Tag Archives: Germany

Learning to Say What You Mean: Parenting 101

I’ve been a parent now for a few years. In fact, I’ve been writing about Christine Gross-Loh’s book for nearly as long as I’ve been a parent. Certainly, there’s lots to learn about being a parent and lots that one can learn from being a parent. To date, there’s one salient lesson that stands above the rest: intentional speech.

Whenever I’m speaking to my kid (or any kid, for that matter), I’m always acutely aware of the words that are coming out of my mouth. For one, this little person is still learning the language, so it’s important that I be as precise as possibly can (within reason). In particular, I’m thinking about idioms.

If you’ve travelled to different parts of the country (or different parts of the world), undoubtedly you’ll have come across some phrases that might sound… odd. For instance, I bet you’ve probably let the frog out of your mouth on an occasion or two (Finnish idiom to say the wrong thing). Or when giving directions, has anyone ever told you that the place you’re trying to go is just a cat’s jump away from the museum (German idiom for something that’s not too far away). Or maybe, you and your friend are walking around a new part of town and your friend says to you, “I sense owls in the moss,” (Swedish idiom for finding/seeing something suspicious).

I could go on, but the point here is that cultures from around the world have created phrases to say something (when they really mean something else) and the same thing has happened in our culture. Have you ever done something at the drop of a hat or met someone who was all bark and no bite? Do you find your boss tends to beat around the bush or maybe sometimes add fuel to the fire? Have you ever wished that someone would break their leg?

Think about what these phrases might sound like to someone who’s just learning English. Break a leg. How rude. Or what about saying that to do something is a piece of cake? What the heck is that supposed to mean? Do I need to eat a piece of cake before you tell me how to drive to the airport or will there be cake at the airport?

For toddlers, it’s hard enough to learn how to maneuver one’s body and learn a “foreign language” (learning one’s first language is *kind of* like learning a foreign language, if you think about it). So, why would we compound the difficulty by simultaneously teaching them idioms? There’ll be plenty of time for them to learn how to feed the donkey sponge cake (thanks Portugal!).

Overscheduling Kids Negatively Affects Development: Parenting Without Borders, Part 6

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we’ll look at the importance of unstructured “play.”

There’s an epidemic of overscheduling kids in the US and it’s negatively affecting development. You’ve probably heard or seen the stereotype: afterschool, little Johnny is off to baseball practice on Mondays, piano practice on Tuesdays, swimming on Wednesday, every other Thursday is Boy Scouts, and on Friday, the family goes to the cottage (when there aren’t piano recitals, baseball games, or swimming tests on the weekends). Oh, there’s also little Julie who has all of her extracurricular activities afterschool, too. Don’t get me wrong, certainly those activities will be helpful in little Johnny or little Julia’s development (within those activities), but they will be harmful in other ways.

All of the activities I mentioned above are structured activities. Meaning, there are clear and set boundaries and defined outcomes contained within. Kids will certainly learn from these kinds of activities, but they are being robbed of the importance and value of unstructured play. From the book:

One survey found that 79% of middle and high school students participate in some sort of activities during the weekdays or on the weekends; 57% have an extracurricular activity every day or almost every day. As scheduled activities have increased, the amount of outdoor time children enjoy has plummeted. Today, the average American child is spending only between four and seven [!] minutes in unstructured outdoor play.

It looks like it’s implied in the passage that this is daily play (but it doesn’t specify). Four to seven minutes — are you kidding me? That’s the amount of time we’re supposed to be spending brushing our teeth everyday (three times a day, at least two minutes each). How the heck is an imagination supposed to develop in only 5 minutes a day?

Oh, I guess I didn’t tell you about that yet, did I:

Childhood play is how kids construct meaning and make sense of the world when they are little, and discover what they love as they grow. Play is a springboard for creativity: as kids pretend and make up their own games, they create possibilities out of thin air. Pretend play is an especially crucial way to hone human intelligence because of how it enables kids to envision possibilities.

So I say again, how is an imagination supposed to keenly develop in 5 minutes a day?

