[Note: I asked Tobias Klein, a German Catholic journalist, and German translator of The Benedict Option, to comment on the court ruling against the German homeschooling parents (I blogged on it Friday.) He writes that if we want to understand Germany’s compulsory schooling system, we should look at early childhood education first. More from Tobias below — RD]
From the day my daughter was born – or possibly even before that – practically everybody we’ve met has asked my wife and me whether we had made sure to apply for a daycare slot. In Germany, that is basically the first question anybody asks a new parent. Or maybe the second, right after “Is it a boy or a girl?”, but that one will probably be outlawed soon for being heteronormative. (Just kidding. Or am I? I’m not quite sure.)
Anyway, in our case the answer to the daycare question is “no.” And the more we get pestered about the topic, the more daycare-negative we get.
I take my daughter to playgroups circa twice a week; these groups are mostly private, parent-led initiatives, sometimes endorsed by a church or by district authorities. A few months in, I began noticing that children older than ten months tended to disappear from these groups. Moreover, the mothers of the relatively few older kids that still attend these playgroups are constantly talking about how hard it is to secure a daycare slot for their children.
One might think they’d be happy to know that there are parents who don’t compete with them for those much-desired daycare slots as they haven’t even applied for one in the first place, but they’re not. It’s more likely understood as a kind of reproach.
So why are Germans so intent on handing their kids over to the state? To be fair, many families simply don’t have a choice. If your family can’t get by on a single income, you have to get back to your job as soon as the paid maternity leave runs out. Others think they owe it to their self-respect to have a job. Stay-at-home moms are held in incredibly low esteem in Germany, particularly by other women. (Stay-at-home dads tend to be viewed a little more favorably. Lucky me.)
It is perfectly clear that parents who work full-time jobs – be it out of financial necessity or for the purpose of self-fulfillment – don’t want to feel like they are neglecting their children. Thus, they are happy to be told that comprehensive daycare from a very early age is actually good for their children. After all, child care workers are professionally trained, so they are probably better at raising children than some random people who happen to be parents. (I’m exaggerating the argument, but not by much.)
Plus, being together with other children of their age group helps kids to learn faster and to develop social skills. (As if parents would keep their children in a cupboard under the stairs if the state let them have their way.)
In fact it should be rather obvious that in everyday life there are lots of opportunities for putting your kids in touch with other people’s kids, but maybe parents who work full-time and send their children to daycare at eight or ten months really don’t see these opportunities. I live around the corner from a public playground, and I have observed that during the week this playground gets crowded twice a day. Early in the afternoon it’s occupied by schoolchildren playing on their own, and late in the afternoon by parents with little kids whom they probably have picked up from daycare just moments before.
At any rate, daycare for children aged one to three is pretty common over here, and nearly all children aged three to five attend nursery school (kindergarten). Nonetheless, there have been some news reports lately about growing numbers of parents (especially mothers) who make a point of not sending their children to daycare centers or even nursery school. I was rather nonplussed to find that these reports tend to describe these parents as potentially dangerous weirdos and extremists. One newspaper article bluntly stated that the “kindergarten-free movement” was mainly made up of “environmentalists, esoterics, anti-vaxxers and conservative Christians.”
Granted, there may be more than a splinter of truth to this observation. It makes sense that people who profess a particular, decidedly non-mainstream worldview are more likely to distrust public early childhood education. Politicians are pretty outspoken about the fact that an important goal of comprehensive state-run child daycare is to be able to control the values and worldviews the children are taught.
In 2002 Olaf Scholz, then general secretary of the Social Democratic Party, openly claimed that the state needed to seek “air supremacy over the cribs.”That same man is now Vice Chancellor of Germany. Over the last twenty years or so, federal and regional governments in Germany have been constantly pushing comprehensive child daycare – and they even have the gall to call that “empowering families.” And people buy it.
Still, at least in theory, daycare and nursery school for children under six years is voluntary. At the age of six, however, compulsory school attendance starts. And there’s no escaping that. Unless you take the word “escape” literally, that is: I know families who have moved from Germany to France or Switzerland for the explicit purpose of being allowed to homeschool their children. But obviously that is not a solution for everyone.
At the same time, there is practically no political debate about compulsory schooling in Germany. People are so used to it that they can hardly imagine things being any different. Homeschooling, they think, is something only Young Earth creationists and shotgun-wielding rednecks would do, so most Germans consider it appropriate and reasonable that it is unlawful in their country.
So where does that leave parents who don’t trust the public school system or who just wish to provide their children with a different kind of education? To be sure, compulsory school attendance does not strictly mean that every German child has to attend a state-run public school. There is a broad range of private, independent and alternative schools, including Christian ones – in fact, the Catholic Church alone is the largest private school provider in Germany. This may sound like good news for Christian (and especially Catholic) parents, but as Mr. Sportin’ Life used to say, it ain’t necessarily so.
My wife is a teacher who has worked at both public and church-run schools, and she says that from an orthodox Christian point of view the church-run ones are worse – precisely because they pretend to offer a religious education while what they actually do hardly deserves to be called that. As a Catholic, I would love to see Catholic schools in Germany develop and practice concepts for a thoroughly Christian education, in the sense that not only the contents that are taught, but also the methods of teaching are permeated by the Christian faith. But to be honest, I just cannot imagine our bishops endorsing such an idea. They seem much too busy trying to convince the secular society that Christians aren’t so different from Non-Christians after all.
What to do, then? I admit that I don’t have a practical solution ready. It seems obvious to me that devout Christian families need to connect on a local level to support each other in teaching their children the Faith and help them grow in holiness. I could imagine various different forms and models of parent-led initiatives for the Christian formation of children. Thus far, I know too little about the particulars of German school laws to be able to assess the chances for Christian parents to found their own independent schools or somehow “take over” existing ones. But I think about these things a lot, and I sincerely hope that there will be some feasible solution before my daughter turns six… .