Lessons From Germany: Children Climbing Trees

Why are American kids so much more anxious than kids in Germany?

Posted Oct 05, 2019

Rates of anxiety disorders are now three to eight times higher for American kids compared with kids in Germany. (Scroll to the bottom for some citations in this regard.)

A generation ago, there was no difference in the rates of anxiety between American kids and German kids. In recent decades, rates of anxiety have soared for American kids, but have not risen in Germany. How come? Can we learn anything from the Germans? 

Leonard Sax / Waldkindergarten Oberammergau e.V.
A girl climbs a tree in Oberammergau
Source: Leonard Sax / Waldkindergarten Oberammergau e.V.

This summer I was in Germany, where I had the privilege of visiting a kindergarten in Oberammergau. What was most striking to me was the attitude toward risk and danger, which my hosts and other Germans told me was common throughout Germany.

I saw 4-year-old girls and boys using sharp knives to whittle sticks they found in the woods. Four- and five-year-old children climbed trees without a harness or safety gear, and without help from a grown-up. On this trip and on my previous trips to schools throughout Germany and German-speaking Switzerland, I have found the general attitude toward risk to be profoundly different from the culture of “safetyism" which is now so prevalent in the United States. 

I borrow the term "safetyism" from The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. They describe how many American schools now prohibit any activity which might conceivably result in any injury to any child. American parents follow suit. Four-year-olds whittling sticks with sharp knives? Not happening.

But, researchers suggest that prohibiting children from engaging in risky play, and repeatedly warning kids about the bad things that might happen if they do anything remotely dangerous, may actually increase kids' anxiety. Kids who have never climbed a tree, or whittled a stick with a knife, and who constantly hear warnings about the dangers inherent in everyday life, may be more likely to become anxious, sometimes without even knowing why they are anxious. 

What are American kids learning in school? What should they learn? I think school should be about more than learning math and science, reading and writing. Kids also need to develop resilience and self-reliance.

As a family doctor, I have seen how easily kids can get injured when they play with sharp knives or climb trees. But it’s not the end of the world if your kid cuts her finger with a knife, or scrapes her knee on tree bark. The great majority of such injuries are easily treated, and the child is stronger for the experience. To quote another German: Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker. What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger. 

I have been a family doctor for more than 30 years. Until roughly 10 years ago, most American parents were OK if their kid scraped their knee or sprained their ankle at school. But today, if a kid sustains a minor injury at school or on the playground, parents now often swoop in like attorneys, demanding to know how the school could be so negligent.

I tell these parents: If your child gets through elementary school without ever having scraped a knee, or gotten a splinter in a finger, or sprained an ankle, then your child’s education is seriously deficient. These minor injuries are precisely the kind of “good stress” which kids need in order to develop genuine self-confidence, by which I mean self-confidence based on real risks faced, not on the kind of puffed-up bloating which is the end result of years of being told, “You’re Special Because You’re You!”  

One essential function of education is to help children develop self-confidence. Risky play is nature’s way of allowing kids to figure out what they can and can’t do, to push their own limits, to grow strong. Based on my visits to more than 400 schools over the past 18 years, I am convinced that Lukianoff and Haidt are on to something. The culture of safetyism has infiltrated the United States to a much greater degree than I have found on my visits to schools in Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand. Parents must balance risk and benefit. In the United States, that pendulum has swung too far, toward safety above everything else, depriving kids of almost any exposure to real-world risk.

What can you do, if you live in the United States and you want your kid to have a chance to climb a tree, or whittle a stick? You may not have to move to Germany or Switzerland or New Zealand. Explore your community. I have found schools here in the United States which understand exactly what I’m talking about, and which offer kids the opportunity to climb trees and whittle sticks, with reasonable adult supervision. Examples of such schools include Raintree School in St. Louis, the Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills, Maryland, and the Aurora Waldorf School in West Falls, New York, among others. The number of such nature-based schools is growing rapidly. Consult one of the online directories to find such a school near you. (I have no affiliation with any such school, or with any website promoting these schools.)

And try to model the virtue you are trying to teach. Of course one of our prime responsibilities as parents is to keep our kids safe. If your toddler is waddling toward the street, you stop them. But be mindful in other situations where the tradeoff between risk and benefit is more nuanced. When you are tempted to say “Don’t do that, you might get hurt!” — pause for a moment. Remember that if kids hear nothing but “don’t do that, you might get hurt,” the result may be kids who are risk-averse, fearful of the world around them, and anxious.

If your 4-year-old is about to climb a tree, don’t stop them. Stand by, so that you can catch them if they fall. But let them climb.

More information about Leonard Sax can be found at his website.

References

Note: What do we know about rates of generalized anxiety disorder in Germany compared with the United States? Cecilia Essau and her colleagues reported a rate of generalized anxiety disorder of less than 1% for German adolescents, in their study published in 2000. More recently, Claus Barkmann and Michael Schulte-Markwort found no changes over time in the rates of anxiety among German children and adolescents. In the United States, Merikangas and colleagues report that 8.3% of American children have anxiety sufficient to cause severe impairment and/or distress. See chapter 3 of my book The Collapse of Parenting for more documentation of studies documenting higher rates of psychiatric disorder among American children and adolescents compared with children and adolescents outside North America.