People are always very surprised when I tell them I think Prague is more child-friendly than Oslo. Isn’t Oslo part of the Scandinavian wonderland in which everyone is happy all the time, the quality of life is high across the board, and kids are allowed carefree childhoods outdoors?
The difference, I explain is between a child-friendly and a family-friendly environment. And it begins with the countries’ very different approaches to parental leave, though it goes well beyond that.
In the Czech Republic, parental leave can last for up to three years. Although the father* can take a portion of the leave, until recently it was unusual for men to take any share of the time. Additionally, many people consider 2-3 years to be an ideal time to wait between children, the result being that it is not uncommon for a woman to be out of the office on parental leave for 5-8 years.
Parental leave in Norway is much shorter (although still luxuriously long compared to American standards, even in industries like tech that have “good” benefits) at about 10 months. The biggest difference isn’t the length, though, it’s the fact that in most cases, the father is required to take about 2 months of leave. (This wouldn’t be the case for us, but that’s a post for another day.)
Requiring both parents to take some leave makes a huge difference for the family unit. While it appears to me that mothers in Norway still do a lot more child and family-oriented work (in addition to their “9-5”) than dads, the men have, in general, a better understanding than men in other countries of the actual work that goes in to parenting and maintaining a household, since they’ve spent a short period of time as the (more or less) primary caregiver.
This (usually mandatory) sharing of parental leave is a big part of the reason I think Norway is more family-friendly than the Czech Republic—the system is designed to “level the playing field” between parents early on. Add to that the inexpensive child care system that is widely available and (mostly) wholeheartedly embraced by society and it is “easy” for women to return to work**—which makes it easier for them to get “good” jobs in the first place since employers aren’t asked to hire them “knowing” that they’ll be out on leave for several years if (as is often assumed) they have a child.
But my experience as a stay-at-home mom tells me that while these policies make for a very family-friendly country (one where the burdens—and thus, opportunities—are more likely to be evenly distributed between partners), Prague is a better place to be a parent (especially a stay-at-home parent) of a toddler.
In Prague, whether moms take the full three years of parental leave or condense it, it is uncommon for kids to enter group care before they start materska skola at three. As a result, there are a ton of activities for a mom (or other caregiver) to do with her child. Even if you only look at activities in English, you’ve got Kindermusik, Little Gym, swimming lessons, and more. Add to that the playgroups for international families and the kids’ corners at what seems like most cafes around the city and you can easily find a place to go with your tot every day of the week.
Then you’ve got Oslo. Since parental leave ends before the child’s first birthday and almost all toddlers are in barnehage, there is almost nothing to do with your toddler if you are a SAHM. Swimming lessons, yes. And I am excited to enroll Luca in the kinder rockers class at Oslo Rock School after his birthday. But other than that, there really aren’t activities during the week for kids his age.
There is, sadly, another way in which I think Prague is more child-friendly. Although I don’t think the people of Prague are generally any friendlier than the people of Oslo, when it comes to kids, they are much more likely to embrace them.
While there have certainly been some exceptions in each city, my general experience in Prague was that if you needed help—taking your stroller up or down stairs or on to public transportation, for example—someone would always offer to help, without you asking. In contrast, it is a very rare day in Oslo when someone will offer to help me with my stroller. So rare, in fact, that I often choose less convenient tram routes because I know I’ll “only” have to lift the stroller up and down one step instead of three.
Then, of course, there is the general tolerance for sharing air with a toddler. Probably because of all the kids’ corners and just the general prevalence of small children in public spaces, this rarely seemed to be an issue in Prague. Sure, if your child was screaming for an extended period of time, there was a good chance that you would get a dirty look or two. But for the most part, people who didn’t want to interact with your child would just ignore him. In Oslo, however, while it is not exactly uncommon to have an elderly person (why is it always an elderly person?) smile at the child, most adults act quite put off by the fact that I bring my child with me—even if the place I brought him is a store for kids.
When we decided to move to Norway, one of the things that really excited me is that I thought it would be a much better place to raise a child. And in terms of what is available—such as free medical care and inexpensive child care in an environment where kids are (for the most part) given the freedom to be kids—I think it is a great place to be a kid. What I didn’t realize is that didn’t necessarily mean it would be a great of a place to be a SAHM. Yes, the policies are phenomenal (especially if you work outside the home) and that’s what makes it very family-friendly, but it’s hard to see it as child-friendly when there are so few activities for young kids and most people would rather not have to deal with them during the day when they are “supposed to” be at barnehage.
*I do not know how the law works when a child is adopted and/or the parents are not a heterosexual couple. Thus, while I recognize that my language is not inclusive, since I don’t know how it works in these other situations, I’ve decided not to risk being misleading by changing it.
**I know returning to work isn’t actually easy for all woman. Whether they just wish they could stay home with their babies or are dealing with specific challenges such as post-partum depression, it can be very difficult. But with so much more societal support, I suspect it’s still a little easier than it would have been if they were in the U.S. where child care is about four times the price and comes with a lot of baggage about what is best for the child.
Jelleke Vanooteghem / Unsplash.com (Walking to the playground)
London Scout / Unsplash.com (Smiles in the street from mom)
John-Mark Kuznietsov / Unsplash.com (Family Picnic)
Do you think there is a difference between a child-friendly and a family-friendly environment? What do you think the distinction is?