Capability of Children

A couple months ago, I ran across a CBS News story provocatively entitled Why My Child Will Be Your Child’s Boss. The piece is written by an American living in Switzerland and opens with preschool children being given real saws to play with during “forest play-group,” as they call it. The author says,

But this happened not in the U.S. but in Switzerland, where they believe children are capable of handling saws at age 3 and where kindergarten teachers counsel parents to let their 4- and 5-year-olds walk to school alone. “Children have pride when they can walk by themselves,” the head of the Munchenstein, Switzerland, Kindergartens said last week at a parents meeting, reminding those in attendance that after the first few weeks of school children should be walking with friends, not mom.

Homeward bound in Switzerland. Click image for source article.

What would your reaction be if your four-year-old were given a saw? Or your six-year-old required to walk to school alone?

It’s quite a topic of conversation among expatriates living in Switzerland (examples here, here, here, and here). Local practice varies, and kids in some areas may still walk with their parents until they’re around six. But by the time the child is seven, nearly everyone who lives within a mile or so of school is walking. The social pressure is powerful. One mom observes, “Have you ever been frowned upon by a Swiss grandmother? I’ve become exceedingly fond of the Swiss but my god, they can frown upon you like nobody you’ve ever met.”

This is the second in a two-part series on cultures that teach their children to independently navigate their communities. Last week we looked at the Japanese tradition of “Hajimete no Otsukai,” which has young children running errands by themselves. This week, we’re traveling to the other side of the globe to consider the practices of the Swiss.

I wanted to talk to a Swiss about this and made contact with David, a med student in Switzerland, and his mother, Deborah (many thanks for the introduction, Kai!).

One of my big questions was simple: Why? Kids walking to school, or not… for the most part, it’s just a non-issue in America. The groups that are working to get kids walking again are really swimming upstream (which is HARD!).

Here are their answers to that question. I’m going to quote them at some length with only very light editing.

1. Priming: In general human beings learn very efficiently at a young age. …you don’t forget the things you learned at a young age as fast as you tend to forget things at an older age.
2. Exercise: It´s important for humans to do daily exercise. When you teach the kids to go outside and move their legs at an early age, they tend to stay healthier becoming older. The maximum duration of a kid’s walk from home to kindergarten is about 20 minutes (one way).
3. Fear: The confrontation with fear at an early age is another essential reason for this tradition. Kids should learn what “healthy” fear (NOT phobia!) is and how it can protect us from bad things. Of course I’m talking about the street and the danger that comes with it.
4. Independence: When you walk to kindergarten without your Mom and Dad, it leads to a process of separation. Of course, the goal for the kids shouldn’t be to completely come off their parents. But we think that this rather small step of separation helps the children to get familiar with independence very early! Self-reliance is a very high value in Switzerland (which I personally don’t always approve of!).
5. Discovering: On your way to kindergarten you’re getting in contact with our nature. Children love to stop and watch a snail or worm moving around. It makes me smile thinking of these things, because I remember stopping for animals on my way to kindergarten or picking up a little branch that fell on the street and playing around with it…

One of the things I love about hearing from other cultures is the nuances they focus on that aren’t even on my radar screen. I’d thought about the benefits of exercise and discovery and have tried to foster those in my children by sending them outside, taking them to playgrounds, and going on hikes. But the idea of somehow requiring my kids to work through fear is entirely new to me – and yet we’ve encountered it two weeks in a row, from two different cultures. It’s something to ponder, and a skill that we could teach in many contexts.

Maria Montessori said, “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.” As parents, we seek to raise well-rounded, capable children who become adults that are the same.

How might we better embrace some of the harder learning that is out there for kids? Do you see any benefits in helping our children learn to work through fear, even from a young age?

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