In this chapter, Gross-Loh also tries to draw connections to the rise in childhood obesity and increase in the use of antidepressants in American children. While those points are valid, I think the previous point — development of creativity — is a strong enough argument for more unstructured play all on its own. I mean, some parents often lament the shrinking amount of time spent on arts and physical education in schools. It turns out, children’s access to “arts” is probably getting a similar treatment (by having been overscheduled and given little time to develop their imagination).


It turns out that part of the shift to structured activities began in the ’80s and ’90s when the media alerted us to new research in brain development. However, as is often the case when it comes to the media reporting on scientific research, there was a disconnect between what the research actually said and what was expressed in the news. The message from the research was mainly geared to “disadvantaged children” (about the importance of those earlier years) and then the message became co-opted such that all parents thought it was important to focus on those early years. As it happens, this may be to the detriment of children:

Researchers found that early-learning centers, which promise to give infants, toddlers, and preschoolers an academic head start, produced children who eventually had more difficulty: anxiety about tests, lowered creativity, and less of a liking for academics. Many studies show that “artificial stimulation” — early learning that is developmentally inappropriate — can be counterproductive and even hinder children’s development. One well-known study showed that the more babies watched educational baby videos, the more their vocabulary dropped.

There are also myriad behavioural issues that can develop by trying to force this early learning on kids (and we wonder why there’s been an explosion in the diagnosis of kids with ADD or ADHD?). There’s probably a number of reasons for the higher frequency in that diagnosis, but I suspect that the pressures felt by parents to force their kids into environments that will foster behavioural issues is a factor.

I’m already close to 1000 words and I haven’t even talked about how the effects that overscheduling has on a child’s ability to figure out what they’re passionate about (how can you figure out with you like when you’re always being shuttled from activity to activity?) or how it’s important to intersperse physical activity with learning (breaks are essential to improving a person’s attention).


One of the main reasons that I chose to write about this book through a series was to make sure that I presented different perspectives, so I wanted to make sure that I offer a few examples of that before closing this post.

In Denmark, there’s a forest kindergarten for students between the ages of three and six. Gross-Loh shared a delightful anecdote about the kids wanting to go swimming in the sea (in the winter) and how the teacher didn’t tell them about how the water was frozen. Instead, the class all walked to the sea to learn that in the winter, the water is frozen and that when you break the ice and go in the water (yes, some of the kids put their feet/legs in), the water is extremely cold. A perfect quote from that story: “There is no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothing.”

In Germany, they also have a forest school where it’s not only normal, but it’s encouraged for kids of different ages to be playing together (just like we learned in Japan in previous chapters).

And let’s leave the last word to Gross-Loh:

The children spend “off task” — time that might seem idle and wasted — is often full of interior richness. Children are doing exactly what they should be doing. The benefits of play seem, to me, to be as crucial for our kids’ futures as anything we enroll them in, because through play, they internalize a valuable lifelong attitude: the idea that they have the power to make something of their own lives, and that they can create so much out of so little.

What’s in an American City: Historically, Cars

Last fall, I came across a post on Vox about high-speed rail. If you’ve read some of the things I published when I first started writing, you’ll know that I’m a big proponent of it. This post on Vox was meant to talk about some of the things that Americans can learn from Europeans when it comes to high-speed rail. In particular, California from Germany. The the part I want to focus on, though, is a paragraph with an historical perspective:

Europeans’ cities were more built up before the car, and they didn’t then tear their cities apart to accommodate cars and facilitate sprawl, as we did. The US is so vast that we could pave everything within 200 miles of New York City and still have more than enough land for our corn and cows. But if Europeans wanted to preserve rural areas, they would have to use urban space more efficiently, and so they have. A much greater share of the typical European metro area’s population is concentrated in its inner city. So you get dense, transit-rich cities with countryside in between.

