I’m a permissive parent – I think I am, anyway. The signs are there: my oldest boy swears in front of me and even had, aged 11, a very annoying habit of ending all sentences with the word “bitch,” like Jesse from Breaking Bad. God, that was embarrassing on the U5, I can tell you. “When we get in, you can do your homework and I’ll put dinner on, okay?“ My son, cheerfully, in a Jesse from Breaking Bad voice: “You bet, bitch!”
My youngest never wears a hat or a scarf. I’m literally so permissive that I don’t understand what people mean when they say I should “make” him wear one. WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT? I try to “make” him wear them, and then three seconds later, he takes them off and throws them off the edge of the Kinderwagen and if I am not paying close attention that’s another hat/scarf gone. He wears gloves like 30 percent of the time, when his hands get cold enough. He actually wears a corona face mask more willingly than a hat or a scarf – though I think this is because I tricked him into it by telling him only big boys wear masks and babies don’t have to. (Although when I say willingly, I mean for, like four or five minutes max.)
My friend Tanja is a Tough German Mama. She became a parent for the first time aged 42, grew up in East Berlin, has lots of dogs.
“Modern German parents!” She says disapprovingly. “They think they should be FRIENDS with their children!”
“Erm,” I say politely. “I kind of want to be friends with mine? Is that pathetic of me? Like I want to be their parent and their friend?”
“I am not my child’s friend.” She replies. “I am their parent, not their friend.”
“Yeah but you don’t want to be their enemy either, do you?” I ask.
“No” she says. “I don’t see myself as my children’s enemy. Of course not! I’m like their dog trainer, to be honest. I raise my kids like I train my dogs. Hard but fair.”
“Sounds exhausting,” I say. I’m not much of a dog person.
Tough German Mamas like Tanja are always complaining that modern German parents are permissive parents. I remember when Tanja and I were once in a Rewe in Prenzlauer Berg, and a dad asked their kid which flavour yoghurt they liked best, and Tanja whispered to me, really loudly: “That poor child! What a typical modern German parent! That kid is totally overwhelmed with this decision! Just be the parent and choose the yoghurt!”
I whispered back to her: “Maybe he can’t decide which yoghurt to get? May be he doesn’t know?”
Because the thing is, I think Tough German Mamas like Tanja never feel a moment of doubt, ever. Especially not when choosing yoghurt. I think Tough German Mamas like Tanja have never, ever, EVER not known which yoghurt they want to get. I think Tough German Mamas like Tanja would never, ever, EVER feel so indecisive – and indifferent – about which flavour yoghurt they wanted. They would never, like, consult with their kids‘ preferences before choosing said yoghurt just to make life, you know, a bit easier. Tough German Mamas don’t need life to be easy. They kind of want life to be a bit hard.
The Tough German Mamas have it wrong, though. It’s not that modern German parents are super-permissive. ALL PARENTS IN BERLIN ARE SUPER-PERMISSIVE. Even the expats. Or do I mean especially the expats? Two nights ago, and I blamed corona for this, but I suspect I was just having fun, my baby and I lay in bed, naked, watching The Little Mermaid prequel on Disney+, while eating cold spaghetti I had saved in the fridge. We didn’t use forks or anything. I handed him a cold string of spaghetti with my bare hands, and he placed it carefully in his mouth with his bare hands and slurped it up. He stayed up until eleven and every now and then we discussed the film together, like stoners.
“Big fish,” he said thoughtfully.
“Nice big fish,” I said.
“Mermaid one again,” he said.
“She’s nice, huh,” I said.
“Nice mermaid one, dis one,” he said, and I handed him another spaghetti string. He dropped it onto his chest and laughed. I imagined, briefly, what Tough Mama Tanja would say if she could see us now – or even worse, one of the scary Erzieherinnen from the Kita – but I quickly reassured myself that we were only indulging in this sloppy, slovenly, messy cold spaghetti plus Little Mermaid gorgeousness because we were working through some distressing emotional stressful emotions caused by the corona crisis.
I know loads of permissive expats parents. Permissive parenting is a Berlin Thing, not a German Thing. I have one American friend who lets her three-year-old pour sugar from the sugar dispenser directly into her mouth at cafés. I have a British friend who lets her seven-year-old order anything he wants to eat from the internet every Sunday. I have a Greek friend who let her kid wear his Faschingkostüm to her sister’s wedding. It was in a fucking castle and everything, and her kid was dressed up like Spiderman.
Here’s the thing, though: I am a permissive parent because I am lazy as fuck. It’s one of my weaknesses as a person, and one of my greatest weaknesses as a parent. I can’t be bothered arguing with my oldest boy about his homework, and I can’t be fucked getting the baby to stop drinking bath water. You know what I did, when the baby started drinking the bath water up like an aquatic ape? I stopped putting bubbles in the bath, so the water wouldn’t be, like, bad for his stomach, and started putting vitamins in instead.
German Permissive Parents are permissive because they want to make their kids‘ lives as easy as possible, and their own lives almost unbearably hard. Their permissiveness never involves any shortcuts. In fact, some of my German Permissive Parent-Friends literally wait on their kids HAND AND FOOT AND HEAD AND STOMACH AND NECK TOO.
My friend Lena, who, by the way, can’t stand Tanja’s guts, like there is serious beef between them, is telling me about this one time her six-year-old kid Kiera decided to play baby.
“I feel so sorry for Tanja’s kids,” she says to me bitchily.
“Oh, I know, mate,” I reply. “She says she doesn’t see herself as their enemy – more like their trainer.”
“It’s an East thing,” Lena says spitefully.
“A dog trainer!” I say.
German parents never make life easy for themselves, either. The strict ones treat their kids like dogs and the softies are just absolutely and completely, no pun intended, barking mad. I don’t want to sound like some parenting guru or anything, but I think German parents would enjoy parenting a bit more if they realized that you weren’t actually actually meant to be perfect. Because nobody’s perfect all the time. Not even you guys.