Page last updated at 15:55 GMT, Saturday, 13 March 2010

Berlin's children given reprieve from noise police

Berlin recently became the first of Germany's 16 federal states to allow children to legally make a noise. Joanna Robertson, currently based in Berlin with two daughters, compares the varying attitudes to children she has encountered in Berlin, Paris, New York City and Rome.

German children playing in the snow
Germany has strict laws to ensure children are seen but not heard

In the beginning, it was the telephone.

"Frau Robertson?" "Yes?"

"I know your daughter's up there. She's playing, isn't she?"

Then came the doorbell.

Neglecting, for once, to peep through the spy-hole I opened the door, all unawares.

There she stood, square in the hallway, the neighbour from the third floor.

A successful detective novelist with a penchant for Parisian murders, she muscled her way in and could not be muscled-out again for quite some time.

The problem? My three-year-old daughter, Miranda - weight: under three stone; footwear: soft bedroom slippers - was allegedly making a noise. Only she was not.

For my own and other families in our quiet, solid apartment building, Berlin's concession to the sounds of childhood comes as an immense relief.

The reward for keeping quiet in class? The teacher gives out a balloon filled with freezing water, to burst upon the head of a fellow pupil of one's choice

Children may now officially be children at least from Monday to Saturday, 0900 to 1900.

For parents, there will at last be some protection from harassing neighbours.

"Excessive child noise," warranted a police call-out to our building for the crying of a newborn baby and, one Saturday afternoon, a group of cheerful 12-year-olds playing a game of Monopoly.

Berlin leaves me baffled. True to the spirit of the Brothers Grimm, childhood here is filled with wonders, but is unexpectedly grim.


There are toyshops by the hundreds. And puppet theatres. Sweetshops. Playgrounds with terrific slides. Ice creams scattered with gummi-bear jelly sweets. Sledging in winter, cycling in summer, tree-climbing and swimming in lakes.

But should a little child fall off her bike, passers-by will laugh out loud.

No mercy will be shown to a young child who has lost his ticket on the train, and beware like Hansel and Gretel children, those tempting German sweets.

Your teeth must be brushed three times a day, or Croko the Tooth Cleaning Crocodile might just gobble you up.

A Monopoly game meant a call from the police for some "noisy" youngsters

Take my elder daughter, Lilli's, junior school. The reward for keeping quiet in class?

The teacher gives out a balloon filled with freezing water, to burst upon the head of a fellow pupil of one's choice.

An ancient history lesson included a film so gorily violent that even the toughest 10-year-olds covered their eyes.

"That's what life is like," they were told.

There is the science mistress who carries a long cane to "tap" wayward pupils.

Recent school outings have included an unscheduled visit to a nuclear bunker, and a film about the struggles of an abandoned girl given up for international adoption.

Childhood controls

Back in middle-class Paris, such issues were censored. Childhood was strictly controlled.

Small playgrounds, kept neat. Climbing frames with minimum age restrictions.

Parks with formal lawns and avenues of white gravel, perfect for grazing children's knees.

Ice Cream generic
German and Italian parents differ radically on when to eat ice-cream

The school system drilled the nation. From kindergarten upwards, Lilli was told when to sit, when to stand, when to go to the toilet.

She practiced, with her pen, curls and loops and has handwriting the same as everyone else in France.

There was speech therapy to perfect French children's French vowels. Lilli struggled home under the weight of her book-brimming schoolbag, sat almost daily tests and three times a year brought-in a school report that said little about her, but listed her marks and her position in class to the second decimal place.

In the two-hour lunch break in a small, bleak courtyard no books were allowed, and there was certainly no playing football with the boys.

Parental angst

Life in Manhattan was all "developmental milestones".

By the sandpit (or "sandbox"), parents' talk was anxious.

Would Maxwell master his pencil-hold, and get into that preschool?

Why was two-year-old Ashley not doing better at maths?

On the health front, the obsessions were hyper-activity, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and dyspraxia, all largely ignored in France, where all anyone talked about was bronchitis.

In Rome, it was paramount to cover one's child, even in hot weather, in case a breeze or a sweat should lead to a sudden chill

Here in Germany, I have discovered it is bowels, whereas back in Italy, it was chills.

In Rome, it was paramount to cover one's child, even in hot weather, in case a breeze or a sweat should lead to a sudden chill.

Ice-cream was never eaten on a cold day (something German children would find extraordinary), and never in one's Sunday best clothes, in case of spills.

In a culture where the child was so often the centre of attention, it seemed that messy clothes were the only taboo.

Lilli would happily rebel, making mud-pies, and fishing for tadpoles on the banks of the River Tiber.

Confused by so many conflicting cultures the other day, I booked a telephone appointment with an international parenting counsellor from Washington State in the US, and obediently got up at 0400 GMT to talk.

A soothing, disembodied voice from the Pacific North West recommended I immediately remove my children from school, that we all sleep together on cushions on the floor and switch to unpasteurised milk.

I rang off, and remembered my sensible, Scottish roots.

When it comes to one's children, I reminded myself, mother always knows best.

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Berlin youth's right to be noisy
17 Feb 10 |  Europe
Germany country profile
19 Mar 12 |  Country profiles

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