YOU’RE walking down the street and see a young child - five years old, six maybe; they are cycling along the road on their own. What do you do? Is the child lost? Should you call the police?

Or how about this situation? You see a baby in a pram left outside a shop on its own. Or a young child in a playpark with apparently no parent or guardian nearby. How should you react?

Let’s push it further. There are some kids playing with matches at school; they’re lighting candles and starting a fire. Another group of young children has some sharp knives.

All of these situations are likely to bring British parents out in a sweat because that’s the way most of us think now. We’ve become used to young children being supervised most of the time – they could be in danger, the theory goes, so we should be there for them.

But do we really need to be like that or do we need to change the way we behave? Specifically, do we need to take a lesson from the Germans and give young children more freedom? In Germany, they call it selbstandigkeit: self-reliance, standing on your own two feet, and it is producing very different children from the ones growing up in this country.

The American writer Sara Zaske saw it for herself when she moved from Oregon to Berlin and raised her two young children there for more than six years. Zaske was used to the way things were done in America and Britain: young children are mostly driven to school, they are taken to extra-curricular activities; basically, if they are out and about, they will be supervised by at least one adult; and they certainly would never be allowed to play on their own with matches or knives. It’s sometimes called helicopter parenting and in Britain and the US, the helicopter is almost always hovering overhead.

But in Berlin it was entirely different and for Zaske, who has written a book about her experiences Achtung Baby!, it was all a bit of a shock. She remembers seeing a child, apparently on their own, dangling from the top of a high climbing frame. She also remembers seeing some parents leave a child outside a café in a pram. And she regularly saw young children walking, cycling or taking the underground to school by themselves.

“It was a big shock for me,” she says from her home in the US. “ I didn’t realise that’s the way it would be in Germany - the stereotype of Germans is that they are strict and follow all the rules. But, in fact, they let their children have a pretty free childhood.”

For an American used to how things were done at home, there were plenty of other shocks along the way – such as the time that her four-year-old daughter Sophia came home from kindergarten and told her mother that she had been cutting up food with knives. Later, when Sophia was six, the entire class went away on a week-long trip with their teacher; the parents were told to expect no phone-calls.

At first, Zaske was anxious but then, slowly, she could see the benefits for Sophia and her eight-year-old son Ozzie: they were spending lots of time outdoors, they were becoming more confident, and they were learning a bit of self-reliance, some selbstandigkeit. And so Zaske began to relax more, even when her children were doing things she would once have seen as shocking, such as using knives.

“My children using knives was shocking to an American parent,” she says, “but I talked to the teachers the next day and found out more about how the projects worked; I began to see that my kids were more capable than we think they are. When they’re holding something dangerous and they know it’s dangerous, the concentration on a small person’s face is pretty intense. And nobody lost a finger. And how else they are supposed to learn?”

Zaske would now like to see many more parents in the US and Britain take a lead from the German example, but the main obstacle, she says, is the anxiety that parents feel about danger. “There’s an exaggerated fear of predators and people kidnapping children,” she says. “Every story is really large in the news and it’s never put into context. It happens to about 100 kids a year in the US which is awful but we have more than 70 million kids – it’s not very likely.”

Zaske is also concerned about the prevalence in the UK and US of so-called attachment parenting – the idea that we should be there for our kids, whenever, wherever, which is reflected in the fact that fewer and fewer children are walking or cycling to school. This week, The Herald published a survey which showed that there has been a big drop in the number of children making their own way to school. A generation ago, it would have been the vast majority; now, most children are driven to school.

Zaske says this trend is driven by fear. “It’s gone overboard,” she says. “Of course we want to be attached to our kids and we want to be sensitive to them, but’s gone way over the top, where we are waiting on them hand and foot. There’s a lot of anxiety – that’s the main source of everything. We have a lot of fear, not only about safety, but also our children’s future.”

Gillian Cleminson, a 34-year-old hairdresser who lives in Renfew, has two children, aged ten and six, and is definitely aware of the anxiety that Sara Zaske describes. “You hear about horrible things happening to children – being murdered, abused, kidnapped,” she says. Gillian also believes that social media heightens the fear.

However, Gillian is also aware she needs to manage the anxiety so she and her husband Keir give her children much more freedom than others their age have. Her son Alfie, is six but has been allowed to play outside with his friends since he was four and now he and his sister Isabella, who’s 10, regularly play outside without any adult supervision.

Partly, Gillian wants to do this because she is aware that in other ways she does control their lives more than was normal 30 years ago. “The kids don’t get the freedom we used to as kids,” she says. “I grew up on an estate and we were out playing all the time, from teeny tiny. So we moved here because we knew there would be other families and we would be able to give them a little bit of freedom.

“I do worry, but at the same time I don’t feel like I let that overtake my life because I realise they don’t get as much freedom as we got. But it’s also about educating them about the dangers when they arise. Living here and getting out playing has made a massive difference – I have seen their confidence grow. They also know the boundaries.”

As for some of the other examples of the freer style of German parenting, Gillian is much more cautious. The kids do help prepare food at home with knives, but Gillian is very cautious about the idea of her ten-year-old daughter making her own way to school because of the perceived danger from traffic and fast cars. She does, though, want to offer her kids as much freedom as possible.

“In Britain especially,” she says, “we are so anxious but then all these kids grow up and they don’t know how to make a cup of tea. They don’t know how to live because everything has been done for them.”

Which is precisely why Sara Zaske believes the selbstandigkeit style of parenting is so important: raising a self-reliant child is a process that begins at birth, she says, and has to be nurtured and encouraged as early as possible. Parents get anxious, naturally; they worry about what might happen to their children. But they also need to ask themselves an important question: how can a child learn self-reliance if at every moment they are under the control of their parents?

Achtung Baby! The German Art of Raising Self-reliant Children by Sara Zaske is published by Piatkus at £13.99

How to teach self-reliance

Do not see child care as a bad thing: British parents often speak about child care with regret, but German parents see it more positively, as a good experience, and a new place to explore.

Let them play outside on their own as soon as possible: British children spend much more time indoors than they would have done 30 years ago but playing outside is good for children physically and mentally.

Do not chaperone children everywhere: the trick is to teach children how to deal with difficult situations. The advice handed out to Germen children about strangers, for instance, is very different. Children are told if they are being followed by someone they should go to a crowded place and ask strangers for help – the idea is that the majority of people would help a child in trouble.

Let children play with fire and knives: Let your children light candles or cut up food to prepare dinner. The idea is that they learn to use these things safely. And the bonus of letting children do things for themselves? It makes things easier for you too.