Leah Hamilton moved to Berlin with her whānau from New Zealand. She explains what it’s like raising children in a haven for kids.
When my husband got a job offer in Berlin, my mind immediately jumped to how cool the city is. I had visited six years ago by myself, and had spent most of my time walking around graffiti-laden neighbourhoods, going to bars, and browsing through art galleries.
I figured my kids would become radically more liberal after seeing Berlin party-goers dressed in latex and covered in tattoos, but I had no idea that there would be numerous child-havens around the city for them as well.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far about raising kids in Berlin.
Playgrounds here are hardcore
When we arrived we moved into a temporary apartment. The building was huge, and the entire area in front of it was a long playground. One part had a gigantic rope structure, the next had slides and wooden steps, the next had a swing and a pit with tunnels and stepping-stones.
On one of our first days a couple of small children no older than four climbed to the top of the biggest rope structure. The parents stood idly by, chatting and playing on their phones. We haven’t reached American-style helicopter parenting in New Zealand, but the German hands-off approach still came as a shock. When my daughter, a tender two-and-a-half-year-old, decided to follow these older kids, I felt conflicted. Was it really okay for her to climb up that high? Should I just let her? Nobody else seemed to care, she was happy, and I figured at worst she’d break a bone. So I let her.
Over time I stopped worrying and started joining the ranks of German parents who ignored their children. I bought delicious pastries from the bakery and ate them quickly while my daughter was occupied on dangerous climbing frames.
The playgrounds are not just plentiful and dangerous, they are also fun. There’s an Arabian Nights themed playground, there are splash pads, a dinosaur playground, and many places in summer have water taps so that the kids can play with water and mud. Since the playgrounds have sand bases (instead of grass, woodchip or rubber), every family has a bag of sandpit toys that they bring along to the playground to play with. Yes, my house is now completely full of sand and I hate sand with the fire of a thousand suns. But my kids love it, it’s great for them, and I just enjoy the whole experience much more than I ever did at a playground in New Zealand.
What kind of German beer do parents drink? (Hint: It’s all of them)
I can now see the many ways in which the culture here is much more integrated with parenthood and the radical concept of “having a life”. A review in The Spinoff last year of Whoa! Studios in Auckland pointed out how awesome it was to have tables next to the playground so you could eat your food, drink your beer, and watch your kids play at the same time.
Here, this is just normal. You can easily sit down at a Biergarten and have a gigantic and cheap German beer while your kids play on some horrifyingly large wooden structure. You look over at all the German parents who seem to not give a fuck that their child is at least four metres up on a rope bridge. Two kids start fighting with each other and the parents just order another beer. It’s chill. It’s easy. Nobody judges you for drinking while you look after your children. Nobody even judges you when you drink a little too much and decide to balance your kids on a quite-high deer statue that isn’t really for climbing on.
I will never return to Junglerama
Biergartens and playgrounds are one thing, but on rainy days or in the snowy (read: horrible gray mud-slushy) winter months, you need indoor places to go. Here, we have Kindercafes. This is a simple concept: a cafe with a playground inside it, so that your children will leave you alone long enough for you to drink the coffee you need to survive. These exist in New Zealand too, but it’s different.
In Wellington, we had the short-lived Kinderbear cafe. There was a playground, you could get coffee, they had food. It was good because it was what we had, but it wasn’t amazing. And yeah, in New Zealand there’s Junglerama, McDonalds playgrounds, and cafes with small play areas with toys that are at least 400 years old.
Here, if you go to a Kindercafe you don’t feel this need to douse your child in Dettol when you leave. The Kindercafe playgrounds are IKEA-style, all nice and cute. You can get a healthy and well-presented breakfast, with coffee that doesn’t suck. On weekends they host family brunches, with a huge spread of beautiful food – you pay per plate, grab as much food as you like, and sit down while your child fights with another child in the ball pit. These places are everywhere. The food is good. The people working there seem to actually like children.
Bus drivers hate everyone, not just parents with prams
We use public transport to get around Berlin. On every train and bus there is a specific area for prams and wheelchairs, and on trains you can take your bike on as well. These pram-friendly areas are in stark contrast to the numerous buses in New Zealand that have very little (or no) space for prams, require prams to be folded up, or those situations that end up in the news where parents are simply refused entry to the bus because they have a stroller.
Yes, Berlin bus drivers are notorious for shutting the doors in your face after you sprint the last 50m to try to make it before the bus drives away, but this rudeness is directed at all potential passengers, not just parents. And yes, the train station elevators smell like piss and when your child licks the handrail inside the elevator you want to vomit.
The elevators also break down all the time and then you have to stand at the top of 100 steps and wait there awkwardly hoping that someone will help you get down into the train station. But I have always been offered help, and after four gastro bugs in the last nine months surely we’ve had them all by now. Lick those elevators to your heart’s content, kids!
In general I have had a pretty easy time getting around with a three-year-old and a one-year-old on my own.
Naturally in a big city there’s just more on offer, of everything. But New Zealand could certainly follow the lead of cities like Berlin. Train stations and buses should be more accommodating for prams, and more accessible in general. This is not a radical idea. Set up better-quality playgrounds in cafes so that parents can actually drink their coffee instead of spending their time pulling dirty toys out of their child’s mouth. Biergartens and wineries should always have playgrounds in their outdoor areas, with nearby tables for parents.
New Zealand is such an amazing place, and there’s a lot that I already miss. But I can’t help but feel that Berlin just has this different focus, this different attitude built into the very city itself, in which parents don’t have to give up their lifestyle just because they had children. Of course there are always sacrifices you have to make, adjustments that take place when you have a family; it’s just that in Berlin, you certainly have to adjust a lot less.
Leah Hamilton is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Berlin. She spends her days thinking about climate change and sustainable development, computer games, and which wine would pair best with a screaming child.
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