When I first started writing about high-speed rail and even in that post I linked to in the second sentence of this post, I didn’t take into account the historical perspective. I did talk about land area, but the composition of that land area might be more important than the land area itself. If there isn’t the space “in the city” to put the high-speed rail, it’s going to take a yeomen’s effort and a healthy serving of political capital to create that space. The unfortunate part is, as time moves forward, the necessity (and gains!) of high-speed rail increase. The population of some of the biggest cities in the US (that would be served by better public transportation) is increasing and while I’m not sure the best way to measure it, I suspect that the business between cities (i.e. the necessity to travel between cities where high-speed rail would be beneficial) is probably increasing.

So, where does that leave high-speed rail proponents, aside from considering an extended trip to Europe? That’s a great question. It seems that there’s still going to be those organizations that lobby Congress, but if I had to hazard a guess (or a forecast, if you will), I suspect that the most likely way for there to be an improvement in high-speed rail in the US is some sort of catalyzing event. You might even call it a tipping point. One such way could be an increase in the cost of oil (i.e. jet fuel), skyrocketing the price of flying and forcing people to consider other modes of transportation from Chicago to New York. It might also be that a presidential candidate takes up the issue of public transportation and rides it as their “thing” to the White House (and then implements the plan within the first 100 days of office). Both of those scenarios aren’t very likely, but this pie-in-the-sky thinking is where high-speed rail proponents find themselves.

Wanna Be More Productive? Kick Off Your Shoes

When I was an undergraduate, I was fortunate enough to be elected student body president. One of the perks to this position was that I had my own office. For a young twentysomething, this was pretty cool. As I had private office, I would often take off my shoes when I was working. It wasn’t that I had uncomfortable shoes, I just felt more comfortable when I wasn’t wearing them. Knowing that some people are uncomfortable with barefooted-ness, I kept a pair of moccasins close by that I could slip on when I went out into the main part of our office. Many of my colleagues teased me for taking off my shoes, but when I’d walk by the tables in the main office, I’d often see one or two people who’d also removed their shoes.

Since graduating, I’ve lived in a couple of places where barefooted-ness isn’t uncommon. For instance, in New Zealand, it’s not unusual to see people walking down the street or through the supermarket (!) barefoot. Even in the United States, albeit not the continental United States, it’s not abnormal to see people walking around barefoot in public. A couple of years ago, Jennifer Aniston was caught walking around in public without any shoes in Hawaii.

Walking around in public without any shoes is slightly different from walking around an office without any shoes. Many people walk around in public in their pajamas, but you most certainly wouldn’t head to the office in your pajamas — unless, of course, it’s national wear your pajamas to work day. But maybe shoelessness isn’t such a bad idea.

There was a biology professor in Virginia who shed his shoes in the classroom for a little while. The university allowed this while he was promoting his book, The Barefoot Book: 50 Great Reasons to Kick Off Your Shoes, but after a period of time, he was then required to put his shoes back on when he was in the classroom. The professor frequents restaurants without any shoes. ‘Isn’t this a health code violation?’ You might ask. As a matter of fact, it isn’t. The professor keeps a letter with him from the Virginia state health department attesting that it’s not. As you’d imagine, restaurant owners are none too pleased.

As the stereotype goes, professors can be a bit quirky, so you still might think nothing of this. What if I told you that the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (!) has admitted to walking around the office barefoot? This yearAs it turns out, a majority of people would be okay with this. According to a survey conducted last year by Adecco, a human resources consulting company, only 43% of people said they’d be offended if people took their shoes off in their workspace.

Can going barefoot actually make you more productive?

It’s no secret that stress is a major inhibitor when it comes to productivity. So, it follows that anything you can do to reduce stress in the workplace should help you be more productive.

Dr. Dieter Breithecker, who is currently the head of Germany’s Federal Institute for Posture and Mobilisation Support and a member of the International Ergonomics Association, says, “Putting the soles of your feet in contact with all the normal sensations helps to relieve internal tension and reduce stress. Shoes, on the other hand, prevent direct contact with the ground and so adversely affect the health of our feet, balance and posture.”

Not only could your shoes be inhibiting your productivity, but there’s a good chance that they might be affecting other aspects of your health like your posture.

