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Where Kids Don't Wear Bike Helmets

I went to pick up my son the other day at school. He's 4 and absolutely loves going to play at other people's houses. "Playdates" in Holland, where we live, are arranged fairly casually and, usually, spontaneously. The children prompt the appointments themselves.

A young girl in his class asked me whether they could play together, and I went looking for her mother to make arrangements. I don't know the girl's mom other than to see her, but it didn't really matter, because the girl's grandfather had come in her place. He had no problem with my son joining them for the afternoon and motioned him to climb into his bakfiets—a common mode of transport for Dutch children.

The man had no cell phone, but he took my number and assured me his daughter, the girl's mom, would be in touch later that afternoon.

I was happy my son was happy and was heading off home when it struck me: I'd just sent him away with someone I don't know and can't contact to an unknown address with no clear plan how or when I'd get him back.

Does that sound irresponsible? Because it's just how it's done here, and it didn't feel dangerous at all.

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Dutch parents don't helicopter. At my son's school, parents may not know each other well, but we see each other often. We volunteer to help with class activities, we join the class on excursions and supervise lunches.

Dutch communities are formed by people who feel responsible for one another. Neighbors get involved (for better or worse), and it somehow makes things feel safe. It's pretty close to the proverbial village.

Dutch children don't wear bike helmets, and they typically bike alone to and from school from around the age of 12, if not sooner. Some kids I know bike up to 10 kilometers a day. They learn how to be careful, to respect the rules of traffic.

Community and socialization are particularly emphasized with younger children, who learn early on how to function in, and contribute to, their society.

They play freely on the street and in parks, and playgrounds are usually not fenced. My son goes to the bathroom by himself in public places (that are familiar to us).

Not to be all about the bike, but Dutch children don't use training wheels. They learn to balance perfectly well on pedal-less bikes and then go straight for the real thing when they are tall enough.

There are never permission slips for field trips, and parents volunteer to do the driving—no bus. My daughter, age 3, went on a spontaneous outing, walking to a supermarket with her preschool class the other day, which I learned about when I picked her up that afternoon.

Community and socialization are particularly emphasized with younger children, who learn early on how to function in, and contribute to, their society. My son's class had a Christmas dinner at school one evening, and the parents simply dropped their children off and left.

Teenagers are far more open with their parents about sex and relationships, which pays off with far lower rates of teen pregnancy and STDs.

Everything in America seems monitored, structured, fabricated and padded. America seems like a culture in which there are no accidents, only rules or regulations that haven't been established yet.

There's not a lot of coddling, but there is simplicity and innocence. My son's class does gym in their underwear, because it's more efficient than 25 4-year-olds changing their clothes. Am I wrong in thinking this would not be considered safe in the States?

And speaking of, his school has a trampoline.

I really don't want to be the "everything is better outside of America" mom. I have not been a parent in the States, and I don't have enough first-hand experience to really judge. But what I can share are the impressions that make their way across the ocean. Although they may not always be accurate or fully representative, they are often concerning.

When I read about parents being charged with gross neglect for letting their children walk home from the park alone, America does not seem safe or rational. It really makes me realize how different things are here. And it makes me wonder why it is so different.

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Perhaps American parents are feeling more isolated from each other, less trusting, more critical and, generally, more scared. Parenting has become a competitive sport, where the more you protect and hover the more you are seen to care.

Dutch parents love their children—it's not that they don't worry about them or invest time in them. Families are very close here. Dinnertime is sacrosanct with Dutch families, and mothers and fathers generally work fewer hours in order to spend time with their children. But they also give them more room to breath, to be independent.

Everything in America seems monitored, structured, fabricated and padded. America seems like a culture in which there are no accidents, only rules or regulations that haven't been established yet. The desire to prevent all the bad things is strong, but unrealistic.

But is there a point where too much is too much?

And it backfires. According to Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, not allowing children opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, deprives them of "opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives."

He writes, "We may think we are protecting them, but, in fact, we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love and increasing the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression and various other mental disorders."

Compare that to this: Unicef has ranked Dutch children the happiest in the world.

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I'm visiting the States next month with my children, and I'm curious whether I will feel less comfortable there if they don't hold my hand at all times or want to ride a skateboard down a driveway without knee pads on.

Protecting your children is a fundamental human right, and I applaud parents who do it wisely. But is there a point where too much is too much? Where our desire to protect does more harm than good?

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Photo by Tracy Brown Hamilton

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