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Life Stages: Family and Parenting

Cultural Standards

Most German families consist of a father, mother, and one or two children. The average woman in Germany has only about 1.4 children—a statistic among the lowest in Europe—and about 30 percent of German women between the ages of 30 and 40 are childless. Most Germans set the appropriate number of children for a family at two. More than half of families with children have only one child. Small families continue as the norm, and even rural families rarely have more than two children per household.

Most German children grow up with both parents working. The current family model depicts the husband and wife each pursuing a profession and sharing responsibility for housework and childcare. Simultaneously, they make certain that they both have the same amount of time for their profession. Although having a family and children remains a high priority, couples in Germany struggle to coordinate family and career. Their inability to achieve a balance without compromising contributes to the decline in the number of marriages and in the number of newborns, as well as to the climb in average age for marrying.

No economic or social status attached to having children exists in Germany. People have children because they want to. The government provides Kindergeld  (child benefits) for children less than 18 years of age, regardless of the parents’ income. Parents without gainful employment or those who work part time are entitled to a federal childcare allowance until the child turns 24 months old. Some states continue to pay the federal childcare allowance even after expiry of the entitlement.

Typical Families

Although both parents theoretically share equal responsibility for childcare, over half of working women claim that they shoulder the major share of household responsibility. Couples work out their own systems for child care, and some fathers may take direct childcare responsibility. Typically, though, German women act as the primary caregivers for their children. In most German families, the parents make decisions jointly. The mother, however, usually remains primarily responsible for family arrangements. Traditionally, the family regards the father as the head, and both parents try to instill traditional family values such as order, responsibility, and ambition in their children.

Most Germans must be at work by 8 or 9 a.m., and they work until 5 p.m. Employees may work extended hours on Thursdays. Industrial workers usually work over 35 hours a week. Bank employees may get off work a little earlier, while shopkeepers often work until 8 in the evening. Long lunch breaks in the early afternoon, once common, are increasingly rare.  

Most children start school at about 8 a.m. They usually have a break at around 10, and the school day ends by 2, when children go home for lunch. German children typically spend their afternoons doing homework—often copious amounts of it—or playing sports at local clubs. Families likely spend time together in the evenings and usually eat their evening meal together. They often devote Sundays to family activities like hiking, skiing, swimming, cycling, and touring in cars. Many Germans own or rent Schrebergarten (small garden plots in or near the city) with small gazebos that they use for setting up barbecues and for relaxing on summer evenings. Families also enjoy watching TV or socializing with friends. Soccer is the favorite German sport, and most Germans belong to soccer clubs.

German women work hard but have less to show for it than women in many of their fellow European Union member states. When unemployment rates climb, sometimes women are forced to accept part-time or lower-wage positions. Both men and women adapt their lives to their partner’s professional life as well as their own, and regard work as an important part of life. Germans do not see work and family as mutually exclusive values.

In the event of a divorce, the family court awards custody either jointly to the parents or to one parent. Courts usually grant joint custody until the child reaches the age of 18. In cases where one parent receives custody, the court usually grants visitation rights to the non-custodial parent, unless perceived harmful to the child’s interests.

For children born out of wedlock, mothers usually receive custody, although the father may obtain joint custody through a joint declaration made before a notary.