After a long day of sightseeing in Madrid, we made our way to our apartment on the Metro. Madrid’s public transportation system is excellent and easy to use. So easy, in fact, that kids can do it on their own. Nearly every time we used the Metro, we saw kids traveling either alone or in groups of other kids. I would estimate that the youngest kids we saw without parents were around 10 or 11 years old. It was one of the first of many instances during our trip to Spain that I noticed just how different our cultures view kids. Here are a few other things I observed in Spain that you never (or rarely) see in the States:
Unique and Challenging Playgrounds: I’ll share some photos soon to show you what I mean, but I was impressed (and envious) at the number and variety of playgrounds in both London and Spain. We rented bikes in Madrid and rode along a paved path next to the river. In just 3 miles I counted 5 playgrounds along the path, and each one was completely different. I noticed lots of opportunities for climbing, balancing, and imaginative play. Most of the playgrounds we saw were in urban settings, meaning kids don’t have to travel far to have a safe and challenging place to play.
Unaccompanied Minors: Beyond the kids traveling without adults on public transportation, we also saw lots of kids wandering around town on their own. Whether they were out with friends or running errands for parents, it was clear this was business as usual. We spent the last week of our trip in a small beach town in southern Spain. Our house was about a 5 minute walk from the town’s main plaza, lined with shops and cafes. Each evening we’d walk to the plaza for tapas. I’d give the kids a few Euros and let them wander around on their own while the adults ate and enjoyed a few drinks. It wasn’t unusual to see kids running around on their own until 10 p.m. Meanwhile, in the US, you can go to jail for letting your 9-year-old go to the park on their own.
Stranger Interaction Without Paranoia: I feel as if in the States, any interaction between an adult male and a child is immediately viewed with suspicion. Why would a grown man be interested in a child unless he had nefarious motives? However in Spain it’s not unusual to see adults chatting and interacting with kids they don’t know. I saw one interaction in particular that would probably you arrested in the States. A man was pushing a cart full of snacks for sale along the beach. As kids would approach the cart and buy snacks from him, he’d chat with them, tousling their hair or chucking them lightly on the nose. In general, adults were more touchy with kids than you’d ever see here. It was so refreshing to see adults interacting with kids without the immediate reaction that their behavior was pervy or suspicious.
Of course I realize that a few weeks spent somewhere in no way gives you a clear snapshot of the way things really are. I know that things are not perfect in Europe. They struggle with many of the same issues we do, such as access to play and a dependence on screens and technology. And of course there were many comforts of home and things about the US that my kids missed and realized they’d taken for granted. They love their large, grassy yards and wide open spaces in which to play.
At the same time, they wished they could enjoy the independence and the ability to roam around town without needing cars or parents. Elena was especially affected by the difference in cultures. She envisioned how different her social life would be in Spain, with the ability to meet friends in town and go places together. Here, even the simplest of plans involves checking parents’ schedules, arranging transportation, and often inconveniencing at least one parent because no one wants to leave the kids alone at the mall, the movies, etc. And so instead of being out, doing kid things, she’s often stuck at home and bored. She said she wished she could bottle up everything she loved about Spain and bring it to our hometown.
One of the great things about travel is that it serves to open your eyes to new ways of living and doing things. Thanks to the things we observed, I’m inspired and confident that we can do things just a little differently in the United States. We can give our kids challenging playgrounds close to where they live and play. We can let them roam and be independent as they grow and mature. And we can let them interact with other adults without assuming the worst.
Have you traveled abroad and been surprised at the cultural differences in play and parenting? I’d love to hear some of your stories about the things you noticed on your travels!