Germans Love Babies, Part II
This is part two of a three-part* series on German and U.S. baby culture, the implications for parents, and just why we’re so similar, yet so different. Part one discussed reactions to Ella in Germany as compared to the USA, and proposed the question of whether Germany was baby-friendly, while America was kid-friendly.
German culture in the small is indeed baby-friendly. The personal interactions, the cooing and clucking, happen everywhere: on the U-Bahn, on the street, and at the döner kebap stand. Individual businesses welcome parents and children by providing changing rooms, and there is a near-universal acceptance of breastfeeding as a normal, healthy thing that should be done wherever the mother is comfortable. Ella has even twice gotten gifts from strangers. The first was at a pharmacy, where we were looking for children’s sunscreen. Initially, the pharmacist was indignant that we would want sunscreen for a baby as young as Ella–children, until two years, should not be exposed to the sun; they simply should not. But after a few smiles from Eleanor she lightened up, sold us the sunscreen, and gave Eleanor a little plastic sheep. A little blue plastic sheep. I think it must have been some pharmaceutical swag. The second time was at the Löwenbräu biergarten where the waitress actually took a little stuffed lamb (what is it with toy sheep?), which was hanging on her dirndl, and gave it to Ella. All of this may be because Eleanor is naturally sociable, or may be because we encourage her to interact with shopkeepers and barmaids, but I think it’s more than that. It’s so widespread. There must be a mos at work, a cultural norm to encourage this baby-friendliness.
Germany as a state, the government and its policies, is also baby-friendly. Here a parent can take off a full year to care for the baby, or both parents can take up to 14 months, split however they choose. After that year, the state provides a stipend, similar to the U.S. system of dependent tax deductions, for each child. If you’re worried about your child, if you love to obsess about what they should be eating, whether they should be crawling, or you just need to know where to buy a new stroller, home visits by a certified nurse are free of charge up to age three.
The USA is not nearly so baby-friendly. No one gets a year off work (most mothers get between 6-8 weeks, dads 0-2 weeks), daycare is hard to find and exorbitantly expensive, and nurse visits…lets just say we felt incredibly blessed that our hospital offered a free nurse visit a week after we went home. Even personal interactions aren’t the same. People will occasionally smile at your baby in the states, but I’ve never seen someone take over the baby-tainment for a full three minutes like I have here.
America may not be as baby-friendly as Germany, but we are the champions of kid-friendly. America is so kid-friendly, that we’ve constructed a separate society, a different world, with most of the good bits and few of the bad, just for kids. There are kids TV shows and kids movies. There are paint-your-pottery and build-a-bear stores for kids. There are kids museums where you can pretend to do adult things like shopping and working a job. Even libraries–steeped in the lore of kid-hating librarians who wear dark, ankle-length skirts and have a sadistic love of popping out from behind a row and shhing naughty children who talk to loudly–are kid-friendly, with big storytime areas done up like Sherwood Forest. There are public pools, waterslide parks, and amusement parks all for kids. And there are, of course, theme restaurants: Chuck-E-Cheese, Rainforest Cafe, and in Denver, Casa Bonita which turns the schlock up to 11 by replacing the creepy animatronic puppets with real actors performing a spaghetti western in which, at the climax, the bad guy gets shot, flails about wildly for several minutes, and finally falls ten meters from a cliff into a pool. In the U.S., even public celebrations, like Easter or the Fourth of July, are “fun for the whole family.” This means fun for the kids and mind-numbingly boring for the adults. Unless the venue serves alcohol, in which case kids must remain outside the six-foot chain-link fence, and it’s mind-numbing, but fun, for the adults. From they day they’re born until they reach their teenage years kids are cordoned off from adult American society, kept in Neverland, protected from harm and oblivious to the world of their parents. And in many ways that is a good thing.
Germany is kid-friendly to an extent, but compared to the U.S., it’s a retirement home. Children here are part of everyday life, exposed to adult culture, but still given room to be kids. Adults take their children with them to the biergarten. The adults casually have a 0.5L Helles while their children either sit with them and have a Coke, or go off to a playground helpfully provided by the proprietors.
And oh, the playgrounds they have! They are the playgrounds of my childhood, no, the playgrounds of my childhood dreams. The tall metal slides, jungle gyms, and forts have not been replaced with lower, safer, plastic abominations, as they have in America. The playgrounds here in Munich have huge forts, gigantic spider-web rope nets, tunnels through hills, and at one near my apartment, the most amazing merry-go-round. It takes ten children working in concert to operate it properly. It is small, about six feet, in diameter. Four children jump into the middle to turn it by pushing on spokes leading from the central pillar to the outside platform. The six riders stand on the outside platform and reach up to hold onto a bar above their heads for stability. Because of the small diameter relative to the force four children can exert when excited by chocolate and beautiful spring weather, the thing spins fast. Very fast. The children scream excitedly as it speeds up, and then, laughing maniacally, the bolder children kick their legs out and hold on with only their hands to the top ring. Their legs fly out and they are spinning horizontally, staring at the ground or the sky, according to their preference, feeling the pure joy available only to children who have no knowledge of health insurance premiums, or personal injury laywers. This is all sanctioned, or at least condoned, by the attending adults. The playgrounds at the biergartens all seem to be pirate themed, with big pirate ship jungle gyms/forts. I don’t know why they’re all pirate themed, except that pirates are awesome, but it seems to be a tradition.