It’s been quite a few years since I walked around barefoot in the office as the student body president. As the person ‘in charge,’ it was a little easier to get away with it and not upset too many people. In the years since, as long as I’ve had a private office, you could be sure that my feet were free, while my shoes remained tucked away in the corner. And for those times I needed to venture out of the office, I’d have to decide what the situation required. On some occasions, it’s important to be wearing formal shoes, but for those times it’s not, you’ll almost certainly catch me wearing a pair of Vibram FiveFingers Bormios.

Proof That Grassroots CAN Work: Germany Closing ALL Nuclear Plants by 2022

Germany has a history of being anti-nuclear. Put more accurately: the citizens of Germany have a history of being anti-nuclear. :

The anti-nuclear movement in Germany has a long history dating back to the early 1970s, when large demonstrations prevented the construction of a nuclear plant. . . an example of a local community challenging the nuclear industry through a strategy of direct action and civil disobedience. . . Anti-nuclear success at [here] inspired nuclear opposition throughout Germany, in other parts of Europe, and in North America. . . Germany’s anti-nuclear stance was strengthened [from the Chernobyl incident]. . . In September 2010, German government policy shifted back toward nuclear energy, and this generated some new anti-nuclear sentiment in Berlin and beyond. On September 18, 2010, tens of thousands of Germans surrounded Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office. In October 2010, tens of thousands of people protested in Munich. In November 2010, there were violent protests against a train carrying reprocessed nuclear waste.

The people of Germany do not want nuclear energy — they’ve made this abundantly clear in their recent history. An interesting (and somewhat inspiring) bit of protesting that wasn’t included in the introduction of this Wikipedia entry happened

A Human Chain along the Elbe River: Approximately 120,000 people formed a 120 kilometer-long chain between the nuclear power plants in Krummel and Brunsbuttel to take a stand against the federal government’s nuclear policy. At the same time around 20,000 people demonstrated in front of the Biblis Power plant in southern Hesse. Another 7,000 protesters gathered in front of an interim nuclear waste storage facility in North Rhine-Westphalia.

That is incredible. Seeing pictures of protests/marches at the National Mall can be kind of exhilarating, but a 120km chain of people — that’s quite a political statement. Forget political, that’s quite a statement in general. To be able to gather that many people together (not just in one place), but to span across a distance so great — that’s just inspiring. Moving forward to this year, after the , the Germans resolve for a nuclear-free country was reignited.

On Saturday [March 12th, the day after the Tsunami struck Japan], anti-nuclear protesters formed a 45-km (27 mile) human chain from the Baden-Wuerttemberg capital of Stuttgart to Neckarwestheim I. Between 50,000 and 60,000 demonstrators took part, according to police and organisers. [sic]

Three days after the disaster started in Japan, Chancellor Merkel announced a , during which the initial plans to extend the life of some of the older nuclear plants in the country . The next day, the Chancellor took it one step further by off the grid (temporarily). Some noted that this with the upcoming state elections.

While I’m sure that these decisions made the German citizens happy, it clearly was not enough for them. On March 26th, just two short weeks after the event in Japan, to “demand the irreversible phase out [of] nuclear power.” (Here’s a link to an , in case you don’t use Google Chrome/Translate to read the German article.) The protesting , with pockets of people protesting in different areas of the country totaling over 10,000.

… And now finally, the German citizens are getting what they asked for — . A country whose energy department will never again have to create plans and procedures for dealing with new radioactive waste. By the year 2022, Germany will have . How awesome is that? Forget for a second where you stand on nuclear energy and just take in the effect that the citizens of the country had on the policymakers of the country. The citizens of Germany did not want nuclear energy. Period. The policymakers thought that this position (of the people) may have softened and tried to open up the possibility for more nuclear power. Upon learning of this, the citizens revolted. Heeding the word of the people, the policymakers had to go back on their plans to increase nuclear energy in the country.

This is quite an amazing feat (to me). The people wanted something – desperately – and now they’re getting it. It seems similar in a way to some of the other things that have happened this year. There were the for union rights and more noteworthy, there was (and still is) the overwhelming number of . It has been quite a year for “small groups” of people, hasn’t it? It may seem a bit clichéd, (but it is most definitely not contrived); I wanted to end this post with a quote from a :

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.