Germans Love Babies, Part I
This is part one of a three-part series exploring baby culture in Germany and the US, and the implications for children, parents, and society.
Germans love babies. They really do. Every single one of them. Whenever I take Ella on the train, around a park, to the mall, to the museum, to the bakery, anywhere, everyone loves her. They smile, they make faces, they cluck. They actually cluck. Not like a chicken, but a snap of the tongue from the roof of your mouth to the bottom, with your lips in an “O” shape. It’s the sound you make to simulate a clock, except it’s not a “tock”–it’s a “lock”, with a hard pop on the “L”.
It was a new sound to me when I heard it from the Lufthansa gate agent in Chicago. Laura and I walked up to the gate with Ella in the Baby Bjorn, and our stroller loaded down with our numerous carry-ons. As soon as the agent spied us, she only had eyes for Eleanor. She clucked and smiled, then cooed a bit, clucked some more, smiled some more, called Ella süße (sweet), and genuinely fawned over her. After two or three minutes, she looked up at us and asked for our itinerary so that we could check in. At that point, her colleague took over the cooing and clucking with Eleanor while she checked us in. After giving us a seat in the parents’ row, where there are bassinets (we didn’t even need to ask), she showed us to the first class waiting area (we were flying coach) so we could board the plane early and get settled.
Contrast this with our United flight from Denver to Chicago. Laura and I weren’t seated together, even though I could have sworn that we picked out seats together on the website months before. When we asked the gate agent if we could be seated together we were brushed off, then told there was nothing to be done, and finally told to wait to the side after I pleaded with her to at least help us find someone who might switch places. To her credit, the agent got us seated together (there’s always a way). We asked when pre-boarding for parents would begin and she said there wasn’t any. “It doesn’t make things any faster. So just board when your zone is called.”
Doesn’t make it any faster, perhaps, but it makes it nicer for everyone. We’ve got a stroller and car seat to check plane-side, a diaper bag, two wheel-aways loaded to the maximum extent allowed by federal law, a backpack, a purse, two winter coats, and a six-month old who’s just about to explode because she needs to nurse. Do you want that standing in line in front of you? Further, parents need more time to board and get their kids and their kids’ gear settled in place before Mr. Carmichael in first class gets too deep into his complimentary champagne and starts yelling at us plebs in coach to hurry up. And it makes it a whole lot easier to load a 50 pound carry-on containing your entire digital life (two computers, 3 external hard drives, cables for the preceding) above your head when there isn’t a sweaty 300 pound defensive end in coach’s shorts sliding past your rump as he makes his way to seat 57E.
United sees their “you’re not special” policy as customer service. Since their studies show it doesn’t make it faster to board parents first, they reward people who booked early; the ones sitting up front. So, they load front to back. That makes some measure of sense. What they don’t see is that it alienates an entire customer segment. One which, in just two short years, will need to buy an extra ticket every time they fly. It’s a good idea to treat parents well because they’ll be spending a lot of money with someone’s airline soon, to visit grandma in French Lick, vacation at Disneyland, or accompany Mom to her conference in Honolulu. United doesn’t recognize this. Lufthansa clearly does. Already, before we’d even left the States, we were struck by the different reactions to Ella.
We visited with a friend in Berlin, a week after we arrived in Germany. We brought this up–this German love of babies, the cooing and oohing all the time–casually, as one of those friendly compliments you pay to the other’s country. I think Americans are anxious to do this for two reasons. First, we want to be polite, to compliment someone on the place where they live. It’s a nationalist “Nice place you’ve got here.” Second, I think Americans who travel abroad, especially lately, have a need to show that they’re not those Americans. The ones who demand that everyone speak English, and laugh too loudly in the museum. We want to show that we’re open-minded Americans, able to see cultural differences and respect them. Not one who constantly complains that the whole world is not like their backyard. It’s our American self-consciousness. Part guilt for our ugly break-up with England in the eighteenth century (Canada handled it so much more discretely), and part embarrassment for our cousin-travelers who symbolically sully all the towels, and drink all the scotch, while guests in the house of Europe.
Our friend was surprised that we found Germany to be more baby-friendly than the States. He felt the opposite. We talked about the kindness shown to Ella, the oohing, cooing and clucking. We noted all the changing rooms we had seen everywhere from Bahnhofs to Bierhalls, and the lack of stigma about breastfeeding in public. We said that even the government is baby-friendly, providing time off work, a stipend for child care, public health insurance, nurse visits, all the things Americans can only dream about. Our friend conceded that those were, indeed, baby-friendly, but weren’t perhaps as good as they sound on the surface. Moreover, he said, that wasn’t the point he was trying to make. Germany may be baby-friendly, but America, he said, was kid-friendly. Now we were onto something. America is the home of Disneyland and Toys-R-Us, Barney and Bozo, Halloween and Happy Meals. Kids in America have more entertainment options than anywhere else in the world, and the widest variety of activities from all over the world–think Suzuki violin, soccer, and Shao-Lin Kung Foo. It’s pretty great to be a kid in America.
After pondering all this I feel a bit like a kid myself. I have to ask: “But Why?” People love babies and kids alike on both sides of the Atlantic, but we respond to them in such different ways, personally, commercially, and politically. What accounts for the difference, and what do those differences mean for moms and dads, Mutters and Vaters?
Next week, in Part II, I’ll explore this topic further, venturing into hilarious topics like public policy, sociology, and playground design. Return here to read all about it.