My younger daughter Rosie recently started what Berliner call Kita, an all-day nursery school for toddlers, subsidized by the German government. I guess you would call it day care. She is 20 months old and stays there from 8:30am to 3:30pm every day, during which time she eats breakfast and lunch, plays, brushes her teeth, takes music class, goes out in the garden when the weather is good, and takes a nice long nap in a room full of mattresses, wearing a cozy sleeping bag with shoulder straps called a schlafsack.

She loves it. But when I describe it to my American friends they are alternately envious about how little it costs or horrified that I would let such a young child be part of such a big group. Or both.

Actually, the group seems pretty small to me: there are twelve kids between the ages of 1 and 3 years old, and two teachers. But all my friends in the U.S. leave their children at home with nannies. Even if they are working just to pay for the nanny. And when the children participate in group-activities, like music class, the nanny goes too. Please correct me if I am wrong, but it is my impression that day care for toddlers is considered by educated Americans to be a down-market, last-ditch resort—even the word has a clinical tinge of negligence to it. Why?

I asked my parents, who have long studied mothers’ relationships with their children in Africa, Latin America and Asia, if they had seen a better solution elsewhere. They said that Westerners tend to idealize the notion that communities in the developing world raise children as a collective, as in Hillary Clinton’s famous decree that “it takes a village.” They said we are overlooking the fact that such communities are made up of extended families. The children in, say, West Africa–where Clinton got that line–are not being cared for by strangers, or even neighbors, but by the grandmothers and cousins who make up their villages. If Americans didn’t move around as much for work, if we stayed to raise our children in the places where we were raised ourselves, working mothers might have the same sort of trustworthy infrastructure. The quandary of anonymous childcare, the question of what kind of stranger you allow to care for your children, and in what context, is one born recently of modern life, ambition, necessity. There is no one right way to do resolve it.

Kita works for Rosie and for me. What’s funny is that while I live in West Berlin, it turns out that Kita is a holdover from the communist East. Like the style of the streetlights and a single brand of sparkling wine, Kita is one of the very few GDR traditions that have been adopted enthusiastically by unified Germany. When my husband was a child in West Germany, women uniformly stayed home until their kids were three, at the minimum, and often until the kids were five. But in the East, because women were expected to participate equally in the “revolution,” a day-care system was developed and accepted much earlier.

So the debate rages on. My parents told me about Joe Tobin’s book Preschool in Three Cultures in which he describes how American and Chinese preschool teachers are horrified by the 30:1 student to teacher ratio they observe in a film about Japanese day-care, whereas the Japanese teachers feel that a classroom atmosphere that emphasizes the student-student relationship over the teacher-student relationship is critical to a young child’s development. Conversely, when the Japanese are shown a video of an American preschool that has a much higher ratio of teachers to students, they think the class seems “kind of sad and under-populated.”

His description mirrored an experience I had here a couple of years ago, when my older daughter Bella was still in Kita. An old friend of mine from Los Angeles came to town with her husband and two year-old son for three months. I arranged for their son to attend Bella’s Kita during that time. But my friend was shocked when she saw the kids out in the playground the first day. She said the ratio of adults to children was too dangerous, that her son would not survive a single morning without the one-on-one attention he was used to getting from his nanny. She was too nervous to let him stay. I had the opposite reaction, I told her: another adult individual spending so much time with my child, unmonitored, day in and day out? That would make me nervous. What if the nanny gets sick? What if she has a depression? Or spends too much talking on her cell phone? And what about the positives of a peer group? My friend looked out at the playground. Peer group? He’s two.

Our difference of opinion fell right into the stereotypical conflict between the United States and Europe: Americans fear the government-run institution; Europeans, the powerful individual. But the fact that I, an American, identify more strongly with the Europeans on this one is simply because I have never been a mother anywhere else but here in Germany. All the mothers here send their kids to Kita, so I do too. It just goes to show you how much parenting norms are a product of socialization rather than empirical evidence. Peer group, indeed.

Anna Winger’s first novel, This Must Be the Place, is published by Riverhead. She is also a photographer and the creator of Berlin Stories for NPR. She was raised by Harvard anthropologists Dr. Robert LeVine and Dr. Sarah LeVine in Kenya, Massachusetts and Mexico, and now lives with her German husband and two daughters in Berlin. The Mother Culture is an ongoing series of reflections on her experiences as an American mother abroad and conversations with her parents about mothering around the world.


