LETTING GO

How Dutch Parents Raise Free-Range Kids

There aren’t many helicopter parents or tiger moms in the Netherlands, where children are taught the basics, like swimming and bike riding, and then fend for themselves.

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As a first-time mom, I remember cherishing the last weeks of my pregnancy, when my baby was still safe in the womb, protected by my body. I was already aware that pregnancy was the first and last moment I would be fully in control of my child’s whereabouts and safety. Once the baby was born, all kinds of perils were waiting for her: potential cot death, falls, drowning, traffic accidents, etc. But though all of us parents know the abject terror of being in-charge of a small and vulnerable being, we must mediate our constant fears that something bad might happen.

Since I’ve lived in the Netherlands, I have learned from the Dutch to put risks into perspective for my children’s sake. Today, for example, I must hold my fertile imagination in check once again—my 10-year-old daughter has cycled off to football training two miles away with a friend and won’t be back until after dark. My 12-year-old son is at homework class at his secondary school four miles away and must make his way back through busy city traffic on his own afterwards. (Both got home safely.)

Perhaps it is part of the human condition to experience a certain amount of anxiety, but parents often seem to bear more than their fair load. Our kids have only one childhood, and it lays the foundation for the rest of their lives. Knowing this can lead parents to turn childhood into a worriment: we are hyper-aware of all the risks our babies are exposed to from birth onwards, and our instinct is to protect them. Consequently, many of today’s children are brought up shielded from risk, as opposed to self-sufficient.

In a recent interview, Damiaan Denys, a Belgian philosopher and psychiatrist who works in Amsterdam, talked about what first attracted him to the Netherlands: “I was impressed by all the unbordered expanses of water, by the total freedom … Dutch people teach their children to swim, instead of fencing off the danger.” It’s a great metaphor. Despite the boundless freedom, he warns that western society in general is becoming ever more protective: “We now expect rules and regulations to banish all risk. We can no longer deal with our fears.” So how do the Dutch deal?

The Netherlands is a wealthy Western European country that enjoys all the conveniences of modern life and suffers the attendant first world prob­lems, including crime, murder, and child abduction. However, there is no tab­loid press whipping up parental anxiety, and Dutch parents have a gift for putting things into perspective: they appraise the level of real risk to their child and act accordingly. The Dutch have a word for this: rel­ativeren, which means weighing up the pros and cons. Rather than worrying about child-snatchers, pedophiles, or major disasters, the Dutch prepare their children for more common risks, like drowning or traffic accidents, by ensuring that they can swim, ride a bike, and cross the road safely.

Statistically, the Dutch are more likely to die of drowning than in a bike accident, which is probably why they are more cautious around water than in traffic. To expats, the Dutch come across as incredibly un-safety conscious. Unlike in the U.S., there is no health-and-safety policing here. Relatively speaking, of course, it is safer to bike in the Netherlands because of the amazing bike-path network, but it is common to see parents balancing more than one small child on bikes without child seats—like a traveling circus—and no one wears bike helmets. The Dutch have learned to be more relaxed about risks.

The same can be said about general “street wisdom.” Parents are advised to let their children play out on their own and go to school alone, so that they learn to deal with potentially dangerous situations themselves. In so doing, they will learn how to assess risks and avoid trouble. Dutch parents themselves played outside unsupervised when they were young, and now they consciously allow their children to do the same. So, while the Dutch parents I spoke to did worry about their children playing next to water or in the woods, or cycling on busy bike paths, they try to put their fears into perspective and not allow them to curtail or restrict their children unreasonably. As I do my best to imitate them, my own nerves don’t necessarily diminish, but my children’s independence and self-sufficiency grows.

What might look, from the outside, like easy-going, relaxed parenting is often quite challenging for the parents involved. They must make a conscious decision to let go of their own fears in the interest of their child. It is not, as I have found, that Dutch parents aren’t aware of the risks. I’ve found that they are just as aware as Anglo parents, they simply approach risk in a saner fashion. Consequently, these parents are more likely to be self-fulfilled, independent, and to enjoy their own life. They do not feel the need to be overly protective because they trust the society around them to cater to their needs and to those of their children.

Parents in individualistic societies like the U.S. tend to take on sole responsibility for their offspring, but it would be better to cultivate trust in the children’s surroundings. Dutch parents share responsibility with other parents, grandparents, and neighbors, which takes the pressure off busy working parents. They are confident that if their kids fell from their bikes, others would rush to help. Research at the University of Leiden has shown that this kind of social safety net can contribute significantly to keeping children on the straight and narrow in later life. What’s more, independence and autonomy benefit both children and parents and make them happier. Simply put, get a handle on your anxieties as a parent or you’ll be making your child vulnerable to more risks in the long run.

Michele Hutchison is the co-author, with Rina Mae Acosta, of The Happiest Kids in the World. Michele Hutchison worked in publishing in Britain before moving to Amsterdam in 2004. She is now a prominent translator of Dutch literature and lives in a traditional Dutch house with her husband and two children. Rina Mae Acosta is a writer from California currently living in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and two young sons. She founded the successful parenting blog Finding Dutchland.