‘Stuff Dutch People Like’ contributor Rebekah Lawler investigates the Dutch and their “free-range” children. Can an Irish mother ever get used to the laid-back ways of the Dutch? Read on…

Dutch schools have open playgrounds. There might be a gate, which may or may not be closed. The kids play in the designated area and are pretty good about not straying beyond the school boundaries. Why do the schools do this? Are they not concerned about kids wandering off?

In the time I’ve been living here, I’ve come to realise that the Dutch give their kids the type of freedom that English kids in the 1950s enjoyed. In the town I’m living in, I regularly see small kids cycling to school all by themselves. It is normal to see packs of small children roaming around, TOTALLY unsupervised, having an absolute blast and not coming to any harm. It would appear that the Dutch may be onto something. By offering children freedom at a young age and throughout their childhood, into adulthood, children become more responsible and capable of looking after themselves. They don’t leave that playground, because they know they can! Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that they have all had some sort of electronic, shock-collars fitted under their clothes that emit a charge if they stray.

When we registered my helicopter parented, non Dutch, 4 year old son at his school, I didn’t really think about the full implications of the ‘open playground’… till we had an incident last week.

He decided on Monday, that he would no longer be attending school. I had other ideas. When he shot out of the playground and down the fucking road to freedom, he was wearing his yellow hat and a bright blue coat. From the rapidly increasing distance between us, he looked like a sprinting minion.


He ran past the ‘mother’s meeting’ outside the school gate and dodged between the bakfiets, maneuvering their way out. He legged it through the car park and lept over a hedge, to liberty. Then he ran off down the road.

The Dutch moms stopped and watched him go. I think that they presumed he was going for a run and would be back. I knew better. He was going home. He’d told me that as he put his shoes on. He’d firmly declared, “Bye bye”, as he pulled his hat on his head. “I not going to school today mama”, was his parting greeting, as he expertly flipped his coat over his head and followed up with a shout of, ‘NO KRING’. Then he ran. (A ‘kring’, for all you English speakers, is ‘circle time’.)

I genuinely thought he was going to run out to the playground area outside the school and then stop. It wasn’t until I glanced out of the classroom window, that I realised with horror that he was simply doing what he stated he was going to do….and had gone….home. Across a carpark, an extremely busy road, bus lane, bike lane and intersection.

An American mom rugby tackled him in the street and took him down. “He was going home, wasn’t he?”, she asked, “He looked like a kid on a mission”. I held him as he sobbed. We went back to the school gates and I administered a stern lecture full of the dangers of his actions. My speech had sentences like, “You are only 4. You could have been killed.” All the things you’d say to a 4 year old who has taken himself off school property and down the road to home.

He looked confused. “What’s ‘killed’ mama?” Oh dear. It was going to be a long day and a lot more discussion ahead. If we are going to live here, and survive, I am going to have to “Dutch up” my kid. I may need to back off and let him experience more independence. I might also have to invest in a shock collar…..

Curious about Dutch parenting? Our new book Stuff Dutch Moms Like investigates why Dutch mothers are so darn happy and how they truly manage to have it all. Or read more12 reasons why Dutch moms are the happiest! 

4 Responses

  1. PapaVanTwee

    I remember growing up in the states, when I was 5, I persuaded a friend to walk the two blocks to the school playground. We didn’t tell our parents. We got a very stern talking to that we weren’t old enough to be on our own, but especially that we didn’t tell them where we were. This was 1975, and tales of death and dismemberment of wayward children wasn’t in the daily news. Now, you don’t feel safe letting your child wander free.

    • Been there, done that

      My all Dutch girl, who is 8 now , claimed that she is old enough to cycle to school on her own. So I said to her she could, assuring her to really watch out when she had to cross the road. And off she went! As proud as could be. Not knowing I was only a couple of meters behind her, watching closely how she was doing. She did it perfectly and was so proud of herself! And was very surprised I was on the playground of school as well, not much longer after she had arrived. Only, the next day she said, it was way more fun to cycle together.

      (When she was younger, we used to let her walk ahead of us. Agreeing that she could walk on her own, until the next street light or corner of the side walk. This also gave her a feeling of being a big girl (I can do this mum!) and feeling responsibility.)

  2. Marienne

    I grew up in Holland (from age 3 to 20) and I indeed remember having more of that similar freedom. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, while talking to friends about childhood, that I actually realized how privileged I was (growing up with such a freedom) than the kids are where I currently live. I guess the key is for parents to openly talk to their kids, explain about all that can happen, including signs of possible danger, and how to be on alert.

  3. hanneke28

    You might teach your child he’s not to leave the pavement without holding an adult’s hand, because going on the street is dangerous because of the cars.
    I remember when I was your son’s age or a little younger and got mad at mom, yelling I was going to move out and live somewhere else. Mom helped me pack a little bag, reminded me to stay on the sidewalk, and waved me off. She knew I’d be perfectly safe as I couldn’t go farther than round the block while staying on the sidewalk. After I’d cried for a bit on the corner and had a chance to calm down and reconsider she came and picked me up, happy to go home again.
    She was probably keeping her eye on me from a distance, but did let me feel the weight of the decision to set out on my own, that throwing a tantrum and running off over some minor house rule could have consequences, and that conforming to her reasonable house rules was not too heavy a price to pay for *not* having to be all self-sufficient and independent and alone. Being a bit of those was fine, but knowing you have a warm family home to back you up when trying out your independent wings is a very good and happy feeling. Lesson learned, no punishment necessary.


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