In the summer of 2011, I moved from Japan to Berlin with my family when our son was 3 years old. Since then I have noticed numerous differences in childrearing practices between Japan and Germany and have written some articles. Today I would like to share one of the most striking experiences with you.
One remarkable thing I discovered when I started living in Berlin was the abundance of natural surroundings and parks. Despite being the capital of Germany with strong political and economic power in Europe as well as in the world, the city has a quite relaxed atmosphere. I attribute this to the ample number of green spaces and expansive parks.
In the Japanese language, we commonly use the term "park (kou-en)" to encompass all types of spaces where people can relax or play. However, in Germany, these spaces are divided into two categories: Spielplatz (children's playground) and Park (large green public space). In this article, I would like to introduce Spielplatz and the insights it has given me into the childcare practices in Germany.
Features of Spielplatz in Berlin
Spielplatz usually consists of a smaller area than Park and playing equipment is installed for children. Although the specific equipment may vary, swings and slides seem to be standard features in most of them.
One noticeable difference from similar playgrounds in Japan is the sandbox. In Japanese parks, this is usually installed separately from other playground equipment. On the other hand, in German Spielplatz, the sandbox is much larger than those in Japan and covers the entire playing equipment area. In this way, children can enjoy sand play almost anywhere in the playground.
As far as I recall, it is uncommon for babies to play in the sandbox in Japan. However, I frequently see babies crawling and playing on such sandy surfaces in Berlin. Moreover, in larger playgrounds in Berlin, one can find extensive play equipment like those in adventure playgrounds. Elementary school-aged children can also enjoy these areas.
Some of these adventure-style play structures can be quite tall, yet sometimes even toddlers relish the challenge.
These playgrounds are usually adjacent to residential complexes such as apartment buildings. In our neighborhood, we have five such Spielplatz within a 10-minute walk, which is a great attraction! I found it incredibly convenient to have such places where my energetic 3-year-old son could release his abundant energy, when we had free time or on the way home from daycare.
Each playground attracts children and families from different backgrounds, which I find fascinating. During our frequent visits to one of them, I would hear both German and Turkish spoken. Yet, at another playground on a weekend-visit, I would hear Italian and Spanish being exchanged. These languages dominated the place, so I would often wonder if we were in a Latin country. Moreover, it is common to hear other languages, such as English, Russian, and Vietnamese at Spielplatz in various locations.
While children generally use German to communicate with each other during play, their parents' communication languages vary. Berlin is a multicultural city where a lot of people speak more than two foreign languages and it is really interesting to witness the multilingualism of its residents.
The biggest parenting difference between Japan and Germany found at Spielplatz
Finally, the most significant difference that I have found at Spielplatz in Japan and Germany is the parental attitude. I remember an incident where a boy of similar age deliberately stepped on my son's sand creation in a Spielplatz. It was so sudden that my son was taken aback, and I was unsure how to react. The boy continued this unpleasant behavior, so my German husband, who was present, scolded him. To my surprise, the boy's mother, who was also nearby, completely ignored the situation and made no effort to intervene. She did not show any inclination toward admonishing her child.
On another occasion, at a different playground, my son experienced a similar situation. This time, my husband wasn't there, and I hesitated to take action because I was not sure how to address the situation with my limited knowledge of German. In the midst of my uncertainty, the mother of the misbehaving child scolded my son instead, telling him that he should stand up for himself when someone mistreated him. It was a puzzling experience that left my son criticized rather than consoled.
In both cases, the contrast with Japan was evident. In Japan, the parents would have swiftly intervened and offered apologies for their child's behavior. However, in Berlin, there was no sign of such parental involvement nor any indication that the children mentioned above had done anything wrong.
I was confused and at loss. Therefore, I decided to consult with my sister-in-law, who runs a nursery and is a childcare professional. She also expressed her concern about the recent decline in parental morals. In fact, it seems that there are many parents like those mentioned above. However, they seem to adhere to the principle of 'parents are parents, and children are children' under the banner of individualism, and they tend not to get involved in their children's play. Nevertheless, since parenting philosophies vary greatly, it may not be wise to confront them head-on.
However, it is not good to simply let things pass when witnessing something wrong, and it is essential to teach our children right from wrong. Therefore, she suggested, "Tell your son to express it when he doesn't like something, both at daycare/home and outside. Three-year-old children understand and follow the rules at home and in daycare, so they can play with confidence, negotiate, and communicate even when conflicts arise. However, they are uncertain about the rules elsewhere, and those rules can vary among households. This is particularly true in a multicultural city like Berlin. The most important thing now is to ensure that your child can clearly express himself in a situation where he feels uncomfortable to anyone and anywhere he is. Moreover, as parents, you should always keep an eye on him to ensure he is in a place where he can feel safe and comfortable."
Receiving this advice from a childcare professional, I felt clarified. Morality changes according to the place. In Berlin, unlike Japan, it is essential to assert oneself in daily life, as the premise is to clearly express one's opinions and seek compromises while living together, rather than following a uniform approach to coexistence. Indeed, I remember a mother in our daycare center would often advise her children to persist themselves and blame the other party, even if they realized they were wrong in the middle of an argument. Similarly, in schools, no matter how high one's writing test scores are, children who do not actively express their opinions during class do not achieve good grades.
Of course, we often enjoyed our times in the parks with lots of trees in our daily life. We also often encountered polite little gentlemen who held doors open and offered their seats to my son on the train which truly impressed me. From that time, the challenge was teaching my son right from wrong while helping him develop the strength to assert himself. Now he is 15 years old, and he has survived in this city with a sense of morality.
Recently, I again asked my sister-in-law if those parental attitudes had changed. According to her, through the Corona time, some parents have changed in a positive way. They are now more caring about each other and paying more attention to their children. Her assumption is that during the Corona period, numerous rules had to be created and followed, which made parents accept and stick to rules more easily than before. They seem to have more discipline now. On the other hand, she has also heard from other kindergarten teachers that parents' attitudes have not changed and have not been as cooperative as people around her.