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Comments (12)


  1. Posted by: Jen

    I think it’s interesting that all of your US friends would never consider a daycare – only a nanny. I live in the US (outside NYC in a pretty affluent area) and I would say that most of my friends who need daytime child care use a daycare/preschool setup, while some use a nanny. Those who do use a nanny do so primarily for the convenience factor – daycares are only open for certain hours, and one may need to leave for work very early or get home too late to do pickup at a daycare. Or one may just want the flexibility of not having to get the child dressed and fed in the morning -if the nanny is there, he or she can do that.

    I have used a daycare for the past 4 years and my primary reason for that has been the socialization aspect of it that I don’t think is easy to get with a nanny. In my case it’s also less expensive, but that may not be true for everyone. I like that my son is in a class with 15 other kids everyday and gets to build friendships with them as he gets older. You mention what sounds like about a 6:1 child:caregiver ratio, and by law (at least in NY) we have a 4:1 ratio for 2 year old kids, and 5:1 for preschoolers, so you have slightly fewer adults around in the classroom, but I don’t really see that as cause for alarm. I think it’s great for the kids and it’s just another cultural difference that is just that – not better or worse necessarily, just different.

  2. Posted by: Camille

    Your description of Kita sounds very much like my daughter’s daycare/preschool, and my feelings on it are just like Jen’s above. Our daycare is fortunately sponsored by my company, so only employees’ children attend. It is supremely convenient (two blocks away) and I know all the other parents. I wouldn’t be able to afford a nanny, but even if I could I would likely still choose daycare. I love that my daughter sees her friends every day and I believe she is the agreeable, outgoing person she is because of this environment.

  3. FASCINATING! I’ve worked in a daycare/preschool and the kids had a great time. My daughter went to/is going to half day preschool, she ‘s had a great time. I think the Kita sounds awesome, personally! I’ve heard that Japanese preschools are WILD, total chaos and that it’s a Good Thing because of all the structure and regimentation the kids will undergo in their older kid schooling.

    GREAT article!

  4. These comparisons are so important for American women like me who exist in a vacuum of expectations and judgements – much of it self-imposed. I would have killed for a culture that not only provided this option but also found it beneficial for the child. Instead, I spent years cobbling together inconsistent and insufficient forms of inhome childcare to give myself small slivers of work time and free time. Going deeper down the rabbit hole all the while.
    (don’t worry, kindergarten came and I’m all better now. :)

  5. Posted by: Victor

    Very interesting. I agree with Jen’s point that most of the other parents I know here in the U.S. (San Francisco) prefer preschools to nannies. Your American friends may not have a representative mindset. Very few Americans are even wealthy enough to afford a nanny, assuming they even liked the idea of one.

    It has always seemed to me that the main advantage of a nanny is being able to leave the house without getting the kids ready, and being able to leave them with the nanny if they get sick. Otherwise, personally, I much prefer daycare/preschool.

  6. Posted by: Jeff Rosenberg

    As older-parent professionals raising our son in suburban Washington, DC, we experienced two sides of the contemporary dilemma for families in this era.
    When Rob was born my mother (late 60’s) was an enthusiastic recruit to be his nanny. She moved up to this area from Florida and lived a short drive from our house. The first four years were wonderful for both of them, and of course the reassurance of having your child safe in the bosom of the family is hard to top.
    But “Nana” died suddenly of acute leukemia and at age four (and with some mild learning disabilities) Rob was absolutely devastated. His development actually went backward–speech, toilet training, everything. It took about a year to get back to where he’d been prior to her death.
    Amid the grief we discovered our few alternatives. Without transportation there could be no preschool because our work hours were too long to be accommodated and there was no way to get him to the other alternative–the woman who takes in kids. We were not about to try the nanny route again so soon. Until his schooling began he spent all day at one of the child care homes in the neighborhood.
    Nowhere near ideal, and of course no organized activities, etc. He was well-looked after but it was a far cry from a real kita. Wish we lived in Berlin.

  7. Posted by: Nina

    As a european born and raised, and now a mother of two living here in the states, it has been one of the hardest things to get used to: short maternity leave and expensive daycare options. To leave your baby after just a few months is heartbreaking, in our case to a nanny, someone we didn’t know prior to the interview. We couldn’t/can’t afford daycare and with our long work hours, we didn’t have a choice since we have no family around to help out. I really wish there would be more options here!

