Switzerland is a small country, which most tourists probably understand pretty quickly – it takes just over 3 hours to drive from the southwest corner to the northeast corner and our largest city, Zurich, has a population of 400,000, not very big in international comparison! I just heard on the radio that half of the Swiss population of 8 milllion now lives in the “agglomeration”, i.e. in or around the biggest cities (Zurich, Berne, Basle, Geneva). I grew up in Geneva when it had a population of about 130,000 – these days it’s closer to 200,000 – so in most ways I was an urban child. Switzerland is not in the EU and in more ways than this, it’s a bit of an island, including socially and culturally – often to our advantage, I find.
Recently, I read this article about the overprotected child of today and was shocked (http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/) to read the manner in which many children grow up these days in English-speaking countries, and sadly, that trend is spreading everywhere here in Europe, too. It got me thinking about how I grew up in the 1970s.I was about 5, I think – and it wasn’t my tricycle! ;o The scraped knees began soon after…
When we lived in England (I was aged 3-8), it was completely normal to leave the house and go and ring the doorbell of someone else’s house in the same street or neighbourhood to see if friends were “in” and then play in each other’s gardens or on the quieter residential streets, changing locations as the mood took us, rarely if ever asking permission. We had a large willow tree in our garden which was great for playing houses, and the 1972 Olympics had all us girls wanting to be gymnasts like Olga Korbutt and putting on our own displays, including balancing precariously on garden walls and jumping off and over things (and other kids!). My friend and I shared a pair of roller skates, each taking one and zooming artistically and arabesquely around on generous street corners – they had the smoothest tarmac! Even at the age of 5 all the children on the street congregated in mixed groups and I learned to ride a bike that belonged to one of the other children by balancing on the curb, it certainly wasn’t a parent running along behind me – I think I probably had permanently scraped knees between the ages of 5 and 8, but then so did most other children. We fell off swings and roundabouts and climbing frames, bumped heads and other extremities and it wasn’t uncommon for one or more children in a class to have an arm or leg in a cast – I felt hard done by for never having had one. I wasn’t allowed to ride a bike on proper roads but we still made our way to a tiny, old-fashioned hidden sweet shop that was out of bounds, with big jars of different sweets to choose from, with a penny or two scrounged (or even stolen :o?) here or there and then scarpered back to homeground with bulging cheeks and a guilty conscience! From the age of about 6 1/2 I was supposed to accompany another mother who walked her children to school but I didn’t like the little boy (Ian Swain, poor lad!) so I went off on my own and nobody seemed to notice… I came home on my own and with friends whose homes were nearby and entertained myself perfectly well either at home or outdoors without supervision. My best friend next door was 3 years older than I was and probably taught me a few things she shouldn’t have, but we were pretty mixed ages all along the street and kept out from under our mothers’ feet and I think that’s the way things were for a very long time in England. I could hardly believe it when I heard that people called the police these days if children play on the streets because they are so afraid of “gangs”!!There were concrete slabs supporting this swing, and the higher I got the more it shook!
Moving abroad was a big change – at first we lived in town but aged 8, I still had the freedom to take myself off to the nearby park (across busy roads) and the paddling pool or to the little “place” under the chestnut trees and meet other children collecting conkers – on one occasion communicating for ages in sign language with another little girl (I spoke no French) before we both realised we spoke English and went to the same school!! After a year, we moved to a village outside town and so from the age of not quite 10 I took the bus home from school every day, in fact, a tram and a bus, so involving changing and a short walk from the tram stop to the bus stop in the middle of a bustling, international city. Out in the countryside I had a dog and would be out for hours, just wandering through the village for sweets, stopping off at the cemetery to look at children’s graves (I think I was a bit strange!), jumping off more walls and swings and generally doing what I liked. My parents were anything but uncaring, but had both had very free childhoods and though my dad wasn’t keen to let me loose on a bike, he didn’t seem to mind me roaming at will with the dog for company. Also around this time, I started taking myself to the ice rink in town (by bus) on Saturday mornings, because we international kids had no school, while the “Swissies” did, so we had the rink to ourselves and were quite a clique that met up regularly there. Come summer, I took myself off to various local outdoor pools and when the weather got too cold, indoor swimming halls – neither of my parents could swim, so I went alone or with friends and was soon familiar with all the local bus routes. Nobody ever batted an eyelid – it was perfectly normal behaviour. This was “Place Bel Air” in the 70s, which I had to cross when switching from tram to bus…
Some girls I knew went to ballet or had ice-skating lessons or music or riding lessons or whatever extra-curricular activities they fancied, but on the whole, I think our time was a lot less organised than is now usual. Even at home, I was given the opportunity to be bored, spend hours reading or drawing or “making things” and I don’t remember lumbering my parents with endless trophies of what I’d been doing, though we still have a few souvenirs. I was expected to do my best at school and that was about all. We did things as a family at weekends but there was no expectation that we would always be occupied in each other’s company or that I should always be supervised by a parent or babysitter. I honestly can’t remember being explicitly “forbidden” to do anything, and I don’t think I was a particularly sensible child, if anything, I was probably a bit of a scaredy-cat! I took myself off here a lot, too, the Natural History Museum – about a 10 minute walk through town from where we lived in Champel, Geneva, when I was 8/9!
