Author Sara Zaske on the German art of raising self-reliant kids

Are American parents over-protective? When journalist and new mother Sara Zaske moved to Germany, she noticed that her new friends had a very different approach to parenting and a big emphasis on teaching their kids self-reliance.

"There's this false idea in the U.S. that we can keep our kids 100 percent safe if we just helicopter enough, if we just watch them enough. And that just simply isn't true," Zaske said. "What we're trying to do is teach our kids how to manage risk for themselves because they have to do that when they're adults... In Germany they let those kids take those risks from walking to school on their own to simply their playgrounds are much riskier-looking."

Dr. Bobbi Wegner is a clinical psychologist and a lecturer on Child Advocacy at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She's noticed American parents are afraid of letting their kids take risks. But she thinks parents fears of what might happen to their children if left unattended is blown out of proportion.

"The reality is we're at...a 50-year low in terms of a random (child) kidnapping," Wegner said. "[The risk] isn't really there. But what parent wants to go on a limb and take that risk and have your kid be that .0016 percent of something happening? The thing is, we really have to focus on [the fact] that we're actually doing more harm and we're raising these kids that are anxious and depressed. That is more pressing and more relevant."

Both Zaske and Wegner say parents who want to provide their kids with more of a free-range experience will have a hard time doing so in the U.S.

"Mostly the culture of control is created by average people: our neighbors, friends, relatives, and even complete strangers who feel compelled to shame parents or even call the police if a child is left alone for a few minutes," Zaske wrote, "It doesn't have to be this way. Ironically, Germany, the land once known for authoritarianism, today provides a compelling example for how we might do things differently."

Use the audio player above to hear the full segment.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.