Culture is primarily about adapting to something that most others think is normal, even though you may have doubts about it.
Nowhere is this more sharply felt than in child-rearing. Every nation is different, every parent is different, and no one agrees. As a Dutch mother now living in America, I was recently quoted in the New York Times about the Dutch tradition of deliberately leaving children behind in a forest and letting them find their own way home.
The writer wanted to know what this said about Dutch culture. I told her that the custom was ingrained, and added, “Of course you ensure that they do not die, but otherwise you let them find out for themselves. ”
When my comment was appointed Quote of the Day (July 21, 2019), the reactions erupted on both sides of the ocean and both equally predictable. American readers responded with a mix of horror and admiration about the careless ease with which we seem to throw our children into uncharted waters. The article generated 700 online comments within days before they were cut off.
The Dutch thought the attention for the tradition was exaggerated and went wild on Twitter with playful hyperboles. The Netherlands is not often front-page news in the United States — never mind above the fold — and so even that fact made news in the Netherlands. (The reverse is unfortunately never the case.)
But apart from slinging jokes back and forth about what weird people were the Dutch or the Americans — the article clearly touched a raw nerve. For the Times it was the second-most-read article of the day. Because the dilemmas of parenting are timeless and universal, in particular the struggle between letting go and protecting. Just as with learning to ride a bicycle, a child has to find the balance himself, because you simply can’t ride with training wheels all your life. But the delicate moment of letting go — every parent struggles with that.
People think about it differently in different cultures. The Netherlands has a centuries-long tradition of giving children a lot of freedom and responsibility at a young age. It thereby helps to be blessed with a society that is one of the safest in the world.
The United States has taken a different turn. In recent decades, parenting has been primarily in the context of protecting children against an angry and threatening outside world. Not all of these dangers are imaginary. It really is a land of bears and guns. But that does not mean that many American helicopter parents do not have a deep-rooted desire to return to a romantic Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher youth of yore, when children could still endlessly roam the rivers and fields. Whether it is about giving birth at home, cycling without a helmet, or leaving your children in the woods on good luck. Parenting is mainly go with the flow, both here and there. That’s why you always find crazier customs the farther you get from home.
Parenting is a struggle for everyone and everywhere. As a parent you are also dropped in the middle of a dark forest and you have to find your own way.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, Saving Charlotte, was published in the U.S. in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.