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Want more self-reliant, responsible kids? Try Selbständigkeit, the German way.

The German practice of giving children more independence early on creates more resilient and responsible grownups, says this American mom.
by Sara J. Welch /  / Updated 
Image: A boy walks on a path through the woods
In Germany, as well as other economically advanced countries, children are raised with more freedom than American children. Kelvin Murray / Getty Images
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When journalist Sara Zaske moved to Berlin with her family a few years ago, she noticed something different about German parents. They don't hover. They don't follow their kids on the playground or intervene when they fight. They let them go places on their own and play with knives and matches. Zaske was so struck by this cultural difference that she wrote a book about the six and a half years she spent raising her two kids there.

In "Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children," Zaske argues that the German practice of giving children more independence and responsibility early on fosters Selbständigkeit, or self-reliance, and creates more resilient and responsible grownups. Somewhat like Pamela Druckerman, author of "Bringing Up Bébé," Zaske believes that American parents should chill out a bit and not be so controlling, and their kids will still turn out just fine — maybe even better.

That sounds good, but is it true? Peg Oliveira, PhD, a developmental psychologist and the executive director of the Gesell Institute for Child Development in New Haven, CT, agrees that in Germany, as well as other economically advanced countries, children are raised with more freedom than American children, "and the benefits seem to come through for them — they're more self-reliant."

But, Oliveira adds, this isn't a silver bullet. "I have a nine-year-old who's fairly independent, but I wouldn't hand her a token and expect her to navigate the bus system," she notes. "It's not like this is a recipe and because it worked there it'll work here."

So how to adapt the German Selbständigkeit recipe to an American kitchen, so to speak? What are some safe, simple ways to foster independence and self-reliance in your kids? Here are some ideas to try.

1. Don’t intervene in every dispute

According to the Gesell Institute, by the time most kids are four they have the vocabulary and maturity to work out disagreements with their peers by themselves. So the next time your five-year-old complains that his playmate or sibling won’t share or let him have a turn, instead of playing traffic cop, try asking, “Do you think you two can figure it out?” (Of course, you should still intervene if they’re hitting each other.)

The number-one thing American children need to develop independence, Zaske believes, is more physical freedom.

2. Let them order for themselves in restaurants

Yes, it’s often faster and easier if you order for them, but resist the temptation (unless they’re pre-verbal, of course). By letting your kids tell the server what they want, you’re showing that you respect them as individuals and trust their ability to do things on their own, which will build their self-confidence.

3. Resist the urge to helicopter constantly

The number-one thing American children need to develop independence, Zaske believes, is more physical freedom. Start small: The next time you take your kids to the playground, try simply sitting on a bench where they can see you instead of following them around. Slowly work your way up to letting them go somewhere by themselves, Zaske suggests: Accompany them the first time they go someplace new. Teach them how to cross the street safely and what they should do if a stranger approaches. Better yet, find a friend or sibling for them to go with.

Jennifer Sittason, an American mom who lived in Germany as an exchange student, makes a point of having her son and daughter, 11 and 8, walk to school on their own, even though such behavior is unusual in their hometown of Lynchburg, VA. Christian Dierig, originally from Wolfsburg, Germany, lets his kids, also 11 and 8, ride their bikes to school in Jersey City, NJ. Because of the "crazy drivers" he has them ride on the sidewalk, and he started the process gently, biking alongside them until they were comfortable enough to go by themselves.

4. Don’t overschedule

Allow for unstructured, “hang out” time (with no electronic devices!) and don’t worry that your kids will get bored. “Let them be bored!” Zaske says: “Boredom is important — that’s when kids get creative and discover what they want to do.” In Berlin, her daughter Sophia’s kindergarten even removed all the toys from the classroom for three months, to force the children to rely on their imaginations. While that’s probably too radical for the U.S., you can still resist the peer pressure to constantly keep your kids occupied, Sittason argues: “If kids are always being told what to do, they’ll never learn how to be independent.”

Boredom is important — that’s when kids get creative and discover what they want to do.

Tine Pahl, PhD, agrees. A developmental psychologist and practicing psychoanalyst who's originally from Berlin and also lives in Jersey City, Pahl observes that many of her young adult patients suffer because of the "overparenting" they experienced as children. "You see the fallout from it when they grow up," she says. "A Iot of young people struggle to cope with adult tasks." (Pahl herself has fostered Selbständigkeit in her son Ludwig, 11, by leaving him at home alone for short periods of time since he was about 8.)

5. When they do demonstrate self-reliance, reward them

To be able to finish up this article, I had to cultivate some instant Selbständigkeit in my daughter, Daphne, 10. An only child, she’s used to monopolizing my attention. "Why can't you stop writing and take me out for pizza?" she asked for the fourth or fifth time. So I resorted to a little old-fashioned pre-emptive remuneration (also known as bribery).

"If you can figure out how to order a pizza for delivery without my help," I told her, "you can also order a Coke for yourself."

It worked like a charm.

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