Last week, an article from the New York Times popped up in my Facebook newsfeed about parents from around the world calling on parents in the United States to lighten up. It was a sentiment that resonates with me deeply. For me, one of the very best parts about living in Norway is the independence and freedom that kids—even very young kids—enjoy. I like my independent toddler. And I don’t want him to lose his independence because we move continents again.
Childhood Independence in Norway in a Nutshell: Barnehage På Tur
Whenever anyone asks me about the difference between parenting in Norway and the United States, I tell them the same story. Not only does the image of my barely two-year-old waiting for the bus make me smile, I can’t think of a better example of the countries’ different approaches to independence.
Four or five months into Luca’s barnehage career, they went on their first big tur (“field trip”): going to the theater to watch Luca’s favorite play, The Three Little Pigs. There was no school bus to take them. Instead, they threw their reflective vests over their snowsuits and walked to the public bus stop. Forty minutes and two different buses later, they arrived at the theater.
When I posted something on Facebook about Luca’s first field trip, many of my American friends asked whether I went with them. Which made me snort. After all, with my Norwegian vocabulary of roughly 10 words, I wouldn’t have been very much help. But that wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t invited. Parental “chaperones” aren’t really a thing here.
What is Independence?
Around the same time as Luca’s Three Little Pigs adventure, I read a new book from one of my favorite genres: cross-cultural parenting. Although the book (Achtung Baby) is about raising kids in Germany, not Norway, there are some significant similarities. In particular, how something as seemingly straightforward as “independence” means something dramatically different in the U.S. than it does on this side of the pond.
While people in the United States claim to value independence, what they mean is strikingly different than what parents mean here. (Or would mean if it was something worth talking about.) In Norway, taking (reasonable) risks is paramount, as is differentiating the child from the parent. A common third or fourth birthday present here is a set of real tools, and thanks in part to barnehage, kids are all but forced to have a life of their own beyond that of their parents. In contrast, independence in the U.S. seems to be mostly about the environment in which a young child falls asleep, and kids are always accompanied by an adult, preferably a parent. Even parents like me, who are fortunate enough to stay at home AND have childcare, are expected to spend most of their day shepherding their children around, keeping them safe from statistically improbable dangers, and chaperoning field trips. (Indeed, one of my favorite stories about the latter came from a teacher-friend outside of Seattle who once had four parents attend a (minor) field trip with a single child.)
I’m still a little freaked out by the tools. (Seriously, who gives a preschooler a saw for his birthday?!?) But after seeing how transformative this field trip was for Luca, I’m all about the differentiation.
Before I go any further, I want to make clear that the kids did not go alone. There were four adults to twelve kids, including one (Norwegian-speaking) parent. And while this was the most significant trip they’d taken, it wasn’t their first. They had plenty of practice tramping around in their reflective vests, holding hands, as weekly field trips are a standard component of the barnehage experience.
But the key thing for my son and his budding independence was that his mom and dad weren’t there. He was already a pro at public transportation, but he’d always ridden it with us. This time was different. It was just him and his buddies (a category that totally included his teachers, who for months were the only “friends” he could name). And when I picked him up from barnehage, I immediately sensed what that meant to him.
The baby that I had kissed goodbye that morning had been replaced by a little man, his chest puffed out and his head held high. As he told me about the trip, I could sense an immense pride in him that I hope he carries with him for a very long time.
Independent Kids Means Easier Parenting
As much as I love seeing Luca feeling confident in his abilities, this “new” approach to independence has even bigger benefits for me, as his mom, than it does for him. And that will be especially true over time.
Raising a toddler is a very hands-on experience. Experience taught me that a lot of the advice out there about not interfering and leaving kids to figure out conflict themselves is meant for older kids. Not necessarily a lot older. Much of it will make sense for a three-year-old. But my slap-happy two-year-old? Definitely needs more coaching and intervention than I wish I had to provide.
But while Luca (and I’d like to think most two-year-olds) needs plenty of coaching on how to behave, he doesn’t need someone to hover over him when he’s playing by himself on the playground. Which means that as his mom, I can sit back with a book more often. And if he’s playing by himself in the backyard, I don’t even have to go outside.
While this is a small difference now, it becomes much more pronounced as kids enter elementary school. The first time we visited Oslo after deciding to move here, another American mom took me for a walk through her neighborhood, showing me the 1 km long route that her seven-year-old daughter and her friends followed each morning as they walked alone to school. More recent discussion on an expat mom board highlighted the fact that kids of that age are not only allowed, but expected, to be left alone at home while their parents run errands. And judging from what I see on the bus, they’ll be doing the errands themselves in a year or two.
