Last fall, I picked up my 11-year-old daughter from her first middle school dance. It was at a nightclub in Amsterdam. As I stood outside waiting, streams of British bachelorettes stumbled down the alley around me. This was at 11:30 p.m. On a Wednesday. “Seriously, Mom,” Sophie said as we biked home, “you didn’t have to come get me.”
In Holland, the start of middelbareschool marks the beginning of adolescence. Kids are in sixth grade, and they want their independence. Most get mobile phones and debit cards to manage their own schedules and pocket money. They graduate to bigger bikes.
Armed with these tools of Dutch teenagerhood, Sophie zips across Amsterdam. Her dance class is a 20-minute bike ride away, through throngs of tourists and thickets of tram tracks. Come winter, it’s pitch dark by 5. When it’s warm, she and her friends scour the city to find a good jumping bridge. They change into bikinis, then leap — sometimes 30 feet — into the cool, inky waters of the canal beneath.
These kids have freedom. Freedom to get themselves where they need to go and make choices about what to do. They are responsible for their own activities and money and schedules.
What they don’t have are moms waiting outside school in SUVs, bearing snacks and athletic clothes, ready to ferry them to the next resume-building activity.
The Dutch loosen up early. My husband and I were thrilled when we arrived in Amsterdam to find that many playgrounds have cafes. On sunny afternoons, parents meet after work to sip Aperol spritzes while their kids scale a climbing structure. No mother stands beneath it yelling, “Be careful, honey!” No father hovers by the sandbox. They just let it be.
Their approach is not the same as neglect. Dutch parents are there — or, to use the current lingo, “present” — when it matters: primary school drop-off and pickup, family dinner, athletic competitions. I’m still amazed every morning when the bicycles zoom into the schoolyard. More often than not, Dad’s the one with a kinderopvang-bound 2-year-old tucked between his knees and an older child on the back rack. A quick tour of the classroom, a brisk kiss, and it’s off to work.
Ah, freedom — for the kids, to be sure, but for us parents, too. Freedom from that particularly American brand of stressed-out parenting: making a big show when it comes to the small stuff but often missing the important parts entirely.
My childhood in New Jersey in the early ’80s might not have been as sophisticated as Sophie’s, but it incorporated the same kind of personal freedom. I biked to school every day. Got myself to after-school sports practice, too. Just be home by 6.
Where did that freedom for American kids — and their parents — go? Last summer, when we were home for our monthlong break in Massachusetts, our 9-year-old attended a craft class at the local public school, two blocks from our house. Town population: 4,907. Everybody knows everybody else. And yet one mom insisted on walking our daughter home every day. Even after I explained to her (tight smile) that Charlotte could manage fine by herself, thank you very much.
Were there grave dangers lurking behind those white picket fences? I don’t think so. But I perceived a deep underlying anxiety in that mother. It’s what guides a lot of American parenting choices and forms the backbone of our pernicious helicopter parenting.
Meanwhile, in Amsterdam (population 800,000 or so), kids do the family shopping. One Saturday shortly after we arrived, I saw a pig-tailed girl of 7 or 8 puzzling over the poultry. She turned to me and asked which chicken parts she needed for her recipe. I must have given her a blank look, because she repeated the question in English. My confusion wasn’t linguistic, however; it was cultural. I was thinking, Little girl, where on earth is your mother?
Now I send Charlotte for the milk.
Most of us would agree that independence breeds self-confidence. Self-confidence contributes to self-worth, which is a foundation of personal happiness. Well, what do you know? Dutch kids are supremely happy. In a 2013 report on “child well-being in rich countries,” UNICEF ranks 29 advanced economies on the overall welfare of their youngest citizens. The Netherlands is No. 1. The US is 26th.
Yes, we have big problems, America. We need to improve our schools, combat inequality, fight guns and drugs . . . the list goes on. But we can work for change on a smaller scale, too. Family by family, we can resist the pull of fear-driven parenting.
In Amsterdam, our daughters play for hours in front of our house while I’m inside working. In Boston, I wouldn’t dare leave them for five minutes in Titus Sparrow Park. It’s not about safety. It’s about the judgment of those playground-patrolling parents.
What can we do? How about taking a page from the Dutch? Let the 4-year-old climb those monkey bars without hovering underneath. Let the 6-year-old walk with a buddy to school. The 11-year-old? Could she make dinner? Or maybe leap off that little bridge into the summer sun?