Expats in Germany with kids enjoy many benefits, including generous financial support from a state worried about declining birth rates. But what do you do when your child starts classifying space rockets by safety levels?
English-speakers who have had children in Germany, either with another foreigner or with a German, face a variety of challenges, but also receive a lot of support from a state anxious about the demographic future of the country.
Walking around large cities in Germany you would be forgiven for thinking that the only people in this land of falling birth rates that are having children are foreigners. In 2004 the birth rate in Germany was 1.4 per woman, well short of the 2 per woman needed to maintain a steady population. Although not as disastrous as in countries such as Italy, Germany’s birth rate of 8.3 per 10,000 population compares badly to rates of 10.8 in Britain, 12.3 in Australia and a massive 14.1 in the US.
The complications of bringing up children abroad start with the birth. Living in Germany adds an extra layer of bureaucracy to what is already a stressful time.
An extra layer of stress
Simon Clement, who works for an environmental consultancy in Freiburg in the Black Forest, found this out the hard way. He is British and was not married to his Czech wife when they had their two young boys.
“Because the Czech Republic wasn’t in the European Union then, the fact that I am the father of the children didn’t give them the right to stay here,” he says. The financial and bureaucratic situation persuaded them to get married to keep the family together.
Tricky and expensive
If one parent is German, then German citizenship is easily arranged. Organising nationality in your home country can be trickier. It can be expensive if you do it through the embassy, but if you arrange it in your native country, all the relevant documents have to be translated.
If the couple are married and either parent is British, then British citizenship is automatic. Children born to a British parent or parents do not have to be registered with the British consulate to ensure British citizenship, but birth certificates and passports still have to be arranged and paid for. The total cost for doing so is 169 euros.
However, as Simon Clement discovered, if the couple are not married, British citizenship does not automatically pass from father to son. “We had to do another application and pay an extra fee. It is not automatic, but mostly citizenship is granted,” he says.
Children born to at least one American citizen outside the US are normally able to get citizenship, but the parents may have to prove that they have lived in the States for a certain length of time. Children born to an American parent or parents pay 65 euros for registration with an American consulate.
Australian citizenship can be obtained for children of at least one Australian parent if the birth is registered at an Australian consulate. It is not automatic.
After all this has been sorted out, expats can settle down to raising the children. On the whole, expatriates living in Germany seem happy with Germany as a place for children. Alan McElroy, an English teacher from Ireland who has been in Berlin for many years, argues that, despite having a “reputation for seeing children as agents of chaos,” Germans are actually “pretty well disposed towards kids.”
Rachel Clugson, an Australian who has been living in Leipzig for the past seven months with her two children aged four and two, agrees. “Older men and women expect children here to greet them and speak to them. They are not invisible.”
Rachel Clugson has also been impressed by the facilities here. “There are some amazing things like the MutterZentrum which is like a comfortably equipped drop-in zone for parents and links to services like a clothing pool, library, child experts and even massage therapy.” Indeed, many German cities have many “Kindercafes” (children’s cafes) and second-hand shops for babies’ clothes and toys.
Simon Clement also thinks Germany has great infrastructure for kids. “The playgrounds are incredible.” In contrast to Britain, where few restaurants have much to offer children and pubs often explicitly keep them out, Germany has lots of places to take kids.
“It’s great,” says Simon, “bars and restaurants are really kid-friendly. Some of them even have play areas and special menus for them.”
Many expat mothers also point to the high quality of public transport as a big help. Rachel Clugson says that, “After hand to hand combat to get a pram onto a bus in Sydney, Leipzig’s tram system is considerably more kid friendly.”
Financially Germany offers advantages too. Compared to most English-speaking countries, Germany offers parents generous welfare payments. For the first three children, parents can get 154 euros per month in Kindergeld (child benefit), with a higher rate of 179 euros for any further offspring.
The so-called Familienkasse (Family Section) at the Bundesagentur für Arbeit (Ministry of Employment) is responsible for this benefit. Since 2005 there has also been a Kinderzuschlag for families with lower incomes for a period of up to three years of a maximum of 140 euros per child per month. Kindergeld is paid until the child reaches 18, or 27 if the child continues in education.
Government anxiety about Germany’s declining birthrate has meant that state support for parents is likely to continue to improve despite the country’s financial worries. Proposed new tax breaks brought in by Angela Merkel’s grand coalition will more than double the tax breaks for parents. Two thirds of childcare costs will be tax-deductible up to a level of 4,000 euros per year, which Simon Clement said would be “a real help to struggling parents.”
Paying for childcare may be getting easier, but getting a place for your child is not always straightforward. Rachel Clugson says that “Kindergarten access is difficult. There is a central enrolment available through the city council, but there are no available places until the start of the school year. In my case, I have had to wait four months for a confirmation that my son can even have a place reserved for five months time.”
Dawn Garibaldi, an American manager with a four year old son in Cologne, speaks for many female expats in Germany in expressing frustration at what this means for working mothers. “There isn’t any institutional child care system available to provide quality child care which covers a full time working schedule,” she says.
In contrast Alan McElroy has been very impressed “Kindergartens are much better and cheaper than in Ireland. They are well organised and you can have confidence in the staff.”
Although expat parents have their concerns and their gripes about the way things are run in Germany, it is clear that Germany is basically a children-friendly place. Simon Clement speaks for many expat parents when he says “having children here is much easier than in Britain. Things are set up for them.” That just leaves the question of why so few Germans have children if the country is a paradise for parents.
Alan McElroy suggests that the strangest thing about having children here is basically that they “grow up German,” he says. Alan recalls an occasion when his young daughter organised a picture of people in rockets according to the safety level of each. “No Irish child would ever do that – it’s so German!”
For details on registering births with the US consulate, see:
For registering births with the British consulate see:
For English-speaking kindergartens