All of this means a lot more time, and a lot less stress, for parents. Not only are you not expected to hover over your children, you aren’t expected to be with them every waking moment that they aren’t in school. And you don’t have to worry that someone is going to call Child Protective Services on you because your seven-year-old is playing in the (fenced in) front yard. (True story. It’s hard being a Scandinavian parent in the United States.)
Taking Norwegian-Style Childhood Independence Back to the U.S.
If you are reading this from the U.S., you’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s nice and all, but I don’t live in this utopia you’re describing. So what am I supposed to do?”
I get it. In some parts of the U.S., laws explicitly forbid you from leaving your ten-year-old home alone for any period of time, and in plenty others, the police and busybody neighbors try to stretch child neglect statues to cover this and other reasonable behavior. It’s a big con when we consider moving back.
But I also know that while our experience would be different if we were living in the U.S., with diligence and intentionality, we could provide Luca with a similar (even if not identical) level of independence to that which he enjoys here.
Here are some ways to do so:
Find Likeminded Families
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is find other parents who share your vision for childhood independence and latch on to them like glue. The last thing you want is to feel obliged to hover over your child during playdates, and the best way I can think of to avoid that is to fill your schedule with playdates with other parents who encourage their kids to be independent.
Wondering where to find these new friends? Personally, I’d start with a forest preschool or one of these cool forest playgroups I learned about recently. Although I’m not particularly outdoorsy, I’ve noticed a strong correlation between people who have embraced so-called “free range parenting” and those who have embraced the importance of nature play. So I’m ready to invest in some good raingear and spend more time outdoors.
Seriously Consider a House with a Backyard
This pains me to say as selling our downtown Seattle condo was the most devastating thing about moving to Europe. I’m an urban girl through and through and even after Luca was born, I was convinced that a backyard was unnecessary as long as there was a playground nearby.
But that’s not always true, especially when you have to accompany your child to the playground. Or anywhere else for that matter. But with a backyard, they at least have some extra space to play and test their limits while you cook dinner or enjoy a cup of tea. Inside.
Just be sure there is a fence to keep your kids (and yourself) safe from prying eyes.
Help Kids Do Things for Themselves
When I think about what I most want Luca to learn, it’s self-reliance. Not that I don’t want to be there for him, but it’s inevitable that I won’t always be. So not only does he need to be able to rely on other adults, he needs to be capable of doing things for himself. This means taking a much more hands-off approach to parenting than I think many of us would do naturally.
If you are interested in helping your young child do more for themselves, read up on Montessori practical life and how to implement Montessori at home. While some things (like building a child-size kitchen complete with plumbing) might not be realistic—it certainly isn’t for us—some of it is really easy to do, you just have to trust your child. Example: Since Luca was about a year old, we’ve encouraged him to pour his own water and he’s eaten almost exclusively off of our fine china. (And in case you’re wondering, he is the only one in the house who hasn’t broken any plates.)
In addition, you’ll probably need to slow down your home life. Like many parents who are interested in more respectful approaches, we’ve long let Luca pick out his own clothes, at least most of the time. But actually letting him dress himself is more of a struggle. It’s not that he can’t (although he often doesn’t want to). It’s that I’m often in too much of a hurry. And while sometimes you really don’t have time, clearing the schedule as much as possible so that you have time more often can make a world of difference.
Wait a minute, you might be wondering. What does this have to do with toddlers taking public transportation? A lot more than you think, actually. Because while taking the bus to the theater is a lovely example of childhood independence in Norway, what stands out more than the fact he was able to do that (although it does seem pretty remarkable) is the pride that he felt as a result. And that is something that we can instill in our kids by trusting them to do all sorts of little things for themselves, with only as much help from us as they actually need.
Subtly Let Other Parents Know You Have Things Under Control
Parenting is hard. Parenting in public is harder.
Whether we’re in Oslo, Seattle, or somewhere else, if my toddler is around, chances are that my monkey mind is chattering away about how mortified I’ll be (or am!) because of some totally age-appropriate behavior that he engaged in, like throwing wood chunks up in the air. (Or something more mortifying, but still age-appropriate, like hitting another kid.) And this chattering gets extra loud when I’m surrounded by parents who I “know” wouldn’t approve of my allegedly laissez-faire parenting style.
Telling myself that other people’s opinions don’t matter has never worked for me. But making it loud and clear (literally) to others that I’m being intentional and not just ignoring my child, can. For practical advice on how to do this, I highly recommend reading Rule 28 from the book It’s Okay Not to Share.
I don’t know if this tactic would keep you out of trouble if you leave your child in the car while you go to Starbucks, but it does help ward off the stink eye when you let your kid throw wood chips in the air. And who knows, maybe it would keep the people in the car next to you at Starbucks from calling the police.
Do you think young children are given enough opportunities to be independent?