My “cleverest” parenting ideas are like radioactive compounds. They start out relatively stable, but shortly they begin to decompose. Soon, their positive effects can be measured in nanoseconds, while their toxic fallout is guaranteed to outlive me.
Such was my clever idea of challenging the kids to a “quiet contest” in the stairwell of our Berlin apartment building. We’re there for six weeks this summer, and we expect to return next summer, too. I don’t want to be an asshole to the neighbors who will hear most of our kid chaos. The stairwell has the kind of acoustics you’d expect in a medieval castle. Everything is amplified to eleven and beyond. Drop your keys, and they crash like a freeway pileup. Normal kid tromping, stomping, and shouting echoes until you imagine someone must be bleeding, though it’s only your own eardrums.
The first few “contests” went well, with the boys tying for first place and Mama (that’s me) losing decisively. But now the kids have begun to bicker about which of them “won.” They won’t drop the contest, even though they’ve proven to me, and to themselves, that they can be wonderfully considerate. They want to stick with it until it ends in a howling match that sets a new decibel record for the building.
It could be worse, though. Until last winter, kids were legally forbidden to make noise in Berlin. In other words, kids were forbidden to be kids! By law! Then Berlin became the first of Germany’s 16 states to allow children to make noise. (Berlin is a state in its own right, as well as a city.) Here’s how the BBC reported it last February:
Until now, only church bells, emergency sirens, snow ploughs and tractors have fallen outside the stringent rules on excessive noise in Germany.
In Berlin alone, hundreds of complaints are made each year about noise levels in kindergartens and children’s playgrounds.
Some day-care facilities have even been forced to close after local residents have gone to court in search of a quiet life.
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. …
“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.
We never had any formal complaints filed, though last week a woman in the subway was shooting poison darts out of her eyes at my two boys, who were the very picture of quiet civility. (At that moment, anyway.) But neighbors living upstairs from us had to contend with constant harassment and even a lawsuit from a hostile neighbor who simply hated kids.
Even with the new law, I’m not gonna get too smug. Childhood is officially authorized between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. At all other times – including all of Sunday – they are not to be heard. Maybe the kids’ next contest will involve putting their noise on a schedule?
Meanwhile, the garbage trucks make as much noise as they like, even at 7 a.m. Oh, and jackhammers seem to enjoy similar rights. No word on the legality of vuvuzelas.