In many countries, children have the very freedoms that American parents can grant only by chafing against law or custom, our international readers say.
A mother in Sweden says she often didn’t know where her elementary-school-aged son went for the afternoon after school.
A father in Paris says he sends his daughters outside to the playground nearby — alone.
And a mother in the Netherlands says parents don’t feel compelled to stick around for children’s birthday parties — they drop off their little ones, and then leave to run their errands.
In much of the world, parents tend to regard such free-range parenting practices as developing a child’s self-reliance. But as a popular Sunday Review article by Kim Brooks, a writer in Chicago, pointed out, many in America see these practices as neglectful.
Some have called the police or child protective services after witnessing a parent leave a child in a car to run into Starbucks or attend a job interview.
The article prompted a flood of comments from our readers. Dozens of our international readers said they were surprised to learn that the freedoms that many children abroad take for granted aren’t universal in the United States.
Here is a condensed and lightly edited selection of those comments.
Enjoying adult company
What really struck me was when I started to notice groups of mothers having coffees together: The Anglophone mothers sat next to each other facing outward, watching their children the whole time.
The Swiss mothers sat facing each other around a table having a nice chat, with their backs to the children playing around them.
For some years when my son was small (5-12), I worked in northern Sweden. I was astounded at the ‘casual’ attitude toward children — my son was allowed to attend grade-appropriate school, and after school I often had no idea exactly where he was; he’d go home with a friend and hang out until dinnertime. The casual attitude was wonderfully well-deserved: he was safe, and he felt independent.
— Grammargrump, now living in Michigan
Teaching kids to run errands
Central Europe here, and yes, thank God, people are much more sensible about free range children. Kids go to school (and run errands) by themselves at a very young age, the idea of someone being persecuted for leaving a kid in a car for a few minutes would be beyond laughable. The hostility toward mothers in the U.S. just blows my mind.
At 8, my son walked to a store alone for the first time, a 7-Eleven — in Japan. He got his Pokemon cards even though he didn’t speak Japanese, and the proprietor didn’t speak English. Later that year he was left safely in a car with his 10-year-old sister during a parent’s job interview.
— JR, now living in Bronxville, N.Y.
Not letting fear run their lives
I have three kids. I’ve left them home alone since the age of 7 to drop off dry cleaning, grab a coffee or pick up milk at the local store. My only requests were no cooking, fighting or using the iron. Read, play or clean your room. Never a problem. And if one goes missing I still have two left.
Kids in primary school go shopping at the bakery and the supermarket by themselves, proud of their independence.
We’re afraid too, of course. We just don’t want fear to ruin our — and our children’s — lives.
All over Japan, it is common to send youngsters on complicated errands such as going alone into town to buy fish for dinner and come back with the correct change.
— AL, now living in Los Angeles
Initiating children to freedom and responsibility
My daughters, ages 10, 8, and 5 walk (together) from our apartment to the nearby park, play there, and come back, all by themselves, and have been doing that for at least a year. No one seems to mind, and I like this initiation to freedom and responsibility that it brings them.
Here in Germany: our kids ride their bikes to school starting in first grade. They get picked up by their friends’ parents after kindergarten/school if that’s what they want.
I live in an inner-city suburb of London. Across the (four-lane) street is an adventure playground where children can attend (for free) unaccompanied from age 5. There is a member of staff on site, but they are not responsible for each child. The greatest danger my kids (7 & 9) are in going there, is using the crossing to get over the road.
Helping children master public transit
Here in Japan, kids are required to be at least 6-years-old before they are allowed to ride the trains alone. They often travel in groups, and they socialize and play quietly and appropriately.
In Tokyo, it is common to see the young children (even first and second — graders) taking all sorts of public transportation alone until they cross pedestrian bridges over train stations, meet their schoolmates on the train platform to ride to school. Zero adult supervision.
— AL, now living in Los Angeles
Getting time to themselves
Be brave, drop your kid at the party and go. Other parents want to do the same thing, but are afraid too.
Here in the Netherlands no parent would attend a kid party; it’s still valued parent free time. You are giving other parents a gift if you do not demand that they stay for your 6-year-old’s party. Give them that gift.
I’m living in a family-friendly society, where children have much more freedom. They are independent at much younger ages than in the U.S. The hovering doesn’t happen here, not at parks or birthday parties. Moms seem much less stressed, too. I’m not looking forward to returning to the land of surveillance.
Hearing children laugh and shriek
I have now lived in Mexico for 14 years, a society in which kids are ever-present. My last trip to New Jersey, I was riding a bike around my friend’s dense suburban neighborhood and kept wondering “Why does this feel so weird?”
Finally figured out it was about 4 p.m. in the summer and eerily silent. No kids. No basketball hoops. No fellow cyclists other than the occasional obvious commuter adult. No playing and screaming and laughing. It’s weird in the U.S.A. these days.
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Lela Moore is a comment moderator and audience reporter. She covers reader reaction to breaking news and popular articles on topics ranging from politics to business to sports. @runlelarun • Facebook