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DailyDiary 017: What My Kids Did Independently in Finland
True Freedom? Empowered and encouraged to learn to navigate the world around them, with and without parents around.
It was a gray, drizzly November morning, and as I was enjoying my coffee and lingonberry soaked oats in one of my favorite coffee shops in Helsinki, I overheard two distinctly American accents. I could tell the two women were moms, and living in Helsinki, finding familiarity in each other.
My boys in snowy Helsinki. In December, the two oldest would walk to school on their own, in snow, before dawn, in reflective vests. Just like most of their classmates. My boys took about half an hour to make the walk.
As I sensed they were about to leave, I couldn’t help but ask, after introducing myself:
“What did you find the most different in parenting in Finland versus the United States, as you would certainly see this through a different lens than I, me being a Finn who lived in the US and then came back?”
Without so much as a pause, they both said “kids’ independence”. They shared that they would never still let their kids be as independent as Finnish kids, for the fear that when they returned to the United States, their kids would expect that.
They continued that that level of independence would be impossible in America, because there “people don’t take care of each other or each other’s kids like they do here.”
One of the moms added, something to the effect of: “Here, in Helsinki, if you send them to school by themselves, everyone sort of makes sure the kids are ok.”
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Why Are Finnish Kids’ So Independent?
I thought about the way they viewed Finnish kids’ independence for a couple of days. Having started and built a family Stateside, I understood how, to an outsider, a Nordic society could seem like that.
But that wasn’t the reason why, in Helsinki, I couldn’t wait for my oldest boys aged 7 and 8 take themselves to school, soccer practice, playground, grocery store, or independently play in the park or sled down snowy slopes with their new classmates. And I knew it wasn’t the reason why my fellow Finns, for generations, have nurtured and encouraged the ability for their kids to be independent either.
Nordic parents and educators don’t—in general—bring kids up to rely on other people. Nordic parents and educators bring kids up to rely on themselves.
Number 1 Nordic Parenting Tenet: Self-Reliance
Living in Scandinavia was my chance, my one opportunity really, to finally teach my kids this skillset that I also viewed so highly.
The Scandinavian parenting and education philosophies, which tend to be in sync, encourage and enable kids to develop a sharp awareness of their surroundings and their safety, their decisions and the cause and effect of their behavior, and time—from a young age.
The self-determination, confidence and courage and the wherewithal to handle situations that arise—when parents are not around—develops not just by guiding the child, but by giving children the freedom to also just figure it out on their own.
This happens little by little, with parents and educators increase the amount of freedom and responsibility they give to and expect of children from daycare age culminating in kids starting school. By third grade or around the age of 9-10, most kids can, and are expected to, be able to take care of themselves after the short school day, until parents come home from work: there are no after-school camps and babysitters are unheard of for kids that old.
Not skiing down these Alpine pistes on their own in Switzerland, but in some other European countries too, like in Holland, kids develop independence at an early age and walk to school and go out to play with their friends on their own.
Rite of Passage: Going to School on Your Own
But now back to the question of will Finnish communities just take care of everyone’s kids, allowing them to be this independent?
My oldest boys entered the school in Finland as second graders: I made the conscious choice to have my 8 year old not attend 3rd grade and join his brother on 2nd grade, mainly for the reason that no after-school club would be available for him, and frankly, he didn’t yet have the skillsets to independently handle his own life after school.
While some Finnish communities collectively help first graders—7-year-olds—get up to speed in doing the trek to school on their own, for example, by having one parent at a time meet up with the neighborhood kids to follow them to school, or act as crossing guards in the morning, there certainly isn’t anyone else helping your kid on their way.
Kids learn to make their own way. And that, in my opinion, is the beauty of Nordic kids’ independence: to develop the comfort and confidence in knowing you got this.
You’ll never be able to remove every danger out of your child’s way, but you can prepare them to trust themselves and their abilities to navigate the world around them, as much as is possible.
That is why I couldn’t wait for them to have this opportunity to experience the rite of passage that many, if not all of their new Finnish second-grade classmates had already been doing for a year: bike or walk to school on their own.
Passenger vs. drivers’s seat
First it felt like it was never going to happen. I quickly saw that no matter how much I had tried to teach them independence, more so than anyone else I knew in the States, those skillsets didn’t translate over. Because I, my husband or our au pair or nanny had always been there. When you are always with a parent or other caretaker, you simply cannot develop the same self-awareness you would on your own.
It’s like being on the passenger seat: you simply don’t pay attention to the same things as you do when you are the driver—because you don’t have to.
Once I realized that, and had spent a month practicing the school route basics with my boys—looking in multiple different directions in city center crossings, being aware of the cars and the trams that are supposed to stop whenever they see a pedestrian or cyclist start crossing a sidewalk, but don’t always, observing the bikes and the extra-fast electric bikes & scooters, seeing the other pedestrians, and understanding how you cruise along the bike lanes*, or the pedestrian paths, with everyone else, and also how to understand how long it takes you to get from place A to B, and how to keep account of your belongings when you get to your destination and when you depart.
