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Should I Have Been Arrested?
The luxury of letting my kids' roam free in Scandinavia, where free range is the norm, not a fringe movement.
What comes to mind when you look at this photo?
A nicely arranged playdate with parents or caretakers right near by—who snapped this idyllic picture of three little guys taking in the sunny, warm day?
Or, three kids ages 7-9 who have just roamed around for hours in the southern part of Helsinki, the capital city of Finland, all alone without supervision or any specific agenda, hopping from one playground to another, climbing trees, and scaling the rocks by the sea, before taking a break here?
It’s the latter.
The photo was snapped by my boys’ friends’ mom, who stopped by to bring them water and snacks, and saw them like this.
Depending on where you live, you’ll either feel shocked or excited about this—or, if you live in any Scandinavian country, you likely don’t feel like this is anything out of ordinary, just a regular summer day in the life of a kid.
When I received this picture, I felt so much happiness it’s hard to describe. In that moment, I knew my boys had been able to experience a moment of the kind of childhood that has been lost for most.
The kind of childhood were you, little by little, feel so free—free to develop your confidence, capabilities and creativity, and free to figure it out as you go. Free to play. And free to see who you really are.
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Hover over, or else
In the US—in states Illinois, Maryland, and Oregon—I could have been arrested for this. In these states, by law, children can’t be left unsupervised before the age of 14, 8 and 10 respectively, and a parent can be charged with neglect.
In other states, I could have been charged with “failing to provide adequate supervision of a child,” even though there is no age limit in the law, and authorities determine those charges case by case.
Even though these laws have been put in place to protect children, they can also hurt both parents and kids:
It puts intense pressure for parents to constantly structure and supervise their kids or hire expensive childcare help for every hour where they can’t constantly watch them
It also mandates that everyone in the family (or the caretaker at the moment and all the kids) does the same thing at the same time, like forcing your kids to join you in the grocery store, for example, versus just leaving them to have fun on the playground while you run the necessary errands—and definitely doesn’t allow you to let your kids, who might be very capable, run some of those errands
It also massively increases screen time—when you can’t supervise them, screens ensure your kids won’t move an inch from where you need them to be—even if they would much rather play outside
It also robs kids the chance to develop critical life skills and the chance to decide for themselves how to structure some of their time: I can imagine very few parents would go aimlessly playground hopping for hours on end, and passively watch their kids’ climb trees, or jump around on seaside rocks.
with another friend. Him and his dad walked the boys home, because the answer to my question: “can you find your way back home?” was still “maybe.”
Free Range: the norm, not a fringe movement
In Scandinavian countries, free range is what every kid is: little by little, parents allow and encourage for more and more independence, which usually peaks around the age of 7-8, when kids start going to and from school by themselves, and playing outside unsupervised with their friends, and moving freely around their neighborhoods.
When you come to a place like Helsinki, it’s wild to see: little kids hopping on trams to go from one friends’ house to another, setting their own picnics in the park, buying snacks in the grocery store, making up games on the playgrounds, starting extempore soccer games—all without supervision or structure. I must say I’m still in awe of these kids I see around the city every day.
When we lived in Finland last fall, the first thing I noticed was how far behind my boys were in life skills other Finnish kids their age had (7-9 years old), even though I had tried to raise them as independent as my American surroundings had allowed. It wasn’t their fault: they just hadn’t had enough practice. By getting more and more responsibility, many of the other Finnish kids had had a chance to master independence at a high level:
They all had phones and often set up their own playdates
They could understand time and react to time (i.e. understand how long it takes them to get ready and transport themselves to meet someone at a specific time at a specific place, with the right weather appropriate outfit, and keep an eye on the time to get back home at specific time—without supervision)
They could navigate their neighborhoods, knowing where every place they wanted to go was, and always knew how to get back home
They had a sense of “I got it” and “I can figure out out” — which I knew my boys had too, but they just hadn’t been able to test it out
Once I saw this, I changed my objective for our time in Finland: instead of mastering the language (which I knew would develop on its own through increased free, independent play with other Finnish kids: they would have to use the language to play), I wanted to focus on opportunities to develop independence and life skills. And, for our summer month here now, I have this same goal: let them roam!
My big dream for my kids has always been getting them to a point where no matter where in the world they are, they can always thrive as long as they have a map and a dictionary. Everything else is just bonus.
But, how do you teach your kids to just roam around independently? By trusting them and letting go. And by understanding that when you are not with them, on the driver’s seat, they will step up to the task. If you remain the driver, they will remain the passenger. And that’s not how you learn to drive. After a while, you gotta get off the back seat too, and just let them do it.
Believe in them: “Ready?! You got this!”
Now, I also know that I’m not the only one—and sometimes not even the best one—to show them how it’s done.
Thanks to their little Finnish friends—classmates from last fall—my boys can learn from kids their age how to navigate from place to place, stay aware, stay in contact with the parents, and keep an eye on the time. I’ll always be grateful for this little friends!
This summer, as we are taking advantage of the Scandinavian freedom, I’m turning practicing independence into a game: Independence Bingo!
It’s not exactly bingo, but it’s a card with 9 squares with an independence mission in each square and we play to see how many we can master.
For each three completed missions, there’s a prize: after the first three, we’ll head to the best vegan ice cream shop in Helsinki, the second I haven’t figured out yet (any ideas?!), and for the third, we’ll do an afternoon in the amusement park.
Help me complete Independence Bingo!
Here are the missions I have come up with so far:
go to the library and take out a book with your library card
go to the library and return a book
go the grocery store and buy three items with the cash you have
go to the grocery store and buy a vegetable or fruit (this is challenging because you need to print the bar code for it yourself!): find it’s number, then find that same number on the scale (the numbers are in ranges so you really need to look), weigh it and then print out the bar code and attach it to the item)
go to a coffee shop, buy a treat, and sit together with your brother at a table and eat your treat
take a tram 1 stop (and don’t forget any of your stuff into the tram) - (I’ll meet them at the other stop)
take a tram a few stops to a specific playground or library (I’ll meet them at the place)
walk to a friend’s apartment independently (find the right street, apartment building, buzzer to the right apartment and get to the right apartment)
walk back home from a playground or friend’s apartment
What should I keep? What should I take out? What should I add?
Drop your ideas above and help me complete the Independence bingo for the boys to have a summer of freedom and independence—and one of the best summers’ ever! And share this with your friends who can help think of more independence missions—or who want to give their kids more freedom too!
Why? Because if you want a summer of memories, there’s nothing like the thrill of “I did it!”—that’s a memory your kids will have for a lifetime.
Would you agree?
x Annabella (find our Scandi summer adventures on video on Insta)