A Polish mother in Berlin: discipline and sweets

A Polish mother in Berlin: discipline and sweets

As a Polish mother in Berlin, I learned a lot about the Germans. Above all about similarities beyond borders and mentalities.

Illustration of a mother and child sitting on a slide.  You can also see the Berlin TV tower

The neighbor hangs sweet gifts on the door with a note: “Please only one chocolate a day!” Photo: Katya Gendikova

The “Polish mother” is a term that describes the traditional role of women in Poland as protectors of their children: caring, patient and wholehearted. The term is even used across borders. My Israeli friends say, “Don’t be that Polish mother,” meaning, “Don’t be a helicopter mother.”

I myself am far from being an overprotective mother. I’ve never sacrificed my professional life for my children, which doesn’t mean I don’t take care of them. It is now 12 years since I gave birth to my two sons. It was both a time when I was very intense cared for the children have, as well as my greatest professional successes. I doubt if there is a “work-life balance” – but that doesn’t stop me from trying to find some kind of balance. And since it’s difficult to do everything right, my children often leave the house without a hat or with their jackets open, but that doesn’t stop them from being happy.

Even if I don’t like the “Polish mother” cliché, I’m both Polish and Polish Mother. That’s why it’s very interesting for me to meet Germans – German mothers – and to learn how they understand the role of women and raising children. Thinking about questions of raising children, about parental roles is a key to recognizing what connects us on both sides of the Oder and Neisse and what separates us.

The best sociologists are strangers, said the Berlin sociologist Georg Simmel. Constant travelling, being present in different cultural and geographical orders, a lifestyle somewhat nomadic in the number of trips – all this characterizes the stranger from Simmel’s famous essay of the same name. If that’s the case, I’ve been playing such a stranger role for a long time.

I have been living in Berlin since 2021, temporarily with only one son. His father lives with the other in Warsaw, so we are both building two monuments, so to speak, to independent or sometimes single parenthood. The constant trips to Berlin and Warsaw make us feel like citizens of two cities and these experiences form our identity as a family.

My first experience when it came to German children and their upbringing was … silence. Polish children, one gets the impression, are very noisy and they are everywhere. In the kindergartens they are looked after extensively, so that when they start school they are not ready to regulate their own behavior and feelings. The experience of the German school enrollment was extremely instructive for me in this respect. All the six-year-olds determinedly picking up their backpacks and marching into the classroom were pretty impressive. Most children who grew up in Poland – our school is German-Polish – had a little problem with this independence. They had yet to learn them.

Hard to say which of these approaches is better. In Poland, especially in big cities and at private schools, we have gone through a development that is only just arriving in Germany and about the The mirror recently wrote extensively. It’s a shift away from discipline to a more democratic education. In practice, this often means more chaos, but the children have more freedom.

Parents from Poland often find it difficult to find their way around the Berlin school system. All the high schools from the fifth or from the seventh grade and the Latin classes from the age of 11, or not – all of this can seem very opaque. Added to this is the doubt as to whether a change of school after the fourth grade is not too exhausting for the children. But as a mother, I also got a lot of help from the schools I wanted to enroll my children in.

Anti-authoritarian Poland? Well, the Polish foundation Dajemy Dzieciom Siłę (We Empower Children) recently published a study showing that more than 40 percent of Polish children experience violence at home and 57 percent experience peer violence. In addition sexual violence, which is gradually coming to light in Poland in the form of scandals. Alarming studies and police statistics on this problem are also regularly published in Germany.

We have other common problems on both sides of the border. Depression and suicides among children and young people are now a real disease of civilization. Whether that’s an effect of social media, or the climate crisis, or ultimately the delayed impact of the pandemic, it’s hard to say, but it helps to see that this is equally bad in Poland and Germany. This way we can exchange experiences and help each other.

My second fundamental experience was the way in which the children are addressed here. The Germans are known for watching each other closely and criticizing each other mercilessly. That often happens to a mother with a child, including in public, and it was difficult for me to get used to it. But while in Poland passers-by address me on the street (“Please tell your child to be careful when cycling!”), it’s different in Germany: passers-by usually address the child directly – so children here are called responsible subjects considered.

My third important experience was the way I was treated as a mother. Here I had two kinds of experiences and, paradoxically, being Polish and being a mother are separate. On the one hand, stereotypes and prejudices about Poles are widespread, often resulting from a complete lack of knowledge. I often encounter these stereotypes, for example when someone who has just found out about my nationality has an irrepressible urge to tell me a joke about Polish car thieves. On the other hand, a single mother can count on a lot of human compassion and help. Although I haven’t been here long enough to know whether this is the result of the German “welcome culture” that has developed over decades or something else – it is worth mentioning.

One prejudice about the Germans, on the other hand, is true: they don’t like noise. They are notorious for this, and children often bother them. However, out of all the experiences I have had in the last two years, only one was really negative. It was a neighbor who knocked on my apartment, regularly reminded me that my six-year-old was too loud, and once, when he was in quarantine, threatened to call the police about it.

Human brain experts say that for evolutionary reasons we are better at remembering negative experiences, and certainly this unpleasant encounter left me stressed for months. But the sum of my positive experiences far outweighs the negative ones. So let’s do justice to this and write about another neighbor who likes to make surprises by hanging small cute gifts for my son on my front doorknob (along with leaves, for example: “Mind your teeth! Please eat only one chocolate a day”).

Or the woman who supposedly accosted me on the street when my son became hysterical. She first asked if I spoke German and then said: “Sorry to bother you, I just wanted to tell you that my daughter behaved like this when she was a child and it will really pass, please hold on.” For someone who has a six-year-old child as their most important daily companion, even at the beginning of their stay in a foreign country, such a show of empathy means a lot. I remembered the woman for months.

Poles and Germans have more in common than you think – we are also facing a number of the same problems politically: Both are large countries in the middle of Europe that have many common interests and a common border. And yet our relations have been rather unsatisfactory of late. We have a long process of reconciliation behind us – and for a year now we have had the common foreign policy goal of helping Ukraine. And yet, as far as our relationship is concerned, things haven’t looked so bad for a long time, and that’s not just a question of the Polish government’s populist propaganda.

It’s not just a lack of knowledge about each other. The reconciliation process between the two countries has so far consisted mainly of meetings between high-ranking politicians, consultations between academics, supported by youth exchanges. But in our uncertain times, times of social media and rapid social change, all of this is no longer enough to get closer to one another.

Where do we start to improve our relationships? That’s a question a lot of people have been asking me lately. Maybe we should start with the kids. It would help us better understand our differences, but also the challenges that unite us. A first step could be the establishment of new German-Polish kindergartens and schools, of which there are currently very few.

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