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Freeing the futures of German youths

New programs aim to ensure low-income kids can aspire to promising careers.

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"The study shows how important it is to offer parents institutional support – more child-care options, all-day school – because parents have limits," says Hurrelmann. "That we see that through the eyes of the children gives a new accent to the entire discussion, one that is devoid of ideology."

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"That it came from children themselves was an eye-opener," said Miriam Gruss of the Liberal Party, who chairs the children's commission in Germany's parliament.

Like Ms. Gruss, politicians and experts say that the study gives new weight to calls for Germany to move away from its traditional "mothers-do-it-all" culture and develop a better infrastructure to help families of all income levels take care of their children.

Germany's mistrust of public child-care services has deep roots. It is, in part, a reaction to the situation in former East Germany, where most mothers worked and left their children in child care.

Over the years, while neighboring countries such as France and Sweden developed infrastructure to help women work, West Germany encouraged mothers to stay home. Today, more than in most industrial nations, the lack of child-care options is one reason why German women tend to choose between work and family.

"The choice between family and career is a difficult one," says Christian Alt, a researcher for the German Youth Institute in Munich. "When you make the choice even more difficult, you have what we've had over the past 15 years: Birthrates go down."

Germany's 1.3 children per woman compares with 1.9 in France and 1.8 in Sweden. The birthrate among high-ranking professional women is particularly low. Fearing that sinking demographics could sap the workforce and undermine the state pension system, politicians have reacted.

Some states, such as Hamburg, are calling for "schools for all," where pupils stay together for nine or 10 years. Berlin has raised the decisive point of deciding the course of future schooling to age 11 or 12.

To improve the opportunities for low-income children, the state of Hesse is considering all-day schools and increasing the number of schools offering lunch and afternoon classes or activities.

Perhaps the greatest symbol for change is Ursula von der Leyen, who's Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth and the mother of seven. Shaking her conservative party's image of stay-at-home mothers, she has made efforts to combine family and job a hallmark of her tenure. By 2013, for example, Dr. von der Leyen wants to triple the number of nurseries for toddlers to 750,000.

The publicity surrounding the World Vision study testifies to a historic breakthrough in German society's view of caring for children, says Dr. Alt.

"Society's view in the past was that mothers were the only link to children. What we knew about children came from the mother," says Alt. "But [now we see] that children have their own perspective, that they have a message, and that their opinions are reaching political circles. That is totally new."

As a result of the study, Alt notes, "Politicians say, 'We have to think about whether we want to have children-friendly cities, and to do that, we have to relieve families.' "