My Dutch Kids Are Happy (and fear doesn’t have anything to do with it)

The museum café suddenly became crowded.

A woman walked in, followed by three blond, overactive kids and their pony-sized dog. One boy made a beeline to the juice box abandoned by my daughter. I whisked it away from under his nose, just in time to hear his sister hover over the coloring page next to it. To no one in particular, in no tones of respect or polite inquiry, she asked if there were “things she could color.”

I grabbed the sheet and stuffed it into my bag.

“Apparently, yes,” she muttered, all nine years of her.

My own daughter, well-behaved, pulled her crawling sister off the floor.

“Can I go with her in the bus?” she asked, referring to a play area in the form of a double-decker. It was sequestered in a room off to the side of the bar where her other sister and brother were squealing. I nodded, then wandered off toward the gift shop.

It wasn’t all that forced, the wandering. It felt good to walk away without worrying about concussions or broken bones. It felt good, even though those things could happen.

I watched the other trio of blond kids break dance on the gift shop floor, their mother and dog nowhere in sight. After they blitzed through the café into the room with the bus, I tailed them.

The bus was a boisterous, clambering, sock-footed chaos. My baby was the Christ child, seated on her sister’s lap and surrounded by braying oxen, kicking asses, and shepherds losing their flocks by night. I wondered if it was little too busy. I wondered if I should override a big sister’s trust and extract my baby.

Then I remembered the necklaces hanging in the gift shop, and I walked away again.

A few years ago, with only two children, I had sat on a bench in the same sequestered room, guarding their shoes. In the time that it had taken me to become a mother of four, something had changed.

I could sit there, guarding their shoes, or I could stand in the gift shop within earshot. Six years of parenting in the Netherlands had taught me that either way, the same things would still happen to my kids. They might fall, get bullied, or get too loud – or they might not. This was the new litany of an overly anxious mother from America, land of the free and home of the brave.

Or should I say, home of the braver? Following the recent arrests of adults who’ve chosen to parent with looser reins, we’re asking ourselves what we would do. When I was young, American parents were always the kind who called the police, morally vexed by any lack of adult supervision. Today, we are also the kind of parents who, latching onto Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids movement, hope to relinquish the cultural compulsion toward overanxious and controlling parenting.

While I work hard to shed the association between good parenting and a fear for my kids’ well-being, I watch Dutch children wallow in liberties. Dutch kids are happy, and their freedoms did not come with a fight. They repeatedly rank among the most content children in the world, and as sexually active adolescents, boast the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy. Anxiety, or lack thereof, has never have anything to do with how well they’re doing.

Dutch kids, like those unbridled brats in the museum, are assertive. They are allowed to say that they think something is stupid, or that they’re bored, or that the meal you spent hours preparing in the kitchen doesn’t taste good. They play outside a lot, unsupervised, and are entitled to candy all year long. When there’s a problem at school, their teachers talk to them, not to their parents. They are independent creatures with opinions, preferences, and hormones. They enjoy a legitimate status, because they are not underestimated by adults.

From my vantage point in the gift shop, I see children fly onto the posh couches in the café. I am still the mother whose voice, in English, echoes across the linoleum, reprimanding her own back into the play area. The Dutch parents, saying nothing, look on.

But back in the gift shop, I am also the parent whose oldest daughter appears in the mirror.

“Mom, that bus got too busy for a baby. I thought it was time to bring her back to you.”

My six-year-old is beaming at me because she made this decision alone, and she knows she is right. I beam back, balance her sister on my hip, and ask them what they think of my new necklace.

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© 2014 Anastasia Hacopian

This piece was published on Medium on 7 September 2014.

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