Who’s lucky now?

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.IMG_2771I 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”!!IMG_2772There 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. GE 1972 Place Bel AirThis 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! Natural_History_Museum_of_GenevaI 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… Spluegen015a049on this sort of thing (not the exact one!) and I’m assuming, with helmets – and camping gear?! moped

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! IMG_2770

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 🙂IMG_2764

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??!!)IMG_2769

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…  chindsgiAll-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… 🙂 🙂 🙂

20 thoughts on “Who’s lucky now?

  1. The other day my 15 year old twins, who will be taking GCSEs this summer commented on how laid back I was about whether they were working. We had spent the evening singin “Dancin’ a catchy rhythym, singin’ a happy song” as we danced around the kitchen like gonks on speed. My husband retired to his rocking chair and observed! My response was that I knew they worked hard, they didn’t need me to chain them to a chair and if they wanted to cut loose for a while then it was probably a good time to cut loose. I grew up in cities all over the world and was given a free rein. My children have been brought up in the middle of nowhere, the only thing that has ever worried me are the cars on our lane. Other than that, they have been free to do what they want when they want. The eldest is about to go off to medical school and my proudest moment was when the two youngest told me that I was a laid back mum but not to worry because as I was laid back they knew not to take advantage 🙂

    • Wow, how marvellous is that?! Fantastic! Enjoy… ❤

      We have found that our adult children repay that "liberal" (?!) attitude many times over in manifold ways 🙂

  2. Heartily endorse this! And pleased to learn that I did do something right at least! We only get one childhood, and it is a great comfort to be able to look back on happy days and “adventures” – I pity the poor over-parented kids, and thank Heaven that my great-grandchildren are also enjoying a rich and varied carefree life.

  3. I remember visiting Canada (before we moved back) and standing in a store I could hear a seriously panicked voice of a mom asking where her child went to. I remember the shear terror in her voice when the child didn’t answer back. I immediately felt maybe something terrible happened cause I was not used to hearing such panic in the voice. Well it turns out the child was only in the kids section of the book store enjoying the books. The mom told the child NOT to ever walk away from her like that again. It is sad that they are being raised like this. I have a friend that won’t allow her daughter to go to any sleep overs for fear the parents might be drug dealers or something. Yup..Sad!!

  4. I agree with you (and the Atlantic article gave me a lot to think about), and yet – no matter how much I might have tried to let my children do here what they did in Switzerland, the system would not have let me. The authorities would have been called had I let my 6-year old walk <1 mile from school to home. My 11-year-old was designated a walker (no bus service provided) but the school would not release him to walk home alone. And although we know many of our neighbors, had he fallen and hurt himself, he could not have sought help because none of them are home during the day. Nor would he have been with a gang of children who could have looked out for each other. (And if he and his friends had tried to resolve a disagreement with anything past strong words, we would have been in discussions with the school counselor for the rest of the year.)

    It's not just that the Swiss parents are willing to let their children have greater freedom – it's also that the system is set up with a safety net, and some agreed norms that allow them to do so. Maybe the foreign parents haven't caught on to that yet?

    • That is no doubt exactly the case, Tracey – but the system is – slowly – collapsing with perceived “safety” issues, sadly – not least, as you suggest, that many more women increasingly work outside the home to be able to afford what people think they need… but that’s a whole other discussion! 😉

  5. This is a wonderful and interesting topic. Thank you for discussing it. I grew up in rural America many years ago and my childhood was a lot like yours. Unfortunately, by the time I had children things had really changed. We decided to move to 5 acres of land in the country so our children could play outside. Now, I have a grandson and there is no hope he will get to experience that kind of childhood on a daily basis like my husband and I did as well as our children. To allow him to have a little of that experience we have now purchased a very small cabin in a very small coastal fishing village. We can take him there on the weekends so he can play outside and have the freedom to explore the seashore. There is a small yard so he can climb trees, dig for worms and all the other things little boys do. Unfortunately, the area we live in has several what we here in America call ‘registered sex offenders.’ These are people that have been convicted of sexual crimes, some against children. We also currently have a missing child who was walking a couple blocks in the middle of a summer afternoon from her friends house back to her house when she disappeared. That was over 3 years ago and she has never been found nor are there any suspects that we are aware of. Things have really changed and safety is now a real issue here. It is so very sad that children today cannot experience the kind of freedom we had. The environment is so different- parents do not trust each other and every one is viewed as suspicious and potentially dangerous.
    Our son is now 26 years old and a few years back we took him to an outdoor summer concert. My husband and I were sitting there enjoying the music when my son told me he tought we should leave immediately. I was schocked and didn’t understand. Don’t you like the band? Yes, I love the band. Why do you want to leave? I don’t feel safe here. This is a large crowd of strangers and nobody was searched before they entered the concert. It isn’t a safe place to be! How awful to think like that but apparently that is what this new American society has taught our son. He could not enjoy the music because he has been conditioned to fear everyone!
    How I long for the times past.