When it came to my own children, it didn’t occur to me to behave any differently as a mother. By this time, I had moved to the other end of the country to a very rural area where my husband had grown up on the outskirts of a village that became popular as a small suburb of a local town through the 70s. He had spent a lot of time outdoors in much the same way as I had before we moved to Switzerland, and as a scout in the woods, and as there is little entertainment for teens in the country, he’d quickly been involved in a group of teens who made the entertainment themselves, finding premises to hold a “disco” where they got all their records together and assigned “DJs”, holding movie nights or having a barbecue in the woods where each person brought a contribution, from sausages to matches to music, groups of kids aged from about 10-18. Everyone grew up very independently and most of them were working full time at 3-year apprenticeships (with day-release school courses) by the time they were 15 or 16, with transport mainly by moped (from 14 in Switzerland, you need to be 18 to drive) and with small salaries, and were considered young adults by the community in general and behaving in a correspondingly responsible manner (usually!). My husband and his friends took their mopeds on camping trips as far away as 250 km over a mountain pass, to Italy, aged 15 or so… on this sort of thing (not the exact one!) and I’m assuming, with helmets – and camping gear?!
And so it was that our children also grew up in the country. Swiss kindergartens ask parents not to accompany children after the first 6 wks or so – aged 4/5. It is expected that the children learn to be independent and punctual. Of course they dawdle and linger, or so-and-so pushed whatsisname in the ditch, but they soon learn. My grandson walks over 20 minutes (uphill) to kindergarten. He’s 5. They wear a luminous sash for traffic safety and even in the country, they learn to deal with that traffic – crossing main roads, rail tracks, junctions. Our children only had to walk through the village to get to kindergarten and school and there were lunchtimes (Swiss children all go home for lunch!) when I ended up hurriedly heading around by bike while lunch got cold to see where one or other of my daughters had been “lost” – usually by accompanying some other child home and being distracted playing or collecting leaves or playing in the stream or having stopped at the shop for sweets… and so on. But they did have their independence and it was expected. Parents were specifically asked not to take or fetch children, especially not by car. Some made exceptions when the weather was filthy, but most didn’t, it was just part of the experience. Mine often came home wet – either from rain/snow or because they’d plunged their heads in the village fountain to cool off… Interestingly, parents living outside the village were asked to arrange for children coming in by bike to leave their bikes at the edge of the village and walk the rest of the way – it’s important for children to experience walking to school together in mixed age groups, seeing their friends or fighting their enemies. Of course there was spitefulness or fighting or bullying, but we mothers lived along the routes the children took and knew who the other childrens’ parents were, so anything like that was soon checked and warnings issued. It was never a problem to caution someone else’s child – if we did so the other parents generally knew their child had done something to deserve it!! We weren’t Big Brother – we were Big Momma, a whole village of us!
Again, there weren’t many extracurricular activities on offer, so after school and once homework was sorted, the kids played outside until it got dark, much as we had done when we were kids. We asked our girls not to go in the woods to play, but the whole village was their playground, including any farms within walking distance. Farms in Switzerland are still very small compared to most places (20 cows is a big farm…) and built in the traditional style and I’m sure my girls had a lot of fun in hay and straw barns, building castles, cuddling kittens, helping muck out other people’s animals and I never heard a complaint from any of the farmers or their wives – again, they warned the children of the dangers and then expected the children to act accordingly once they’d been advised. And they did! Without helmets or other armour… for the cost of the bathwater :)
Interestingly, I noticed that only parents who weren’t Swiss imposed any bounds on this kind of freedom (not all, but many!). Despite the recent political scandal of voting “against” foreigners, we do have a large (25%) population of non-Swiss – strictly speaking, of which I am one! And that is what I now hear from my daughter: where she wants her children to have a similarly free childhood in the countryside where they live (a tiny settlement of only about 30 houses), these days many parents are from “somewhere else” and bring a different attitude with them, refusing to accept the tried and tested methods that have worked here for so long and upsetting the balance with those who grew up in this tradition. They aren’t willing to allow their 5-12 yr olds to walk/bike to school alone and herd them in large organised groups like small mixed classes, so they don’t have the adventures, fights and general experiences that ought to be part of growing up. Many insist on driving their children the 2 minutes to school, certainly as soon as it might be cold or threatening a drop of rain. They want their children supervised every moment of the day, especially when they’re playing at another child’s house or else there are organised activities and no real free or unstructured time at all. And here the problems really arise when another mother isn’t prepared to subject her children to that kind of control (and, like most of us, has other things to do!). She and her children are soon negatively labelled because they don’t want to be part of this new regime and they are easily ostracised, even though they are the ones following tradition. At least until they find like-minded neighbours. You wonder why some families bother moving to the country, really! (It is not unheard of for incomers to complain about cow or church bells – hello??!!)
I really am thrilled to see my 5 and 2 year old grandchildren outdoors so much. They are often barefoot and/or half-naked, they can run and jump and balance and slide and swing and climb and dig and get dirty and wet and generally have a wonderful time. They can have dogs and cats, know chickens, cows, sheep and goats intimately, have any number of horses and ponies close by, ride bikes and boards and skates and tractors and are capable of walking some pretty good distances. They do most of this with minimal supervision (obviously depending on age) and the children are used to having a bruise here or a scrape there and rarely cry or whine or make a fuss, they just get up and continue to use ropes in endless interesting ways, use chalk on any hard surfaces, bounce on the trampoline or spread sand around. Or help Mom and Dad with grownup jobs from cooking to house renovation – with REAL tools!! My overseas family and friends are astounded to hear that once a week, my grandson’s kindergarten walk off into the woods (a matter of yards), climb trees, make fires, grill sausages and not only allow the children to have sharp whittling knives to chip on bits of branch that they find, but actually teach them how to use them, as well as being allowed to touch nature and get dirty, tired and happy… All-weather kindergarten in the woods…
And all this is why I am so sad and shocked to read how supposed “health and safety” has spoilt childhood for children. Which type of child is better off? I know what I think!!
PS It would be lovely to have stacks of photos to illustrate all this – only the point is, most of it happened/happens away from the prying eyes of parents with cameras… :) :) :)