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.