  8. Posted by: Julia

    A comment from Uruguay here.

    Most of my friends are relying more and more often on nannies until their children are 2 yo., when they start sending them to daycare 5 hours a day. When I had to go back to work full hours (and baby was 6 mo), to the surprise of many, we picked daycare.

    She’s 9 mo now and seems happy and well adapted. She spends 4 hours daily, which is not a terribly long time, but I think if we need to leave her for more hours she’d be ok.

    While nannies can be the best option for other parents, we never considered one seriously.

    First, we can’t afford a professional so we’d have a well meaning person who had kids of her own, but not real training.

    Secondly, I don’t want to rely on someone who can get sick or have problems, and don’t show up punctual – daycare is there day in and day out, and it’s up to them to solve their human resources problems.

    Third, I believe that teachers at the daycare are honest about food (they told me straight that she wasn’t eating anything and asked me to solve the situation or else) while a nanny may try to avoid trouble and we’d find out maybe too late.

    And finally, while my daughter doesn’t seem to have any level of special needs, the leap in language and motor develpment she made since she started going (only 4 hours a day, of which one is spent eating and sometimes another one is sleeping), is simply astounding.

    So, I’m really happy with daycare. However, should I ever have another baby, I’d be revising because what works for one child really might not for another one, or we could be, as a family, in a different situation. Who knows? As with everything with parenthood, we need to gauge, adjust, solve and enjoy.

  9. Posted by: Sarah

    Wow, I can’t believe that ALL of your friends in the US use a nanny, they must all be of means. My daughter has been in daycare since she was 3 months old. We currently pay over $1200 a month for her care in a Chicago suburb. Nannies can cost twice that amount. I love her teachers, the children she has grown up with, and the structured atmosphere. I never have to worry about a nanny getting sick and when I have had a few minor concerns there is a management structure in place to address it.

  10. Posted by: Anna Winger

    i am so interested to read your comments! thank you so much for sharing your feelings about this issue with me and your experiences dealing with this conundrum–faced by all working parents, all over the world–in different ways are all so interesting and important.

    i got a lot of comments here and on facebook asking why i know so many people with nannies and assuming that all my friends are wealthy. but it is truly my understanding that daycare options are often quite limited in the states especially given that there is little or no public option–so to speak–except headstart for the very poor. it isn’t true that all my friends are wealthy, but it is true that because i have always lived in big cities in the united states, my sample group doesn’t include the more rural or suburban parts of the country.

    I think that the dirty secret might be that in big american cities, the fact that there are so many immigrant women who are paid under the table (no benefits, no union, no security, but cash) means that the cost of having a nanny is the cheapest solution. it is often more expensive, especially with 2 kids, to send them to daycare. and since this inexpensive labor force exists in places like new york (of course many people pay their nannies proper salaries, but many don’t…), it staves off the urgent need to come up with a real solution for working women across the board.

    in areas outside the big cities where this labor force does not exist, more solutions have developed. so it may be less of a class issue and more of a location issue.

    but, as a big city contrast, in berlin there is no stigma about sending your child to Kita, at either end of the economic spectrum. the cost of day care is on a sliding scale according to the family’s income. we pay the highest amount and that is 380 euros a month for seven hours a day including meals. and the most wonderful thing about the economic arrangement, is that because it is with the state not the Kita, children are not treated differently by the teachers depending on how much they pay or any internal knowledge of the family’s relative wealth. the children whose families pay 18 euros a month for the same hours receive exactly the same care as mine do and have the same chance of getting in to the best ones, etc.

    in any case, i am thrilled to hear your stories from around the world. we all worry about whether or not we are making the best choices for our children and i personally find it comforting to hear each others’ stories, because it reminds us that there is no ONE right way to do this. thanks again!

  11. i want to be specific so i just checked again and i had the figure wrong. we pay 250 euros per month for seven hours a day of Kita, including meals. and as i said, this number is calculated by the state, based on income, but even at the high end it is very reasonable.

  12. Posted by: Julia

    Jeff, your story broke my heart. I hope the outcome for your son, whatever age he’s now, had been positive… in spite of the bereavement and sense of loss, having been loved so much must have left a good print in your son’s psyche, is my guess.

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