Welcome to a new series in which I try to use the Norwegian language to help you (and me!) understand life in Norway.
If you move to Norway with a small child, chances are that the first word you learn in Norwegian will be “barnehage.” Generally translated as “kindergarten” (“barn”=child and “hage”=garden), it is more like day care in the U.S. Indeed, one of the most confusing things that I started doing when we decided to move here was tell people back home that I needed to enroll my one-and-a-half year old in kindergarten.
As soon as we arrived in Oslo, people started asking me if I’d enrolled Luca in barnehage. No matter that I was a stay-at-home mom and that we were still living in temporary housing—and didn’t know where we’d be moving to. Because, you see, probably the biggest difference between barnehage and day care is public opinion. While most kids I know in the U.S. go to day care, there is also the general belief—even in many families where both parents want to work—that day care is not ideal.
In contrast to the ambivalence over day care that is so prevalent in the U.S., Norwegians fully embrace it. Much like in the U.S., it is a necessity for most families because given the cost of living, most families are—and must be—dual income. But it is also a way of socializing children, making sure they are good Norwegians, regardless of where their parents are from.
Another interesting difference between the U.S. and Norway is that because Norwegians don’t question whether barnehage is a good thing, they don’t seem to worry about which one to send their kids to. Indeed, when I asked our landlady about the barnehage “options” in our area she was confused as to why we’d even consider sending Luca anywhere other than the big public one around the corner.
Whereas in the U.S. parents (at least middle/upper class ones) are obsessed with finding the right parenting style and a day care with the right pedagogical philosophy, Norwegian parents just don’t seem to stress about that. (Indeed, one of the most frequent criticisms you will hear from foreigners about the Norwegian style of parenting is that their is only one way of doing things. Which makes it easy for Norwegian parents to decide what to do in a given situation, but frankly makes me terrified that my occasional yelling is going to result in a visit from the barnevernet [Child Protective Service].) So while there are a handful of non-traditional barnehage (i.e., Montessori, Steiner (Waldorf), Reggio Emilia-inspired) there isn’t that much difference between the others—they are simply play-based centers where a lot of time is spent outside.
Of course, it’s not entirely true that all barnehage are the same. I’ve been warned (by Americans) to be cautious about the large ones and also the bilingual Spanish-Norwegian one (which make me sad because—other than the location—it sounds so perfect) because the supervision can be a little lax. (Then again, I’ve heard the same thing about Norwegian parenting in general, so perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising?) While most start at 1 year and have a play-based “curriculum” throughout, some start at 3 and a few are rather academic. Just how much time is spent outside can vary, as well as their militancy over what food you put in your child’s matpakke. (One way in which they are all similar is that regardless of whether they are public or private, traditional or with a specific pedagogical approach, they pretty much cost the same—about US$350 per month, a little more if food is provided.)
But even with the application process and the waiting lists, I get the impression that it’s mostly my fellow Americans who are visiting multiple barnehage to figure out which one would be best for their kid. (Well, the Americans and those who, like me, missed the deadline for applying for the main intake. In that case you are apparently supposed to visit and try to ingratiate yourself so your child can get a spot even if the barnehage is “full.” But I’m not sure what exactly that entails, which is one of the reasons why I haven’t done it.)
So, will L go to barnehage, you might be wondering? Although there are a handful of “international mothers” who reject the idea, I certainly want him to. Partially so he can learn Norwegian, partially so he doesn’t get bored, and partially so I can go get my hair done without bringing him along. But because of the timing of our move, we missed the deadline for him to start in August. And most of the barnehage in our district are full. There’s also the fact that three year olds don’t get quiet time, let alone nap time, which—as someone whose read lots of books on healthy sleep habits—has me rather concerned even though we’re still a year away from that dilemma.
So when we get back from vacation, I’m going to contact the familiebarnehage [in-home day care] down the street that I know has an opening, as well as a couple others that I find more pedagogically appealing (you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl); figure out how you ingratiate yourself with a Norwegian; and hope we can find a spot, even if I only send him part-time.