After that, as they had also already done extensive safety training, I knew there was nothing else I could do to prep them to make the 1.4km or 0.9 mile bike ride, or walk. The rest they would learn on their own, taking the driver seat in their own experience.
(*Many bike paths are on the sidewalk; in the absence of bike path, kids can bike on the sidewalk).
First taste of true freedom
So on one beautiful autumn day, when the days were still long enough that there was light out for their early school mornings, I gave them hugs in front of our apartment door, pressed the elevator button, and asked:
“Do you feel ready?”
“I feel you are ready too. Call me when you get to school!”
I tracked them, of course, but I also knew they could manage: I had done so too, as a kid, and so have millions of other Finnish kids, for generations.
I distinctly remember the pride I had, at 7 years old, when I independently started going to school, so confident and excited that I demanded my mother to let me drop my little sister to her daycare before I took myself to school. She didn’t let me do that of course, but she did teach me how to take the city bus to my dance classes and even a long distance bus from the city center to my grandparents who lived in another town—yes, at 7 years old.
With my boys, I had to advance slower than that: developing that level of awareness and responsibility and self-reliance doesn’t happen overnight. As I pondered what else I could do to help them strengthen their independence muscles—to help them catch up to the level of freedom and independence their new classmates had—I got incredible tips from Scandinavian moms who engage with me on Instagram:
“Send them to the local grocery store with little cash for oat milk and a treat.”
I loved the idea, and so I did it. It was Sunday, and when my boys realized the closest store was closed, they remembered the way to another grocery store, got everything requested including the treats they had calculated they could afford with the leftover cash, and came back with the change. They were so proud of themselves and so was I.
“Send them to the nearest park on their own for half hour.”
I loved this idea too, especially as they were like hurricane bundles of energy as I tried to organize our apartment and plan the weekend with our tornado-like toddler: instead of just popping them in front of the TV or iPad, which would do nothing to expel their energy, they could run around in the big kids’ playground, all on their own! This was not only a successful effort, but also a true game changer for our family life: with 3 kids, we all didn’t need to go to the same place, all at the same time.
“When they are coming back from school or the after-school club, have them meet you at a place they can recognize instead of just at home.”
To teach the boys how to move around the city center, and map out places by being aware of their surroundings, I first started by asking them to meet me at Jonas’s daycare when I picked him up. I had never showed them the way, but they had dropped Jonas there with me a few times and it was close to their typical route. I trusted they could figure it out and still find it—and they did. Next, I asked them to meet me someplace completely new, and gave directions into their phone watch as they walked.
Hobbies, Meals & Homework
The boys also started biking to and from soccer practice on their own (3/4 km or half a mile each way), and magically, when I wasn’t there to collect all their equipment at the end of the practice, most of it wasn’t just tossed around, but neatly ended up in their soccer backpacks.
At home, I nudged them towards independence as well: what’s better than being able to make and serve your own quick meal if you are starving when your parent is tied with a testy toddler or still unpacking groceries?
I also gently pushed them towards being in charge of their own homework, and completing it independently—as homework is something that most Finnish parents don’t consider their responsibility, and schools don’t expect that either (of course, some kids, including one of my own kids, does need extra help, and parents help when needed).
"Homework, at this age, is really just about practicing independence and responsibility, so you are ready for higher grades when more complicated homework assignments begin,” suggested my boys’ class teacher, when I quizzed her what her opinion was on parent involvement in this after-school task.
Cornerstone of Caring
In Scandinavia, teaching kids’ independence and self-determination is considered the cornerstone of caring, and the extra freedom and independence the kids have also frees up the parents to focus more of their time to just being and bonding with their kids.
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Of course, as a few moms and dads pointed out to me, as kids grow, this freedom and independence can also come with a cost: you have to work harder to keep your kids close, because they simply don’t need you as much.
As I ruminate on my parenting intentions for 2023, now that we are back in the US, my goal is to find a way to keep up their newly learnt independence skills in whatever way I can (which, wildly, might require me visiting the local police department: what’s even legal for parents to let their kids do on their own here?) and find more ways to bond outside of them just needing me so much more in America (drive me there, help me with homework, set up my playdates, take me to my hobbies, make my school lunch).
Like in everything, I do believe balance in this is possible. But, what do you think? Let’s chat!
Can America truly be that unsafe and unfriendly place for kids that they simply can’t be independent until, well, until they learn to drive themselves and go to college? (My experience has been that people tend to me much more aware of each others kids than in Finland, and friendly to help anyone in need).
Is there anywhere outside of the Nordic countries where kids can develop this type of self-awareness and self-determination at younger ages? (I heard that in Ireland this is also common).
What would you love for your kids to learn to do independently? Or would you prefer not to, to keep them closer?