    • Thanks for your comment – I found it interesting but very sad. I can only imagine what “fear-based living” might feel like, what pressure.
      And what a lucky little grandson you have! Our geandchildren enjoy the Brittany coast very much, too. We are fortunate that that is a particularly safe area of Europe.

  6. Swiss Rose, I could write a book about the differences between my childhood and how children are treated today. I grew up in the third largest city in my state with a population of 60,000 at the time. We were outside every possible moment and I have fond memories of a home down the street that had a circular walkway leading to their front door. Their children were grown but we were welcome to use their walkway to play in. It was the only walkway like that and we loved riding our bikes on it.

    We never had to worry about what time to be home, anyone who saw us would call out that it was 5pm and time for dinner and we would head home. If we were a few minutes late it was no big deal because none of us were required to wear a watch. After dinner our own “rule” was to be home when the street lights came on. Seeing the street lights light up gave us enough time to make it home before total darkness.

    As a teen I would hike, I could be gone over night if I liked the area and wanted to camp, my family got used to this even though they often worried I might one day get lost. If I hadn’t come home by lunch the next day they would have reported my absence but trusted me and knew I had a good sense of direction. Today that same practice of sleeping alone in the woods would be considered dangerous.

    I am saddened for my grandchildren who will never know the freedom I had. My one son went a bit overboard (in my opinion) when he instructed his children to never touch a knife, which included a dull butter knife. They were 3 before out of frustration I asked my son why they couldn’t at least use a butter knife which resulted in him realizing he had gone overboard.

    • Sounds like a wonderful youth well spent, Lois!
      I do think it’s worth encouraging children to have useful skills – so glad your son has loosened up ;o!!
      I noticed in my old Brownie handbook (early 70s) that it was considered normal and admirable for a 7 year old to prepare a whole breakfast, alone, for a sick parent – including using knives, toasters, kettles (in the days before electric kettles!) for tea etc. or to be able to help with cooking for and looking after younger siblings. How our society has changed…

      • Swiss Rose, I do have good memories of my childhood,and I was very happy to see him lighten up and realize his children were more capable than he had given them credit for.

        My boys were making meals from very young. At three or so they could make a sandwich and add fruit unassisted by school age they could cook simple meals and by the time they were nine both were baking. Their wives are very thankful to have husbands who can cook, bake and do laundry. 🙂

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  8. Went to that museum with some friends (and their toddler) just a few weeks ago. Good fun!

    I didn’t have the same range to roam that you describe when I was small, and I don’t miss it particularly, although it would have been nice to have friends nearby. Where I grew up was quite out of the way, but between a lake and a very busy main road (the Route Suisse, in fact). Our house was one of the very first there, and as the new houses went up, none of them had kids my age (the nearest were about 6 years younger, iirc) so we stayed out of their neat gardens, and away from their unfriendly dogs.

    I really do think you need the right community for that sort of lifestyle, and a community attitude which not all places (even Swiss ones) have. My brother and I had fun together (or fought together) and played a lot of very inventive games, just in a smaller area.

    I’m not a parent though, so any comments I make on modern parenting practices would be strictly amateur hour.

    • Glad you got to the exhibition, Elizabeth! Hope you enjoyed it.
      At the time, living in/around Geneva I didn’t really notice but after I moved to eastern Switzerland, I realised GE/VD are really not all that Swiss at all and was quite surprised!
      Of course, the location will be affected by factors like a main road or railway line etc. – and living out in Bernex next to the local school and yet going to a school in town wasn’t fun, as the other kids would cut my bike cables and throw stones, rather than attempting to bridge the language barrier, so it wasn’t all sweetness and light!!
      You are lucky to have a sibling – I have none.

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