Swimming pools are an integrated experience too. The one in my neighborhood, the old Olympic pool from 1972, is more like a busy train station than a pool as I know it. There, Sportschwimmers swim laps, about ten to a lane, and between their turns at the wall, children jump in from the starting blocks, splash around a bit, then swim off to the ladder to do it again. All of this without a lifeguard in sight. In the Englischer Garten, children play pick-up soccer very near a well-known nude sunbathing area. Children’s eyes are not covered as they make their way to the meadow; they are, it seems to me, expected to understand it as part of their world and not to make a big deal out of it. Even shopping for children is integrated into the larger shopping experience. Whereas in the USA we have Babies-R-Us, and other children’s (and specifically baby) stores, these are very hard to find in Munich. Laura and I spent hours searching online, asking for recommendations from friends, and going street to street looking for somewhere to buy a new stroller and some baby-proofing equipment. Whomever we asked responded with “Well, what are you looking for–baby furniture, baby clothes, baby bottles?” These are all in separate stores. Baby furniture is in the furniture store, baby clothes in the department store, baby bottles…well, we finally found out. There is exactly one store dedicated to all things baby. It’s a special extension to the downtown Karstadt department store. There you can find strollers, cabinet locks, bottles, sippy cups, and crib sheets, though not the cribs themselves. Children are part of the fabric of German society, not a society unto themselves.
But, why are children more a part of everyday adult society here in Germany and cordoned off in America? Are there inherent cultural differences that keep the Germans cooing while Americans are silent? Perhaps the answer comes from Rush Limbaugh. For years, perhaps decades, Rush has been telling all Americans who are willing to listen, or too slow turning the dial that Europe (that great monoculture that it is) is socialist. Wait, sorry, Socialist. (He says it with a capital “S”). They have socialized health care, socialized parental leave, public transportation, a national railroad (Deutsche Bahn), and airline (Lufthansa). This reflects an underlying socialist culture based on concern for the many, not just the one. This is the reason Germans generally follow the rules. It’s a very practical belief system. If I follows the rules, things will be smoother for everyone. If you break the rules, you’re making work for me, or for someone else, and that will make me late for my train, make me redo some of my work, or make me open late because I was painting over your graffiti. Whatever the rule may be, Germans abhor breaking it. If you don’t believe me, come buy a newspaper from a stand on the street. It’s not locked. You could just lift the lid and take the entire stack of papers. There’s a little slot to drop your €0.50 into, and it’s expected that you’ll do it. This socialist, don’t-make-it-harder-on-the-other-guy approach accounts for famous German punctuality, which earns them endless grief from their French and Italian neighbors who abhor arriving anywhere on time.
Following the rules is practiced daily, and reinforced publicly. On the U-Bahn, there is a series of hilarious posters encouraging people to clean up after themselves. One shows several people sitting on the train with DustBusters, another a woman in a business suit and high heels wheeling a 50-gallon recycling container, overflowing with paper, onto the train. The caption, roughly translated, reads: “It’s not this hard. Clean up after yourself.” And they do, because it makes things easier for everyone.
Perhaps this is why Germans are so baby-friendly, and kids are part of the greater culture. Perhaps, it’s easier for everyone if a stranger smiles at a baby on a train. Perhaps it will make the parent a better parent if they have two minutes of peace while someone else engages their baby between stops. Perhaps one hundred pairs of eyes at the pool are better than the Lifeguard’s one. Perhaps its better for everyone if, to paraphrase the old saying, the village helps raise the child.
In America, we don’t interpret the phrase “it takes a village” quite so literally. We define our own village. We rely only upon close friends, family, and sometimes our neighbors. Moreover, we have ingrained in our culture, drilled into us from our earliest days, the mythology of the individual. We celebrate the stories of individuals rising from rags to riches. We make heroes of Bill Gates, George Washington, George Patton, the captain of industry, the president, the general. We believe that one woman, alone, can dig in her heels, put her nose to the grindstone, and if she keeps her chin up, overcome any obstacle. We expect it of ourselves, we expect it of our neighbors, we even expect it of our family. We assume the existence of, but don’t celebrate, the millions of people working for the hero, doing the little things every day that make the great machine go. We don’t see the gears, we only have eyes for the operator.
The American family is one of these machines, and we’re the ones pulling the levers. We believe that we can do it all on our own, just like our heroes. We are the anti-socialists. Kirk to Germany’s Spock. This has allowed us, or perhaps caused us, to create our children’s society. The village has no say in how we raise our child, and no responsibility for them. In fact, most of the time, they’d rather not be bothered by them. So we need to create places for them to go where they won’t bother the adults, where they’ll be safe, where we’re paying someone to help keep watch, because in public, we’re on our own. And why shouldn’t it be so? I mean, we can raise our own children, thank you very much. What need have we of a stranger on a bus to interact with our children? Why would they assume that we need a break, even for a few minutes? We’ve got it handled, right? Right?
I’m not ashamed to admit that no, I don’t have it handled. Not all the time. So, here is an open invitation to everyone I’ll ever share a plane, train, automobile, bus, restaurant, playground, sidewalk, town hall bench, church pew, or bathroom with: please engage my child. If you have a funny face, make it. If you know a joke, tell it. If you know a song, sing it. Do you have some candy? Give it (ask me first, please). If you have a warm smile and a three-minute attention span, show it off. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re not a lecher, or a psychopath; you’re just a friendly face who understands children, and parents. A gentle man or woman who knows that children are a joy, but that 24/7 childcare is hard. Do this for me, and I’ll do the same for you and your children.
* If you read last week’s installment and remember it saying it was part of a two-part series, well, my only defense is to quote J.R.R. Tolkien, who said of The Lord of the Rings: “the tale grew in the telling.”