3 Cultural Differences In Europe That Would Freak Out American Parents

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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:

Regents Park Playground London

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.

Zoorooms Barcelona

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.

Toledo Spain pet store

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!



  1. I wonder how much of the *unaccompanied minors* novelty is due to our living in a suburban setting. I mean, I know that mother was arrested, and Lenore Skenazy is considered radical, so maybe it’s not. But I grew up in an urban environment and wandered around ALL THE TIME, as did everyone I knew, whether for purpose or for play. I rode public transportation to/from school, and walked to/from the bus stop (or subway), starting in fourth grade. I ran errands to department stores, grocery stores, the pharmacy, the cobbler, the post office, you name it. I ordered and carried home pizza. We don’t have the zoning or the closeness for those kinds of things in the suburbs most of the time, you know?

    People in Indiana are shocked to hear that I didn’t get a driver’s license until age 21. I didn’t need one to get around and, maybe an even more important contrast to my friends from the country/suburbs, I didn’t yearn for the freedom driving meant. I had that already. There was nowhere I needed or wanted to go that my feet or a bus fare couldn’t take me (until I graduated college and got a job in the suburbs). Plus I knew how to navigate a public transportation system (and understand the etiquette), was comfortable getting around a city’s streets, and had experience interacting with strangers. It wasn’t until I was raising a suburban child that I realized I had taken these skills for granted.

    • I think it probably has to do less with the urban/suburban dynamic and more to do with a combination of parental attitudes and the availability of sidewalks and public transportation.

      Here in Fishers, I feel pretty comfortable letting Elena roam about. She has her phone if she needs me. Within a 3 mile radius, she is able to go to grocery stores, Target, the pet store, the Dollar store, the ice cream shop, Starbucks, Taco Bell and the library. Thanks to good sidewalks here, she is able to walk or ride her penny board. The snag for her is that she likes to do these things with friends (and I usually require her to go with a buddy). It’s the friends that are so spread out, and therefore if she wants to do these things with a friend, it involves driving to get a friend and bring her to our house. If we had public transportation available, I know Elena and her friends would get together and go more places without us. Even the smaller towns in Spain at least had a bus system available.

      And then parental attitudes are huge, too, of course. We do have a reliable public transportation system available within Indianapolis, yet I don’t think a lot of youth use it on their own. That being said, *I* don’t use it, so maybe they do. I only know that of the handful of people I know that live downtown with kids Elena’s age, they are not using the bus system alone or with friends to get around. The few people I’ve asked have indicated that they wouldn’t feel comfortable letting their kids use it, and they don’t feel Indianapolis is safe enough for their kids to wander around, even in groups.

      I’m curious, if you lived in Philly today, would you be comfortable letting Anna use the public transportation system the way you did? We were only there for a day, granted, but it felt like a different vibe than Indy. We did see a few teens on the bus and train by themselves. We also witnessed something else that makes me think it’s different in Philly than in Indy. We saw a group of about 15 kids on bikes riding down one of the main streets in a big group. It was mostly teens, but there were a few younger kids, too (I’d guess the youngest looked to be around 9 or 10). I didn’t see an adult in the group, and other than us gawking at them, I didn’t see anyone else looking at them like it was terribly unusual.

      I don’t think we can underestimate how important the life skills kids acquire by getting around a town on their own are to their development. Even if they never live in a big city, the skills are essential: shopping and buying things in a store or restaurant on their own, learning their way around town, understanding public transportation – how it works, how to behave once you’re on it, etc. They’ll eventually need these skills no matter where they live, especially if they’d ever like to travel and not have a panic attack!

      • Would I put the Anna that was raised in Carmel, IN, on SEPTA today? Maybe, but with trepidation. Would I put an Anna that was raised in Philly on SEPTA today? Without hesitation, because she would’ve been riding it (and raised in the city) for many years now.

        When we were out East last week we went to NYC for the day. We did have a chance to ride the subway in Manhattan a few times and Anna and Taylor (her BFF) were much less agog than they were when we rode the bus in Chicago a couple years ago. That makes me feel a little more comfortable but I still worry that they don’t have the skills to navigate such a system on their own, to not be targets for theft/scams, to understand the etiquette of public transportation, etc. The two things I can do are (1) expose Anna to such things so that she’s more familiar when she’s sees them on her own and (2) remember that statistically she will most likely be fine, that (most of) the world is not the terrifyingly horrid place the news would have us believe, that nothing awful happened to most of us riding the subway. I was upset with Bill for scaring her into believing that the city was teeming with pickpockets and sundry criminals just waiting to take advantage of her, especially when I spend so much effort convincing her that the city — ANY city — is not inherently scary.

        You were in Philly on a Sunday. I’m not sure that’s a representative day to judge SEPTA ridership. But now that I think about it, most kids went to neighborhood schools when I was growing up so I don’t know that everyone had the same experience that I did (going to a magnet school) before high school. But everyone was familiar with wandering the streets, I’m sure.


  1. […] on the heels of my post about unaccompanied minors, and how we might make the towns and cities we live here in the US more accessible for kids to get […]