wrote about how someone called the cops because her kid’s hair was messy. (My blog post about it is here.) Her son is autistic and didn’t like his hair combed. The police stop not only ruined the family’s day at the park but weighed heavily on a mother working so hard to help her kid adapt.
Having the police stop you, for whatever reason, is incredibly stressful, but yet many still think that any minor suspicion is enough. (View the video above and imagine for a moment this happening to you or your kid.)
This is the real danger—not just to parenting but to our society. We live in a country that supposedly cherishes freedom and bravery, not one drowning in control and fear like the former GDR where regular citizens would turn each other in to the police.
I wonder what the campus caller thought these two young men might do? In her call, the woman said “I’m probably being completely paranoid, but with everything that’s happened…” Did she think they were going to shoot up the campus? They don’t fit the profile of school shooters, who are overwhelmingly lone, white males. The two also weren’t carrying any weapons or even a backpack to conceal one. With so little evidence, the woman was still extremely afraid, telling the dispatcher that “…they, it actually made me feel, like, sick, and I’ve never felt like that.”
I wonder how she feels now, knowing what she did to those two young men. At the very least, I hope this incident makes her hesitate the next time she has an urge to call the cops. It should give all of us pause, especially those in America’s more privileged classes.
We should have more evidence before calling the cops—and the police should demand more before responding. A piece of clothing, a hair style, or, for goodness sake, someone’s skin color – is not enough to call the police — neither is the simple fact of a young person being out in the world on their own.
We should be encouraging young people to be independent, not criminalizing them for it. The police should not be used to terrorize regular people doing regular things, like taking a walk in the park or visiting a college campus.
Because if we start calling the police every time we see someone who is different, we’re going to need a lot more police. And we can no longer call this country the home of the free.