Issue 132 September October 2005
By Isabel Tees
Before I became a parent, I might have been considered a risk-taker. I'd toured on a street bike, aggressively ridden ATVs off-road, and piloted small aircraft. However, the hormones of pregnancy forever altered my brain, and within nine months I'd become hardwired as a mom. Suddenly, I feared—not so much for me (though motherhood did slow me down somewhat), but for my daughter.
I did all the typical "new mom" things. When Samantha was an infant I would check to see if she was breathing at night. I ran to her bedside at every squawk. When she finally slept through the night, I'd wake up in her stead, imagining all the horrors that could prevent her from waking (other than her obvious ability to sleep through the night, which I'd been dreaming of for months). I didn't give her a pillow until she was nearly two, for fear of her smothering. When she began to walk I cushioned every hard surface, for fear of bruises. At playgrounds, I'd "spot" her as she played, shadow her every move, shout "Be careful!" at critical moments. OK, every few seconds. Call me overprotective—I couldn't bear the thought of my little girl coming to any harm whatsoever.
Then, this past January, our family moved to Prague. In doing so, we hoped to broaden our horizons and learn something from the Czech culture. I was expecting to become more politically aware, live more simply, better appreciate what we have at home, soak in the rich, age-old environment—the castles, the architecture, the music. But sometimes learning comes in surprising forms. Unexpectedly, I found myself changing the way I parent Samantha.
At first glance, there seemed to be little here in Prague worth emulating. It hasn't been that long since the Czech Republic liberated itself from communist rule, and a lot of old-school Eastern European thinking still flourishes here. Except at parks and playgrounds, children are generally seen and not heard. Corporal punishment is the standard mode of parental discipline. Smoking is rampant, especially among women (read: mothers). Infant car seats are mandatory, but most children older than two can be seen bouncing around unrestrained in the backseat of the car. Toilets are absolutely optional; a child's urinal is the park or street. These differences continue to shock my North American sensibilities;—I file them under "Better appreciate what we have."
There are other differences, however, also shocking at first, that have altered my perceptions now that I've lived immersed in them for a while. Parents leave their infants unattended in baby carriages outside stores—the aisles of shops are often too narrow to accommodate anything larger than an upright adult. At playgrounds, a toddler will often play in a sandbox while his mom hangs out on a bench 30 yards away, talking with a friend. Mothers probably figure that since there's another parent within caring distance—;that is, available to separate him from another child he's wrestled to the ground in order to seize a desirable toy—they don't have to be.
And, for the most part, that is what happens. Child abduction isn't a concern here. It is still acceptable in the Czech Republic to have adults settle a problem between children who are not their own, or soothe them if they are upset (usually by bribing them with sweets). The concept of taking a community to raise a child is here taken to heart. And while it was stressful for my daughter—and for me—to have a strange old lady approach her at the mall, take the sweater from her hands, and maneuver her into it, it was obvious that this was not an unusual occurrence and was kindly meant. There is something comforting in that.
Safety is less regulated here than in North America. I've seen playgrounds sporting old, abused equipment: swings with ropes that have multiple knots in them from retying the breaks, and splintered wooden seats. When the city did demolish three ancient, cement-based teeter-totters in one of the more modern, better-equipped parks, the ragged concrete slabs and chips lay about for weeks before being cleared away. The inventive local children happily commandeered them, building castles, forts, and roadways. Luckily, no one seemed inclined to use the hefty weights as weapons, and at least one parent was always carefully watching the toddlers. Common sense was expected to prevail, and it appeared to do so.
Most playgrounds in Prague include equipment that we enjoyed as children but that now is hard to find in North America. Monkey bars are standard fare. There are also 13-foot-long cement slides at a very steep angle of 60 degrees to the ground. The child is going close to 20 mph when her feet ram into the sand, forming a small impact crater before she's thrown forward into a run or face-first into the ground, depending on the child's age and agility. Then there's the wonderful "roundabout" or merry-go-round: a circular platform that can be pushed to rotate at great speed at knee height around a central pole, usually with benches or some sort of handgrips at the outer edges, often made of steel tubing. Czech kids start early—children as young as 12 months ride the roundabout, accompanied by a parent or sibling who keeps repeating "Pomalo!" (slowly) to the older, more enthusiastic children. Most kids over three can hop on and off the roundabout while it's moving slowly. But those who have the most fun are the daring 6 to 12 year olds, who hang upside down from it by their knees, sometimes dragging their heads through the sand or dirt; or play possum, arms and legs clutching the lower bars; or stand upright, their feet jammed firmly between two joined bars. Some devil-may-care kids try to mount the platform as it spins at full speed, which results in small bodies flying off and rolling in the sand. But, of course, that's the point!
