American Versus German Parenting – The Distance

I am fresh off the holidays back in America and along with other oddities of reverse culture shock (how much water is in American toilets!?), I have a new one. Even though all of my experience as a parent is in Germany, I would assume that – as an American native – most of these parenting standards are ingrained and it doesn’t matter if I raise a child in Germany or China or Timbuktu, I would raise my child like an American. However, on this last visit it became clear that I am unfamiliar on what is considered a “normal” distance for your child to be from you in the USA.

parenting in America vs. Germany

Is this too far? PHOTO: Erin Porter

Before the incident I am about to describe, I had never thought about how far I would let my child wander before becoming alarmed. As discussed somewhat frequently on this blog, as well as this excellent article in Time on “How to Parent Like a German“, German parenting prioritizes independence and children are frequently given a longer tether than their American counterparts. This is figurative and literal, reflected in the education system as well as on the playground. Apparently I have adopted this behavior as exemplified by this encounter in a shop in Washington State.

As is the case with many toddlers, my daughter goes through many emotions in a day. Sometimes these emotions are so rapid fire she experiences them all in a span of several minutes. I was on the receiving end of one of these outbursts on our visit to a massive and somewhat overwhelming Cabela’s with my in-laws (Schwiegereltern in German if you are curious).

It started ordinary enough. My little girl was cheery, even. But a visit to the toilet (or – excuse me! – “restroom” in American) where the automatic flush robbed her of the chance to flush resulted in a massive tantrum. Trying to leave the bathroom was an event as she was mad at me, sure it was my fault. Using our method of not putting up with utter nonsense, I told her if she did not walk with me I was going to leave her behind. She pouted and whined and did not budge. So I left. About 30 feet down the aisle and then I stepped behind a display so she could no longer see me and knew I was serious. After about 10 seconds I peeked out…and saw a woman leading my daughter by the hand.

More exasperated than anything, I stepped out and told her my daughter was fine, “just fussin’ ” (funny how quickly you slip back into colloquialisms). She looked down at my daughter and told me it was store policy to attend to any child left alone. I looked at where I was standing and where they were, now about 20 feet. “I was right here.” I explained. “She was just being difficult so I walked ahead a bit”. The store employee kept a hold of my daughter’s hand. “It is store policy that we need to determine the parents if a child is left alone”. With that she turned to my daughter – aged 3 – and asked if I was her mommy. Deliberately, my daughter looked at me, put her hand in her mouth, then turned away. Clearly, she sensed she had the upper hand.

It was an awkward stand-off. Here I was, knowing that I was clearly her mama, but not having any real way to prove it. This being America, I had left our passports at home. I asked if I could take her and she started repeating something about store policy once again. Enraged and deflated (was I being a bad mom?), I went off to find my husband. Once my daughter saw him, it was all smiles and giggles and she was thankfully released.

There is no way this is official store policy. Curious, I looked on the site and could not determine what the exact policy is, but I feel confident it is not show-up-with-a-man-and-all-is-forgiven. He had no more right to her than I did, but I am glad we didn’t have to jump through any more hoops.

American vs. German Parenting

Happier times in Seattle PHOTO: Erin Porter

I have thought about this incident a lot. Was I in the wrong for walking away from my child? It is certainly something I’d never think twice about in Berlin. I have discussed the American obsession with child abduction and its unlikeliness before. Perhaps this is simply an outgrowth of that.

Although, another incident happened right after this that also gave me pause. We had left the Cabela’s and continued our shopping venture into J.C. Penny’s. Still not in the best of moods, my daughter lingered a few steps behind us and as we walked through the aisles a store employee stopped her and asked if she was lost – maybe 15 feet behind a group of four of us. My mother-in-law suggested it was maybe an issue of children getting into the merchandise.

Whatever the case, it felt downright weird coming from Germany. What do you think? Is it just a difference in German and American parenting, or am I the crazy one?