NOTE: This post is full of generalizations. Of course, there is tremendous within-country variation in parenting practices and conceptions of childhood. Just indulge me all the same, ok?
In Sweden folks seem to attach a great deal of value to the preservation of childhood. In theory I am on board with these aims, but in practice I have been struggling a bit. In the last few days I’ve realized that this struggle is due to significant cross-cultural differences in what people think childhood is and, more importantly, what they imagine as its opposite.
Childhood Not Childhood
Sweden free-play, freedom to do what you want working
USA being looked after being on your own
It seems to me that childhood is valued in Sweden as a time free from responsibility and the necessity of working. As such, in ”letting kids be kids” there is an emphasis on allowing the kids to experience life through play, and seeing to it that they follow their own interests (to such an extent that it is very common to hear parents talking about what kids like to do but you rarely hear people talking about what their kids ought to do or, for that matter, what they must do). Based on some interesting and sometimes heated exchanges with folks in Sweden, I would say the opposite of this particular way of valuing childhood seems to be making kids study subjects that aren’t interesting to them and in a form that does not give them adequate leeway to express their creativity and desire to play. Rote memorization, school uniforms, marching in line and standardized testing – these are things that folks seem to experience as extreme violations of the tenants of childhood.
Americans have many different opinions of memorization and the value of free play. However, while some folks have strong opinions on these subjects, many others are indifferent. Talking about school uniforms, testing, and parents requiring that their kids sometimes do work that they don’t want to does not seem as emotionally charged for Americans as it is for many of the people I have encountered in Sweden.
On the other hand, Americans seem to have some very different ideas about what childhood is and isn’t. You could say that a general American idea of what defines childhood is not the freedom that Swedes seek to preserve but, instead, the feeling of safety and security that comes from being looked after.
When I was young I had the feeling that there was always an adult who, for better or worse, was in charge of me. I might be at home arguing with my siblings while my parents were out but, all the same, I had the idea that, even if they were not going to be home for a few hours, they would be home and all accounts would be settled. I imagined that they could manage any situation that arose. I remember the mingled sense of dread and excitement I felt when I first realized that I was no longer my parents’ or any other adults’ charge – I was my own supervision.
So, I think that an American conception of letting kids be kids focuses on having them feel safe and supervised by caring adults (even if not under their watchful eyes there is the idea that responsible adults are available) while these could be considered a lack of freedom in the Swedish sense.
These cultural differences in the meaning and value attached to childhood have practical effects.
First, there is the issue of what I understand from my own cultural perspective as the failure to encourage and recognize ability, competence and a desire to be competent in kids. This approach is here to be considered a ”soft start” that allows children to be children. I’ve talked about this before.
Another more recent realization I’ve made about these cross-cultural differences is the role of parental oversight. In my own children’s schooling and the parenting choices of others, I have encountered situations to which I have an immediate and extreme negative reaction (e.g. young kids being left at home alone, small kids roaming around their school without oversight). I am horrified and feel that there is a lack of safety and protection for the childten, but no one else seems to think there is any problem.
Parenting across cultures is probably the most significant difficulty I encounter as the nomad I have become, but travelling as a family is also a very special and rewarding experience. I only hope that my children can and will say the same about growing up across cultures.