Local restaurants sometimes have little play areas for children. This allows parents to eat a leisurely meal while their kids, having wolfed down three spoonfuls of whatever they've been served, run off and play. But the equipment is often not up to North American safety standards. Our family's favorite haunt has a playroom with a large ladder attached to the wall with one upper bolt missing. The floor is covered with two plastic-covered mattresses that often drift apart to bare a patch of carpeted cement 18 inches wide by 6 feet long. The soft material that used to pad sharp corners has been ripped off and not replaced. The location of the corner swing rope permits the high-speed bashing of shoulders into the rock-climbing stones embedded in the two walls only 10 inches away. And at a garden restaurant we love to frequent, the swings hang three feet off the ground, the rope ladder hangs lamely from only one cord (children still use it), and sometimes broken wineglasses litter the ground.
You'd think that living in this kind of environment would send me further down the slippery slope of overprotecting Samantha. Instead, being regularly exposed to these risky situations and the calm, less protective attitudes of the local parents has lowered my need for fear-based control. I now find myself letting our daughter, who recently turned four, run ahead quite some way in our urban neighborhood before asking her to stop and let me catch up. When occasionally I lose sight of her, I don't panic; she's usually just hiding again, ducking into a doorway to jump out at us with an explosive "Boo!" I stand back (I cringe, but I do stand back) while she watches, then copies what the other children do on the more daunting playground gear. Sometimes she earns a bump or a bruise, but surprisingly, after avoiding the equipment for a short time, she then —tries it again (ouch) and again (ouch) and again, until she finally masters it. Then, a grin spread wide between her ears, she cries "Richla, richla!" (faster, faster) to the 10 year olds pushing the roundabout in mad, dizzying circles. She climbs to the ceiling on the ladder that's missing an upper bolt (the ladder is secure—we've tested it), then waves proudly to me from its summit. She leaps onto the swing rope and careens back and forth, using her feet instead of her back to bounce off the walls and rocks (this is a recent accomplishment), yelling, "Mom, Dad, look—look at me!" She dives from the top of the four-foot-high plastic ladder onto the mattress pad, adroitly avoiding landing on the exposed cement. And as she swings on a trapezelike board suspended high above the ground, I scour the play area for broken glass and dog poop. I'm always nearby, ready to step in if needed, but Samantha's abilities and judgment improve as she plays, and we have found over time that, as a result, fewer accidents occur.
Our distance from North American safety standards and the overprotective behavior they encourage is something for which I have grown thankful. My daughter better understands what she can and cannot do with her body and with the equipment on which she plays. She's by no means reckless—she still won't go down that cement slide alone—but she's more persistent than before, more willing to work hard to get what she wants. She stretches herself, taking reasonable risks until she reaches physical goals she wouldn't have achieved in North America—partly because some of the equipment isn't available there anymore, but mostly because I wouldn't have let her. She is now, in many ways, more confident and more independent. Best of all, she has a whole load of fun—the kind of adventurous, exciting fun we ourselves had as kids.
And me? I'm a little less stressed, a little more tolerant of other ways of doing things, and somewhat more secure in my daughter's abilities. Not that I won't protect or prepare her—I'll probably still shelter her far more than she will ever appreciate. But by simply living here in Prague, I've kick-started the process of letting go of some of my fears for Samantha. And by letting go just that much, I'm allowing her—and myself—to journey through life with more confidence. If that's the only thing I take away from our stay in the Czech Republic, I believe it will have been well worth the trip.
Isabel Tees lives in Canada with her husband, Greg, and their daughter, Samantha.