Note: The law in Austria and other German-speaking countries may have changed since this entry was posted, and the law may apply differently in different regions. This blog post does not constitute legal advice and is only intended for entertainment.
Go anywhere in Vienna (or anywhere in the German-speaking world, for that matter), and you’re likely to come across these signs saying “Eltern haften für ihre Kinder!” pretty much everywhere you go. You’re almost certain to see them in and around construction sites, roadworks and scaffolding, but also playgrounds, restaurants and anywhere children might cause damage to themselves or to property. These signs are an institution; it’s always this fixed phrase, for which there isn’t one single equivalent in English that is used with such consistency and such frequency. These signs are so abundant, they’re almost redundant (rhyme absolutely intentional). But what are they actually trying to tell us?
The phrase Eltern haften für ihre Kinder can be translated into English as ‘Parents are liable for their children’. You could interpret this as something like ‘Parents are legally responsible for any damage caused by their children’. This is presented as a legal actuality, but it’s not quite as simple as that.
Firstly, this isn’t even true. At least, not 100% of the time. In Austrian law, parents are only legally liable for their children if they fail to supervise their children when they are required to and if damage was caused as a result (you could extend the phrase by adding …wenn Sie Ihre Aufsichtspflicht verletzt haben und hierdurch ein Schaden entstanden ist, which would make it more accurate from a legal standpoint, but that’s not quite as snappy and it’s harder to fit onto a sign that’s supposed to be eye-catching).
If we put aside the fact that these signs are not accurate and we take them for what they are, there’s a lot that’s still not clear. Let’s break it down a bit. Eltern haften für ihre Kinder. Who are the ‘parents’ here? Are the biological parents always the ones responsible? Or the legal parents? What if someone else should be supervising the children in that moment when something happens, are the parents still responsible? If a teacher fails to supervise children on a school trip and a child breaks something near one of these signs, are the parents really legally responsible?
And who counts as Kinder in this case? Even different regions in Austria have different definitions of who counts as a Kind, and these regions use different words to refer to people of different ages. Everyone under the age of 18 is minderjährig (a ‘minor’). According to the Jugendschutzgesetz (‘Youth Protection Act’) in Styria, Carinthia, Tyrol and Vorarlberg, everyone under the age of 14 counts as a Kind, and people between 14 and 18 are Jugendliche (‘adolescents’). The Jugendschutzgesetz in Salzburg says that only people up to the age of 12 are Kinder, and between 12 and 18 they are Jugendliche. In Upper Austria, all people under the age of 18 are Jugendliche (no Kinder), and in Vienna, Lower Austria and Burgenland they refer to everyone under 18 as junge Menschen (no Kinder or Jugendliche).
So who counts as a Kind? If there are no Kinder in Vienna, only junge Menschen, who are these signs referring to? Confusion!
Austrian law differentiates between people of 0-7 years (Kinder, ‘children’), people of 7-14 years (unmündige Minderjährige, ‘underage minors’) and people of 14-18 years (mündige Minderjährige, ‘responsible minors’). Let’s say for argument’s sake that everyone under the age of 14 counts as a Kind in the sense of Eltern haften für ihre Kinder. Let’s also say that Eltern refers to the people who are legally responsible for supervising a given child at any given time (this could be a guardian, for instance). For the sake of moving on, let’s pretend we’re clear about what the words in this sign mean. We’re not done yet though, since we can spot these signs all over the place. When you see such a sign, what area does it apply to? These signs often don’t have any additional information on them as to where exactly children should be supervised. Sometimes you might get a sign like this:
Here you can assume that the sign is referring to the fenced-off area where construction work is being carried out, though this added information tends to be the exception, not the norm. Let’s look at a few other signs I found in Vienna.
This is a sign that is on a wall in a children’s play area in a restaurant. Can we assume that this sign applies to the whole of the enclosed play area? Or just the part in the vicinity of the sign? Or could it be the whole restaurant? From the outside of the play area, you can barely even read the sign – you have to actually go into the play area to read it.
This is a sign that is in an outdoor seating area in front of an ice-cream shop. Does it apply to people within the seating area or also those around it? Does it just apply to the fence it’s attached to? Does it include the plants? What about the pavement area between the seating area and the ice-cream shop? Does it apply to damage to cars and motorbikes in the area surrounding the enclosed seating area?
The same ice-cream shop has a second sign:
This sign is situated about 30cm from the ground, next to the entrance. Who is this even for? Is this for the parents? If so, why is it so low down? Is it for the children? Is it for the dog? And does it apply to the interior of the shop? Or the window? Hmmm…
Then I came across this sign:
Is this referring to a situation where children might be climbing on top of this thing? Or if children manage to open it and fiddle with the electrical equipment inside? Or if children ruin the plants around it? Or does the sign refer to the entire property including the house?
When and where do Eltern really haften for their Kinder?
By now people are so used to seeing this sign everywhere that it’s hardly noticeable anymore. It’s just part of the furniture. The phrase Eltern haften für ihre Kinder is even written as a general statement – there is no in diesem Bereich or in diesem Geschäft or auf dieser Baustelle. It’s written in a way that it presents its content as a fact that applies in any context, in which case these signs would be nothing more than a reminder of what they try to present as the law – even if it only applies in certain situations and under certain conditions. But we don’t question the signs, they are there and they have their fixed place in the linguistic landscape of the German-speaking world. Though just because you’re used to seeing something, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about what it really means.
In the words of the insurance firm ERGO:
“Eltern haften nicht für ihre Kinder, Eltern haften für ihre Aufsichtspflicht über ihre Kinder.”(‘Parents are not liable for their children, parents are liable for their duty to supervise their children’).
Is it about time these signs were changed and made more accurate? Or has the phrase Eltern haften für ihre Kinder already become too established?
Final thought: A closer look at this sign reveals that it’s not just legally inaccurate, but grammatically too. That I in Ihre has no business being uppercase! Unless you want to address the parents directly, in which case it would make more sense to say something like Sehr geehrte Eltern: Sie haften für Ihre Kinder! Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it though…
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