173 years and two world wars later the German constitution, still in force today, was drawn up. It says in Article 1: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” It pays to contemplate these sentences every now and then, and not only so that we don’t end up emulating the USA when it comes to our next elections.
Some time ago I met a mother who wanted to emigrate to Los Angeles with her eight-year-old son but who ended up returning to Germany after just three months. The reason for this: each time that her son went to play in the park across the road he would be brought back to her after a just a couple of minutes by a neighbour or passerby who told her she was being incredibly irresponsible by exposing her child to such risk. Recently in Washington, a case came to court over whether two parents should be stripped of custody of their children because they let their six- and eight-year-olds play unsupervised in front of their house.
A year ago the 14-year-old Texan Ahmed Mohamed, of Syrian extraction, was led away in handcuffs by the police because his teacher suspected that his home-made alarm clock, which he had proudly taken to school to show to her, was actually a bomb and alerted the authorities. And in Californian parks, the lowest branches of all trees have been sawn off, so that children are no longer able to climb them, which might lead to them falling off. Anyone familiar with the culture of litigation in the USA might even be able to understand this, but still we have to ask: what will happen to our children if nothing is allowed to happen to them? What happens to inviolable human dignity when fear dominates your life?
If you are now annoyed that I’ve only been picking example from the USA, you’re quite right: the psychotherapist Martin Klett, from Freiburg estimates that 15 to 20 percent of German parents are inclined towards over-protectiveness and that this trend is only increasing. The result is that children are hugely prevented from developing independence and self-confidence.
Together with the increasingly observable trend of fully organising a child’s daily schedule with homework, private tuition, music lessons, ballet, sport and other activities offering educational and developmental value, children today are left with a childhood without any space for childhood itself; that is, the freedom to have their own experiences, get bored, take risks, get their feet wet, fall from a tree, and learn how to get along with other children unsupervised by adults. The “inalienable right” to freedom is simultaneously a right to take risks and make mistakes. Without this we cannot have inviolable human dignity; and neither can we have democracy.
Henning Kullak-Ublick, class teacher from 1984 -2010 at the Flensburg Free Waldorf School; board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools, the Friends of Waldorf Education and the International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education (The Hague Circle).