Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Why Some People Shouldn't Breed

Since I have no children now and have no real plans to have any in the future, I know I shouldn’t critique other people’s parenting. But sometimes I just can’t help myself.

This is one of those times.

One of my eighth-grade girls has a tattoo on her left shin. I noticed it the other day while I was teaching. This girl, who I’ll call “Mandy,” was sitting in the front row with her pant legs rolled up to her knees, so it was impossible to miss. This wasn’t henna and it wasn’t a temporary; it was the real deal.

Mandy’s tattoo isn’t a butterfly or a flower or any of the other cutesy, girly designs that my college roommates used to get on their ankles or lower backs. It’s a tribal design, all in black. It covers her shin from knee to ankle. It looks like the sort of thing you might expect to see on a Maori warrior. But Mandy is not a Maori warrior; she’s a 14-year-old East German girl who lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere. On her, a tattoo like that makes the statement: “I want to go to prison when I grow up.”

Let me repeat: this child is in the eighth grade. She’s 14 years old.

After class I approached Mr. A.

“Um, are kids allowed to get tattoos in Germany?”

“You have to be 18. But you can get them when you’re younger if you have your parents’ permission.”

So, let’s say you’re a parent and your 14-year-old child approaches you and asks “Mom/Dad, can I get a tattoo?” I can think of a number of responses to this question, including: “No,” “When you’re older,” “Over my dead body,” and “You’re kidding, right?” All of these responses seem ok to me. What doesn’t strike me as appropriate is Mandy’s parents’ apparent reaction:

“Fine by me. –Do I have to sign anything?”

Decent parents do not allow their adolescent children to have big honking tribal tattoos permanently stabbed into their lower legs. There is a reason for this: decent parents know that they have a responsibility to protect their kids from their stupider impulses. Adolescents, of course, are just brimming with stupid impulses: they frequently shoplift, take up smoking, punch holes into walls, and write things like “Ashley (heart)s Josh 4-Ever” on bathroom stalls.

And sometimes they want to get tattoos. This is a bad idea. Often what seems cool at 14 looks stupid by 30, or 25, or even 21.

I went to college with a girl who had four rather large tattoos on her arms. She got them done in high school. (In the US minors don’t need parental permission to get tattoos, they just need reasonably well-forged driver’s licenses declaring them 18.) Of the four tattoos she got between ages 16 and 18, she only liked one by the time she was 21. She wanted to have the other three lasered off as soon as possible.

Mandy’s parents failed to shield their daughter from her youthful bad taste. Instead of signing the forms, or accompanying her to the tattoo parlor, or whatever, they should have laughed their heads off and then said: “No way! --Go do your homework!”

Which brings me to my second point.

About half of the kids in Mandy’s class have already been left back at least once. Several are in danger of failing the eighth grade for the second or third time. A big part of the reason is that they rarely do their homework.

Mr. A assigns homework just about every night—not an excessive amount; usually just some vocabulary words to learn or a written exercise to complete. The students have to write their assignments into daily planners that their parents sign once a week, or, in extreme cases, every day. This would be a good system, except that it seems that a lot of the parents just sign the planners without checking to make sure that their offspring have actually done any work. Mr. A calls these parents to complain, but, as he puts it, “They don’t care.”

So their kids end up leaving school at 16 or 17 without even successfully passing the ninth grade Hauptschule, can’t get jobs, become alcoholics, knock someone up/get knocked up, and the cycle continues.

What the hell is wrong with these people???

(Note: Unlike most of my entries, this one has nothing to do with cultural differences. There are bad parents everywhere, from the mansions of Gross Ile, Michigan, to the mud-huts of the Ituri rain forest. It’s an unfortunately universal phenomenon.)


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