Zero-Tolerance Policies: Are We Sure They’re a Great Idea?

| August 23, 2015

I was recently pondering the correlation between letting children work things out themselves, even to an extent physically, versus always telling them how to get along; and violent crime. Specifically, I was interested in whether there was a significant difference in violent crime rates between Germany, where they are much more lenient when it comes to children roughhousing and working things out on their own with one another, and America, the land of zero-tolerance policies and helicopter parenting.

graffiti dieburg


I am comparing Germany and the US through queries on, an Australian website that compiles all sorts of global statistics, including crime statistics.

Violent Crime: Murder

America ranked 19x higher than Germany. (In a different comparison, the World Health Organization ranked the US as having 8x higher a murder rate than Germany. Neither statistic is looking good for the US.)

Violent Crime: Intentional Homicide

America ranked 6x higher than Germany in the number of homicides per 100,000 residents.

Murders with firearms per million people

America ranked 10x higher than Germany with murders with firearms per million people.


America ranked 2x higher than Germany with the number of robberies per 100,000 people.


America ranked 27% higher than Germany in Number of assaults recorded by police in that country per 100,000 population.

Serious Assaults

The US ranked 54% higher than Germany in the number of major assaults recorded by per 100,000 population.

I am not including Violent Rape statistics due to the difference in definitions between the two countries, and how unreliable I find statistics in this area to be since so many rapes go unreported worldwide. Although America ranked higher, with more reported rapes than Germany, I do not personally consider rape data to be reliable anywhere around the world.

If one would like to take into account the suicide rates, America ranked 3x higher in suicides from age 15-24 and 63% higher in ages 25-34 (and higher across the board in every other age category, as well).

When it came to opinions–how people actually feel about crime–according to the same website’s comparisons, Germans feel safer than Americans, have fewer fears of being victim to a crime than Americans have, and rank lower than Americans in perceiving violent crime problems in their country.

Lest I be misunderstood: I am not saying that there is no crime in Germany. Indeed, there is crime right here in Dieburg. Yet, according to an American criminal justice website,

“[A] notable trend is that no European or Asian cities are in the top 50 deadliest cities [in the world]. This complicates the picture of the US standing toe-to-toe with the industrialized world as a low violent crime nation. At the very least, the deadliest cities in the US have many more homicides than the deadliest cities in Europe and Asia.”

graffiti prague


Good question.  We Americans should be exploring, as a nation, whether zero-tolerance policies make sense for our society in the long run. Germans in general, from my three years of experience living in the country, are more tolerant of “kids being kids” (e.g. not expecting them to sit still for 2 hours, letting them run around in public, roughhousing, etc.); Germans are not as strict as Americans perceive them to be, when it comes to children.  They’re not forcing kids to get along, or forcing kids to share (funny that a socialist society is not forcing kids to share, while a society that shuns socialism is forcing their kids to share…hmmm…I need to think more on that).

Nor are children in Germany confined to a desk as long as American schoolchildren are. Elementary school hours are much shorter; there are many breaks in school, and plenty of sport and recess, helping kids to get out all their energy in between learning sessions.  And “kids are kids” for one year longer in Germany: elementary school starts at first grade, and most Kindergarten environments are free-play.  Elementary school classes might go to a playground or walk to the library without the parents knowing, as the school, and people in general, have much less fear of being sued here in Germany.

While I don’t want to be a parent whose child hits another child, I also don’t prefer that her home society ranks ridiculously higher in violent crime.

In addition to being anti-bullying, I am not a fan of children being physical toward one another. When we first arrived in Germany, Sequoia, who had come from American preschools, would tell the teacher if she was hit, or if she saw kids physically fighting. The teachers’ responses were nothing like in America. Often they would just let the kids work it out. For two years, we told Sequoia repeatedly: you are not allowed to hit anyone. Last year, however, after we were tired of her getting bullied (e.g. coming home with broken umbrellas, missing school supplies, and tales of bullying), we told her to hit back.

I had to laugh: the very day after I told her to hit back, I got a call from the school. The school had gotten a phone call from the parent of a girl who, up until that day, had been bullying Sequoia. The parent was upset because Sequoia had pinched his daughter. I told the father: I told Sequoia to return the acts of that particular girl. The next day, something prompted a meeting between one of the teachers and most of the girls in the class. They were there to get out their issues with that girl, and for the girl to get out her issues with the others. I was left wondering if Sequoia’s physical response to the girl had started a figurative discussion.

In our case, we had the frustration of coming into the system late and with American reactions to what we considered dangerous situations (like scissors on the table). Sequoia spent too much time being passive in this environment. She was shy, and had to learn how to come out of her shell and stand up for herself. We are still working on this, and on teaching her the differences between self-defense, which we advocate; retaliation, which she sometimes confuses with self-defense; instigating; and losing one’s temper physically.

Sequoia will be attending the International School this year instead of the local German school, in order to better prepare her for the curriculum and school environment she will experience upon returning to America.  Hopefully when we return to the States, she does not join the alarmingly ludicrous trend in suspending elementary school students in zero-tolerance schools.


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Category: Europe, Ex-pat Parenting, FAMILY, Germany, In Germany A Broad blog, Living in Germany, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Kari Martindale is a writer and ESL instructor. She’s visited all 50 states and 37 countries, including many of the big cities of Europe and a ton of Christmas Markets. She spends her days straddling the fence between a sense of adventure and a sense of dread. She is married to what is clearly a patient man and has a daughter who, frustratingly, is just like her. Her academic and professional backgrounds are in linguistics and foreign languages. When she's not teaching ESL, she's writing. When she's not writing, she's thinking about her next trip.

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